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Sydney Star Observer, 22 January 1998

How we tried to destroy a culture


This man would walk and look at them like they were some prized horse or something. He would look them over and as soon as he saw someone with a light skin, he would just grab that person, the little girl or the little boy, just grab them. And the mother would be sitting there, crying her heart out, and kids would all be put on these trucks and just taken. 

Indigenous children were stolen from their families since the early days of British occupation. The government policy (often carried out by churches) continued until the 1970's. While the policy has ended black children are still far more likely to be removed from their families than white children, either by welfare or by the police. 

The separation policies were based on the racist fiction of "breeding the black out", but stolen children also represented free labour to pastoralists and many were enslaved. 

Other indigenous children were "cared for" by churches. Many churches profited from stealing children as they were often granted the land they had "cleared" of Aboriginal communities. 

It is now recognised that any child (black or white) who is removed from their family is more likely to come to the attention of the police, more likely to suffer low self-esteem and other mental health problems. They are more vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. 

Indigenous children who were stolen also lost their land, their culture and their language. For the parents of stolen children, their grief at the loss of their children has often been compounded by a sense of guilt - that they could have done something more to protect their kids. 

The stolen children endured lives of poverty, neglect, abuse and servitude. For many women who fell pregnant (often to their white masters) their babies were taken from them immediately after birth and the women were returned to "service". 

As many as half of the indigenous people who have died in police custody were stolen children. 

It is estimated that at least 1 in 10 indigenous people aged over 25 was removed from their families - in other words tens of thousands of people. 

Last year the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator John Herron claimed that many indigenous people were better off than they would have had been if they remained in their own community. 

Aaron Ross, a gay black man who works for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission said: "These things happened within our living memory. People were stolen and herded onto trucks. 

"We really have to get away from the sinister misunderstanding that this is about some long dead past. For thousands of Aboriginal people, the stolen generation was yesterday, and it is today." 

The language gap

Ngarranydja dhuwala yothu baman'puy 
Yolnguwa dhiyakuy wangapuy nhakuna rawak dharpa gadayka 
Ngarranydja dhuwala riyaia gapu gangga liyaman nhina 

 I am a child of the dreamtime people 
Part of the land like the gnarled gum tree 
I am the river softly singing.


Nina tunapri mina karni? 

That's Palawa Karni for Do you understand what I am saying? 

Palawa Karni is just one of hundreds of Aboriginal languages which have survived despite two hundred years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being discouraged, if not forbidden from speaking their own language. Palawa Karni is actually a composite language that developed during the 1830s when T'asmanian Aborigines were incarcerated in Flinders Island . 

Palawa Karni allowed indigenous members of eight different nations to speak to each other. 

In many places around Australia efforts are being made to maintain or revive Aboriginal languages. Jeanie Bell, an indigenous linguist siiy;: "You don't have to be speaking your language daily for it to be important to you. It's the whole feeling of knowing your language is there and that you can go and pick up a book, or speak words and know that it is your language... We can never get that from English, no matter how well we speak it." 

"Wangkangku culture kanyini manu culturengku wangka kanyini. Wangka wiyaringkuntjala, culture kulu wiyaringanyi." 

Lizzie Ellis of the Pitjantjatjara people just said : Language maintains culture and culture maintains language. When language finishes culture also finishes. 

In the Torres Strait Islands (which lie between the tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea) most indigenous people are bilingual, and many speak three or more languages. 

Perhaps the best known Torres Strait Islander is singer Christine Anu. Her first language is Kala Lagaw Ya/Kala Kawaw Ya, although like most Torres Strait Islanders she speaks Torres Strait Creole, a composite language. 

The cultural chasm

Well-known dyke opera singer Deborah Cheetham is a stolen child. She was raised by adoptive parents who told her that she had been found in a cardboard box. 

 Cheetham had no idea she was an Aboriginal woman until one night when she was performing in the lesbian cabaret Dykes on Parade she noticed someone in the audience who looked just like her. They spoke after the performance and realsied they had the same uncle, singer Jimmy Little. 

 Her newly discovered cousin helped her find her biological mother, Monica. Her operatic play White Baptist ABBA Fan explores the chasm between her indigenous biological roots. 

 In an interview with the Sydney Star Observer last September Cheetham said: "It's even more interesting when you're adopted into a different culture. As an experiment, they were taking a child and placing her in a different culture, to destroy the Aboriginal culture. 

 "When I met Monica, I couldn't handle it. All of my images of Aboriginals were horrible. It wasn't until nine years later, when the death of my youngest biological brother brought us together, that I could handle it." 



  • Get your union, workplace, church, sports group, local council, business association, social club or service club to invite an Aboriginal speaker to the meeting
  • Write an apology for the stolen generations on behalf of your organisation and send it to the Council for Reconciliation. The address is Locked Bag 14, Queen Victoria Terrace, Parkes, ACT, 2600
  • Reserve a position on your board or management committee as a dedicated indigenous position.
  • Fly the Aboriginal flag from your building or at your events.
  • Sign the Gay and Lesbian Reconciliation statement.