Australian “Stolen Generations”: Still Being Stolen

In early March, 10-year-old Ariana Mangolamara committed suicide in the Aboriginal community of Looma in Western Australia.  Her death wasn’t unique: she wasn’t the first in her community or even her family to commit suicide.  However, her story gripped international headlines and prompted a soul-searching analysis of why the plight of Australia’s indigenous peoples is worse than ever, despite formal political recognition and efforts to help.  Many of these efforts seem designed to destabilize Aboriginal communities through systematic neglect, the breaking of families through child removal and a callous disregard for culturally viable strategies.

The fact is that Australia has a staggering 15,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, making them nine times more likely to be removed from their homes than non-indigenous children.  By contrast the Stolen Generations, who were removed and forcibly assimilated into settler society from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, only claimed around 10,500 children.  Historically, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have been subjected to genocide and many groups have been completely destroyed, including the entire native population of Tasmania.  Activists have had good reason to advocate that the genocide continues through child removal and systematic neglect of indigenous communities.

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Students at one of the schools in Looma. (From the Guardian)

While the child’s safety is often a legitimate concern, lack of cultural sensitivity and outright racism also play a role.  Child removal is often the first action taken when a problem is discovered and families rarely receive other help or a chance to regain custody.  Radically different cultural practices in child-rearing are often misinterpreted as neglectful by western criteria. Indigenous Australians were among the most dehumanized and persecuted ethnic groups in the British Empire.  Open racism is still prevalent today, especially in rural areas where Aboriginal populations are most concentrated.  As late as the 1980’s, prominent Australians were on TV promoting mass sterilization of Aborigines who refused to be assimilated into mainstream society.

Although Ariana had been removed from her home, she was one of the 67% of children who were placed with relatives or in other Aboriginal homes.  The initiative to keep removed children as close to their family and culture as possible was spear-headed by Grandmothers Against Removals, an activist group made up of survivors of the Stolen Generations dedicated to keeping the current ‘stolen generation’ from happening.  Keeping removed children within context of their culture has been shown to improve their ability to recover from the trauma of dislocation, but their new communities often lack even basic mental health services.  Even though Ariana displayed symptoms of depression and it was known that her 12-year-old sister had committed suicide before she was removed, no professional help was given to her.  The remoteness and lack of infrastructure in many Aboriginal communities is a prime reason for the sharp rise in suicides among young people in the last 20 years.  Suicide rates have corresponded with the spike in child removals which has itself inhibited efforts to resolve prevalent social problems within indigenous communities.

A survey of Ariana’s community found that 17% of the men were convicted sex offenders.  Her father had been incarcerated for domestic assault on her mother.  Aboriginal women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalized for assault than non-Aboriginal women and 11 times more likely to be killed.  Alcohol and other chemical substitutes for hope ran rampant through her community.  Kids have been seen playing with nooses and heard talking about death and suicide, and there is no wonder that the adult suicide rate is 4 to 5 times higher than among non-Aborigines.  Despite lower rates of sexual abuse, Aboriginal children are twice as likely to contract an STD due to lack of access to healthcare.  Although Ariana found a safe home with relatives, the accumulated harm of years of abuse, neglect and universal despair was not adequately addressed.

These issues have not been completely ignored by the government, though.  After Prime Minister Kevin Rudd became the first leader to acknowledge and apologize to the Stolen Generation, he launched a “Closing the Gap” initiative in an effort to reduce inequality between Aboriginal and larger Australian populations.  Goals such as reducing infant mortality and increasing literacy are currently on track, but employment and life expectancy gaps remain wide.  A parallel “Close the Gap” public awareness campaign was launched by Aboriginal communities to voice their opinions and concerns on how the initiative should proceed. Despite this, cultural norms and differences between Aboriginal and Western societies have often been a hindrance to government initiatives.  Indigenous communities rarely have a stake in proposed programs and local leaders are often over-ruled or ignored.  A long and continuing trend of abuse and frustration have left many Aborigines mistrustful of government assistance.

Prejudice against native Australians remains strong, especially in the communities who have the closest and most direct impact on Aborigines.  The devastation of their lifestyles and communities are as likely to be viewed with contempt as compassion.  Until these attitudes are changed, efforts to “Close the Gap”, protect children and restore vitality to communities will continue to fall short.

Jamie Anderson is a senior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Global Studies. 

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