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The Sydney Morning Herald

Stolen lives

Author: DEBRA JOPSON
Date: 23/05/1997
Words: 1362
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Page: 38
Heart-wrenching stories of mistreatment mark a report on Australia's "genocide" that the Government has been reluctant to reveal, reports DEBRA JOPSON .

"MUM remembered once a girl who did not move too quick. She was tied to the old bell post and belted continuously. She died that night, still tied to the post. No girl ever knew what happened to her body or where she was buried."

Auschwitz? Belsen? Dachau? No, Cootamundra.

The words are those of "Jennifer", who was among 535 indigenous people who gave evidence to the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families during 11 months of gruelling hearings.

"Jennifer" and her mother before her, were just two of hundreds of Aboriginal girls taken from their families and placed in Cootamundra Girls' Home, one of a score of institutions in which the "stolen generations" were placed.

The words of some of the survivors of these institutions have been distilled in the Human Rights Commission report the Federal Government has been afraid to table - Bringing them Home.

Almost one in five of these witnesses reported that they were physically abused there. About one in 10 said they had been sexually assaulted.

"Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia," says the report.

It was common "simply to remove the child forcibly, often in the absence of the parent but sometimes even by taking the child from the mother's arms".

"Training" institutions like that at Cootamundra were designed to ready girls for domestic work, providing cheap servants doing exhausting work thought to "curb the sexual promiscuity attributed to them by non-indigenous people".

Jennifer's mother was taken to Cootamundra in about 1915; Jennifer and her sister Kate in 1952. The home closed just 28 years ago.

"Some of the staff were cruel to the girls. Punishment was caning or belting and being locked in the box-room or the old morgue," Jennifer recalled.

"Matron had her 'pets' and so did some of the staff. I look back now and see we were all herded together like sheep and each had to defend themselves and if you didn't you would be picked on by somebody that didn't like you; your life would be made a misery.

"My mother sent us a new outfit every change of season. We only received one parcel. The matron kept our clothes and distributed them to her pets. In winter it was icy cold and for the first time in my life I didn't have socks to wear to school."

She can't see why they were taken from home. "We were not neglected. We wore nice clothes. We were not starving. Our father worked hard and provided for us and we came from a very close and loving family."

Jennifer's story is part of a broader picture - of a society which from the 1890s to the late 1960s through its Federal and State governments had policies designed to erase Aboriginality. The report calls this genocide.

"In institutions and in foster care and adoptive families, the forcibly removed children's Aboriginality was typically either hidden and denied or denigrated," says the report.

"Their labour was often exploited. They were exposed to substandard living conditions and a poor and truncated education. They were vulnerable to brutality and abuse. Many experienced repeated sexual abuse." In NSW, children were sent to two other major homes, the United Aborigines Mission home at Bomaderry, on the South Coast, which received babies and young children, and Kinchela Boys' Home at Kempsey, in the north.

"The (Aborigines' Protection) Board regularly received complaints about the conditions in these institutions," said the report.

"Kinchela was a place where they thought you were animals ... it was just like a prison," said "John", taken as an infant to Bomaderry Children's Home and transferred aged 10 to Kinchela.

"If we answered an attendant back we were 'sent up the line'. Now I don't know if you can imagine 79 boys punching the hell out of you - just knuckling you. Even your brother, your cousin.

"They had to - if they didn't do it, they were sent up the line. When the boys who had broken ribs or broken noses - they'd have to pick you up and carry you right through to the last bloke." This happened "every day".

In 1935, the Aborigines Protection Board decided to tell Kinchela's manager not to tie boys to fences or trees, nor to use hosepipes or stockwhips on them, the report says.

But there was institutional cruelty of another kind. "The lack of funding for settlements, missions and institutions meant that people forced to move to these places were constantly hungry, denied basic facilities and medical treatment and as a result were likely to die prematurely," said the report.

One witness removed to Kinchela in 1950 aged nine recalled: "You know what we got to eat? Straw and buns. That was our tea ... Quite naturally you're going to pull the straw out and chuck it away. You do that and you get caned. You're supposed to eat it."

Lola McNaughton, a research case-worker with the Aboriginal "stolen generations" organisation Link-Up, recalls the notorious "box-room" at the Cootamundra home with no light or air, in which girls were locked at night as punishment.

She remembers one staff member as particularly cruel about Saturday morning floor-cleaning.

"We used to get on a mop and polish it up till we could see our little black faces on the floor and she said,'It's not shiny enough,' and threw a bucket of water on the floor and said,'Do it again'."

Her parents travelled from their hometown of Tingha in New England to south-western NSW to see their children.

"They got two miles away to the Cootamundra Showground and never made the rest of the journey." She never knew why.

According to the report: "In the pursuit of assimilation, Aboriginal parents were prevented by law from contacting their institutionalised children. It was an offence to try to communicate with any ward 'who is an inmate of such home' or to enter the home."

The girls supported each other and McNaughton considered her older sister, Alice, a "surrogate mother". Alice left the home when she was 18. "I was devastated by that because my 'mum' had left. I'd just turned 13 ... I never saw her again." Actor and businessman Burnum Burnum, now 62, recalls a worker at Kinchela who masturbated in front of the boys at night.

He recalled breaking a window at Kinchela accidentally. "... I had to take my trousers off and bend over a chair and have 10 lashings of a stockwhip, so I couldn't sit down for three months. The experience has been indelibly written on my spirit."

Yet, last year, Burnum Burnum met a white missionary from Bomaderry and he says their "reconciliation" in which she said sorry has brought him peace. He wants no monetary compensation - although he believes other victims should get it from non-government sources such as churches.

Apart from all governments "acknowledging" her pain, McNaughton wants very little, too. "I just think of all my relations who have passed away and no amount of money could compensate for that. (But) I'd like to be compensated to fix the little graveyard where my father and sister are buried. That's all."

SECRETS AND LIES

"PEOPLE used to say we could be sisters," said Jackie Bedford.

"We are so alike," said Carol Kendall. The two women finish each other's sentences. They share quick smiles and a dry sense of humour. Six years ago, when they first met, they became friends.

A year later, when Kendall was giving a talk on being a member of the "stolen generations" at the University of Western Sydney - where Bedford worked in the Aboriginal studies unit as a receptionist - the two realised how many relatives they had in common from the Bourke area.

Both were grand-daughters of the famous Aboriginal activist, Fred Maynard. Kendall, 46, had been taken from her mother at six weeks of age and adopted out to a non-Aboriginal family in Sydney where she grew up believing she was an only child. Bedford, 51, stayed with her mother.

"I don't know whether or not to open a can of worms with you," Kendall told Bedford. "Well, you can't leave me hanging like that. You have to tell me now." They were sisters, Kendall told her. For five years, the two have been "catching up." "We reckon we're up to about age 15 now," they joke.

Kendall, who is now an adviser-consultant to Link-Up, the indigenous organisation which reunites families fractured through policies of separation, points out that not knowing who your relations are can be dangerous.

"When I was 20, I came home with an Aboriginal boyfriend. It threw my family into turmoil because they didn't know if we were related. So that is how I found out I was Aboriginal. "I was 35 when I met my mum. I came to Link-Up and it was one of the hardest decisions I'd ever had to make because of my fear of rejection," she said. However, it was the "most wonderful experience". She does not want monetary reparation, declaring: "If I change one person's attitude to Aboriginal people, it's compensation for me."

She is sad that the descendants of Fred Maynard are still fighting for justice. He wrote to the NSW Premier in 1927 asking "that the family life of Aboriginal people shall be held sacred and free from invasion and interference and that the children shall be left in the control of their parents".

Said Kendall: "I want the Federal Government to acknowledge what's happened to us."

Jackie Bedford, 51.

Stayed with parents in Bourke.

Carol Kendall, 46.

Taken from mother at six weeks and adopted out.

1991 became friends.

1992 After chatting about relatives, they realise that they are

sisters.

"People used to say we could be sisters."

 
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