I was taken from my family by the Aboriginal Welfare board, as a four year old, along with my older and younger sisters and my brother Gordon. They took us girl’s to the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girl’s Training home and sent Gordon to the notorious Kinchella boys home. I would never see my father again as he had died before I was “released” (even though him and mum made many attempts to visit us in the homes). I would not see my brother for 20 years (he died shortly after we found each other) but I was fortunate enough to have some months with my mother before she passed away. The “Girl’s” from the home are still my “Family” but I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to reconnect with my extended family as well.
Below is a paper I presented at NSW Aboriginal Mental Health Conference at Penrith in September 1999 and also as a key note speaker at the The Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry’s conference in Adelaide in 2000. I believe this paper reflects(a mirror) what many of us former residents of the “Homes” have been through and continue to struggle with.
A Mirror on Our History
Lola Edwards (*)©
This paper is used with permission of the author and was originally presented as a keynote address at the NSW Aboriginal Mental Health Conference at Penrith in September 1999 but has poignant relevance for today’s pressing issues.
“May I firstly acknowledge with deepest respect the original owners of this land where I speak to you today.
I am presenting this paper because I believe the issue of mental health needs to have a high profile and be discussed in open forums such as this and, most importantly, within the context of our own Communities.
When I leave this conference I will spend some quiet time in reflection on what we have heard and what we have shared. I feel that reflection is a mirror to our souls – the need to pause and contemplate. It is looking through the mirror of history to our people’s anguish; bystanders in a side show alley where one’s reflection in a prism mirror continues on into infinity. Looking back through the ages to our ancestors; humbled by their resolute struggle and admiring their silent resignation against an intrusive and insensitive social order that overwhelmed and decimated their settled and structured way of life.
The pristine and serene environment would soon be replaced by a ruthless process whose momentum relentlessly demolished, undermined and destroyed all within its path, oblivious of the personal and social hurt in its wake.
The inner strength which stems from our spirituality and culture connects us into the continuum of our people and gives us the capacity to both survive and to put right the traumatic severance from our past and our future.
Forces, bereft of feeling and inner peace, sought to break this chain - attempts at decimating our culture and society; attempts to annihilate our very race; to assimilate that very essence of what we represent. When the head would not bow in resignation our families and children became the battle ground to accomplish expansionist designs and, as with other indigenous peoples, the feelings of our families and children were discounted and our suffering dismissed.
These insidious exploits against a race of people must be seen as the contributing factors that have resulted in our personal and community anguish, suffering and mental ill health. Through contemplation we can step again into our stream of history where healing alone can be attained. For it is within the supportive and caring Community of our people that peace and tranquillity will come and we shall find rest for our tortured souls.
We stand at the edge of a precipice where either a bridge or a chasm will be created. Throughout our recent bitter history many decisions were made for Aboriginal people without our knowledge. We were puppets on bureaucratic strings that completely controlled every aspect of our physical existence and imposed upon us in indescribable ways. In many circumstances this extended to psychological mind control, destructive and soul destroying. I have often asked colleagues, family and friends, what is it in the makeup of human kind that needs to control another race of people. Is this knowledge innate or learnt from previous generations? Whatever it may be it is certainly persistent.
Mind control is a terrible thing – particularly in one’s formative years. Throughout my institutionalisation, without any foundation, negative suggestions were continually planted in one’s mind. Being told that your family couldn’t look after you when in fact my family had tried on numerous occasions to reach us and have us back. Some of us were even told that our parents had died and that was why we had not heard. Whilst some parents were allowed to visit their children others were turned away. My own parents hitchhiked 1500 kilometres, to within 1 kilometre from the Girls Home, camping at the Cootamundra Showground, only to be denied access, returning to Tingha without even seeing us.
The psychological torment included the ongoing trauma of continual rejection. Having been denied normal bonding with our parents we cherished the relationship of our peers. But even here, we faced double jeopardy and as each group of children carved meaningful friendships we would come home from school to find our sisters and friends absent, fostered, adopted or sent into service. Enforcing continued rejection.
The negative stereotyping of Aboriginal people was another psychological factor to contend with. Aboriginal people were portrayed to us as some kind of inferior being that one should avoid – now try and imagine that being told to me. You were repeatedly told that your own people did not want you and that was the reason why you were in these homes; told that kind caring white people would adopt or foster you; told to avoid Aboriginal centres like Redfern where you might meet an Aboriginal man who would be bad for you. This continuous barrage of negativity undermined one’s self image and made it a frightening prospect to move out into a world where you were expected to be white but knowing that white society had already rejected you.
Growing up in this environment has had a tremendous affect on why I am the person who I am today. I value the past – even though I may not want to face some aspects of it from time to time. It is my past and the only one I have. But I am aware that one cannot run from the past and discard every aspect of it – both in the physical and mental sense. There are passages of my past that I treasure deeply.
There are also people in my life who are treasured friends because of our shared childhood experience, albeit a sad one at times, but our sense of humour amongst ourselves kept us going as a balming lotion to our pain. We are all the sum total of our past experiences. But there were positive memories and one was the overwhelming sense that I had a family who never forgot me after I was taken from them. A family, when once found and reunited, made me realise that there were people who actually looked like me; had the same mannerisms, speech and idiosyncrasies – it was like looking in a mirror. A linkage that no Act of Parliament could destroy even after long enforced separation and constant denial.
How I was raised was in keeping with what Western society described as a preferable family environment, even though this meant for me to be moved away from the influences of my Aboriginal mum and dad and uncles and aunts. I was removed expressly for the purposes of being raised to be a white person. Think about that! – as a white person and institutionalised! Now that’s not normal! That’s madness. And as it turned out by the way, they were totally unsuccessful and I failed their experiment.
In keeping with the sweeping changes to government policies to control us as Aboriginal people, they became frantic in their justification for removing generations of us from our families. Make no mistake it went beyond experiments – it was perfected and the damage to the minds and lives of Aboriginal people is unquantifiable.
Recently I had the dubious privilege of researching some of the General Correspondence of the Aboriginal Welfare Board as part of the research for the development of the Link-Up (NSW) Submission to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. On some days, when reading the correspondence I wanted to run, screaming from the State Archives in mental anguish and torment. The impact was so profound it made me physically ill.
The utter helplessness of Aboriginal people under such an arbitrary and capricious system that denied us even a modicum of justice. It became a way of life for successive governments and for career bureaucrats to do with us just as they pleased. The stroke of a pen; a mere signature scrawled at the end of a report; was all that it took to change our lives and destiny forever. We were being moulded into domestic servants, farmhands, honorary whites, resettled on missions sometimes far from our own tribal lands; were fed government tucker and institutionalised.
It was never intended that we should return to our families. Nor was there any proactive attempt at family reunion. Our family’s disruption and demise were merely part of the process to ‘cleanse’ this land to a whitened Australia.
From the age of 18 years old I was no longer a ward of the State; no longer a subservient Home Girl; no longer an honorary white child; no longer a domestic servant. I was free to go wherever I wished, on my own - so utterly alone.
It was a feeling that I really can’t put into words because it is more a recollection of emotions and feelings. It was confusion and sadness. An overpowering sense of being lost but also with an incredible unknown intoxicating sense of freedom. Having been taken from my family; denied access to my parents; excluded from my Community; indoctrinated that I was inadequate as a black; failed the white-test and now simply discarded to an unknown world. Is it any wonder that some of us:
can’t bond with our children;
are over protective of our children;
won’t let our children or grandchildren out of our sight;
can’t speak of the days in the Home to our children;
can’t maintain a permanent relationship;
can’t share our deepest hurt and sorrow;
try to buy affection;
camouflage our real feelings
suppress our memories; and
are reluctant to trust.
This insensitive moulding process was very complex and we all reacted to it differently. Even now many of us are still confused and caught between two worlds we can’t reconcile. A lonely ambivalent, limbo experience, governed by dictates designed by our minders.
The most important tragedy of all is that many of us can never go home.
You see the shock in non-Aboriginal people’s faces when confronted by the reality of this injustice. How could this happen in Australia? Easily! We were the invisible people in our own country - not only invisible on the fringes of country towns but also on the fringes of people’s minds.
A reflection. You know, in my adult life, as an Aboriginal person, I have been spoken to as if I was a child. Sometimes I have never been spoken to. Then again, I have been deliberately spoken to. What is it like when first meeting some non-Aboriginal people? It amuses me to observe people’s reaction. They look everywhere else but at me. Forget looking into my eyes – that’s too confronting. The mirror to the soul you see. Some of you here today may have experienced similar situations at one time or another in your lives.
I had the privilege of travelling around NSW with colleagues from Link-Up (NSW) to listen to Aboriginal people at forums tell us to advise the Human Rights Commissioners of their concerns and to make recommendations to the Inquiry. Those trips captured me completely. To look into their eyes and see the pain and hear of their suffering left me a changed woman. Many recommendations that were discussed are incorporated into the Report as they have been in other states. In addition many of those present at the forums came forward to give their personal testimonies to the Inquiry – and have had those testimonies trivialised beyond believe since the Report was tabled in federal parliament. Some participants had never spoken of being taken from their families, not even to loved ones, but had spoken to the Commissioners for this Inquiry. In some cases they spoke in the hope that finally Australia was acknowledging their suffering – how are they coping right now knowing that their out-pouring of pain is dismissed in the interests of political pragmatism?
However, one particular request stands out from all the meetings and that was the demand that an official apology be made by the Prime Minister of Australia and the Premiers of each state to the Aboriginal people and their families who were removed from their land and communities and to say “Sorry” for the wrong done.
These saddened eyes were not the eyes of some distant historical period. These were the eyes of grieving people who had actually all witnessed and experienced these atrocities. They were the eyes of the present. Ours, and my, contemporary situation.
It is so easy to dismiss the Stolen Generations by relegating it to some distant past yet here was the living testimony of those who have suffered in our life time and their experiences are an indictment of man’s inhumanity to man.
The genesis of the concept of being “Sorry” for the Stolen Generations arose out of these very early meetings throughout NSW prior to the Inquiry itself. This was their simple request. They demanded that it be made known that they had suffered. No one had acknowledged this before. They wanted either the Prime Minister or the Queen to personally say “Sorry” for what they and their children had suffered.
These were people with wisdom and dignity who spoke with much conviction. They were the very people who had experienced the pain of being removed from their families or had witnessed their children being stolen from them. The indignities of watching the old ways being slowly but surely eroded and destroyed before their very eyes.
For weeks afterwards all I could see was their haunting eyes. It was a form of shell shock – of peeling back the skin to reveal the wounds of being taken away from families and, for some, making the long journey back. This is what they shared and those wonderful people don’t know how much they helped me by opening their saddened hearts and sharing their grief. This insight into the healing process revealed to me how helpful it is to share our grief and loss together within an Aboriginal supportive environment.
There were people at some of our meetings who even knew my family. An elderly man came forward from my hometown and shared with me that he was present on the day that my siblings and I were taken from my family. He said that he could never forget what happened that day and told how the Community felt so powerless and were unable to prevent this happening. All they could do was to watch and cry together.
This taught me that the ramifications of the Stolen Generations significantly impact upon the Communities from which children were taken. It is also about those who were left to suffer with an aching void, ever saddened that they could not intercede, and guilty, because they had been spared.
We are peoples who have a long history and long memories. I’ve witnessed the latter as it relates to me personally. The memories of this tragic period are so hurtful that many of those who suffered have discretely kept them to themselves for many years. It is a similar situation with those countless numbers who managed to escape from the Welfare or for those for whom by chance were not home the day the Welfare arrived but have spent all these intervening years grieving for their children, grandchildren or extended family who never came home again. It is a terrible, terrible, sorry business.
Conscious of those despairing eyes and the complete trust placed in us to convey their deepest yearnings to governments I would not be able to live with myself if I settled for anything less than an unreserved apology from the Australian Government. I listened to those Aboriginal people who attended the forums and I am forever indebted to them for their kindness and their understanding and knowledge of the old ways.
I have become jaded from listening to the rhetoric of certain politicians – these people who represent the system which for years had complete control over us, but now cannot even apologise for the atrocities inflicted on our bodies, minds and souls. This is not a matter of the past. It has always been for Aboriginal people an ever-present reality and it is an ever-present factor that I have to come to terms with every day of my life.
Recalling the excruciating pain of those eyes before us, and their plea for an apology, the simple formulation of the request “Sorry” deserves examination.
Sorrow, as used in this historical context, is more than regret because, if genuine, it conveys the implicit desire for forgiveness. This is not an exercise in semantics enabling people who could otherwise not express the word “Sorry!” to find a more appropriate alternative in the interests of political expediency. It is not the slight nuances of words within the English language that is at issue here.
Being sorry - and for a nation to express its sorrow – conveys far more that mere regret for some unfortunate blemish in our shared history. The failure to convey remorse prevents the transference of identified and shared grief. In light of the gravity of the subject it requires contrition, enabling a personal and national catharsis.
It is not an exclusive process of compromise with a reluctant participant, finally extracting a sanitised statement of formal regret. It should be a spontaneous statement initiated entirely by the party extending sorrow and for whom the experience would be demanding and harrowing, commensurate with the gravity for which the sorrow is extended.
Is it any wonder then that those who have great difficulty coming to terms with their past, having to admit this nation’s guilt, seldom have the capacity to sense remorse and the ability to spontaneously and genuinely say ‘Sorry’. Any pale substitute makes a mockery out of our people’s suffering.
Ultimately, being ‘Sorry’ is a reflection on the real history of Australia and, of course, it depends if one has the courage to look into the mirror of truth.”
(*) Lola McNaughton (as she was known when she first presented this paper) now uses her original family name of Edwards. Lola was a representative on the Advisory Council to the Commissioners Sir Ron Wilson and Mick Dodson.