The term “the stolen generations” refers to Aboriginal people who were removed from their families for eugenic and assimilationist reasons by Australian governments. Policies of removal were in effect for most of the twentieth century (1909-1969), although the first legislation was introduced as early as 1869. The policies specifically targeted children of mixed descent, and occurred against a background of belief that “full-blooded” Aborigines would eventually die out due to genetic unfitness, whereas people of mixed heritage would proliferate and should be controlled to ensure their eventual genetic absorption into the white gene pool. Legislation governing the procreation of Aboriginal people suited an ideological commitment to whiteness in Australia, and is roughly coterminous with the White Australia Policy (1901-1966), which limited immigration to British and Northern European migrants.
As with sexual sterilization in Canada, public awareness of this phenomenon was minimal until very recently. In 1995 the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) commenced a national inquiry into Aboriginal child removal, a two-year process that involved interviewing hundreds of survivors across Australia and accepting nearly 800 submissions from governments, churches, legal centers and community groups. The tabling of the Inquiry’s report in 1997 brought Australia’s historic racist policies to light, and led to the institution of some practices of reckoning with that past, culminating in a national apology to the stolen generations in 2007.
Policies and Implementation
The stolen generations is often compared to the residential schools in Canada, a significant difference being that in Australia children did not return home, or were not allowed to contact or know the whereabouts of their families. Even before federation, legislation authorizing the removal of children was passed in the then colony of Victoria (Aboriginal Protection Act 1869), and other states and territories passed similar legislation over the next decades. The relationship of this legislation to eugenic thinking is equivocal: for instance, initially the children had to have been evaluated as neglected or endangered to be removed. Later, however, this provision was seen to be too demanding and was deleted, and some of the legislation’s greatest supporters described its usefulness in eugenic terms (see below).
The mechanism by which states and territories separated children was through “Protectors of Aborigines” or “Protectors of Natives”: officials invested with guardianship of all Aboriginal children in their jurisdiction. This meant that Aboriginal parents had no right to their children under Australian law, and permission was not required for the state to take them. In Bringing Them Home, the report of the HREOC inquiry into the removal, a number of different methods are identified, but it is clear that where children were not relinquished voluntarily, deception, duress and coercion were exercised. Police and “Aboriginal Protection Officers” often took opportunities to remove children when they were briefly separated from their mothers (at school or in hospital for instance), but they would also take the children forcibly from their homes. Children were removed to a variety of places, including “training” and industrial schools, reformatories, church-run orphanages and “foster” homes, where they would work as domestic servants or farm laborers. In all of these settings the practice of traditions or language was forbidden, as the program of assimilation was social and cultural as well as genetic.
A Backdrop of Eugenic Ideas
The policies and practices of child removal were frequently justified in terms of a perceived need to control the effects of “miscegenation” (inter-racial breeding was seen by authorities to be of epidemic proportion). Once in state care, the movement and activity of Aboriginal people was far easier to manage. Because permission had to be sought to marry, the state could prohibit certain couplings while encouraging others and this was considered an important aspect of their regulation. The Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia (1915-1936), A. O. Neville, along with Protector of Natives in the Northern Territory (1927-1939), Cecil Cook, framed the usefulness of removal policies in terms of population control and governments’ capacity to regulate what kinds of people could reproduce. The central eugenic assumption held by these authorities was that heritability of Aboriginal characteristics was weak. Accordingly, if procreation were controlled, within a few generations the race would be so diluted that it would be as if it had never existed. Neville’s strategy was the segregation of full-blood Aborigines from those of mixed heritage. “Half-castes” were thought to pose a threat to the purity of the white race, and especially of white women. Cook called “the half-caste” an “incalculable menace,” and stated that “the problem of our half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white” (quoted in Bringing Them Home). Aboriginal girls of part European descent were encouraged to marry white men, so that there was a gendered dimension to these notions of purity. Indeed the moral welfare of “half-caste” girls was often part of the rationale to remove them from their families.
While early justifications of removal policies are steeped in the language of eugenics, in the second half of the twentieth century (and after the rise and fall of Nazi Germany) such rationale fell out of favor, and the discourse tended to be culturally assimilationist. The assimilation of Aboriginal people remains a dominant objective of policy today, although never in explicitly genetic but rather cultural terms, and usually in terms of education outcomes, urbanization, and through a language of “rights and responsibilities.”
Reconnecting Families and Aboriginal Activism
The institutions that administered removed children often did not keep a record of their families, and many of the stolen generations were unable to contact parents after they reached majority. In 1980 historian Peter Read and traditional woman Oomera (Coral) Edwards founded Link-Up (NSW), an Aboriginal organization that assists people to make contact with family separated by policies of removal. Peter Read coined the term “stolen generations” after hearing about these events repeatedly from the Aboriginal people whom he interviewed. In the early 1980’s there were a number of conferences run by Aboriginal organizations, and stories of removal were discussed there. Organizations such as The Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) and the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA) began demanding a national inquiry from the early 1990s. Today the stolen generations and its impact is a key point of reference for activism, and features as a central organizing issue among those canvassed by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (a ‘provisional’ structure that has remained outside Old Parliament House more or less continuously since 1972). Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR) were formed in January 2014 to raise awareness of present-day removals of Aboriginal children into foster care; levels of which have now surpassed the number taken by the state even while the racist legislation was in place.
Government and Public Responses
When Bringing Them Home was released in 1997 many were shocked and shamed by its revelations. Some members of parliament read the testimony of survivors into the public record (‘Hansard’), and a reconciliation movement was galvanized by that element of public feeling. The then government refused to adopt any of its recommendations, however, which included compensation to survivors and a national apology. Prime Minister Howard argued that contemporary Australians cannot be held accountable for the actions of their forebears, and that those who designed and implemented the policies were well-meaning and acted in accordance with the values of the day. Conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt and Paddy McGuiness, and authors such as Keith Windschuttle, argued that the number of children removed had been exaggerated by the report, and that children were removed because they were in moral or physical danger rather than racist or eugenic reasons. The “history wars,” between Windschuttle and academic historians were a site of contestation over Australian collective memory, and resulted in an inquiry into the teaching of “black armband” history in schools and universities.
In 2007 the newly elected Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologized to the stolen generations, but declined to offer compensation to survivors.
The Legacy of Child Removal
The trauma suffered by stolen generations survivors continues to reverberate through Aboriginal families and communities. As Bringing Them Home documents, however, government responses to Aboriginal disadvantage also bear the residues of policies of removal, as indigenous people continue to be institutionalized at far greater rates than non-indigenous people, and often from an early age, through the criminal justice and child welfare systems. Aboriginal children in foster care to white families is currently at an historic high, and indigenous children are ten times more likely than non-indigenous children to be taken into care. There are similarities between the impacts of removal on indigenous people in Australia, and high rates of incarceration, institutionalization and outcomes for family life for indigenous people in Canada as a result of the Residential Schools Program. Intervention in the family life of Aboriginal people continues to be a key strategy of Australian governments: legislation passed in the federal parliament in 2007 (the ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response,’ more commonly known as the NT intervention) suspended elements of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) to enable a degree of regulation of Aboriginal peoples’ lives in remote communities that has not been seen since the days of the Aboriginal Protection Board.
Austin, Tony. “Cecil Cook, scientific thought and "half/ castes" in the Northern Territory 1927/1939,” Aboriginal History, v.14, no.1-2, 1990, p.104-122.
Briskman, Linda. The Black Grapevine: Aboriginal Activism and the Stolen Generations (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2003)
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: The Stolen Generation Report (1997): https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-stolen-children-report-1997
Macintyre, Stuart. “The History Wars,” The Sydney Papers (Winter/Spring 2003): http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/198.pdf
Manne, Robert. “In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right,” Quarterly Essay 1 (2001).
Manne, Robert (ed.). Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Australian History (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2003).
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