The truth on the “stolen” children

by Peter Howson former federal minister for aboriginal affairs

(Herald Sun, 7th January 1998)

See also Betraying the victims of the “Stolen children”

Anglicans will vote this week on a motion to apologise for the church’s part in the “stealing” of Aboriginal children. Actually the children were rescued says Peter Howson.

Sir Ronald Wilson, former justice of the High Court and sometime President of the Uniting Church of Australia, conducted an inquiry into the co-called stolen Aboriginal children of Australia.

He concluded that all the Aboriginal children who were placed in care were stolen from their mothers, so our nation is guilty of genocide.

Genocide is a term used to describe the deliberate murder of a people to destroy that group forever. Hitler’s attempt to destroy all European Jewish people is the best known example of genocide.

To accuse a nation of it is thus very serious. In the case of the so-called stolen children, there are people still alive who were at the centre of administration of Aboriginal policy in the Northern Territory after World War II.

Harry Giese, Les Penhall, Ted Milikan, Colin Macleod, for example, are people highly regarded within their own communities. But they were never asked by Sir Ronald to give account of their conduct.

Had Sir Ronald asked them he might have got closer to the truth. At the centre of the debate is the profound difference between those whom tribal Aborigines of the NT accepted as Aborigines and those whom contemporary Australians accept.

For the tribal Aborigines, any children born of the union of an Aboriginal girl and a non-Aboriginal man could not be accepted into the highly differentiated, tightly controlled kinship system of the tribe.

If an Aboriginal girl gave birth to a baby which was the result of an illegal but successful concealed union with another Aboriginal, it was unlikely that any adverse consequences would flow. But a new baby which clearly could not have had an Aboriginal father gave rise to great problems for mother and child.

In and after the war, the number of single white men in the NT increased dramatically and the number of babies born as the consequence of illegal unions (both from a tribal and a formal Australian perspective) likewise increased. Les Penhall, a welfare officer in the NT from 1941 to 1983, reported:

“If the child was of light colour, the Aboriginal midwives just grabbed a handful of ashes out of the fire and placed it over the nose and mouth of the child so that it didn’t live.”

Some light coloured babies were not killed in this way. But as the babies grew, the tribal elders often continued to bash the mother until she was prepared to abandon the child.

These children were then brought up and educated in Darwin at the missions. But they were not told of the circumstances of their birth. They came to believe they had been kidnapped and they nursed a resentment against the missions.

It is extraordinary that Sir Ronald Wilson, a contemporary church leader, should be so disdainful of the humane Christian work his predecessors in the church carried out 50 years ago.

Colin Macleod, a boy from Williamstown, found himself as a young welfare officer, based in Darwin, having to cope with problems unknown in Willy. He wrote:

“Half-caste kids would now and again turn up at the missions with spear marks and signs of horrific beltings. Babies were occasionally abandoned and young children left to fend for themselves. “Yella fellas” could find themselves in no-mans-land.”

These children were rescued by the welfare officers. They were not stolen.

Today racism is regarded as the worst possible social offence and it is difficult for us to believe tribal Aborigines had (and have) deep hostility to miscegenation.

The gulf between traditional Aborigines and the part European Aborigines who dominate ATSIC and Aboriginal policy debate on Mabo and Wik is a wide gulf and the great mistake of Aboriginal policy, from Whitlam on, has been to lump them all together.

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