Australia’s Stolen Children: And the Aesthetics of Political Apology

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 Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation’s history… For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry…”  (Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, February 2008)

Wow!  Just like that…  Poof! Done… Game over!  Let’s move on…  Another magic wand waved within the arena of political apologies, intent on erasing centuries of cruelty, hurt and shame inflicted on more darker-skinned people in the world, indigenous to a section of the earth even before the trees began to sprout.  I thought about this particular expression of regret, as the swirling hoopla of famed Oprah Winfrey’s recent trip, to the Southern Hemisphere, began spiraling toward a crescendo of international excitement and bliss.

In the process, I wondered if anyone really cared about the original owners of this excitingly beautiful land or the years of a vile snuffing out of the unique Australian Aboriginal culture.  Some historians say it was “genocide”the systematic destruction of an ethnic or racial group– but, politicians say that’s politically incorrect.  Instead, they say, it was part of a process of national healing, in order for their society to move forward.  The way I see it, it is what it is… a bumbling attempt to sooth the guilt-filled soul from past atrocities and mangled opportunity costs associated with the cultural rape of fellow human pursuits— within a culture, perhaps, not as refined, weaponized or assertive as the swarming European invaders, but an enlightened civilization, just the same.  Of course, this is not some clinical analysis.  It’s just an opinion from a mere mortal who simply believes we’re all still some part “cousin” within the all-seeing eye and grand design of God.

The term “stolen children” (or “stolen generation”), according to historians, directly refers to a process whereby the Australian government and church missions systematically and “legally” removed Australian Aboriginal children from their families within the 100 year period following 1869. This includes the Torres Strait Islanders, in northeastern Australia, culturally linked to nearby New Guinea.

Depending on who you listen to, the reasoning behind this removal project was for “child protection,” in order to minimize the neglect and abuse of mixed-race children; or, stemmed from the belief that the Aboriginal population would be unable to take care of or sustain itself, following contact with the white invaders; or, came from the fear of race mixing through sexual contact and/or marriage; or, was due to the faulty idea that Europeans were intellectually superior to the Aborigine bush people—similar to the arguments voiced within the violent takeover of other cultures throughout the history of the world.

As with the trans-Atlantic importation of black slaves to the United States, new hierarchal terms for Australian racial divisions of black and white ancestry crept onto the stage, like mulatto (1/2 black, 1/2 white),  quadroons (1/4 black), octoroons (1/8 black) , quintroon or hexadecaroon (1/16 black), crossbreeds, half-castes, and the list goes on.  Yet, like the missing pages of history in the United States, this footnote to the ugliness of eugenics remains an important part of the hushed national psyche and whispered conversations concerned with how the leading nations of the world, privately or publicly, toyed with various ideas of genetic engineering and bioethical assertions.  Surely, the idea alone raises certain issues of doubt, mistrust and disbelief; but, so does the issue of the selection process for the classroom history books of the world, in my opinion.

On the other hand, in more humane reflections, during the World Wars I and II, Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Aussies, the politicians and their fierce combat forces, have always been there for America.  Yet, undeniably, institutional racism remains a part of the psychological landscape for both countries.  No matter where it flourishes, this systemic bigotry has robbed the world of untold opportunities.  Indigenous simply means living in or from a particular region, not ignorant or unworthy.  And, the clumsy politics behind the invading armies of the world have often been effective in not just conquering a people but systematically hijacking cultural contributions the world may never know or benefit from.  As with many indigenous groups, invaders often brought in horrific diseases and plagues which swiped the slate clean of any further cultural development.

Who knows what additional contributions to medicine might have come from the Australian Aborigine.  According to historians, traditional Aboriginal culture and bush medicine was nearly wiped out over a century ago. Centuries of untold experiences in the bush had taught them to use a range of effective herbal remedies, coupled with the use of steam baths, animal products, massages, charcoal, mud and clay pits.  European colonists observed and documented the healing effect of certain bush remedies through associated chemical or physical actions, especially the therapeutic effect of certain aromatic herbs and tree bark resins.  Anthropologists launched many studies to record the remnants of Aboriginal medical knowledge (“Aboriginal Pharmacopoeia,” by Ella Stack; 3rd Lecture at the State Reference Library of the Northern Territory, 05/04/1988, on food, medicine, Ethno-botany and Pharmacopoeias, pub. Darwin: Northern Territory Library Service, 1989).  And, the jury is still out on the Aborigine spiritual doctor’s connection with the earth’s magnetic fields and universal wisdom.

As for the televised parliamentary-session apology, by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, there was a standing ovation, along with “… cheers from the thousands of Australians watching outside” (British Broadcasting Company News, 02/13/2008). But, that was just for Australia.

There have been public apologies for slavery in the United States and Britain, as well.  In 2006, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that he was sorry for the triangular slave trade where West African tribal leaders sold blacks from rival tribes to whites who transported them to the Western Hemisphere and America (BBC News, 12/27/2006).  He said, “It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time… we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition- but… express our deep sorrow that it could ever have happened and rejoice at the better times we live today.”

In 2008, in the United States, the federal government’s House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for slavery and the era of Old Jim Crow, in a nonbinding voice vote, introduced by a white lawmaker, Rep. Steve Cohen, from a majority black district in Memphis, Tennessee (CNN, 07/29/2008).  It said, “African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow- long after both systems were formerly abolished- through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity.”

On December 19, 2009, President Barack Obama finally signed into law the congressional resolution introduced on May 6, 2004 (U.S. / S.J. Res 37). It was an apology to Native Americans, “To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States…”

At least, it acknowledged they were here, first, I thought.  But, I felt nothing when I heard the apology for American slavery.  Instead, I thought, Hey… when can I respond? But are you prepared for the conversation? Then, I thought about all of the “stolen children” of other cultures in the world, and the anger and resentment buried deep within the centuries of psychological scarring– forgiven, but not forgotten.

And, I mumbled what I might have said, given the proper opportunity… Save the drama and doggone political apologies.  Just keep working on your innermost self.  Recognize and affirm where you are from within—without the patronizing, paternalistic musings.  Political apologies are for the politician.  Those you truly love, and love you back, will know when it’s for real– in my humble opinion.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Are political apologies effective, meaningful or overdone?

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

(NOTE: Originally Posted by: Backstreet Djeli, at www.rizingcubenterrprises.com, on 01/28/2011)

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.