What was Australia's Stolen Generation?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, there.

Candace Gibson: Jane, when you think of the Outback, what comes to mind?

Jane McGrath: Crocodile Dundee.

Candace Gibson: Oh, very nice. Very nice! I think of koalas and kangaroos, mostly animals.

Jane McGrath: Boomerangs. Duggery do's!

Candace Gibson: Oh, love those. And funny sidebar to that, those are actually created in this multistep process. And the first, is finding a piece of wood that's been hollowed out by termites.

Jane McGrath: That's crazy.

Candace Gibson: I know. Not quite like making an electric guitar, but similar nonetheless.

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: So the Outback, I think, is a pretty picturesque place in many of our minds - or at least it's one that keynotes and adventure, fun, and merriment. Australia seems, on the whole, like a very merry sort of place.

Jane McGrath: Sure. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: It's sunny. There's water. Nicole Kidman came from there and she's pleasant.

Jane McGrath: Steve Irwin.

Candace Gibson: Oh, yeah. That's kind of sad, now. But as picturesque as we may envision the Outback, Australia has a pretty sad history.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it all comes down to the people who were there before the European settlers.

Candace Gibson: And we're talking about the Aborigines, of course, who got to the Australian continent somewhere between about 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. And then British, by contrast, came in 1768.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And the Aborigines were an interesting anomaly. They were isolated from any other major civilization for so long. They were actually still hunters and gatherers when the Europeans arrived. And they hadn't perfected any sort of farming technique or anything like that. And they were attached to the land in both religious and sustenance ways. And they had a similar sense of property that American Indians, if you're familiar with that. They didn't have the same sense that Europeans did, basically. And that made it easier for Europeans to come in and push them out of the way.

Candace Gibson: Right. And you mentioned their connection to the land being a spiritual one. And that's very true because their creation myths tie them very strongly to the land, because they see divinity in natural aspects of the land and the landscape. And so when the Europeans came and essentially pushed them away, it was an insult not only to their spirituality, but also to their way of life. Because, as hunter-gatherers, if they were forced into areas of the land that didn't offer any sustenance, there wasn't much that they could do! Because they had no farming knowledge!

Jane McGrath: Right. And they had their own ways of gathering. And if they were pushed into a new area, they weren't sure where to go to get the best sustenance.

Candace Gibson: And you mentioned that there were a lot of connections between what happened with the Native Americans in the United States and what happened with the British and the Aborigines. And you're absolutely right, because if you recall, when the Native Americans were introduced to diseases that American settlers had, that could be innocuous to us - could wipe out a third of their population. The same thing happened there.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And Aborigines would get smallpox and tuberculosis and things like that. So both the starvation that was going on and these diseases, it really impacted the population of Aborigines.

Candace Gibson: Severely. Even around 2006, after the Aborigine culture had started to come back and be restored on the Australian continent, I think they estimated that only about two percent of the population was made up of Aborigines.

Jane McGrath: It's staggering, yeah.

Candace Gibson: Which is staggering and sadly ironic considering that they were the ones that were there in the first place? But if we get back to when Australia was - I guess, if you want to use the word discovered, you could - by James Cook - that was 1768. And he called it New South Wales. And he was there for instant, he saw it, and then he moved on. And this is the same guy who would go on to explore Polynesia, and he was the one who also found Easter Island. So he was down in this part of the world. And it was very much about entitlement and being territorial. He saw this land, he staked it out, but then no one visited for a couple of generations after that. They had no reason to be there.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And the English actually didn't have any need for it until a little bit later when they - in the past they had been sending their debtors, their prisoners, over to the American Colonies. And as we all know, in 1776, the American Colonies were declared independent. And they didn't want to take any more of the English debtors, understandably. So England had all these prisoners and they wanted to send them someplace. So they're like, "Well, Australia's there. Let's just send them over there."

Candace Gibson: And it was a long voyage, but it filled that purpose. But it's kind of sad that prisoners would trump any claims to land that the native Aborigines had, but that's exactly how it played out. And so the Aborigine's who were in the way were beaten or killed or -

Jane McGrath: Put into slavery.

Candace Gibson: - put into slavery. And the women were sometimes made sex slaves. So we see the population beginning to really really dwindle. And those who did survive were, I think, at a higher likelihood to become alcoholics or to be depressed or to engage in criminal activity. And this continued well until the 20th century.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And the Australian government at this time, saw these risks that the Aborigines were encountering and they were like, "We should help out. We should make them so they have a better upbringing." And so that's when they instituted these laws that basically legalized the stealing of Aboriginal children from their families.

Candace Gibson: And this took place from about 1910-1970. It affected nearly 100,000 children. And again, this wasn't under one prime minister's administration. Or it wasn't just one person who masterminded the plan. It continued through several generations. And I think there was sincerely a benevolent idea. These people wanted to keep the Aborigines alive, but they didn't want to do it by preserving their culture. They wanted to do it by taking the Aboriginal children.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And there was a sense of eugenics, I guess, behind it as well. They wanted to breed out the Aboriginal color from them.

Candace Gibson: Right. Precisely! They wanted to assimilate them into white non-indigenous Australian culture. And they did this in a number of underhanded ways. And no matter if you thought it was a benevolent plan, the manner in which it was executed was certainly not benevolent at all. They would kidnap children. They would have parents sign them away. They would give them forms and feign that they were for -

Jane McGrath: Vaccinations, I believe.

Candace Gibson: Thank you. Vaccinations! And in reality, the Aboriginal parent was signing away custody of his/her child.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And sometimes when k ids were sent to hospitals, they would leave them there and then the Australian government would legalize taking the children from there and telling the parents that the child had died.

Candace Gibson: And that's what's the most tragic is that these families underwent massive grief, thinking they had lost their children.

Jane McGrath: And likewise, the children were sometimes told that they were orphans.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. Which had to hurt, too? Think about being an Aboriginal child growing up in an all white family or one of these orphanages, and knowing how different you are from everyone else.

Jane McGrath: And being treated, often, very differently.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. A lot of them were subject to molestation or they were ridiculed or they were abused in other ways. It was a very stark difference between the Aboriginal children and the white children, because as Jane mentioned before, the Aborigines had evolved in isolation. So they all had very specific facial features and skin colorations. So a lot of the accounts today - I think that some of the Aborigines say that on the basis of their appearance, they were made to feel inferior and ostracized in social and academic settings.

Jane McGrath: And this went on for so long throughout the 20th century, even while the American civil rights movement was going on. And could you say, Candace, that the American civil rights movement instigated the reform in Australia?

Candace Gibson: Yeah. That's an absolute fact. And while we may think of Australia being an ocean away, it actually ideologically was very closely tied to the American civil rights movement. And that was used as a model for the Aborigines to reclaim their land and reclaim their rights. And they did. They got their voting rights and permission to be included in the Australian census, which may not sound like a big deal but it was because it meant they were marked as Australian citizens. And they hadn't been before.

Jane McGrath: They finally had gotten equality.

Candace Gibson: And then in 1995, this investigation was launched into the members of the Stolen Generation, as these children were called. And in 1997, there was a report called Bringing Them Home, and it was sponsored by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. And they basically outlined about 50 different steps that the government could take to essentially make reparations for what happened to these members of the Stolen Generation.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And the government didn't really act on these immediately. Or at least there were problems with - even making an apology created a problem for the political leaders in Australia. Because once they did that, they felt that they were exposing themselves to lawsuits against the government.

Candace Gibson: And they had a reason to feel that way because one of the four steps that the commission outlined was compensation. The others were restitution, the rehabilitation of the wronged parties, and a guarantee against future violations. And so the prime minister back then was John Howard, and he was very adamant in insisting that there would be no apology on the grounds that the movement may be seen today as culturally irresponsible, but back then it was genuinely done as a benevolent thing to save the aboriginal population.

Jane McGrath: That's right. They had good intentions, which you can argue. But it goes to show where good intentions can bring you sometimes.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. But there was an apology issued by the new prime minister - that's Kevin Rudd. And that wasn't too long ago - February 13th, 2008.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And in the meantime, actually, there haven't been many reparations made to any member of the Stolen Generation, except for one successful lawsuit in the late '90s.

Candace Gibson: And that was a man named Bruce Trevorrow. Essentially, he was a 13 months old when his mother took him to a hospital on Christmas Day for stomach pains. And he was kept, and the mother was told that either he had died or he couldn't be given back to her. And she managed to keep her other children, and they were raised in the Aboriginal culture. And she went several times back to the hospital to pursue Bruce and his whereabouts. And because there was such an intense paper trail between her requests for permission to see him and for her search him - and because Bruce's siblings had grown up and hadn't succumbed to a life of alcoholism or cri me, which were some of the popular claims against the aborigines - he was able to wage a successful case against the government.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And he won.

Candace Gibson: He did, the amount of, I think, $447,000 U.S. dollars - which may seem like a small fee for all that he endured, but it's something. And it is, to this day, the only reparation that has been made - except in Tasmania. Tasmania does have a fund for reparations.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And there's actually other lawsuits related - through the '70s, there were laws passed where Aborigines could reclaim land that had belonged to their ancestors. But this actually came to be a problem, a conflict with their religion. Because in order to show that their ancestors were there, they would have to tell their history, which meant revealing some secrets about their religion - which is very tied with their history? And this was wrong according to their religion because the secrets were supposed to be kept from the outsiders.

Candace Gibson: And so it came down to a matter of revealing that sacred part of their lives to a modern society that would understand or giving the land back, and it's still a pretty heated debate and a very charged climate right now. So we'll have to keep our eyes and ears on the news for what happens with other possible reparations for members of the Stolen Generation. But if you want to read more about the Stolen Generation and other aspects of Aboriginal culture, be sure to visit howstuffworks.com.

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