Australia – The stolen children

Edna Walker was nine when the Australian police took her from
her parents and put her in the notorious missionary dormitory
on Croker Island. But later, she got lucky: she was adopted by
a family that loved her – and helped fight the policy that had
ruined the lives of so many aborigines.

Source: The
Guardian

The stolen children

Edna Walker was nine when the Australian police took her from
her parents and put her in the notorious missionary dormitory
on Croker Island. But later, she got lucky: she was adopted by
a family that loved her – and helped fight the policy that had
ruined the lives of so many aborigines.

By Beatrix Campbell

Monday April 16, 2001

It is one of the most explosive issues in Australian politics:
the growing clamour for a government apology for the physical
and cultural genocide the aborigines have endured since white
people set foot on their continent. And at the heart of this bitter
controversy is the issue of the stolen children – the generations
that were wrested from their mothers and put in (often church-run)
institutions, to “rescue” them from their aboriginality.

Some,
including the prime minister, John Howard, resist the suggestion
that these children were stolen, and prefer the term “removed”;
but “stolen” is certainly the right word to describe the moment,
around 1950, when Edna Walker was seized from her mother, loaded
into the back of a truck and transported north to Darwin and then
Croker Island, a notorious missionary dormitory where she reckons
“they hoped it would be the last they heard of us”.

Edna
Walker’s life story echoes half a century of official policymaking.
It is also the story of white academics’ challenge to the “white
Australia” policy. For it was Edna’s good fortune, amid the tragedy,
to be welcomed into the home of a white Methodist minister who,
with his wife, felt blessed by her arrival. Their daughter, Fay,
became an eminent scholar in Australian geography, specialising
in aboriginal experience. As a researcher, Fay had access to the
resources and scholarship to finally find Edna’s family.

Fay
Gale and Edna Walker consider themselves sisters. Edna’s first
memories are of living on a cattle station in the Northern Territory
where the man she believed was her father was the manager, George
Simpson. Her mother, Maggie, lived in a nearby camp, in “humpies”
– or “tin sheets attached to branches”.

“She
came to see me every day,” she says. Her little brother came to
play, too. There were Chinese gardeners and cooks. Simpson would
often be away from home for days mustering the cattle spread out
over hundreds of kilometres. And so life went on until Edna was
about nine years old.

This
was the time of forced segregation of children with white fathers
and aboriginal mothers. From the beginning of the century, indigenous
children had been under the control of the chief protector who
had the right to take any child – especially girls. The theory
was that within a few generations, aborigines would be absorbed
and, literally, die out.

In
the 1930s, genetic engineering was replaced by economic and cultural
enclosure in a white, Christian world. They were taken to be segregated
in missions along the northern coast. In the Northern Territory
this policy applied until 1957.

When
the police came for Edna, Simpson confronted them with a gun and
promised to send the child off to school. But still they kept
coming. Aboriginal stockmen working at the station raised the
alarm and her mother ran off with her into the bush to hide. “On
the last occasion I remember this cloud of dust coming towards
the station. I was playing, my mother and aunt were there and
Simpson and the men were away mustering the cattle.

“This
vehicle drew up. They just grabbed me and put me in the truck.”
It was all so swift they didn’t even switch off the engine. Other
children were collected on the way and put in a cell overnight.
“Next morning we travelled all day up to Darwin in a truck with
a canvas roof. They’d throw Vegemite sandwiches for us.”

It
was then that Edna was given the name Walker – the name of the
policeman who had taken her from her mother – so that she could
never be traced.

The
children were put in a compound in Darwin: “I remember nothing
more than sitting at a table and going to bed. It is not something
I want to remember. I don’t remember feeling anything. I was so
shocked.” She becomes silent, the tears falling down her face.

“We
were waiting to be sent to Croker Island. One of the worst things
that happened to anyone was Croker Island,” she goes on, “they
could do anything they wanted with us.”

There,
in the tropics off the northern coast, the missionaries sequestered
the children, stripped them of their names, bathed them in Christian
values, and prepared them for a life of subordination and service.
After a couple of years schooling she was tasked to take care
of other children. Violence and sexual assault was routine. “Girls
would run away, they’d get caught, their hair would be shaved
off, they’d get a flogging and then they’d be locked up.”

To
this day Edna cannot swim or even put her head underwater – she
was so frightened when someone held her down underwater that she
never recovered from her fear.

Her
adoptive sister, Fay Gale, was the first woman to become vice-chancellor
of one of Australia’s elite universities, and then president of
the coterie of vice-chancellors. She describes the1950s and 1960s
as “the big purge”, when government policy changed. Segregation
was being replaced by assimilation. Croker Island children were
dispatched thousands of miles south to the opposite end of the
continent.

By
then, Gale was doing her doctorate. Her parents were part of the
Methodist missionaries’ networks; they had often received aboriginal
children in their home. In 1957 they volunteered to meet another
young woman coming to Adelaide. Edna arrived. She was 16 years
old.

Edna
was embraced by her new family, went back to learning and worked
as a nursing aid until she recently retired.

Since
then, aboriginal activists have changed the terms of engagement
in Australia. Although it took until 1993 for the high court to
rule in favour of Eddie Mabo, an aboriginal who challenged the
notion of terra nullius – a land empty of people – that had legitimated
the crown’s acquisition of the continent, native title had already
asserted itself.

Fay
Gale herself has been part of that process. In the early 1980s
she was appointed to an inquiry into a proposed dam designed to
create a leisure lake near Alice Springs in central Australia.
A throng of aboriginal women who insisted on the sacred significance
of the site to them as women confronted the bulldozers. The inquiry
was persuaded. It was an early victory in the continuing debates
about land, gender and aboriginality.

Although
it was virtually impossible for Edna’s people to find her, Gale
initiated a search for her family. Four years ago she was reunited
with her younger brother Jack. Her face opens into a smile as
she tells how he was able to give her back some of her story.
He told her where she had been born 60 years ago – all her mother’s
children were born under the same Coolibah tree. And he was able
to tell her that her mother never lost hope of finding her. She
asked Jack to promise to keep looking.

When
they met, Jack would not leave her side, repeating “this is my
sister, my sister”. Having spent most of her life not being aboriginal,
she is discovering pride in her survival and in her indigenous
identity. “My own children help me with that, they are proud to
be aboriginal.”

This
was not part of the plan: an entire industry was invented to erase
that identity. After what are called the “killing times” there
were the “taking” times. As Gale puts it, police officers “travelled
hundreds of miles – they weren’t out catching criminals, they
were catching children.” Howard may not get it, she says, but
“stolen is the only word for it”.

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