The term ‘stolen generation’ was first used in 1981 to describe the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by government agencies and church missions between 1909 and 1969. Children, including babies, were literally kidnapped under government policy and placed in children’s homes, foster families or missions. White welfare officers, supported by police, rounded up children in Aboriginal communities, particularly those with light-coloured skin, and took them away. If parents tried to stop the removal of their children, they were held back by police.
This, however, was much more than removing children – horrific though that is. The policies also robbed Aboriginal people of their culture and future. The children were not allowed to speak their language or follow their traditions and spirituality. Many received little education. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse by their new ‘carers’ was commonplace.
The motivation for the policy was a mix of well intentioned (albeit very misguided) child protection and a more explicit attempt to get rid of ‘the Aboriginal problem’ (including a belief that Aboriginal genes would be ‘bred out’ within three generations).
The impact has been devastating, with profound repercussions for all Aboriginal people. The government-initiated HREOC Inquiry (1997) found that children removed from their families are disadvantaged in many ways: they are more likely to come to the attention of police, more likely to suffer low self-esteem, depression and mental illness, and more vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. In most cases, they have lost the links with their Aboriginality, their culture, and their land.
Although the first ‘National Sorry Day’ was held in 1998, it was not until 2008 that the Federal Government formally apologised. All State and Territory Governments, as well as many other groups, have now provided formal apologies. The issue, however, has by no means gone away, with Aboriginal children today being much more likely than their non-Aboriginal counterparts to be on care and protection orders or in out-of-home care.
The notion of trauma in Australia’s indigenous people is highly complex, characterised by threat, abuse, and dispossession at individual, family, community, and cultural levels. It is multigenerational and across communities. Despite this, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shown remarkable resilience in the face of enormous adversity. Perhaps there is hope for a more positive future for the first Australians.