Between 1910 and up until as recently as the 1970s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people endured one of the most traumatic experiences any of us can imagine.
Policies enacted and enforced by governments, social services bodies, and churches meant that children were forcibly removed from their families in one of the most emotive injustices recorded in Aboriginal Australia history records.
While we might consider the timeline of Australian colonisation a thing of the past, the Stolen Generation starkly demonstrates the unavoidable truth–that the European invasion still resonates with families and communities in our modern-day society.
What Is the Stolen Generation?
The Stolen Generation is, sadly, not only one generation but refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their families over sixty years. Although the government abandoned forced removal policies in 1969, many anecdotal stories show that young people continued to be torn from their loved ones even after this date.
So-called assimilation policies dictated that First Nations children should be removed from Aboriginal families and societies and ‘assimilated’ into Western culture in a brutal attempt to force Indigenous communities to die out. Organisations and government bodies publicly encouraged the removal of children with darker skin, changing the children’s names, forbidding the use of native languages, and placing very young children in white families or childcare institutions where abuse was rife.
It may seem impossible to believe such atrocities could still occur only fifty years ago. Still, these harrowing separations of families remain within the living memory of our parents, grandparents, and elders. We must listen to these accounts to grasp the horror, grief, and devastation of losing a child without knowing where they were taken or what their birth name was changed to under a law supported by the government.
Many girls were trained as domestic servants and boys as stockmen, with at least 50,000 children removed–most of whom were never reunited. Outcomes included poor health, child abuse and neglect, post-traumatic stress, substantial disadvantage, and, in many cases, suicide.
What Happened to the Children of the Stolen Generation?
The attempts to make stolen children forsake their families, heritage, way of life, and even language were enormously detrimental. A shocking proportion experienced sexual and physical abuse alongside psychological trauma.
First Nations children were treated as second-class citizens and encouraged to feel shameful about their families. Many were told their parents had willingly abandoned them, died, or committed a criminal offence, and the youngest of these children may have never learned what really happened. The conditions were perhaps the most barbaric for those children placed in institutions–childcare facilities committed numerous unforgivable crimes, including neglect, starvation, and physical punishments.
Children also received minimal, if any, education, and were expected to become manual labourers, often without pay, treated effectively as enslaved people. The lifelong impacts are horrific, with tens of thousands of children subjected to these abuses.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are, to this day, still searching for their children, siblings, or parents, although many did not survive the grief or trauma.
How Does the Stolen Generation Affect Modern Australia?
History books may consign colonisation, human rights abuses, and the Stolen Generation to chapters of the past, but there is no doubt that these practices have severe ramifications that continue to be felt. Descendants of the Stolen Generation have lost cultural knowledge and tradition that would have been passed down through the family, cutting the chain of learning that ran for some 60,000 years before.
Organisations are working diligently to try and reconnect Stolen Generation children and relatives with their missing families and disconnected culture. Still, after several decades, a great deal remains to be done. Of the fifty-four recommendations made in the Bringing Them Home report, brought to Parliament in 1997, most were ignored entirely due to a change in government.
The Stolen Generation continues to experience disadvantage, whether directly through living survivors, their remaining family members, or younger generations of children. National Apology Day falls on the 13th of February, commemorating the official apology in 2008. Yet, it seems far too little, too late, to go any way to acknowledge, mark, and give voice to those who suffered such extreme trauma.
We must, as a nation, acknowledge these painful stories and refuse to forget them as the only positive path to a reconciled future–where every person’s voice is as loud and as important as the next.