The Stolen Generations are the Noongar and other Aboriginal children who, over one and a half centuries, were taken away from their families and placed in institutions and missions. Most often it was the lighter skinned children who were taken to be assimilated into white society. Sometimes children were on their way home from school or visiting their siblings when they were taken.
History of the Stolen Generations
The first recorded removal of a Noongar child in the Swan River Colony was in 1833. Lt. Governor Irwin wrote to his superiors in London after the execution of Noongar Elder, Midgegooroo. Irwin writes in relation to Midgegooroo’s eight-year-old son, Billy. ‘The Child has been kept in ignorance of his father’s fate and it is my present intention to retain him in confinement and by kind treatment I am in hopes from his tender age, he may be [accustomed] to civilised habits, as to make it improbable he would revert to a barbarous life when grown up.’[i] The systematic removal of Aboriginal children was set in place with the increase of missions and the introduction of the 1905 Act. Many children were also removed from their families before this period.
Four months later, after repeated requests, he was returned to his mother. Billy’s removal was not legal, but like other cases in the early years of colonialism, little was done to stop it. The impact of colonisation on Noongar children began early on with the violent conflict between Noongar and Europeans over land, laws, and vast differences in culture and perspective. Over the next one and a half centuries, successive generations of European settlers sought to impose European values and behaviour on the Aboriginal population. They did so with the deliberate and calculated removal of Noongar and other Indigenous children from their families. The children were confined in government and church-sponsored institutions, where they were to be re-educated and Christianised.
With the arrival of the Christian missions came the first systemic removal of Noongar children.[ii] From the point of view of the missionaries, their work was to ‘save the souls’ of the Aboriginal race. For Noongar it meant fear of police and cars carrying officers from the Welfare Department.
Doolan Leisha Eatts recalls her time at the Badjaling Mission:
[A]t the Badjaling Mission, you know everyone was camped along. We were camped right up at the sand plain, up the top there. And when the car comes in down the bottom, come in like that, well the bottom camp they all had a young fella who was trained to whistle long and sharp for danger if there was a car coming in. And so young fella would give this long sharp whistle and it be carried on with every young fella in the family too, and it would get up to the camp where we were. And of course all the kids used to run and ‘ide.
Doolan Leisha Eatts, oral history, SWALSC, 2008
Legal removal of Indigenous Children
The first law in Western Australia to officially sanction the removal of children was the Industrial Schools Act of 1874. It stated that, ‘any Indigenous child “surrendered” to an institution could be detained there without parental consent, or contracted to employment after the age of 12 until the child reached 21 years’.[iii]
Aborigines Act, 1905
The Aborigines Act, 1905 gave the government even further control over Noongar lives. For the first time, provisions of the Act incorporated an assessment of ‘behaviour’ to determine whether an individual should be defined as Aboriginal or not. It recognized the Chief Protector of Aborigines as the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child. More consequential was his power to remove any child born of ‘half-caste’ or Aboriginal mother to a home or mission.
The number of missions and settlements in Western Australia exploded from six in 1905, to 24 in 1915, when A.O. Neville became the Chief Protector of Aborigines.[iv] Neville was a strong advocate of assimilation and thought children of mixed descent should be absorbed, racially and culturally, into the general population. His tenure was characterised by a sharp increase in the number of our Noongar children being taken from their families.
Sister Kate’s Quarter Caste Home
A definitive moment in the execution of assimilation policy in Western Australia was the establishment of Sister Kate’s Home for “quarter caste” children in 1933 (located in East Perth). Children who were ‘almost white’ were targeted for removal and brought to Sister Kate’s because they were thought to have the best chances of assimilating successfully into the European population. Noongar parents were strongly discouraged and even prevented from visiting their children. These Noongar children were often not told that they had living relatives or that they were Aboriginal at all.[v]
After the Second World War, Australia was signatory in 1948 to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, but this did not put an end to the abuse of Indigenous human rights, and certainly did not put an end to the removal of children. The government now insisted that Aboriginal people live in the same way and to the same material standards as other Australians, and punished us if we failed to do so by targeting our children for removal. As a result, Noongar families were intensely monitored by government departments.[vi]
By the early 1950s, compulsory removal of children could only occur if the Child Welfare Department could prove child neglect or delinquency, warranting removal through the courts.[vii] However, the Child Welfare Department and the courts were prone to interpret the different cultural practices of Aboriginal child-rearing as neglect.
Noongar people have a different and broader definition of family than Europeans. For us, it is normal for our children to be looked after by grandparents, aunties and uncles. Child Welfare officers often saw this as parents having ‘abandoned’ their child for others to look after.
One of the most shocking aspects of child removal in this period is that Aboriginal people were having children taken away essentially for being poor. Welfare officers would visit our homes without notice, and decide to remove our children based on the most trivial detail. An extract from a welfare officer’s report in 1968 shows just how immediate and callous those assessments could be:
A thorough examination was not made as the father was not present. From what I saw however, I am satisfied that the children are ‘neglected’, if for no other reason than the shack they live in.[viii]
1950s – 1970s
The period of the 1950s to the 1970s was characterised by an increase in the number of Aboriginal children placed in missions, and a renewed commitment of governments to the task of assimilation. More effort than ever was expended on severing the connection between Noongar children and their parents, with children being deliberately sent to missions far away from their traditional country (to discourage runaways), and for the first time, the encouragement of fostering and adoptions of Aboriginal children by non-Aboriginal families.
Stories of resistance and survival
Alongside the many stories of the devastating effects of removal on both Noongar children and parents, there are stories of resistance and survival. In the face of overwhelming odds, when our culture and way of life was under direct attack, Noongar families found ways of subverting the welfare officers and the missionaries and keeping our culture alive:
One of the most common ways of resisting removal was children running away from the places they were taken to. Despite very harsh punishments for ‘absconding’, such as whipping and imprisonment, Noongar children continued to run away repeatedly.
The children in missions, especially the older children, found solidarity in developing a culture of rebellion and resistance. A letter from Noongar girls at Moore River in 1934 to Moseley Royal Commission states:
Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so that when the police came they could only see black children in the distance.
From a woman who was ultimately surrendered to the Mt. Margaret Mission for schooling in the 1930s,
in Haebich and Delroy, The Stolen Generations, p.37
Sometimes more direct strategies of resistance were successful. In one case, Noongar men who returned from fighting in the Second World War to find their children had been removed marched straight to the Superintendent’s office with their army issue rifles and demanded their children back at gunpoint.[ix]
We have promised Mr. Kitson that we’d never run away. But we’re sorry we have broken our promise to him. The reason why because the Matron is always slinging off at us and when we try to speak for our rights Mr Neal turn around and give us a hiding… she wonder why we run away and is her driving us away.
in Haebich and Delroy, The Stolen Generations, p.37
Many stolen children were told that their parents were dead, or did not want them, leaving them with feelings of abandonment and worthlessness. For these Noongar people, access to the documentation of their removal has been of great comfort.[x]
Bringing Them Home Report
Between 1995 and 1997 there was an inquiry which looked into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The Bringing Them Home Report handed their findings to the Federal Government on May 26, 1997, which led to Sorry Day, one year later. The report found that from 1910 to 1970, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their families was between one in three and one in ten children.
Many children grew up not knowing they were Noongar. Many, too, resisted the authorities who came to remove children – they blackened themselves with charcoal or like Aunty Doolann Leisha Eatts, their mothers hid them in a hessian bag.
Doolann Leisha Eatts
Aunty Doolan Leisha talks about Noongar people working together to protect children from being removed.
At the Badjaling Mission, you know everyone was camped along. We were camped right up at the sand plain, up the top there. And when the car comes in down the bottom, come in like that, well the bottom camp they all had a young fella who was trained to whistle long and sharp for danger if there was a car coming in. And so young fella would give this long sharp whistle and it be carried on with every young fella in the family too, and it would get up to the camp where we were. And of course all the kids used to run and ‘ide. But because I was small, I was only three and a ‘alf and my mum and dad put me in the hessian bags. And the hessian bags was the lining in the camp. My dad used to work for the farmers at least they used to give ‘im lots of bags. And it was good, the bags were good because they lined all the camp inside, the tins with the hessian bags. And in the winter time mum used to sew the bags together as doonas for us and we used to sleep warm with them because we ‘ardly ‘ad any blankets. The welfare came to take me. I was gone home. They came out to Badjaling to get me. And anyway they came up there and they asked my mum and dad for me. And my mum and dad wouldn’t even answer ’em. They asked them where I was. They said, “We got the report on your daughter that she’s fair and she shows intelligence and we’d like to see ‘er.” And my mum and dad said, “No, we dunno where she is.” And ’cause I was standin’ in the hessian bags and you know, there could have been spiders but I’d rather face the spiders at that time than the Welfare. I used to stand there very still and you know they came into the camp lookin’ around for me, lookin’ everywhere for me. But they couldn’t see me. So they’d leave. But they came back again. Again and again.
From: Doolann Leisha Eatts, interview for South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, 17 January 2007
SWALSC followed cultural protocols to obtain permission to use this oral history on the Kaartdijin Noongar website.
It is also protected by copyright law and may only be used for private study, research, criticism or review. If you would like to use it for any other purpose, including publication, making copies or modifying it, please contact SWALSC at firstname.lastname@example.org or PO Box 585, Cannington, 6987.
Note: In some cases the written transcript has been edited with permission from the person interviewed and may differ slightly from the audio recording.
Permission to use this audio recording kindly granted by Elder Doolann Leisha Eatts
[i] A. Haebich & A. Delroy, The Stolen Generations: separation of aboriginal children from their families in Western Australia. Western Australian Museum, Perth, 1999, p.8
[ii] Haebich & Delroy, The Stolen Generations, p.10
[iii] D. Mellor and Haebich, A., (eds). Many voices: reflections on experiences of Indigenous child separation, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p.249
[iv] J. Carter, History of the Removal of Aboriginal Children from their Families in Western Australia 1829 to 1972. AAD contribution to the State submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission National Enquiry into Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Aboriginal Affairs Department, Perth, 1996, p.12
[v] Carter, History of the Removal of Aboriginal Children from their Families in Western Australia 1829 to 1972, p.16
[vi] Haebich & Delroy, The Stolen Generations, p.46
[vii] Haebich & Delroy, The Stolen Generations, p.45
[viii] Haebich & Delroy, The Stolen Generations, p.46
[ix] A. Haebich, Broken Circles: fragmenting Indigenous families 1800-2000, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2000, p.288
[x] D. Mellor and Haebich, A., (eds). Many voices: reflections on experiences of Indigenous child separation, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p. 50