From the earliest days of British occupation of Australia,
governments allowed the removal of Aboriginal children from
their families, particularly the so called 'half-caste' children.
The stolen children were raised in institutions or fostered
out to white families 'for their own good' (according to the
policies of the time).
This policy however led to enormous disruption and anguish
for many indigenous families. While some of those who were
separated from their parents received greater education and
material circumstances than they might otherwise have had,
overall the emotional and social cost was extremely high.
The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was established
in May 1995 in response to efforts made by indigenous communities
and agencies. They were concerned that public ignorance about
the history of forcible removal was preventing help for its
victims and their families.
The personal and communal desolation caused by the break-up
of families was expressed powerfully at the 1996 hearings
of the Inquiry. This inquiry, conducted by the Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission, produced the Bringing
Them Home report in May 1997. The Bringing Them
Home report concluded that, in the period from 1910 to
1970 when the practice was at its peak, between 10 and 30
per cent of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from
their families and communities. No family was unaffected.
People mistakenly believe that the taking of Indigenous babies
and children from their mothers only happened in the distant
past. But the policies and practices of removal were in effect
throughout the 20th century until the early 1970s. There are
many Indigenous people, now in their late twenties and thirties,
who were removed from their families under these policies.
Although the official policies and practices of removal have
since been abandoned, the report reveals that the past continues
to have a dominating influence on the lives of many indigenous
individuals, families and communities.
"It never goes away. Just 'cause we're not walking
around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our legs
and arms doesn't mean we're not hurting.
I suspect I'll
carry these sorts of wounds 'til the day I die. I'd just like
it to be not quite as intense, that's all." Bringing
them home, p. 178.
No Indigenous Australian who gave evidence to the National
Inquiry said that they wanted non-Indigenous Australians to
feel guilty. Overwhelmingly, those who gave evidence simply
wanted people to know the truth. They wanted to be able to
tell their stories and have the truth of their experiences
Before the Inquiry, few non-Indigenous Australians were aware
of the reality of removal. They were certainly not aware of
how many Indigenous people were affected by past assimilation
policies or of the levels of abuse that many children suffered.
One of the most lyrical and moving expressions of the sorrow
and despair of the "stolen generation" has been
given by the singer and songwriter Archie
Roach. In 1990, Archie recorded the album Charcoal Lane
which features the song Took
the Children Away. This song has become an anthem
for the many Aboriginal people who identify strongly with
After the success of the song he commented: "We can't
measure the depths of each other's suffering. When you suffer,
that's the worst suffering in the world. That's what I try
to talk about. When I first wrote Took The Children Away,
I thought, "Here I'm writing for my people - at last
a song that tells this terrible thing."
Archie has also expressed this sadness in another more recent
song "My Mother's Heartbeat", which concludes:
'my mother's heart stopped beating
one dark and dreadful day
and all I heard was weeping
the day I went away
ah, there's nothing so sweet
as my mother's heartbeat
beating inside her womb
waiting inside my room
her body loves me to sleep
waiting through my darkest night
beating, it's my rhythm of life
the sound of my mother's heartbeat
ah, my mother's heart is beating
somewhere in this earth
and at night while I lie there sleeping
I'll dream sweet dreams of her
for there's nothing so sweet
as my mother's heartbeat'