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Family Matters article

August 1993


This paper focuses on Aboriginal family life both prior to and following the European invasion, the effects of child removal, and the importance of the knowledge and wisdom of Aboriginal elders. The author also looks at the damaging effects of racial discrimination and stereotypes that present Aborigines as lazy, drunks, uneducated no hopers, involved in too much crime or perceptual stereotypes that demand that the only real Aborigines are fullbloods living a traditional tribal lifestyle.

Traditionally, the Aboriginal family was a collaboration of clans composed of mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, brothers, sisters, cousins and so on. This size of family was the norm but is recognised in today's terms as an 'extended family'. Life prior to colonisation was straightforward, and love was abundant. The ways were easy but intelligent, slower but knowledgable and simple. It was a way of life that survived for hundreds of thousands of years, undisturbed and untouched.

Like all races and cultures we are not a homogenous group of people, but very different in many ways. However, each of us believes in our spirituality and our cause, we know of the genocidal acts experienced by our ancestors and of the problems faced by Aboriginal people in a white dominated society. Therefore, in dealing with the issues of the Aboriginal family, I can not put myself in the position of the voice of all Aboriginal people. My thoughts are individual and reflect my lifestyle, my learnings, my culture and my opinions, and although many other Aboriginal people around the country may relate to my words, mine is only one of many voices.

This paper focuses on family life with specific regard to racism (including damaging stereotypes), the effects of child removal, and the importance of the knowledge and wisdom of our elders. In order to understand present day struggles we have to look at historical factors, which have seen the transition of a rich and motivated lifestyle to a life of struggle against the injustices faced by our people. As stated in Vol.2 of the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (p.3):

'It is important that we understand the legacy of Australia's history, as it helps to explain the deep sense of injustice felt by Aboriginal people, their disadvantaged status today, and their current attitudes towards non-Aboriginal people and society.'

Our problems are no different from those of 30 to 40 years ago, however the difference is that more of our people have become educated and have gained the confidence to fight the system.

Historical factors

Prior to invasion, Aboriginal families had an ideal lifestyle. The roles of family members were set according to individual positions in the tribe, and families would live together in a communal environment with responsibilities being shared throughout the family. These included child rearing, cooking, hunting and the teaching of knowledge by tribal elders. Failure to carry out his or her responsibilities meant that the rest of the family suffered. The men were the hunters, usually tracking down larger animals like kangaroo or emu, while women supplied the family with berries, nuts and roots (Sam 1992).

Most of the problems facing Aboriginal people today stem from generations of oppression and have resulted in a lack of trust of white society. First, the land was taken from us; for a race that shares a unique bonding with the land, this in itself is extremely damaging. The white man introduced alcohol and poisoned Aboriginal people with diseases for which we had no immunity. Our women were raped, our children removed, our men hunted and murdered. Why? Our people did not speak English, we had dark skin and we practiced different ways. The white man could not relate and so reacted brutally.

Colonisation meant oppression and genocide. Aboriginal people were denied the right to live by their own rules, to decide on their own policies. They were denied the freedom to run their own economic and family life. They could not necessarily marry the person they chose, mix with people of their choice, speak to people of a certain skin colour, live in a particular street or on a reserve.

Children were taken from mothers after birth, others were taken once they reached the age of three or four years. Many Aboriginal families were thus denied the right to nurture, to rear and educate, to love their own children, to see them grow up. They lost these children, and the children became lost themselves. Who were they? As noted in Vol.2 of the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (p.518), often these children had been taught to detest everything Aboriginal, and this hatred could extend to themselves once they realised their skin was not white.

With such damaging historical records it is little wonder that social issues have become increasingly common within Aboriginal society. However, the strength of family affiliation goes a long way to explain the preservation of a distinct culture that has defied assimilation despite aggressive government policies for over a century (Eversley 1984). Aboriginal family life has many positive aspects which in most cases prevail over the hardships and the pain. Despite the disadvantages in terms of housing, employment, education and training, our families remain strong. A dominant characteristic of the family is the sense of kinship - the feeling of family togetherness, the ability to rely on each other, and the creation of spiritual bonding which helps to give hope and strength to Aboriginal people.

Racism and Aboriginal families

Racism is something all Aboriginal people are familiar with. It is what has caused problems for our people since the beginning of white settlement. It was created by the white man and maintained by the white man. The hate of another human being because of their different ways and different appearance is a notion I find difficult to understand - but then, many of the white man's ways I find difficult to understand.

Racism is an external factor that has hit Aboriginal families hard. It has caused great disadvantage in employment, housing, health, education and training, and this in turn puts an incredible strain on Aboriginal family life. An example is employment; if a father cannot provide for his family because of the lack of job opportunities for Aboriginal people, there is a lot of stress and anger within the family which affects each family member.

Our families are proud people, and our children grow up knowing that 'Black is beautiful' and learning to be 'Black and proud'. The home, the nurturing place of learning, teaches us a lot about ourselves, but unfortunately does not always prepare our children for the roller-coaster ride ahead of them. Our kids face racial problems from day one at school, and have to cope with growing up at home with such strong cultural values and being so proud of who they are and then going out and mixing with the wider society to be confronted with bigots who have few clues about the sensitivities of our people.

When families cannot cope with the treatment from mainstream society, there are various mechanisms to deal with the situations, depending on the strength of families. Some families have faced racist attitudes head on, by educating themselves in an attempt to fight the white man's system on white man's level. These people can help other families to stand up and deal with situations in the best way possible.

But there are many families unable to deal with racist attitudes in such a way and as a result these people are pushed into the ground by the system - they are labelled, or put into a category, and their levels of self-esteem are so destroyed that they feel that their lives are hardly worth living. In a society that barely recognises the existence of Aboriginal people, where culture and language have been stripped from many of us, it is so difficult to accept white ways.

Getting rid of racism in this country will be a long and strenuous process. It has to be 'nipped in the bud', that is, teaching all children from a very young age to be open- minded, understanding Aboriginal Affairs in a contemporary as well as an historical light, with a focus on the positive aspects rather than the negative. As pointed out by the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Irene Moss, in 'The Australian' 13.7.93, 'young Australians are as racist as their parents, although they believe they are more tolerant of other cultures'. The answer is education, and to begin, Aboriginal studies should be a compulsory subject in every curriculum, in every school, at all levels. As Mr Kerr, a federal Labor MP, stated: 'I think it is a disgrace now that any young Australians would go through the schooling system without having studied Aboriginal culture' ('The Age' 20.5.93).

Another telling way of countering racism is the raising of public awareness on the nature of contemporary urban Aboriginal society and culture, through the media.

The issue of stereotypes - a form of racism often perpetuated through the media - covers a wider range of attitudes than one may expect. On one hand, there are the attitudes that we are lazy, drunks, un-educated no hopers, involved in too much crime; that we receive too much from welfare, get treated too leniently by police and courts, and that we do not want to work. On the other hand, there are perceptual stereotypes: if we do not fit the image of a dark- skinned, wide-nosed person then we are not 'real' Aborigines - 'real' Aborigines being full-bloods living a traditional tribal lifestyle. Both of these stereotypical attitudes can be very damaging to social, psychological, physical and economic wellbeing, individually and within the family unit.

An Australian National Opinion Poll survey (Mainly Urban 1992) found that the predominant stereotype of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was negative - namely, primitive, nomadic, passive and lazy. It found that dual criteria were used by non-Aboriginal people to judge Aboriginality - namely, darkness of skin and the practice of tribal lifestyles.

The media's portrayal of negative Aboriginal issues creates has damaging effects and creates much hurt. By singling out the media, we are not denying that there is a problem in our community with alcohol and other drugs, just as there is a problem in the wider community. But the problem certainly does not extend to all Aboriginal people, which is the general public perception.

The education system also contributes to stereotypes in the wider community. Too often students learn of the negative aspects of Aboriginal history rather than contemporary Aboriginal studies which can be very positive, especially with regard to sporting and educational achievements.

Child removal

The post-colonisation policy of Aboriginal child removal is the cause of much family heartache and breakdown today. Colonisation meant deliberate destruction of the values of Aboriginal families through the breakdown of the tribal structure.

When officials came on to the missions the mothers would run and hide their lighter skinned children in particular, as they were the children likely to be taken because they would more easily 'blend in' with whites. It was an attempt at assimilation - and it was an attempt at genocide. They wanted to kill off the older people and bring the young ones up in white families or white institutions, stripping them of their culture and allowing them no access to their families.

This was a result of the Aborigines Protection Board, later known as the Aborigines Welfare Act. Between 1915 and 1940 the Board could legally remove Aboriginal children into its control without the consent of parents and without any court hearings. One record gives the reason for removing a child as 'being Aboriginal' (Chisholm 1985). Our people suffered, forced to live so far away from the lives they were familiar with, to live the white man's way, a way that was, in all respects, alien.

Children taken from their families are known as the 'Stolen Children'. In 1976, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) was established (among other reasons) in an attempt to leave Aboriginal children in the care of the Aboriginal community. The national umbrella organisation of Aboriginal Child Care Agencies in Australia, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), is constantly trying to convince the government of the importance of an enquiry into past government policies of removing Aboriginal and Islander children from their families.

'Literally thousands of Aboriginal adults live with the trauma caused by these removal policies. Many of the mothers and fathers who had their children taken away are guilt and grief stricken. Their children are traumatised by the thought that they were unwanted. Identity conflicts rage in these children - now adults - who have lived most of their lives as non- Aboriginal people.'

This was a comment by Brian Butler, Chairperson of SNAICC. It is reported that many of the problems our people face today are a direct reflection of past removal policies. For example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found that half of the deaths it investigated were of this group of 'Stolen Children' (SNAICC 1990a).

Today, so many of our people are strong, and so many of our families. And they want to know the answers. They want to know why their ancestors were removed as children and they want to be compensated for the trauma. Our people are asking questions and demanding answers, and will not rest until they get them.

The removal of children have had detrimental effects on our families, many of whom are still dealing with the trauma of what happened those years ago. Many suffer struggles of identity. Nellie Moore, talking about her nephew Russel Moore (James Savage) said:

'Finding his identity, where he came from . . . that's a start. What he couldn't believe is that he had relatives, that when we first heard and we all came together, that all the relatives were supporting him.' (SNAICC 1990b)

Many of the children who were removed turn to crime and substance abuse and just disconnect themselves from the wider society. They are often very confused individuals who feel they have been screwed by the system.

The parents of these children suffer equally, living a life of guilt and anger, wishing they had tried harder to keep their children. Their anger and guilt often leads them also to self- damaging acts such as drugs and alcohol. In an attempt to fight the system, rekindle the flame and win back their losses, others find their children, or their parents, through services such as Link-Up, a national service that aims to re- unite families who have been victims of the removal system. Often, however, parents have died before children have had the opportunity to find them (or vice versa), but it does not mean they have nowhere to turn.

Our families have a strong network, and it is not unusual for children who were removed, then discover that their parents have died, to become very close with other members of their family, such as aunties and uncles. Extended families play a vital role in Aboriginal family life, and as a result those who are victims of removal are usually always welcome within the lives of other family members.

So on a community level, we must help those families trying to get themselves together after years of separation; we must help those wishing to regain and understand their culture; we must welcome them into our communities and teach them our ways.

On a government level, responsibility must be taken for what happened and compensation paid to those families who are still picking up the pieces. No more excuses - it has gone on long enough.

Role of elders

Over the years we have seen many changes in our communities, and an ongoing worry within many groups is the loss of tradition and culture. The answers to these worries often lie with our elders, who have the wisdom, the knowledge and the spirit which can draw us back to traditional ways. Elders play an extremely important role in Aboriginal families as role models, care providers and educators.

The role of elders is difficult for outsiders to understand. We rely strongly on them as key decision makers within families. They are the people we hold the greatest respect for because many of them went through so much, so that now we do not have to suffer the injustices they experienced. Their guidance is often illustrated through everyday life and their teachings are often done subconsciously; we follow, we observe and we go on to teach our own families. It is through our elders that the spirit as Aboriginal people is kept alive.

In Quebec, Canada, the indigenous people of the Cree nation, feeling they needed to regain their lost culture, established a program called 'Will of the Youth' which aims to give young people the opportunity to go back to traditional roots, values and their own way of living. Away from civilisation, they stay with the elders for three months and are taught how to hunt and fish according to traditional ways. On returning after the three months, the knowledge gained can then be transmitted to other young people who can also learn from the experiences. And so the old ways are preserved and passed on.

Within Aboriginal families, much of the upbringing of children is undertaken by grandparents, and specifically, the grandmother. This is because many single mothers are in the workforce, there are young teenage mothers who do not have adequate parenting skills to look after children, and some parents simply can not handle their children, and so on. It is also often the case within our families that whenever problems occur between parents and children, the grandmothers are always the ones that the children run to for security:

'No wine, no petrol, no cars, no money. Our grandmothers taught us their law too. And we were children growing up and watching by example. We watched and learned all the laws. That lifestyle was ideal.' (Women's Council 1991)

There are two things we need to keep our families strong and to keep our culture alive. The first is respect for our elders, as it is they who have the knowledge and the spirit, and the stories; if we lose respect for our elders then we have no hope of gaining the necessary knowledge, nor the encouragement to keep striving. The second is communication. This is an essential part of family life, and it is important that if we want to know something about the way things were that we open up and talk with our elders, because if we leave it too long it may be too late. Communication is indeed an important element in the success of any family, but in order for Aboriginal knowledge to be continued and passed down we must do a lot of talking.

Of course, elders are sometimes not always available for guidance and knowledge, and sometimes they find past experiences are so damaging that they have completely blocked them out of their memories. In situations such as this, there may be elders' services established within communities whereby people can go and sit and talk with elders. Not only is it a learning experience for the younger people, but many of our elders would appreciate the company.


The issues I have discussed make up only a small part of the whole picture. Our families are battlers and must continue to battle. We must look at the positive and must take responsibility for our families. In so doing we should stop blaming external forces. Yes, they are contributing factors, but we must use the notion of self-determination and take the responsibility to fight for ourselves. This may be easier said than done, but we are becoming more educated, we are becoming more confident, and we are developing the necessary skills.

Many of our families still boast very strong networks. There is plenty of love, respect and security we can rely on from our home lives. However, it is what goes on outside that so many of us find difficult to deal with. The lives of our tribal ancestors were so simple, and social problems were non- existent. Nowadays many of us live angrily and painfully. We are confused about different ways of life. We learn one thing at home and another thing at school. Our families suffer breakdowns, our children get into trouble with the law or don't complete school.

But let's start looking to the positive, looking at what we have achieved, praising those in the community who have made positive impacts on Aboriginal lives, encouraging the media to publish our more positive stories, lobbying the government to change the school curriculum, and getting more people to rally together and demand an enquiry into the removal of our children. With community support and unity these things can be achieved and we will strive as a proud and dignified race.


  • Chisholm, R. (1985), 'Destined children: Aboriginal child welfare in Australia: directions of change in law and policy', Aboriginal Law Bulletin, Vol.14
  • Eversley, Ruth (1984), 'The South West Aboriginal and Family Law', Family Court, Western Australia.
  • Mainly Urban (1992), Mainly Urban, Report into the inquiry into the needs of urban dwelling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, November.
  • Sam, M. (1992), Through Black Eyes: A Handbook of Family Violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, SNAICC, Victoria.
  • SNAICC (1990a), National Aboriginal and Islander Children's Day Handbook, Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Melbourne.
  • SNAICC (1990b), Interview with Nellie Moore, talking about her nephew Russell Moore (James Savage), National Aboriginal and Islander Children's Day Handbook, Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Melbourne.
  • Women's Council (1991), Looking After Children Grandmothers' Way, Report to the Child Protection and Planning Project, From the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjarra Yankunytjatjara Women's Council, Child Protection and Planning Unit, Adelaide.