Stolen Lives

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They came to take Archie Roach from his family when he was three years old. His aunt tried to scare the welfare officers away with a gun, but it wasn't loaded. They took Marie Allen when she was seven—she cried all the way during the car ride from her home to Darwin, three hours away by road. Thousands more were taken too, just because of the color of their skin. As many as one in 10 of all Aboriginal children, historians calculate, were removed from their families between 1910 and 1971 under government policies aimed at providing a white education in order to civilize them.They became known as the Stolen Generation. Theirs is a story of tears, suffering, sexual abuse, lost identity, delinquency and mental anguish beyond the understanding of most Australians. It is a story of sometimes well-meaning but misguided policies that had racist roots still not atoned for to this day. There is now a nationwide movement, comprising Australians of all races, to pressure the government to apologize for its actions and provide reparations to those who were removed. In May, some 200,000 people marched across Sydney Harbor Bridge calling for reconciliation with Aborigines—the largest political demonstration in the country's history. In July the U.N. Human Rights Committee criticized the government for not doing enough to make amends for assimilation policies. Last week former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser weighed in with a speech lamenting that our system has so patently failed to protect the rights of Aborigines, and calling for a national apology for the stolen generations. But John Howard, the conservative Prime Minister, has refused to say sorry—and many other Australians back him. The issue is tearing the country apart just as it prepares to show off its best face to the world at the Sydney Olympics. Aborigines are threatening to hold demonstrations at the Games. The Stolen Generation, long Australia's dirty secret, is finally forcing itself out. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: Dark SecretThe ugly story of a generation of Aborigines, taken from their homes and transferred to white families in the name of civilization, is beginning to emerge—and divide the nation• Song of Sorrow: Giving voice to a people's anguish• At Home: Asian immigrants have found a place at last JAPAN: Rocking the ThroneA newly published book reexamines how much guilt Emperor Hirohito should bear for his role in World War IIDISASTERS: Cursed IsleMother Nature seems to have it in for Japan's Miyake IslandEAST TIMOR: From the AshesA year after voting for independence, the world's newest country is still struggling with demons past and present PERSONAL HISTORY: My Daughter's MotherA father chronicles his adopted 11-year-old's voyage to Korea TRAVEL WATCH: Tokyo's Chefs Get a Grip on Europe Archie Roach doesn't remember much about the day in 1958 when welfare officers came for him at his tin-lined house (known as a humpy) in Framlingham, Victoria. They took his two brothers and three sisters as well, and told his mother they were going on a picnic. He never saw her again. Institutionalized in a Salvation Army orphanage in Melbourne, young Archie was taught English and readied for a white foster home. He recalls how they tried to comb his hair straight, breaking comb teeth in his frizzy curls. It was a vain attempt by whites to make an Aboriginal more like them. It caused only pain. They call Australia 'the lucky country', says Roach. But it is only lucky for some. I can hear the sound of mourning everywhere. The policy of removing children, mostly Aboriginals with some white blood, was devised in the early part of the 20th century when eugenic theories were being widely touted. In Australia, government administrators thought that by bringing part-Aboriginals 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. It was an unprecedented attempt to re-engineer the population. I haven't found anything as extreme as child removal in any other country, says Robert Manne, associate professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who is researching a book on the issue. He notes that in colonial days Canada set up residential schools for indigenous children—but the kids went back to their families for holidays. After World War II the racist theories were discredited, but the policy of removing children in Australia continued—racial assimilation was replaced by social assimilation. In some cases mixed-race children suffered abuse at home and welfare officers had good reason to remove them, but in many others children were taken away as a matter of policy. Roach, one of whose grandfathers was white, was told that he would be better educated in the white world. He then was informed that his family had perished in a house fire, so he figured he had nobody to go back to anyway. His first two foster experiences failed—the second family abused him so badly it all ended up in court, although Roach doesn't like to talk about it. The third, the Cox family of Lilydale, Melbourne, was a temporary salvation. Warm and loving, they took Roach in and treated him as equal to their own three children. Mr. Cox was a lovely man—I used to listen to his music: Scot-tish ballads, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holliday, Sammy Cooke. From the Cox's daughter Mary, Roach learned to play the guitar and keyboards—he didn't know it then, but music would save his life.Australia has two separate histories—one white, one black. The former is of a difficult but ultimately successful settlement of a harsh continent, of the exploitation of rich agricultural and mineral resources, of the creation of a hardy, no-nonsense social structure where the highest distinction is to be regarded by one's peers as a mate. The black version is quite different—one of dispossession of the land after 40,000 years of stewardship, of racial prejudice, victimization, delinquency and social decay. When the first British settlers arrived in 1788 they treated the Aboriginals as primitive savages with no claims to the land they lived on. As happened with America's Indians, thousands of Aborigines were massacred as the whites pushed out across the continent. But unlike the U.S. and Canada, Australia has never negotiated a treaty with Aborigines. Until 1967 they were not even included on the national census. And it was only in 1992 that the doctrine of terra nullius—under which Australia was deemed empty when the British arrived—was overturned in court, and Aborigines were empowered to claim land rights as traditional owners. These two narratives have yet to be reconciled. For all of the country's cheery broad-mindedness, many white Australians seem to have a blind spot about their black compatriots. Aborigines make up just 2% of the population, and most Australians living in the coastal cities have little, if any, contact with Aboriginal people. So when a government-commissioned inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families appeared in 1997, accusing the state of genocide and calling for an apology and reparations, many Australians felt as if they had been slapped in the face. The Bringing Them Home report, incorporating evidence from 535 people who had been removed from their families, found consistent patterns of physical and sexual abuse of the children, of exploitation in the labor market and of social dislocation that led many into alcoholism, violence and early death. For many Australians, the response was: Why didn't we know? How could such a policy have continued into the 1970s in a country like ours? Song of Sorrow Took the Children Away by Archie RoachThis story's right, this story's true I would not tell lies to you Like the promises they did not keep And how they fenced us in like sheep Said to us come take our hand Sent us off to mission land Taught us to read, to write and pray Then they took the children away The children away Snatched from their mother's breast Said it was for the best Took them away The welfare and the policeman Said you've got to understand We'll give to them what you can't give Teach them how to really live Teach them how to live they said Humiliated them instead Taught them that and taught them this And others taught them prejudice You took the children away The children away Breaking their mother's heart Tearing us all apart Took them away One dark day on Framlingham Came and didn't give a damn My mother cried go get their dad He came running fighting mad Mother's tears were falling down Dad shaped up he stood his ground He said you touch my kids and you fight me Took us away They took us away Snatched us from our mother's breast Said this is for the best Took us away Told us what to do and say Told us all the white man's ways Then they split us up again And gave us gifts to ease the pain Sent us off to foster homes As we grew up we felt alone Cause we were acting white Yet feeling black One sweet day all the children came back The children came back The children came back Back where their hearts grow strong Back where they all belong The children came back Said the children came back The children came back Back where they understand Back to their mother's land The children came back Back to their mother Back to their father Back to their sister Back to their brother Back to their people Back to their land All the children came back The children came back The children came back Yes I came back(Archie Roach /Mushroom Records)Archie Roach LinksMushroom Records -- Archie Roach View the full filmclip or the stereo sound file of Took the Children Away, plus a 10 minute documentary on Archie Roach's career Lore of the Land -- Archie RoachEncyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop -- Archie Roach -- Listen to Samples: 'Took the Children Away' from the album Charcoal Lane References and LinksHuman Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission -- Bringing Them Home: The 'Stolen Children' report (with background to the inquiry) Australasian Legal Information Institute -- Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (full report) Online Sorry Book -- We, the undersigned people of Australia, believe an apology is owed to those of our fellow citizens who were separated from their families as a direct result of government policy. We offer that apologyIt is a question Roach keeps asking himself. Taking kids—it still confounds me, the things that were done, he says. The original assimilation policies—you get into some weird genetic stuff there. But Roach pulled through. Today he is a successful singer. He has released three albums, toured the U.S. with Joan Armatrading and played with Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman. But he maintains a nervous energy, walking with shoulders hunched and head lowered defensively, rarely locking eyes with the person he is speaking to. Roach's music has helped him to deal with his own experiences, but his memories are strong. I still feel the pain, every day. Sometimes it threatens to engulf me. But I'm not going to let it destroy me. It nearly did. After 11 years of separation from his family, Roach, then 14, was living with the Cox family when he received a letter from his sister Myrtle. His mother, it said, had died the previous week. Roach had no idea how his sister had found him—until he learned his mother had been living just 45 minutes away from the Cox home and that she had probably been watching him go to school in the mornings. His sister told him later they knew they couldn't give him the same life he had with a white family, and they were afraid the welfare officers would return if they tried to contact him. They waited until it was too late. My mum didn't go quietly—there was pain involved, says Roach. It hurts me that I didn't know, I couldn't be there. Furious at the earlier lies about his family dying in a fire, Roach ran away from home at 15—and spent the next 14 years in Sydney and Melbourne, exorcizing his anger at the white world. He drank, slept in parks, played the guitar and did odd jobs to get enough money for the next bottle. It was a hard life. A woman came up to him in a pub one day and said she knew him. I told her to get away, you mad woman, and then she hit me in the mouth. It was one of my sisters, Diana. On another occasion he was boxing to earn a few dollars. After a tough first round his opponent came out of his corner and hugged him—it turned out they were cousins. But Roach's real search for identity came through his music. After going through an Alcoholics Anonymous rehabilitation course—forced on him by his partner, Ruby Hunter, who is also mother of his two children—Roach started to write songs. In '87 I wrote Took the Children Away. I was thinking about myself, feeling sorry for myself. He would play the song at parties or in friends' kitchens, never thinking much about it. Then in 1988 he attended a rally of Aboriginals in Sydney during Australia's bicentennial celebrations. We were all camped out, and there was a microphone and people were arguing about something stupid so I stood up and sang the song. It was the first time Roach had performed the tune in public, and he noticed how it hushed the crowd. He found he had tears in his eyes. After I finished I sat down and had a cigarette, and all these elders came up to me and asked if I wrote that song. I said yes and that I had been taken in the '50s, and they were amazed it was still going on then. 'Go sing that to my wife, or my father,' they told me. It was only then that Roach realized how widespread the practice of removing children had been. Soon he was getting requests to sing Took the Children Away on radio and in concerts. I started writing other songs, a bit heavy, but it was a release of that hurt. God forbid anyone has to go through that amount of tragedy now. In 1990 he released his first album, Charcoal Lane, which made him a national figure. The songs have a country-folk rhythm, made distinctive by Roach's voice, which seems to echo from a distance across a deep canyon.Today Roach has closed up some of the distances in his life. He lives in Adelaide with Ruby, his sons Amos and Eban, and Ruby's sister Iris. His music brings in enough money for them to live comfortably. My life is better now, my songs are not so heavy as 10 or 12 years ago—and that is good. It is a Saturday evening in August, and he is sitting in his backyard at a party for Eban's 21st birthday. As the sun goes down they light a fire and Roach picks up his guitar. He sings another of his old songs, From Paradise, about how his partner Ruby was also stolen from her family as a young girl. The guests stare silently into the fire. Jack Picone/Network Photographers for TIME.Aboriginal Peter Gunner, who was taken from his parents as a youngster, lost his claim for compensation in the Darwin Federal Court.When he is finished, he goes into the kitchen to replenish his mug of tea, the strongest thing he drinks these days. The sun is round, the moon is round—your life journey goes round in a circle too, says Roach, sipping from the steaming mug. But if the circle is broken, then you don't know which way to go. You're drifting in space, you're nowhere.Marie allen knows about nowhere—she lives there. Now 51, Allen was taken from her mother in Pine Creek in the Northern Territory when she was seven. Thirty five years later she came back to settle on her old tribal land—and found she was rejected by her own people, who no longer saw her as one of them. I am in limbo—Aborigines don't take me as part of them, and the whites won't accept me. Tears well in her eyes. I'm sorry, but it really upsets me.She is sitting under some gum trees beside the river in Katherine, a small town in Australia's arid Northern Territory. Allen has come to town to do battle again with the local Land Council, an Aboriginal corporation that administers tribal land. She says they are trying to cheat her out of land that is legally hers, as she was born into the local Wardaman tribe. But I don't have the language, I can't speak for the land—so they won't accept me. Three of her grandparents were Aboriginal, the fourth was a Chinese—most likely a miner who came to Pine Creek when gold was discovered there in 1871.Allen was first taken to the Retta Dixon home in Darwin, a large orphanage for colored children run by Methodists. After seven years she was sent to school in Sydney, and then to a convent in Melbourne. When she came back to Darwin in 1968, at age 19, she had forgotten the Wardaman tongue. Her mother was still alive, but when she went to find her, it was never the same, the closeness wasn't there. She was still my mother, she loved me, I loved her, but by then I had grown up, fought my own battles with none of her guidance.Allen married a white man and had two daughters with him, but she is divorced now—like most of her contemporaries at the orphanage. I think you could count on one hand the number of Retta Dixon relationships that have stayed together, she says. They didn't teach us anything about sex or birth control or even about our first periods. All we learned about was God and our own bad ways. They told us if we grew up in a black camp we would turn out no good. Determined to rediscover her heritage, Allen joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1978, and for 14 years she traveled all over the Northern Territory visiting Aboriginal settlements, dealing with peoples' problems. She learned much of the Aboriginal lore on these trips, like the local dreamings or mystical links that tie Aborigines to the landscape where they live. Everywhere she went she found scars of the Stolen Generation. I'd get old women pulling me aside and asking me had I seen this child or that child? It was terrible. The Two AustraliasAll CitizensAboriginesLife Expectancy(years)Men 76Women 81Men 57 Women 62Infant Mortality Rate(per thousand born)519Unemployment7.5%20%Personal Income($ per week)292190Education(15-year-olds in full-time education)91.5%73.7%In Prison(per thousand individuals)1.17.6Living in Poverty(per thousand families)2.338.9 She lives now on 19 sq km of bush and scrub in Djarrung on the Flora River, which is 110 km along a dirt road from Katherine. On the land she catches fish, hunts kangaroo, turtle and crocodile, and is thinking of planting some fruit trees. In 1997, 60 Aborigines came to her property and tried to drive her off the land, claiming she was not a real Aborigine and didn't belong there. She had a gun and two pit bulls, and they retreated. But a year later she was beaten up in town by some Aboriginal men while waiting at the taxi rank. You see, there's bad on both sides, she says, tears starting to form again. The Stolen Generation is a highly emotional issue that brings forth passionate arguments on both sides. It reached a climax of sorts in a courtroom in Darwin earlier this month, when a judge ruled on a case brought by two Aborigines who claimed they had been forcibly removed from their families by the government in the '40s and '50s. Despite accepting that the two claimants, Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner, had experienced miserable childhoods after they were institutionalized, and that Cubillo was viciously assaulted and Gunner was sexually abused by his minders, Justice Maurice O'Loughlin turned down their claim for compensation. The judge said there was insufficient evidence that the two had been forcibly removed. In Gunner's case there was a document bearing his mother's thumbprint authorizing the government to take him for further education. But he qualified his judgment to say that he was not denying the existence of a Stolen Generation. The ruling gave a boost to the government of Prime Minister Howard, who has said Australians of this generation shouldn't be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policy. Howard fears that a formal apology would strengthen the case for compensation to members of the Stolen Generation, and has limited himself to a statement of regret. We in the government don't think cash compensation is the answer, said John Herron, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, in an interview after the ruling was announced. Australia is split on the issue, but polls suggest that slightly more than half the population supports the government's view. Many Australians are suffering compassion fatigue over the Aboriginal issue, seeing them as welfare dependents whose problems seem to get worse even as they soak up taxpayers' money. But whether or not cash handouts should be paid, few would deny that the policies developed in the early 20th century to remove part-Aboriginal children from their families and assimilate them into white society are now indefensible. The government can't even say the word S-O-R-R-Y, says Roach. Most Aborigines I talk to just want a simple statement from the heart. It is three years since the release of the Bringing Them Home report. Despite hopes that Australia could turn a new leaf for the millennium, the process of reconciliation between Aborigines and whites has stalled. We are still at the stage of first moves, says Manne of La Trobe University. A cry of anger and pain on one side and denial on the other. We need to get beyond this. The secret of the Stolen Generation is out—but Australia is not sure how to deal with it.