‘What if the Government Kidnapped YOUR Children?’

24th October 2013


‘Only one years old when she was taken away

taken from her home where she wanted to stay

Taken from her parents no chance to say goodbye

Unprepared for living a lie

Along with her sisters she was taken to a place

too young to understand the difference of race

Amy (2004)




In the histories of Australia as a nation, discussion pertaining to issues of motherhood has not only been conveyed in the sense of external ‘others’ invading Australia, but also as a story concerning which women within the nation should have the right to bear children. Proclamations of national policy regarding motherhood consistently represented the mother as a woman of non-Indigenous heritage (Elder 2007:85). For many Indigenous women, not only was their right to mother their children denied, but they were subjected to additional policies that led to the removal of their children, children who were then reared by non-Indigenous women in foster families or in institutions. “White people” Read (1981:3) writes “have never been able to leave Aborigines alone. … Missionaries, teachers and government officials have all believed the best way to make black people behave like whites was to get hold of the children who had not yet learned Aboriginal lifeway’s”.  These children removed from their families were not imagined in national stories as making new families when they grew up. They were imagined as domestic workers and laborers – cheap labor for the nation (Elder 2007:85). “Breeding up. In the third or fourth generation no sign of native origin is apparent. The repetition of the boarding school process and careful breeding … after two or three generations the advance should be so great that families should be living like the rest of the community” (Scott 1999:28). Many of these Indigenous women later spent their entire lives working for another family.

The policy of Indigenous child removal has had devastating effects in terms of generational mothering. Young indigenous women removed from their families and brought up in institutions had little or no experience of love and mothering, so when they had their own children they often could not cope. This outcome continued to perpetuate a cycle of removal, as state governments could now argue they were poor mothers, legitimate grounds for removal, and again take their children away (Elder 2007:85). As Robert Mann (quoted in Pilkington, Under the Wintamarra Tree 2002:i) relays, “[n]o episode in Australia’s history is more ideologically sensitive or of grater contemporary significance for Indigenous relations than the story of the Stolen Generation”.

Historical Background

The Australian Aboriginal (Indigenous) peoples are believed to be the oldest surviving inhabitants of the Australian continent after having arrived on the coast Australia from Asia sometime between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. Despite the existence of various differences maintained between the numerous groups, tribes or clans of Aboriginal people, each with distinctive languages, and cultures, each also holds considerable quantities of customs and practices in common. Perhaps the backbone of which is that they were traditionally, a collection of hunter-gatherer societies who maintained close relationships with the earth, alongside a distinctly unique and rich oral tradition.

The arrival of the British heralded the beginning of what many Indigenous people perceived as the end. In the years that followed the establishment of the first settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788, and the displacement of the Eora people, British colonial officers travelled to Western Australia (WA), during the 1820’s, and began to claim Aboriginal lands as their own. In response to the ‘British invasion’ and in order to maintain their independence and resist European control, violence and fighting ensued. Any resistance mounted by the Aboriginal people was violently repressed, the tribes dispersed and of those who remained many were imprisoned or exploited for their labour. In the eyes of Western Australia’s foundation government, the Indigenous people of the region were simply another problem that needed to be controlled. Hagan (2013) makes reference to Taylor (1992) as commenting that Aboriginals were quite often “dismissed as primitive or inferior people who made trouble”. As a result of this generalized view colonial officials initiated monovalent state policies that resulted in the oppression of Aboriginal communities for many years. One of these policies – the 1905 Aborigines Act – granted the government legal means, through the appointment of a ‘chief protector’, to oversee all Aboriginal affairs for the “protection, control and segregation of Aboriginal people” living in its territory (Kaartdijin Noongar). In 1911, WA Chief Protector, A.O. Neville, introduced a policy that allowed him to maintain the powers of legal guardian over all Aboriginal children, under the age of 16, whom he determined to be illegitimate, and to be able to legally authorize the relocation, forcibly if necessary, all part Aboriginal children from their families (Kaartdijin Noongar).

It was his department’s policy to remove children of mixed parentage as quickly as possible before the child could be accepted as a member of the community and identify with traditional ways and teachings. As official guardian of half-caste infants, the Commissioner was also determined to take proceedings … to secure payment of maintenance [for a child] take[n] …  into one of its institutions – depending on her skin colour. (Pilkington, Under the Wintamarra Tree 2002:30)

Chief Protector Neville was worried about the creation of a third race, people as Hasluck (cited Neill, 2002:30) phrases it, being “light skinned and judged to have no strong family ties”, a blend of both Aboriginal and European descent. Following this legislation, Aboriginal children of mixed descent were taken from their homes to be adopted, housed temporarily with foster families, or resettled in government or church-run institutions such as missions and orphanages (HREOC 1997:10). Very few of the children who were relocated ever saw their birth parents again. Neill (2002:191) noted that “one of the frightening aspects of the protection and assimilation process was how so few men came to control the fate of so many, with so little public cross-examination of their methods”.

A referendum held on 27 May, 1967, announced a long awaited change for the Indigenous people of Australia, the omission of specific phrasing and alteration of the Australian constitution Section 51, Part (xxv1) and Section 127, thus granting Indigenous Australians citizenship (Brennan, 2011). Although formally recognized as citizens, few could have fathomed that it would be another 40 years until at 9:30am on 13 February, 2008, Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia, delivered the long awaited official apology to the Indigenous people of Australians officially for the enacted policies responsible for giving rise to the Stolen Generations.

Media Analysis

The film Rabbit-Proof Fence, a cinematic adaptation of the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, born Nugi Garimara in 1937, has been describes as “a vividly told story about cultural arrogance, cruelty and courage” (McFarlane, quoted in Pilkington, Under the Wintamarra Tree  2002:i). Written by the daughter of the central character Molly, and adapted to screen by Christine Olsen, it tells in graphic detail the heart rendering true story of three Aboriginal Australian girls, Molly Craig, her sister Daisy Karnpill Craig and their cousin, Gracie Fields, their abscondment from the Moore River Native Settlement school, which they were compelled to attend, and the ensuing long walk home to Balfour Downs Station, Jigalong, a distance of over one thousand miles away.

The primary characters of the story, Molly 14, Gracie 10 and Daisy 8, were for all intents and purposes ‘legally’ kidnapped under the law of the day, by the Australian government, and mandated to be transferred to Moore River Native Settlement School. This was a school where many half-caste Aboriginal children were sent to be trained as servants for the newly arriving white settlers, in what amounted to little more than indentured servitude. The government considered these children potentially fit for education, a step above full-blooded Aborigine children, who were considered the least intelligent, and felt obliged to take them to schools where they could be educated (Parbury 1999:72 cited Seifa Dei 2011:70). Under Molly’s direction and influence, the girls soon escape and begin the long trek toward home. For weeks, following the “rabbit-proof fence, they consistently move northward, evading the settlements native tracker Moodoo (played by David Gulpilil) and the regional constabulary who are under orders from the government’s ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’ to apprehend their charges.

Films such as Rabbit Proof Fence also serves to tells the larger story of Australia’s ‘Stolen Generations’, the thousands of Aboriginal children, most of whom were taken involuntarily from their homes by the government. The ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ is regarded as a dynamic and compelling portrayal of the profusion of mistreatments endured by the children of the Stolen Generation. It is a “story of past injustices [which] exposes the racist policy of Western Australia and exposes that practice to the rest of the world to the embarrassment of the government” (Hagan 2013).

Similarly Kanyini, directed by Michelle Hogan, written by Martin Lee, is a documentary movie dealing with the issues of the “Stolen Generation”. Unlike the ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ however it is based on the aboriginal culture of Uluru and discloses the amazing details about the life, views and ideals of Bob Randall, as an elder of the Yankunytjatjara people, and one of the listed traditional owners of Uluru (Randall 2007). He begins by openly discussing his memories of an unspoilt childhood until the day this was shattered under government policy of the time. Bob, removed, stolen away from his family at an early age, became one of the number of children discussed as the ‘Stolen Generation’. Like many others he never saw his mother again and remained in government institutions until he was twenty (Randall 2007). It also focuses on and of his journey through life since then, and journeys and lives of his people, past and present, living in Uluru, maintaining the wisdom they learnt from their aboriginal relatives who lived their life in the bush.

Kanyini is an emotive film of beauty, despair and wisdom, which revolves around the clash of cultures that exist between the traditional lifestyle and teachings of Australia’s Indigenous people and the adopted disposable culture of modern White Australians.  Bob, sitting comfortably in an armchair offers an accessible account of the lives and histories of Australia’s Indigenous people, of what has happened since the arrival of the white man, and of the long term effect that this has had on his people. The route this film threads is not only one through which it is possible to discover Aboriginal culture, but also one through which it is possible to discover the tragic pains and suffering that the imposition of Western culture has had on his life and the lives of all other Aboriginal people, and to explore the some of the possible reasons for the many shocking problems which continue to inflict many Australian Aboriginal communities today. His calm, almost at times complacent and jovial voice, coupled with his ‘down-to earth’ narrative style, nearly contradicts the seriousness of the topic he is explaining, his suffering and the loss of his “Kanyini”. He explains Kanyini to mean a “responsibility and unconditional love for all of creation and [an] envelop[ment of] the four principles of aboriginal life: Tjukurrpa – Creation Period (or what non-aboriginals call ‘dreamtime’); Kurunpa – Spirit, Soul, Psyche;Walytja – Family, Kinship; Ngura – Land, Home, Place or Mother” (Randall 2007). He explains how his people have been left denude of these four fundamental aspects of life, aspects essential for his peoples physical and spiritual survival.

As a documentary this film the addition of archival footage, highlighting early European-Indigenous contact, is used to show that the aboriginal people are the real custodians of Australia, and what it was like for them living their life in their traditional manner. Footage of local communities also depicts how of indigenous people  have come to congregate, live and survive in their towns. It provides the viewer with a clear unobscured look at some of the many images of dispossession and despair on the media. Bob further explain about the difficulties that have been faced by the indigenous people living in Australia and what can be done for them in order to make these indigenous people able to compete with the world. It is perhaps the unnatural combination of immense beauty of surrounds and a sensation of utter despair that as shown in the movie footage explains that something went dreadfully wrong with the both the Aboriginal culture and civilization of Australia.


Prior to the arrival of Europeans and of colonization, Indigenous people maintained much of their knowledge at the local level. Since that time however different facets of media have developed bringing enormous change, not only to the content of knowledge itself, but also to its mode, format, and delivery. Of all the forms of media available in the world today, nothing has reached or influences the public as much as that of film. Kanyini and the internationally acclaimed Rabbit proof fence are two such films. Although they as similar in content as they are different in their construction and portrayal, both of these movies cover the topic of the stolen generation and the issue posited by assimilationists that “Indigenous peoples, their knowledges, and practices [were] inferior to Western peoples, knowledges, and practices” (Sefa Dei 2011:68), what divides them is their authorage. This becomes particularly significant when dealing with Indigenous issues that continue to remain controversial by their nature, since while Indigenous Australians demand their voice to be heard, when commentary is made on them by non-indigenous journalists they also demand that it be presented in an impartial and culturally sensitive way (Hagan 2013).

These films matter, not just to scholars and historians, but also to the wider community, both Indigenous and Western alike, because they deal with the controversial issue of the ‘Stolen Generation’ which for many, has disrupted settled views of how things were in the past. They are important not only in the way others come to be viewed from past actions but also as a lens through which we come view ourselves and the directions that can be taken for the future. Films such as these, which are aimed primarily at the general public, and rely little on detailed knowledges of past events, provide that point from which a greater understanding can contribute toward a means of moving forward. Both movies show clearly, not only the actions that have left the indigenous people of the country vehemently angry, but also attempt to portray what these people have lost, their sadness and their feelings of complete despair.  Both, in their own distinct way outline that the effects of removal should take into account the impacts and compounding effects causing a cycle of damage from which is often difficult to escape. They deal with the reflection of ideas concerning the loss of self-determination and identity, of not just the individual, but of a people as a whole, “the severe erosion of cultural links” (Price 2012:31)

These stories seek, not only “to challenge this exclusion [of Australian-ness] and tell stories that not only included Indigenous peoples in the stories but also to explore how earlier ideas of Australian-ness had marginalized Indigenous people” (Elder 2007:210). They invite all Australians, regardless of heritage to work toward a common goal of understanding, acknowledging and rectifying the wrongs of the past in an effort to generate a collective future in which all can learn from each other to develop respect and understanding for different cultures. They have achieved a purpose of bringing “issues of racism and inequality to the forefront and in doing this they created the possibility for other kinds of stories to be told” (Elder 2007:210)


Amy, 2004, Stolen Generation, POEMS & QUOTES: A POETRY COMMUNITY, [online] Accessed 1 October 2013, <http://www.poems-and-quotes.com/sad/poems.php?id=102385&gt;

Elder, C., 2007, Being Australian, Narratives on National Identity, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Hagan, S. and Hampton, R. 2013, KLN2001 Indigenous Knowledge and Australian Heritage: Introductory Book, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, QLD.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, Bringing them home: report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, HREOC, Sydney.

Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge, Impacts of Law Post 1905, South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council [online] Accessed: 23 September 2013,< http://www.noongarculture.org.au/impacts-of-law-post-1905/>

Kanyini, 2006, Documentary Film, Reverb Film and Hopscotch Features, Directed by Melanie Hogan, Producer Bob Randall, Staring Bob Randall.

Price K., 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, An introduction for the teaching profession, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Vic.

Neill, R., 2002, White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Pilkington, D., 2002, Under the Wintamarra Tree, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, QLD.

Rabbit-Proof Fence 2002, Motion Picture, The Australian Film Commission, Directed by Phillip Noyce, Producer Christine Olsen, and starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan.

Randall, B., 2007, Kanyini: The four dimensions of aboriginal life, Resurgence and Ecologist Iss.243, July/August, [Online] Accessed: 22 September 2013, <http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article132-kanyini.html>

Read, P., 1981, The Stolen Generations. Australia: Department of Aboriginal Affairs, [online] Accessed: 22 September 2013 <http://www.daa.nsw.gov.au/publications/StolenGenerations.pdf&gt;.

Scott, K., Benang: From the Heart. North Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.

Sefa Dei, G., 2011, Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education: A Reader, Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, N.Y.

Appendix 1

The Question

The following question was put the Australian people:

Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution’ so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population?

Section 51, Part (xxv1): The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:-

The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws

Section 127: In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.

The referendum called on the omission of the two phrases (above, in bold) from the Constitution, thus granting indigenous Australians citizenship.

(Brennan, 2011)

Appendix 2

Apology Transcript


I move:

That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s