Article from the Guardian UK
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”.