Saturday, August 29, 2009

American Storytelling & The Stolen Generations

Recently I’ve been exploring the world of genea-blogs, which isn’t too surprising, given that I’ve only just thrown my own hat into the ring, after having given it previous consideration, weighing up firstly whether I can afford the time required to make a descent fist of the matter. A genealogical blog is however a change of pace for me. Previously I’d always used my blog as a form of personal diary, a means to let off some steam, or entertain myself, rather than writing in the hope of gaining the attention of others. The change in direction has been well worth it though.

Seeing what other genealogy researchers have to offer, be it as pure research, statistics, stories, advice or any number of combinations of those and more factors, is both an eye opening privilege and an enjoyable adventure. In exploring the genea-blogopshere I’ve recently come across one of the finest examples in the genre, maintained by George Geder.

George Geder's blog is first and foremost a well researched genealogical record, but beyond that it is a fantastic collection of well written and thoughtful stories. Each family tale invites the reader into a welcoming embrace and allows for the research of an unfamiliar author and researcher to be become both accessible and highly enjoyable.

Personally, I found great interest not just in a well presented blog filled with great family stories, but in the parallels to be drawn between George’s African American history and my own Aboriginal Australian history.

Despite the common perceptions of most Australians, slavery did happen in this country. Segregation was common to both the US and Australia, and prejudice was, and still is a major issue, despite the many forward steps continually being made across the board. On top of the socio-economic and political similarities between black Australia and America, there are also the many cultural parallels as well. So there are many factors that make African American history and American history in general an interesting and captivating point of conversation and thought.

Having commented on George’s blog after reading one of many subjects of interest, I drew a response and a question regarding my own culture, and one I’d already planned to write about, sooner rather than later. I was asked for my thoughts on the Australian film “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” My first and immediate thought was – good movie. Only a moment later however, I was keyed into the more serious side, and how it related to my own family.

As best described by Wikipedia: Rabbit-Proof Fence is a 2002 Australian film based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara. It is a true story concerning the author's mother, as well as two other young mixed-race Aboriginal girls, who ran away from the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth, in order to return to their Aboriginal families, after having been placed there in 1931. The film follows the girls as they trek/walk for nine weeks along 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of the Australian rabbit-proof fence to return to their community at Jigalong, while being tracked by a white authority figure and an Aboriginal tracker.

An important film, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a tale that practically every Aboriginal person in the Eastern States of Australia, along with a high percentage in every other State and Territory can identify with, as having impacted their own families.

In my own family, I believe that my great grandfather was the first in the family to have been removed from his parents. By the age of 10 in 1884, he was living on an Aboriginal reserve called Coranderrk, near Healesville in the state of Victoria, studying at the station school, receiving good marks and slowly recovering from typhoid that had almost claimed his life a year earlier. There my great grandfather lived as an orphan, despite both his parents’ names having been known to him. What had happened to them, I have yet to discover, but standard practice at the time was to round up every Aboriginal child and to place them into government care on one of several reserves, with or without parents or other family.

For the next generation, matters only went down hill. Although my great grandfather grew into manhood, had married and had a productive life, as a sergeant and tracker, working with the NSW Police, that stood for very little, when the government tried to take away his children. My great grandfather moved across state borders and went west in order to protect his children. My great grandparents, John and Christina were lucky, and none of their 6 surviving (out of 16) children were taken from them. However, Theresa - my great grandmother’s sister, wasn’t as fortunate.

My great Aunt Theresa CLEMENTS (nee MIDDLETON) had four daughters of which only the youngest was spared. Their tale is preserved for future generations in the autobiography “If Everyone Cared” by my cousin, Margaret TUCKER (nee CLEMENTS). The book recounts how Margaret was taken by the police one day when she was at school and how her white school teacher had stalled the officers long enough that word could be sent to Margaret’s mother. When she arrived, Theresa pleaded, and the police seemingly relented, at least allowing her to accompany the two children. This however was only the cruelest of tricks, and Theresa was forced from the police car many miles outside of town. There she would lie, crying, like a wounded and tortured animal on the side of the road, until her family found her.

The same sort of story was told time and time again in my family. My dad and his five sisters were also taken, as re-counted on the page I’ve dedicated to my grandfather, Jack PATTEN.

To many Australians the recent (2008) Apology to the Stolen Generations, as offered by the current Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, isn’t an action that made a lot of sense, and that’s a damn shame. It was seen as the government apologising for something that is generally seen and taught to be ancient history, rather than a matter that people are still trying to come to terms with. The apology, on behalf of all Australians was seen as being one where the government was helping the general population to take the blame and guilt, when the reality is that sorry sometimes means nothing more than “I am sorry that your family had to go through such pain”, which is all that was really hoped for in this case; no more than an extended hand, some understanding and reasonable empathy.

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