Sorry for what

sorry day

Statue of the Grieving Mother, Colebrook Home memorial, Eden Hills SA. Photo taken by Karen Wyld

The twentieth national Sorry Day was held on the 26 May 2018. It’s now twenty-one years since the release of Bringing Them Home, the report and recommendations resulting from the National Inquiry into the Stolen Generations. Twenty-one years later, and just a handful of the fifty-four recommendations have been actioned.

Holding an annual day to commemorate the removal of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children was one of those recommendations. And so was an apology from the federal government for those forced removals. That apology occurred ten years ago. So what still needs to be said?

There are three untruths that are collectively told when it comes to systemic injustice: It was for their own good. There was a higher purpose in mind. We didn’t know.

These untruths are told about the removal of Aboriginal children to mask the wrongs of the not so distant past. And the present wrongs.

Removal of First Peoples’ children is a core step in the process of invade and conquer. The British invaded a lot of countries over a fairly short span of time. Most of these nations remain under the Commonwealth to this day. This nation-building on stolen lands was achieved with the labour of stolen peoples.

For most of the twentieth century, Aboriginal children were removed for a number of reasons. ‘For their own good’ was not one of them. Children were mostly removed to be trained, before being allocated to settler-colonisers as unpaid labour. The state formed race-based policies to control the children, and churches managed the institutions that held them captive.

I’ve listened to many survivors share their removal stories and have read enough primary documents to have no doubt at all that what occurred was not altruistic. Using dehumanised language, these documents clearly show the intent of policies and actions that controlled First Peoples. Real and perceived relationships, and even fertility, of Aboriginal women and girls is recorded as meticulously as farmers documenting the breeding of their stock.

A O Neville’s writings come to mind. The calculated way he controlled Aboriginal women and children’s lives. And his pseudo-scientific fascination with the ‘breeding out’ of Aboriginality. There was no good intent or higher purpose.

In official correspondence, Neville stated that my grandmother caused the government much embarrassment and expense when she twice escaped capture. So it was only a matter of time before the government came for her daughters. If I had not been born across the border, I may have had a similar fate.

Once removed, Aboriginal children were given a very basic education. The girls were trained to be domestics, and the boys as labourers. Some of these children were sent out to work on stations and in non-Indigenous peoples’ houses when barely adolescents. Those who benefited from their services often payed government authorities for this labour, or the church-run institutions where the children had previously been held.

Babies born as a result of white men’s abuse of power or rape whilst Aboriginal girls were in these forced-working arrangements were themselves institutionalised. Becoming part of this cycle of captured childhoods and fractured families.

Holding unsavoury truths, it’s hard to muster the energy to assist non-Indigenous Australians to gain a better understanding of Sorry Day. Twenty years of Sorry Days and the conversations have barely shifted. And, too often, white people will centre themselves. The healing becomes driven by their grappling with white guilt, discussions are in defence of the ‘good intent’ of the churches who participated in this injustice, and those that truly matter are pushed to the side.

But we, First Peoples, continue to wrap the ageing stolen children in love and understanding. We feel the pain of their parents’ empty arms. We acknowledged the hurt and anger of the children and grandchildren of the stolen generations. We work towards healing.

And still we are expected to make space for non-Indigenous people’s tears, their thoughts on ‘progress’, and uniformed opinions of why the children were taken. This takes a lot of energy and hope and forgiveness and restraint. It’s exhausting.

Myths are also exhausting. Such as the notion that this all occurred in the distant past. Children were still being removed to be used as a labour force until the late 1950s. Children were still being removed under overtly racist policies in the 1960s. The language changed by the 1980s, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being removed disproportionally.

Just as nearly every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person has family members who are part of the stolen generations, many Australians had contact with a stolen child. Did you grandparents have a child slave? Did your parents tell you stories about the children’s home at the end of the road, where all those black kids from the country lived? Did you have a child sleeping in your family’s back bedroom, who was not quite a sibling? Did you tease that ‘orphan’ at school, the one that did not look like you or your school mates?

Tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were removed, to be forever known as the stolen generations. They were held captive in full sight. People knew.

It was not for their own good. There was no higher purpose. Enough white people knew to collectively stop what was happening – they chose not to.

Sorry Day commemorates loss, and is a day where untruths are not welcomed.


Edited version of article published on Indigenous X, 26 May 2018.

What are we really celebrating?

Republished article. Original published on Indigenous X on 22 January, under the title of What kind of morality are they wanting us to celebrate on that day? as part of the Indigenous X Change The Date series. Support Indigenous media by becoming an Indigenous X patron on Patreon.

What are we really celebrating?


That Day was once Many Days, as each state held their foundation days at different times of the year. The cry for a national day on 26 January came from the Australian Natives’ [sic] Association. Being vocal supporters of the White Australia policy, this Association’s membership was exclusively Australian-born white men of European descent. Their vision was a nation of people that shared the same laws, politics, culture, and ancestry.

That Day was never meant to symbolise unity or fairness.

People have been critical of That Day since it was first proposed, because behind the current date is a story of conflict and shame.

That Day: Invasion Day, Survival Day, Day of Mourning, Australia Day. A public holiday. A day of bbqs, fun in the sun, overblown nationalism, sorrow, and a spreading uneasiness.

In the lead up to That Day many stories are told in the media, in homes and the public sphere. Some of these stories have drifted far from the truth. And little wonder, for this nation was also built on fiction. And, in the great Aussie tradition, yarns of nation-building become more fanciful with each telling.

That Day is the beginning of a story, but this Once Upon A Time is told from many points of view. For some, it is a boys’ own adventure, filled with explorers, new frontiers and strange hopping beasts. For others, it’s an epic tale of founding fathers planting a flag on the no-longer mythical Terra Australis Incognita, benevolently granting the natives ‘civilisation’ and a wrathful god.

And there are other versions of this story. Truths that many have tried to erase from both books and memories, and even the tongues of First Peoples. Accounts of invasion, waves of violence, loss and grief, and culturally-biased control – as well as resistance, self-determination, strength and survival.

This continent has always been a land of story. For over 60,000 years songlines have criss-crossed over the land, out to the sea, and up into the skies. The British invaders, and later settlers from all corners of the globe, brought with them their own stories. As colonisation spread out across this continent, new stories were etched into ancient grounds.

The first of the new stories were that of Invasions. Horrific stories of massacres, murder, torture, kidnapping, and rape. English invasion of this continent was not a one-off event as, over many decades, more than 500 territories were invaded.

Crops Sown in Blood is the next chapter. Again, more of the above violence, with the addition of using slaves to plant colonial roots on stolen lands. Both First Peoples from this continent and other oceanic nations were coerced, or kidnapped and forced, to work for the colonists.

Then came the stories of Cultural Genocide. As settler-colonisation took root, so did the drive to alter the social structures, lifeways and cultures of First Peoples. This chapter features expulsion from ancestral lands; segregation; forcible removal of children to be assimilated, often trained for servitude; the forced coercercion towards Christianity; incarceration on missions and in children’s’ homes, accompanied by bans on cultural practices, languages, and law.

And there were new peoples to exclude, control and oppress; migrants that had managed to evade the White Australia policy that enforced racially-biased immigration. In a settler-colonisation, some people are more equal than others.

The Great Forgetting is the part of the story in which we now find ourselves: government, media and white academia control the narrative and whitewash history.

Through putting social pressure on migrants and their descendants to assimilate, the settler-colonisation minimalises unrest. And if anyone questions the narrative, then they are divisive. Un-Australian. And are told to go back to where they come from.

Of course, First Peoples aren’t to go back to where they come from. No, we must move on. Forget 230 years of violence, loss & grief, theft, and inequities – just be quiet.

These are just some of the stories whitewashed by a public holiday on 26 January. And into these big stories are woven 24 million equally important stories. How we all came to be here influences how we see here.

My ancestors were colonists (English), settlers (Irish) and First Peoples (Martu). You could say that I embody a nation in conflict. I’ve reflected on the role that my non-Indigenous fore-bearers had in supporting a status quo that disadvantaged First Peoples. But the not too distant draconian and racially-biased actions of governments, and the culturally-biased paternalism of missionaries, have had a direct impact on my life. This connects me to the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors – white and blak.

Do I feel lucky to have been born here? Absolutely. Am I proud to be Australian. No. Not when the government, the opposition, and far too many citizens, show a lack of humanity towards First Peoples, refugees, and others who suffer the blows of inequity, bigotry and greed.

Stories, from songlines to colonial tales, the macro (nation) and the micro (individuals), are embed in the soil that we all call home. The story of That Day began in bloodshed and theft. It began with an invasion of Eora country, with the First Fleet planting a foreign nation’s flag on the lands of the Gadigal people.

The past cannot be changed but the next chapter is yet to be written. We can choose to unite these conflicting story-threads. We can choose to tell a story grounded in truth, justice, and a shared vision for the future.

That Day does not allow this process to happen.

Australia needs to collectively stop disrespecting a solemn day of memorial, and remove the public holiday from 26 January. And then change the day. Not just the date. Change the day to tell the real stories of Australia. If we cannot even manage to tell truthful stories, we cannot address the ongoing injustices caused by colonisation.  If we continue to give preference to a whitewashed history, then what are settler-colonists really celebrating every Australia Day, regardless of the date? Attempted conquest.


Terra Australis Cognitus

Hendrik Hondius Polus Antarcticus

Hendrik Hondius Polus Antarcticus

As usual for me, I’m already plotting and researching the next book, whilst still finishing the current manuscript. And, as usual for a writer drawn to magic realism as a socio-political storytelling device, it involves truth-telling of the macro (historical events, including injustices) through the micro (everyday life).

The next book comes from my fascination with the intersection of European superstition, religion and science during the 17 to 19th centuries, and the impact that has had on First Peoples (Australia). Focusing on the baggage that explorers, privateers and other pirates carried with them as they sailed the seas in search of fame, power and fortunes, I’ve delved back in to the history books.

Of course my envisioned fictional interpretation will include invasion, massacres, genocide, land/resource theft, and forced assimilation. It will look at the culturally biased reasoning behind these abhorrent actions. The foundations of systemic racism in Australia. In a way, this next story is an attempt to deconstruct racism and explore hope, through fiction as opposed to twitter rants.

Honestly, I am tired of talking about racism. I’d much rather we were at a stage of collective consciousness where it didn’t exist anymore. Or at least a critical mass working on mitigation of the harm racism causes. Instead, in Australia we are still having the ‘yes that is racist. And that. Can you at least listen? Urgh!’ conversation.

Delving in to Australian history, discussions about racism need to include facing up to theft. How can we talk about justice if we can’t talk about injustice? And as Australia was founded on a rolling-wave of robbery, then let’s talk about that.

In the seventeenth century, the legend of Terra Australis Incognita played on many a man’s imagination. The mythical unknown lands of the south were once thought to contain riches beyond belief, and perhaps a few scary monsters. The idea of Terra Australis came from a theory of balance – land mass/es of equal weight of those in the north must exist in the south.

Although scientific exploration was behind the searches for this unknown southern land, it was commerce that enabled the journeying. France, England, Portugal, Spain and Holland were all racing to find the best sources of spices, fabrics, wood, precious minerals, and more. And that meant finding the safest, most economical passages to these foreign lands. Wars were staged, pacts were made and unmade, unsavoury weather was endured, and new sea routes were opened. And still, the myth of Terra Australis Incognita existed.

Whilst it was England that first mapped the entire perimeter of the great southern land, documenting that it was indeed a separate continent, over a hundred years prior the Dutch were the first Europeans to set foot on this land. And the Spanish were the first Europeans to note that it was not connected to nearby land masses, such as New Guinea, as previously thought.

There were a few factors that stopped these other European nations from invading the territories of the First Peoples of the great southern land. And there was also the more ethical nations that came here to trade decades before the Europeans, such as the Makassans.

Of all the nations, it was the English who invaded, and set in place many decades of theft and violence. And they brought with them the seeds of systemic racism. Would things have been different if another European nation had ‘claimed’ this land? Probably not. Although, there is a slim possibility that they would have plundered the resources, and then left.

Terra Nullius was the lie that Australia was founded on. A culturally-biased belief that the land belonged to nobody. And this conclusion was reached by the English invaders’ believing that the First Peoples were not equal to them. In fact, they were not even seen as people. The earliest colonisers may have tried to justify their rationale with science, and even religion and economics, but at the very root of the violent occupation was racism.

And so the many decades of *Terra Furatus commenced. Theft of land. Which could not have occurred without Hominem Furatus. (attempted) theft of humanness. (*excuse the Latin via Google)

Racism is the denial of another’s humanness. This denial occurs on an individual basis (discrimination, antagonism, violence etc) and systemic (forced assimilation, inequitable services/treatment, police/custodial violence etc). Until systems of power (law, policing, governance, economics) and systems for people (education, health, commerce, social services) acknowledge inbuilt unconscious bias, then much needed societal change will be difficult to bring about.

The crimes of colonisation need to be acknowledged. The violence and theft need to be taught in schools and universities, and in workplaces/sectors. And this includes a more honest discourse on the world views of those who did the deeds – the explorers, the privateers, the missionaries, the pastoralists, the mavericks, the scientists, the politicians, the ‘heroes’ of history. Even if that is uncomfortable for those who now reside on stolen lands. There can be no justice until the past is acknowledged. And myths are debunked.

There was never a Terra Australis Incognita. It was just a myth that led to invasion and centuries of ongoing settler colonisation. To the First Peoples who’d been living on the great southern lands for 80,000 years, and to their neighbouring nations across the seas, this land was Cognitus > known. What was unknown before the arrival of Europeans was racism. And the many injustices that have racism at their core.

Justice is the logical next step. And justice can take many forms – treaty/ies, truth-telling, land rights, retribution, repatriation, plus more. But justice won’t be possible until the widespread unconscious bias is no longer denied, and the harmful impacts of racism are addressed.

The past can show us the way forward. Researching history leaves me in awe of the courage and achievements of those long dead. Imagine what future generations can achieve if we, the present, are committed to being brave, truthful, and empathetic. Many nations around the globe seem to be in a dark age, but I still have hope.

Illustration: Hendrik Hondius’s plate. Originally published in 1637. Above version is from Jansson’s Grooten Atlas, showing Tasman’s explorations of the western coastline of New Holland, ‘Nova Hollandia detect Anno 1644’, the southern tip of Van Dieman’s Land and an edge of New Zealand. Source: State Library NSW – 

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Did you hear….?

Did you hear the news?

They found…
A pile of discarded clothes.
An old drunk.
A crumpled bird.
A boy.

Did you hear he took….
A bike.
A pack of smokes.
A jumbuck.
An orange.

They hunted him down….
In a ute.
On horseback.
On foot.
On Facebook.

He was killed…
In revenge.
By accident.
In blind-rage.
With hate.

Its his fault…
He shouldn’t have stolen.
He shouldn’t play hookey.
He shouldn’t be black.
He shouldn’t be.

They arrested…
Your neighbour.
Your friend.
Your father.
Your son.

The boy’s family is…
His family is grieving.