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Family Matters No. 35 - August 1993

Claiming our future

Barbara Cummings

Abstract

The author begins by explaining that she is now considered an Olgaman or Qld Woman in her Aboriginal community. She, like many other Olgamans, is making important decisions that will effect future Aboriginal generations. She calls on young Aboriginal people to contribute to the making of these decisions. The author then talks about her own upbringing in a missionary institution and what the government policy of assimilation meant to her as a child. This is followed by a description of how she and other women from her institution wrote their own history titled 'Take This Child'. Research for this history is now contributing to the Link-Up program, delivered by the Aboriginal Child Care Agency (ACCA). ACCA has three major objectives to assist Aboriginal people. They are: land rights, access to archival material held by government and missions and legal investigations of displaced people.

Address to the Northern Territory Indigenous Youth Conference

The title of this Conference is Claiming our Future - The Indigenous Youth all over the world are making a firm statement. The title is also the official logo and I welcome the logo into my community in Darwin. Its about time you fullas started to get involved in making decisions about you and your future generations. But, claiming your future is my business too, and you should be beside me to ensure I'm on the right track.

When considering the title in preparing this paper, my thoughts reflected back to a recent visit to my country when a women much younger than me called me 'Olgaman'. I was quite startled, I never considered myself as an Old Woman. But living in mainstream society sometimes helps you to forget about your culture, I should not have been so startled for I am on the border, or just over. The age of both my children, now in their mid-twenties is evidence that I am entering the 'Olgama Era'. I cannot find the word 'Olgaman' in any Dictionary so I presume it can be best described as Aboriginal English. I've used the word all my life, but I've never really had to think about its interpretation. And if I'm considered as an Olgaman my culture allows me to alert your minds on many issues which concern you when claiming your future.

In my community it appears that it's all the 'Olgamans' that are sitting on all the committees and working parties trying to create a better future for our youth and future generations. The logo is 'looking for change'. Well I say, 'go for it, get on these committees and councils and working parties'. These tired 'Olgamans' are making vital decisions about you and your children and they must be shared decisions. You need us as much as we need you. Our past experiences offers debate but the end result will be affected not by me or my mothers generation but you and your children. My paper will offer that debate and thoughts about your future.

I grew up on an Aboriginal Mission controlled institution. This institution was one of three established during my youth to accommodate Aboriginal children born under the Protection Act. A legal document gave the Government power to remove children from mother and country based on genetic and skin colour. The institution was town-based and offered mainstream education. The policy for Aborigines at the time was assimilation.

It was hoped that we would grow up to be nice Christian kids and marry white kids and live happily ever after, with each successive generation becoming fairer. Unfortunately for the government, a great number of us did the reverse.

You were in the home because you had an Aboriginal background and that was that without question. Not me! Growing up there gave me a curious mind, I wanted to know lots of things, I always asked too many questions and I consequently got into trouble for doing so. I wanted to be adopted or fostered down south. Those kids selected always appeared to be the lucky ones - new shoes, new clothes and the rest of the cargo which sometimes comes through living with white people.

I have written about those people who were sent away and suffered repercussions as a result of their removal. I have since considered myself one of the lucky ones left behind. Assimilation without a mother and sibling will not survive. I was left behind with the everlasting dream and ambition to be a ballerina, something that should have came with Assimilation. But alas, there certainly wasn't any demand on the stage for any Black Swans.

My employment with the Department of Community Welfare in the early eighties furthered my curiosity about my background. My duties as Statutory Welfare Officer brought me into contact with the continuing displacement of Aboriginal children and the social problems inherited by their past and current displacement.

In 1986, when preparations around Australia were gearing up for the 1988 Bicentennial Celebrations, I and a group of women from the same institution decided that we would attempt to write our own history - a history that the average anthropologist wasn't interested in because of the presumption of loss of culture - but there are lots of other writers who would have certainly been interested in it, and we knew that if we didn't do it then someone else would. By attempting to do the research ourselves meant it would be us who would decide on the content and how that content would be presented.

The research was eventually published in book form and titled Take This Child. My name appears as the author, but I am only the minder and sometimes spokesperson for that history. The content belongs to the community and the royalties have been returned to the community towards further projects.

Community copyright is a new concept to lots of white fullas. When they want to write stories on us mob, and in particular oral history, then on completion they disappear and become learned people in their society. The difference with me is that I can't disappear. I wrote about the community I was raised in. Every day of my life is influenced by who I am and how I got to this point. My Ps and Qs are consistently observed when presenting our history.

I am constantly reminded by the questions raised by two elders in my community. When my group started to interview the first generation of people removed from mother and country, one elder said, 'What you wanna know, what you gonna do with it'. The other elder states, 'Don't ask me anything about boyfriend or girlfriend business, 'cause I am not telling you.' White fullas don't get these warnings - must be cause they can disappear and I can't!

As the interview flows so will lots of other informatin which may be a part of the story but not for public knowledge. To reveal the content without negotiation could bring shame to the individual or the community. These are lesson to be learned by every writer, and unless you know the family and social networks you won't get the real story. I too as an Aboriginal person cannot presume that once oral history is received and published by me that I then have automatic copyright - with my people - they consider shared copyright because its their history also.

Our research is now contributing to the national Link-Up Program under the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody. The Link- Up program is delivered by the Aboriginal Child Care Agency (ACCA). The concept for such an organisation was first mooted in 1979, and in the International Year of the Child in 1984 we were incorporated, and today we still own one vehicle and two employees - two employees for 200 years of displacement.

Our ACCA has three major objectives for the next five years to assist Aboriginal people and their Link-Up:

Land rights

The average Anthropologist which has either forgotten or didn't consider necessary to place our names on Land Claims under the NT Land Rights Act must now address this issue. We believe our Link-Up is not complete until we are able to return to Country and our people.

Access to archival information

Aboriginal Settlements and Children Institutions were established during Assimilation - white fullas wrote about the institutions and took photographs as well - we are asking for copies from both Government and Missions to help piece our jigsaw together. Cultural objects held in Museums must also be returned to our people.

Legal investigations

The Agency supports Aboriginal people wanting their displacement legally investigated. There are many people who believe that there has been a grave injustice done and white Australia must address this; it is part of the healing process.

The missions who governed these institutions have become established business and they've only been successful in their establishment as a result of Aboriginal people being their constituents. They were our parent figures 24 hours a day and they should take some of the blame openly with the Government. They appear to be a silent force in our community but one day they must also be questioned on their choice of child care in the past.

My experience working in the DCW and ACCA, and doing the research, has assisted in piecing my childhood world together. My time at ACCA shows increasing difficulty to employ Aboriginal people with Social work skills and our agencies suffer as result of this. Child Protection and Juvenile Justice are major concerns in our community. The transfer of information and thought processes in training to consider Aboriginal children and their placement are truly exhaustive. We live in a white man's world, a world that requires people to work in the Social Sciences and to offer evidence to justify our existence in the controls of our future generations. But so what, if we've published a book and given evidence? 'The Displacement of Aboriginal Children' is not a high priority issue with the Government and its funding.

I believe that while white Australia continues to ignore Aboriginal history as a core subject, ignorance will continue to breed racism. It must surely prevent a repeat of the atrocities of the past which in turn reduces that ignorance. My future generation should not be forced to learn a foreign language simply for economic purposes. Aboriginal culture is over forty thousand years old and the oldest living culture in the world, a bit dismantled at times, but it is strong enough to be assembled many times over. For any nation of people to have survived this length of time shows that there are valuable and vital reasons why the culture must remain strong. White Australia isn't leaving, consequently they need Aboriginal culture to survive another forty thousand years, and as much as we 'Olgamans' want to be around to help youth ensure that survival, the basic fact is we won't be. We will have returned to the Dreaming.

The return to community for me and my family is vital, my mother was first generation removed from country for a supposed better life. As senior woman I have a duty to re- claim what was denied. I also have an obligation to the future generation to present an alternative to mainstream to ensure the survival of culture.

Like many people, I am now considering going back to rescue country - to make a permanent establishment for my family to finally know the meaning of 'going home', is to finally become a reality, a journey which has cultural obligations and no K-Mart.

Our Link-Up is not complete until such times as we are able to return to country and you have an obligation to your future generation to preserve what I've managed to leave and recapture. Otherwise there won't be another forty thousand years.