The Stolen Generation

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When the welfare officers came to take three-year-old Archie Roach from his tin-lined house in Framlingham in southeastern Australia, they told his mother they were escorting him to a picnic. His aunt tried to scare them off with a gun, but it wasn't loaded. Institutionalized in a Melbourne orphanage, young Archie was told his family had died in a fire. His minders tried to force his hair straight, breaking comb teeth in his frizzy curls. It was a vain attempt by whites to make an Aboriginal child more like them. It didn't work, and the combs weren't the only casualties.

Roach, now 45, is one of an estimated 100,000 Aborigines, living and dead, who make up Australia's so-called Stolen Generation. Under a government policy that ran from 1910 to, unbelievably, 1971, as many as 1 in 10 of all Aboriginal children were removed from their families in an effort to "civilize" them by assimilation into white society. Their story of suffering, abuse, and lost identity--long Australia's dirty secret--is finally forcing itself out. It's an uncomfortable development for many Australians, especially at a moment when the country is basking happily in the spotlight of the Olympics. While a growing band of campaigners lobbies for an official government apology, John Howard, the conservative Prime Minister, has refused to say sorry and most Australians support his ungenerous stand.

The policy of "stealing" Aboriginal children, mostly those with some white blood, was devised in the early 1900s when eugenic theories were widely touted. In Australia government administrators thought that by bringing mixed-blood Aborigines into the white world, the color could be "bred out of them" over a few generations. Meanwhile the fully black population, regarded as irredeemably primitive, was expected to simply die out. The practice was not widely discussed until 1997, when an official inquiry found consistent patterns of physical and sexual abuse of the "stolen" children, of exploitation in the labor market and of social dislocation that led many into alcoholism, violence and early death.

Since then the outrage has mounted. Some 200,000 people marched across Sydney Harbor Bridge in May calling for reconciliation with Aborigines--the largest political demonstration in the country's history. In August former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called for a national apology for the "stolen generations." Prime Minister Howard answered that modern Australians "shouldn't be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions." Last month two Aborigines lost a court case in Darwin in which they sought compensation from the government for being removed from their families as children.

Roach, who was taken from his family because he had a white grandfather, knows what they went through. His third set of foster parents treated him well, as an equal to their own three children. But his life was shattered when Roach, 14, received a letter from his sister Myrtle, who had tracked him down through welfare agencies. Their mother, supposedly dead, had passed away the previous week. Furious that he'd been lied to his whole life, Roach ran away from home and spent the next 14 years drinking, sleeping in parks, playing the guitar to earn enough for the next bottle. Finally, he dried out and began writing and singing songs, including his 1987 hit, Took the Children Away, which launched him on an upward musical career. But, he says, "I still feel the pain, every day. Sometimes it threatens to engulf me. But I'm not going to let it destroy me."

Howard, fearful that a formal apology would strengthen the case for compensation, has issued only a statement of "regret" for the Stolen Generation. Polls suggest that just over half the population supports him. Many already resent existing welfare payments to the mostly impoverished Aborigines. "The government can't even say the word s-o-r-r-y," Roach says. "Most Aborigines I talk to just want a simple statement from the heart. If you hit someone, you don't say, 'I regret what I did.'"