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The Stolen Generation

January 19th, 2012

(Copyright 2012: Peter Brabyn)

To understand the Stolen Generation, we first need to look at the conditions that pre-existed this policy and how thought was driven by the governance of the time.
Indigenous Australians are believed to have arrived in Australia over 40 000 years ago (Hiscock, 2008). From that time until about 1788 CE when the first colonisation fleet arrived they lived in relative isolation and with no land predators larger than the dingo (Brawata & Neeman, 2011).
Most Indigenous Australians did not develop beyond stone tools, in part, because they had no need to. They had no predators, they did not have over population or crime issues and they did not have any concept of ownership over the land or nature but saw themselves a part of the whole ecosystem (Daibee Wiradjuri Elder, 2011).
British colonists came with a recent history of expansion and of civil war in the Americas. They arrived on Australian shores with the poem “Rule, Britannia!” on their lips (Thompson & Arne, 1740) and an attitude of superiority over the local inhabitants but prepared for peaceful discourse (Hawke, Brett, & Spencer, 1768King George III, 1787). The technological superiority and concept of ‘civilization’ only served to reinforce the cultural divide.
Britain’s involvement as a world authority made them a major player in the Northern Hemisphere. Their exposure to large populations over a long history of world involvement made them a carrier of smallpox, measles, influenza and other illnesses. The initial contact with the tribes of Australia wiped out over 40% of the indigenous population that they came into contact with (Smith, 1980).
Despite an early history of violence towards native Australians (Mcguire, 1998Palmer, 1998Ryan, 2010) , the government of the time was recorded as providing protection under the same laws as those of the colonists and was seen to be upholding that law (AustLII, 2011a2011b2011c) . The Terra Nullius proclamation did however remove any rights they had to pass over the land as freely as they had or to claim ownership of that land (Bourke, 1835) effectively removing any future rights based on landowner status such as the right to vote.

The Aborigines Protection Act (1869) was the first act of legislation to give the Government the power to define aboriginality; to take Indigenous children into ‘protective custody’; to remove people from their traditional lands; and to generally to exert control over the Indigenous peoples of Australia. The spirit of the law may have originally had the best welfare of Indigenous peoples at heart, however in retrospect, the welfare of the people was not served well.
From 1869 and for a period of about 100 years, the governing bodies of Australia removed Indigenous Australians from their land, from their people and from their parents. Initially there was a policy of separation where Indigenous Australian were removed from their traditional land and relocated to encampments called stations or reserves. This left them away from their hunting areas, and usually separated them from all or parts of their family group. The segregation from their land was also segregation from the dreaming, the spirits and ancestors of their belief system that formed the basis of their cultural beliefs. It is often forgotten that one of the first acts of the stolen generation was to remove their Gods.
Changes to the attitudes of government saw a new policy enacted under the same or similar legislation. Assimilation was the new buzz word and native children were forcibly removed from the custody of their parents and their people to be adopted out to white families or church groups to be ‘educated’ (Gardiner-Garden, 1999). The goal of this period was to bring up a new servant class with aboriginal blood. Young men were often brought up learning the jackaroos trade whereas young women were often raised to cook and clean (Parliament of Victoria, 1869).

The Results
Removal from their lands isolated the indigenous peoples of Australia from their dreamtime stories and from the locales where these important events were to have taken place. This removed from them some of the connectivity they felt to their creation myths and from the stories which provided them with reasoning for their tribes and their way of life. This method of dislocation effectively isolated them from their belief system and their culture (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997).
The removal of children from family groups continued to sever the cultural ties. As the Indigenous peoples shared an oral tradition of knowledge, by isolating each generation from the next these ties were being severed. Cultural education could not occur for any child removed from their mob and a cultural divide formed which was hard to repair. For those few of the ‘stolen generation’ children that did find their way home to their families, the loss of connection and language over a long period of time left them disconnected and outcast from their mob or tribe and made them incapable of behaving in a culturally appropriate way around them (“Stolen generations—bringing them home,” 2011).
Children who grew up in white foster homes or at ‘stations’ and reserves were taught the ways of European life (Wilson, 2005). They were not told of their dreamtime stories. They were not shown how to live in the bush or how to hunt with traditional weapons. They were not provided with the knowledge of the traditional magic of their families (“Stolen generation,” 2000).
What little information could be passed on from one generation to the next would be watered down in the next generation, and then again in the next, and the next, and the next. The sense of belonging that kept Indigenous peoples going for over 40 000 years was being wiped out, diluted, erased.
The betrayal felt by the parents led to distrust of the authorities. Welfare became a word of horror, something of nightmares, a word meaning your children would be stolen away and you would be imprisoned in a ‘reserve’ for your own protection. The sorrow and loss felt by these people led to ongoing psychological issues such as depression which were ignored by the authoritarian regime.
The isolation, dislocation, loss of culture and loss of language experienced by the children led to feelings of abandonment that also resulted in extensive psychological issues in the majority of the Indigenous population. The lack of adequate parenting and family interaction meant that these children were often unable to effectively parent their own offspring.

How do you compensate someone for the loss of their culture? How do you apologise for genocide? There is no way to do this and no way to even begin to attempt to make things right.
Over the last 230 years the Indigenous population of Australia has been decimated, firstly by disease, then by violence and finally by legislation. It has, by definition, been genocide of the culture, the beliefs and the population (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997). Sadly, this appears to be acceptable in the majority because this is what was required to advance ‘civilisation’.
The majority of today’s Indigenous culture in Australia is a by-product of the mistreatment of the peoples, of enforced dislocation and isolation that resulted in anguish so great it has become an issue for almost the entire surviving population. The majority of surviving Indigenous Australians have a lower self-esteem than those of European descent, a lower mortality rate, and a shorter lifespan. Much of this traces back to a history of mental issues caused by policies leading to the stolen generation.
Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group (“Define genocide at,” 2011). By 1949, Australia had signed and ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (United Nations, 2011) which states that genocide can include: causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group, all of which were documented policy in Australia at that time (United Nations, 1948). There is ample evidence to suggest that Indigenous Australians were on the receiving end of genocidal policy and practice up until 1970 (Barta, 2008Kiernan, 2002Palmer, 1998United Nations, 1948) .
We have had National Sorry Day and we have Reconciliation Action Plans but nothing can repair the damage that was done and nothing will bring home what was lost. All we can do is try to make peace with the past, ensure mistakes are not repeated and endeavour to move forward without disregarding the losses and the disrespect done to the victims.

I have more European blood than Indigenous blood. I look white, I have a white collar job and in the most part I fit into white society. Despite my whiteness I found this incredibly hard to research, incredibly hard to bear.
Aboriginal culture is now a reconstructionist culture. What once was, is now lost and we can only hope to emulate those parts which have forever passed with our ancestors and with the dreamtime stories that can no longer be told.
I mourn the loss of my Indigenous brothers, of the culture, of the stories, and of the magic. So much has been lost that can never be replaced. My soul weeps.

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