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The DreamtimeThe Stolen Generation of Aboriginal Children


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 acknowledged.

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 its story.

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'

From the album "Looking for Butter Boy" 1997.


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