2 The policy of institutionalising children
3 Life in Institutions
The chapter of the so called Stolen Children is certainly one of the darkest in Australia’s history. White people determined by ethnocentric convictions attempted to assimilate Indigenous people and, therefore, destroyed countless lives. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence by Phillip Noyce (2002), which is well-known and often screened in classrooms, impressively depicts the fate and suffering of three of them and gave the impetus for the present paper.
The practice of removing children from their families aimed to exterminate Aboriginal culture and assimilate Aboriginal people into white society within three generations by making it almost impossible for Indigenous people to pass on their language and culture to the next generation (Korff 2015). In particular, half-caste children were removed because, on the one hand, they were perceived as a threat for white society (Rowley 1986: 103), and on the other hand, their removal “was seen as a rescue operation for children whose ‘blood’ offered hope for their ‘improvement’.” (ibid.) It can only be estimated how many children were stolen between the 1890s and 1980s since records are rare due to loss or conscious destruction (Korff 2015). The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997, 31) states that most Aboriginal families have been affected, many of them in more than one generation. However, some Australians still consider that the children were not stolen, but rescued (Korff 2015) while a substantial number of researchers consider the stealing of children to be genocide (Read 1981, 3).
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the policy of removing children from their families did not accomplish any “good work” but happened with the aim of controlling and assimilating Aboriginal people. Therefore, chapter two of this paper describes the governmental policy of institutionalising Aboriginal children, while chapter three focuses on their lives in these institutions. Since suffering did not end upon leaving institutional care, the last chapter of this paper describes some of the effects growing up in institutions had on the Stolen Children’s lives.
2 The policy of institutionalising children
By the middle of the nineteenth century the protectorate experiment had failed and the very survival of Indigenous people was being questioned. Forced off their land to the edges of non-Indigenous settlement, dependent upon government rations if they could not find work, suffering from malnutrition and disease, their presence was unsettling and embarrassing to non-Indigenous people. Governments typically viewed Indigenous people as a nuisance. (Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, 23)
Having been degraded to wards of the state by the Aborigines Act of 1905, Indigenous people in Australia had absolutely no rights (Berg 2004). Moreover, this law led to “inhuman policies that eventually almost decimated the Indigenous population.” (ibid.) The Aborigines Protection Act of 1909 and the amendment added to it in 1915 provided the legal framework for the Stolen Generations since these laws allowed the government to take away children without parental consent. In the section “Reasons for Board taking control of the child” the simple statement “for being Aboriginal” occurred frequently (Re1981, 8). In other words, children were forcibly taken from their Aboriginal families and brought to missions and foster homes were they were raised in order to eliminate the “aboriginal problem” (Berg 2004). The removal of children happened under the justification that, from a whites’ point of view, Aboriginal mothers would not look after and soon forget their children (Reynolds 2005, 218).
A. O. Neville, who served as Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia from 1915 to 1940, described his policy as follows: “Once removed, the child must never return to live with its parents. If it did, all the good work already accomplished would be undone.” (ibid., 215 f.) This statement shows that there was the strong believe that the sole fact that the children lived with white people would be beneficial for them, no matter the circumstances (ibid., 217). The officially claimed intention was to raise the children so they would “fit into white society” (Renes 2011, 31). In reality, this meant that the homes were supposed to prepare the children for work in and for white society. However, talent was simply ignored. As a rule, girls became domestic workers while boys became rural workers (Read 1981, 14). Consequently, once Aboriginal children were brought to an institution, they were doomed to become a member of the lowest level of the workforce when having grown up (Reynolds 2005, 224).
Another highly important and intended effect of stealing children was the fact that they were separated not only from their families, but from Aboriginal communities in general. This was a vital part of the policy since it complicated and prevented relationships among Aboriginal people and, consequently, prevented them from sexual reproduction within their own race. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997, 25) highlights the fact that the ultimate purpose of removal was to control the reproduction of Indigenous people with a view of ‘merging’ or ‘absorbing’ them into the non-Indigenous population, […]. Apart from satisfying a demand for cheap servants, work increasingly eschewed by non-Indigenous females, it was thought that the long hours and exhausting work would curb the sexual promiscuity attributed to them by non-Indigenous people.
In a nutshell, “Child control was understood as a vital tool to control the size of the Aboriginal population.” (Renes 2011, 35)
3 Life in Institutions
While white institutionalised children could live with their relatives and were allowed to visit their homes for holidays, Aboriginal children were refused to have any contact with their people and culture (Read 1981, 9). Moreover, letters written to them by their relatives were either not forwarded to the children or strictly censored. The same is true for the children’s response letters (Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission 1997, 133 f.). Institutional care aimed to separate the children from their Aboriginal communities not only during childhood, but for the rest of their lives. This becomes obvious when considering the fact that institutionalised Aboriginal children were not allowed to return to their reserves even after leaving the missionaries (Read 1981, 12). In order to prevent children to visit home after having left the missionary, the largest part of the little amount of money they earned as apprentices went into a trust account which they could only access on request. Those requests were frequently refused (ibid., 17). Another common strategy to prevent children from asking about their parents and origins was to tell them they had been abandoned or that their parents had died. Moreover, changed names exacerbated a future search for origins (Reynolds 2005, 219).
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- Klagenfurt University – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
- genocide stolen generations stolen children Australia Indigenous cultures