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Making Amends

Australians have been courageously uncovering the wounds of a past marked by discrimination and sharp racial divides. This summer, an event aimed at healing those wounds brought Aboriginal Australians and their non-indigenous counterparts to a new level of understanding.

Two years ago, an Australian national enquiry presented its report to the government on a tragic episode in Australian history—the forced removal of part-Aboriginal children from their families. This practice had gone on for 150 years into the 1970s with the aim of assimilating Aborigines into western culture.

Most nonnative Australians had been taught to consider this policy an altruistic one and were shocked by the report. Bringing Them Home described in heartbreaking detail the harm the practice had caused to parents and children. The policy's underlying motive, according to the report, had been to hasten the demise of Aboriginal culture.

The government received the report with little enthusiasm. But the reaction in Australian communities was very different. According to the Associated Press correspondent in Canberra, it was the biggest news story of the year. Soul-searching discussion went on for months, culminating in a national Sorry Day when hundreds of thousands apologized to the “stolen generations”—as they have become known. (See “Aussie Apology,” YES! Fall 1998.)

This massive expression of community empathy deeply touched many who suffered as a result of the removal policies. One woman—who had been removed from her family and then had her children removed from her—said on national TV, “At last we are coming back into the family.” She had been reunited with her children some years ago, but few non-Aboriginal Australians understood the trauma she had endured. Sorry Day convinced her that understanding had dawned.

Many others of the stolen generations shared her sense of hope, and this year they decided to launch a Journey of Healing “for all who want to help the healing process among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.”

Events took place all over Australia. Many suburbs, towns, and rural centers organized their own celebrations, and in the cities, hundreds took part in colorful processions. In Adelaide, over 1,000 people walked to forgotten places such as the site of Piltawodli, an Aboriginal school opened by German missionaries in 1839. School children sang there in the local Aboriginal language, perhaps for the first time since 1845, when troops demolished the buildings and the children were moved to an all-English school that banned their language.

1998's Sorry Day was exhilarating for many of the stolen generations, but it was painful for those foster parents who had cared sincerely for their foster children, only to be seen later as naive accomplices in a shameful practice. Therefore, this year, the Journey focused on them as well as the Aboriginal families. A major newspaper carried the story of a White couple who had adopted two Aboriginal boys and were dumbfounded when the boys, in their late teens, decided to find their Aboriginal family. The meeting between the adoptive parents and the Aboriginal family started an emotional storm on all sides. But 10 years later, the two families are close friends. That is an unusual story, but it suggests that the ashes of tragedy could yet kindle a flame of hope.

If healing is in fact to follow from this national soul searching, there is much to be done. Health and social statistics show that many Aboriginal people are still alienated and in despair. Most of the reparation measures recommended by Bringing Them Home have yet to be implemented. For example, the Aboriginal organizations that link up separated families are still waiting for most of the increased funding they have been promised. But Aboriginal leaders say that since Sorry Day, they have noticed an increased respect for Aboriginal people among the wider community.

Perhaps this is due particularly to the stolen generations, who have continually kept the focus on healing rather than blame. At the Journey's launch in the Great Hall of Parliament in Canberra, a thousand voices joined in the theme song, written by two Aboriginal people who have suffered from the removal policies:

Come join the journey,
Journey of Healing
Let the spirit guide us, hand in hand
Let's walk together into the future
The time has come to make a stand.
Let's heal our hearts, let's heal our pain,
And bring the stolen children home again
For our native children to trust again
We must take this journey together as friends.


John Bond is a freelance writer from Canberra, Australia.

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