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Stolen Generations, a term coined by Australian historian Peter Read in 1981, refers to those Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were taken from their indigenous families and communities as children. In its widest interpretation, Stolen Generations might encompass all those indigenous children taken away from their communities since the earliest days of British settlement to the present day, but it is more generally understood to refer to the estimated 100,000 people taken forcibly under extraordinary government legislation targeting children of Aboriginal descent.
Such legislation was first enacted in the 1880s by the Victorian colonial parliament, as the key to its aim of concentrating “full-blood” Aboriginal people, presumed to be on the verge of extinction, on reserves, while forcing off those of mixed descent. Similar legislation was enacted around Australia by the six state governments after federation in 1901, enabling removal and indenturing of Aboriginal and mixed-descent children at the discretion of the authorities, without requiring parental consent or a court ruling. The national Commonwealth government, taking over administration of the Northern Territory in 1911, demonstrated its own commitment to indigenous child removal by introducing such legislation itself. These early policies were couched as “protection.” Introduced in response to Aboriginal land reservation in the southeastern states, child removal under this legislation peaked in the 1920s in accompaniment with a second dispossession as these reserved lands were revoked. Focusing disproportionately on girls, who were placed in private domestic service, the practice revealed an intent to “absorb” the Aboriginal population by removing their children to be brought up as “white.”
Authorities used the threat of child removal to ensure submission on the now government-controlled reserves, though the child of any person of Aboriginal descent could be taken. Where white settlement was sparser, child removal accompanied the expansion and consolidation of white control, alongside violent destruction of Aboriginal communities, and tended to target children of non-Aboriginal fathers to prevent the growth of a mixed-descent Aboriginal population. Institutions were established around Australia to hold removed children. Aboriginal organizations in the southeast protested, and attempted to raise wider awareness and support in the interwar period, with feminist and humanitarian organizations playing a role in campaigns against child removal.
An important conference of state and federal Aboriginal authorities held in 1937 partly in response to such criticisms prefigured a postwar shift to “assimilation.” The influx of non-British migrants from former enemy lands and a shift to cultural theories of race created a new emphasis on the social assimilation of Aboriginal people to an “Australian way of life,” even as Australia ratified an international treaty that defined forcible removal of children as a crime in international law in 1949. Boys were now taken in equal proportions to girls, and adoption to white families replaced the older systems of institutionalization and apprenticed labor. Though indigenous people might claim exemption from the provisions of government legislation, subject to proof one had assimilated by having cut ties with the broader indigenous community, a parent’s exemption certificate did not cover the children. Indigenous children continued to be arbitrarily removed on no other grounds than their race for decades, with repeal of such discriminatory legislation only starting in 1964, and continuing, slowly, until the last was removed in 1984. By that time, generations of indigenous children had been removed from their families and communities. While many would eventually return to the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, the effects of repeated dislocations, disruption, and trauma were immense, for individuals and for the diverse indigenous communities around Australia. The impact of child expropriation on indigenous Australia has been as devastating as that of land dispossession, if not more so.
Australia entered the millennium with the Stolen Generations at the forefront of political debate. The 1997 Report of a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children had found that the “actions were genocidal,” a number of civil cases had been fought and lost, and there were calls to make restitution a part of the process of national reconciliation. Approximately 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 2000 on Sorry Day, one of the largest public demonstrations in Australian history. State governments and other groups formally apologized to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Prime Minister John Howard controversially refused to apologize, arguing that an official apology might constitute liability for compensation claims. Though the term itself was fiercely contested, the history of the Stolen Generations nevertheless became part of the curricula in many schools.
- Haebich, Anna. 2000. Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families, 1800–2000. Perth, Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
- National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres
- Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Australia). 1997. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
- Mellor, Doreen, and Anna Haebich, eds. 2002. Many Voices: Reflections on Experiences of Indigenous Child Separation. Canberra: National Library of Australia.
- Read, Peter. 1999. A Rape of the Soul So Profound: The Return of the Stolen Generations. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
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