Commenting on my post on Telling indigenous Australian stories, Australian author Carmel Bird mentioned her 1998 book The stolen children, describing it as her contribution “to the spreading of indigenous stories through the wider Australian culture”. It contains stories told to, and contained in the report of, the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Bringing them home)*. She offered to send me a copy, and of course I accepted (despite having read much about the Report at the time.)
Bird said in her comment that the book is “still regularly used in schools”. This is excellent to hear because it contains a history that needs to be told – forever, alongside all those other histories taught to Australian students. It needs to be as well (if not better) known by our students as the story of The Gold Rush or Our Explorers. We need to know it, we need, as a nation, to know our dark side, our failures, as well as our big adventures and achievements.
What makes this book particularly useful is Carmel Bird’s curation of it – and I would call what she’s done “curation” because of the complexity and variety of the writings she has gathered and organised. Bird has structured the book carefully to tell a story, with introductory front matter (including a preface from Ronald Wilson the National Committee’s prime commissioner); the Stories themselves; Perspectives from people at the time, including Hansard excerpts from politicians at the tabling of the Report; the Report’s Recommendations; and end matter comprising an Afterword from historian Henry Reynolds and a poem titled “Sorry” by Millicent whose story appears in the Stories section. Bird’s curation also includes providing introductions to each of the stories to draw out important issues or points about that person’s situation, and adding other explanatory notes where appropriate.
This careful curation ensures that the book contains all the content and context it needs to stand alone as a resource for anyone interested in the Stolen Generations.
“It made no sense”
In her story, Donna says “It made no sense”. She’s describing her train trip away from her mother in the company of a white woman, a train trip she’d been initially excited about, thinking it was to be a family trip. However, with her mother staying behind on the platform and her brothers disappearing one by one as the journey went on, it just made no sense to her.
None of the stories make sense. And they are all heart-rending. Some children were given up willingly by their mothers, who believed it would result in better opportunities, and some, most, were stolen, often suddenly, with no explanation. Some were newborn, some pre-school or primary school-age, while others were 12 years old or more. Some found themselves in loving foster homes, but many found themselves in institutions and/or abusive situations. All, though, and this is the important thing, suffered extreme loss. They lost family and they lost language and culture. Fiona, for example, who will not criticise the missionaries who cared for her, says, on reconnecting with her family thirty-two years later:
I couldn’t communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone.
Fiona also makes the point, as do several others, about the treatment of the mothers:
We talk about it from the point of view of our trauma but – our mother – to understand what she went through, I don’t think anyone can understand that.
The mothers, she said, “weren’t treated as people having feelings”.
The stories continue, telling of pain, pain and more pain. Murray says “we didn’t deserve life sentences, a sentence I still serve today”, and John talks of being a prisoner from when he was born. “Even today,” he writes, “they have our file number so we’re still prisoners you know. And we’ll always be prisoners while our files are in archives”. This is something that I, as a librarian/archivist, had not considered.
But, there’s more that makes no sense, and that’s the government of the time’s refusal to apologise, to satisfy, in fact, Recommendations 3 and 5a of the Report. This issue is covered in the Perspectives section, with extracts from speeches made by the then Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Aboriginal Torres Straight Islander Affairs Senator Herron who argue against making an apology, and from the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley, who made their own apologies. Crowley also says:
If ever there were a report to break the hearts of people, it is this one.
The Perspectives section also includes other commentary on the Report and the apology. There’s a letter to the editor from the son of a policeman who cried about his role in taking children away from “loving mothers and fathers”, and one from La Trobe Professor of History Marilyn Lake contesting the historical rationale for the practice of forcible removal. She argues that there had never been “consensus [about] the policy of child removal”. There’s also a long two-part article published in newspapers that year, from public intellectual Robert Manne. He picks apart the argument against making an apology, noting in particular Howard’s refusal to accept that present generations should be accountable or responsible for the actions of earlier ones. Manne differentiates between our role as individuals and as members of a nation:
we are all deeply implicated in the history of our nation. It is not as individuals but as members of the nation, the “imagined” community, that the present generation has indeed inherited a responsibility for this country’s past.
In the event, of course, an apology was made, finally, in February 2008, by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This, however, does not mitigate the value of Bird’s book. It has value, first, as documenting our history and the voices of those involved – indigenous people, politicians and commentators. And second, it contains thoughts and ideas that we still need to know and think about, not only for historical reasons, but because in the twenty years since the Report we have not made enough progress along the reconciliation path. It is shameful.
I loved Carmel Bird’s introduction. It’s both passionate and considered, and clearly lays out why she wanted to do this book. I’ll conclude with her words:
I think that perhaps imagination is one of the most important and powerful factors in the necessary process of reconciliation. If white Australian can begin to imagine what life has been like for many indigenous Australians over the last two-hundred years, they will have begun to understand and will be compelled to act. If we read these stories how can we not be shocked and moved …
“There can,” she says, “be no disbelief; these are true stories.” This is why the stolen generations should be a compulsory part of Australian history curricula (Recommendation 8a). It’s also why, to progress reconciliation, we should keep reading and listening to indigenous Australians. Only they know what they need.
(Review copy courtesy Carmel Bird)
* For non-Australians who may not know this Enquiry, its first term of reference was to “trace the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies”. You can read the full Report online.