Some years ago, I was involved with putting together a cultural camp for young Aboriginal boys from the western suburbs of Sydney.
Many of the boys attended local schools but they found their time in schools meaningless to the point where engagement was a constant struggle for teachers and for an education system that continues to fail most Aboriginal students.
Many of the boys were drawn from families whose cultural connections were to communities and country in rural and remote NSW and this in itself was a possible factor in the boys being inattentive in school and may also explain why most of the boys struggled to find meaning and purpose in life.
Working with a friend and colleague we discussed a variety of possibilities and landed on the notion of the cultural camp. We recognised that some of the boys were living in situations where they were being raised either by grandparents and/or single parents and that some of them lacked strong Aboriginal male role models and mentors.
During the cultural camp it soon became obvious that, as is the case with many Aboriginal kids in modern society, they had a sense of their identity as Aboriginal people but lacked a deeper understanding of the events and cultural teachings that informed and shaped their identity.
To provide a level of cultural affirmation, a number of culturally grounded men were invited to attend the camp and share their stories of growing up as an Aboriginal male in modern Australian society.
During the camp I conducted a simple exercise with the boys by listing a number of Aboriginal people on a whiteboard, people who featured prominently in recent historical struggles for Aboriginal rights and freedoms. The listed included people such as Chicka Dixon, Mum Shirl, Charlie Perkins, Pearl Gibbs, Naomi Mayers, Sol Bellear, Sir Doug Nicholls, John Delaney, Paul Coe, Gary Foley and others. When I asked the boys if any of them recognised the names and why they were important to our history, sadly, none of the boys knew the people, but they were able to name Aboriginal rugby league players whom many of the boys identified with.
Of course, the boys weren’t judged for their lack of knowledge of these important activists, rather my friend and I lamented how different it was for our generation when we were taught about important events in Aboriginal history.
These stories were told around yarning circles in our communities, and in meeting places, such as the old Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs that operated in George Street Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.
The boys, and many others, including dare I say, most Australians, don’t know or understand how restrictive and dehumanising it was to live under the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board (AWB).
To give readers some idea of how draconian the regulations of the AWB were we need to look no further than the ‘Certificate of Exemption’ issued by the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board.
According to information shared at www.everyonesbusiness.psc.nsw.
In exchange for the certificate, people were forced to renounce their culture, language, and family. Many were ostracised by their family for rejecting their culture. Many also lost contact with their family because they were not allowed to live with them on the reserves and even had to apply for permission to visit them. The intergenerational trauma caused by this loss of family history, kinship ties and cultural identity has had devastating effects on many Aboriginal people today.’
The NSW Aborigines Welfare Act was repealed in 1969 but its impact continues to haunt and traumatise Aboriginal people well into the 21st century. Research involving intergenerational trauma would undoubtedly illustrate how this sordid chapter in Australian history has helped to shape the lives of the boys (and girls) referred to earlier, and signals what is required to overcome its debilitating and lingering impact.
Surely, all children are entitled to the dignity of life, safety and unfettered happiness. All children are sacred, a gift from the Creator and they are entitled to live life free from hunger and cradled in the love of family and friends. They are also entitled to live life free from physical and mental abuse with the expectation that their government will serve and protect them against such abuses.
Professor Bob Morgan is Chair of Board of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Research (BATSIER) at the University of Newcastle.