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Fragmenting Indigenous Familes 1800-2000
By Anna Haebich
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2000 Anna Haebich
All rights reserved.
A BOY'S SHORT LIFE
Warren Braedon, son of Dawna Braedon, named by his adopted parents Louis St. John Johnson. He never knew his name, he never knew his mother, he never knew his family, he never knew his people, he never knew his country. Born Alice Springs, 4th January, 1973, murdered Perth, 4th January 1992 ... because he was black. Returned to his family and his country 20th January, 1992, he has found his dreaming. 'Wrap me in the Mother Earth so I can nurture the land's rebirth, give me joy and give me song, carry the struggle wide and long.' (Kev Carmody) 'Beautiful, beautiful child now you are free, free, from this heartache and pain and misery ... I wish I was with you right now, my beautiful child.' (Archie Roach)
Louis Johnson/Warren Braedon's epitaph at Alice Springs Cemetery
Three month old Warren Braedon was taken from his mother Dawna in Alice Springs in 1973 at a time of major political and administrative changes in the Northern Territory. The town's economy and social basis had diversified rapidly during the 1960s from a largely isolated and insular regional pastoral centre to embrace new industries, namely tourism, the establishment of a US intelligence base at nearby Pine Gap and associated service industries, and a growing public service presence. The town had its origins in the establishment of a telegraph station in 1871. Called Stuart until 1933, the tiny outpost served local pastoral stations. From the beginning there was conflict between settlers and the Arrernte, Luritja and Warlpiri peoples whose country was being colonised. The Aborigines' hunting and gathering economy was increasingly marginalised by the pastoral economy and pastoral land acquisitions dispossessed them of their lands. Buttressed by police and the Native Patrol Force, the settlers were able to inflict serious casualties and an estimated 500 to 1000 Aborigines were killed during the first three decades of white settlement.
In order to survive, Aborigines were obliged to comply over a long period of time with government pacification and population control measures. These included food rationing at pastoral, mining and telegraph stations, and relocation of Aboriginal people to reserved areas and missions. In these 'sanctuaries' Aborigines could at least hope to survive. Here also developed various areas of economic and social interdependency. Indigenous men and women became essential to the pastoral industry and hence the whole regional economy. They also worked in mining, domestic service and mission industries. Rowse describes a strategy of welfare colonialism, which sought to cut links between the generations by housing children separately from their families in dormitories on the missions and government settlements, and which accelerated in the region following the Second World War. Stuart also became a centre where Aborigines could get work, rations and medical treatment. Many simply had nowhere else to go. However, their presence created tensions with the townsfolk who relied on Aborigines for menial labour, but often viewed them with a mixture of resentment and disgust. Settler efforts to control Aborigines' presence around the town frequently clashed with Aborigines' determination to maintain their own ways of living which combined elements of traditional Aboriginal and European lifestyles.
In 1911 responsibility for the Northern Territory was transferred from South Australia to the federal government. The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 was modelled on legislation in Queensland and Western Australia. It embodied a policy of segregation and control under the guise of protection, implemented through restrictions on Aboriginal employment, mobility and family and personal matters. The 1918 Ordinance was administered locally by police officers who enforced the special laws and also issued welfare in the form of rations. The continuing influence of Social Darwinian assumptions within governments was no better instanced than by the conviction that little could be done to help 'full-bloods' apart from issuing rations to 'smooth the dying pillow.' By contrast, while the 'full-bloods' were expected to become extinct through the operation of 'natural' evolutionary forces, the Aboriginals Department purposefully acted to limit the 'half-caste' population through strict controls over the women's sexual contacts and by removing and institutionalising their children. The Bungalow, opened in Stuart in 1914, acted as a government depot for some 'half-caste' children of Aboriginal women and mining and pastoral workers in Central Australia. Consisting of a few old iron huts next to the police station and the hotel, the Bungalow housed up to sixty children at a time during the 1920s. After a period of rudimentary schooling the children were sent out to work, under police control, as domestics, labourers and pastoral workers. Living conditions were deplorable and, despite exposés by the press in the southern states, continued virtually unchanged, until after a brief move to a site at Jay Creek outside the town in the late 1920s, the Bungalow was finally relocated to the site of the Old Telegraph Station in 1932.
National attention was focused on the region following reports of a punitive massacre of perhaps one hundred Warlpiri men, women and children at Coniston Station by police in 1928. The resulting public criticism prompted government inquiries and action which continued during the 1930s. As in other states at the time, these inquiries focused on the 'half-caste' problem. Under the Chief Protector of Aborigines, Dr Cecil Cook (appointed in 1927), the Aboriginals Department embraced the eugenicist policy of biological absorption, aimed at breeding out the 'mixed race' altogether, although federal authorities did endeavour to limit Cook's enthusiasm. Influenced by anthropologist AP Elkin, the Aboriginals Ordinance 1939 adopted the policy of social assimilation of Aborigines and aimed to develop what were considered to be positive steps for change. Tribalised and semi-detribalised Aborigines were to be protected in special settlements which would, over generations, in the words of Federal Minister for the Interior, John McEwan, 'transform these people from a nomadic tribal state to take their place in a civilised community.' In 1952 the Northern Territory Adminstrator clarified official policy on the 'removal of partly coloured children from Aboriginal camps' for assimilation into the Australian community:
Those most easily assimilated are persons of mixed blood, provided that they are able to enjoy from an early and impressionable age the medical care, training, teaching and general living conditions available to the community at large.
They were to be trained to assume full citizenship rights. With the exception of a small number of children of legally married 'half-castes' who could remain with their parents unless deemed to be 'neglected', 'half-caste' children in the Territory faced the likelihood of being removed from their families.
For seventy years Alice Springs had remained small, having only 400 white residents by the Second World War. The war boosted this number to 6000 — for the first time outnumbering Aborigines. This shift from the enforced interdependence of a small frontier population was accompanied by a growing sensitivity to gradations of racial descent and the observance of the strict caste barriers found in rural towns throughout Australia. A study of social relationships in Alice Springs in the mid-1940s found that the 'mixed race' population of 300, many of whom were graduates of the Bungalow, tended to stick together, to marry each other and to see themselves as a distinct group within the town.
The Welfare Ordinance 1953, which repealed the 1918 Ordinance, attempted to introduce a welfare model for all regardless of race. However, it embodied the policy of assimilation of Aboriginal people in the Territory. The Ordinance turned on the category 'ward', which was determined by a person's lifestyle, their ability to manage their own affairs, standards of behaviour and personal associations. While ostensibly non-race specific, the only adults who could be declared 'wards' were people who could not vote, and of course in this period 'full-blood' Aborigines as a group — like children, prisoners, foreigners and the insane — did not have the vote. Tatz argues that the law was meant to apply only to those needing 'guardianship' while they made the transition from traditional to 'assimilated' life. So from 1953 to 1964 the direct government control of Northern Territory Aboriginal people was carried out on the basis of declaring virtually all 'full-bloods' to be wards. People of mixed descent no longer came under special welfare legislation. They were to be assimilated into European society. The legal separation of people of mixed descent served to isolate them from their 'full-blood' kin at the same time as it endeavoured to force them into a society that did not accept them as equals. 'Mixed race' families in Alice Springs were pressured by government officials to move into austere cottages at the Gap on the outskirts of town. They were to dissociate themselves from their 'full-blood' kin in the camps who were directed to settle in the vicinity of the Bungalow.
Despite stated intentions to assimilate 'mixed race' families into the wider Australian community, the administration persisted in treating them as a distinct group requiring special supervision and control. Their households were subjected to surveillance by Welfare Branch officers in their quest to transform them into nuclear families. Welfare efforts were focused on the women and children. Welfare officers carried:
diaries in which they recorded salient notes on their clients' domestic habits. If a woman began to leave her children unattended, drink heavily, neglect the washing, or otherwise fail in her duties, the welfare officers warned her. After several warnings, the Welfare Branch would take the derelict family to court.
The Welfare Branch could also intervene more directly by simply taking children who 'lived in remote areas or homes that were otherwise considered unsuitable' and placing them in institutions.
Until 1964, when 'full-blood' Aborigines ceased by legal definition to automatically be wards, government authorities had sweeping legislative powers which enabled strict control over their movement and residency, through removal to reserves, the declaration of areas prohibited to unemployed Aborigines, and removal of their camps from the vicinity of towns. These powers were exercised on a regular basis through local police officers and Welfare Branch patrol officers appointed from the mid-1940s, who also carried out the removal of 'mixed race' children from their families and the moving of Aboriginal people to government and mission settlements to undergo the process of assimilation.
In Alice Springs the controlling of the movement and residency of 'full-blood' people, some of whom were locals and others visitors, was a constant theme of local town development. As was evident in the case of the famous painter Albert Namatjira, this control was invariably exerted to suit white prerogatives. During the 1950s Namatjira bought a block of land in the town, but was refused permission to build a house on it because it was assumed that his family would cause trouble and the value of adjacent houses would fall. This theme continued through the 1960s. The major settlement at the Bungalow, with 300 residents, was closed to make way for tourism interests in 1961. The people were relocated to a new government settlement, Amoonguna, fourteen kilometres south-east of town.
Established in 1960, Amoonguna was to become a self-contained village for town and visiting Aborigines. Rationalised as a training ground and conceived by the government as producing westernised citizens who could live in houses and aspire to permanent work and a settled, urban life, the populating of Amoonguna relied on the fact that food ration distribution was concentrated there. A place beset with internal strife and resembling more the environment of a refugee camp or military barracks than the ideal 'white Australian lifestyle', the settlement proved a failure by the end of the decade and people largely moved off to sites closer to town once better wages, pensions and other social security payments became available. In any case, these 'assimilation' projects failed because people rejected the carceral regime which endeavoured to enforce institutional housing and living patterns, to prevent the use of alcohol, and to break the strength of residents' adherence to kinship structures, traditions of free movement and ties to country. The Welfare Branch's 1969 annual report commented:
Detribalisation in the sense of surrender of their basic social organisation and social arrangements has not ... gone very far, and traditional institutions such as marriage patterns, and traditional attachment to particular geographical areas are still greatly respected.
Indigenous living conditions deteriorated even further in and around Alice Springs from the introduction of drinking rights in 1964 and of the Pastoral Award in 1968, coinciding with the phasing out of restrictive legislation and special welfare measures. With the granting of the right to vote in federal elections to indigenous people in 1962, the 1953 Ordinance gave way to the Social Welfare Ordinance 1964, which removed all legal restrictions which had been, in effect, on the basis of Aboriginality. However as Aboriginal historian Barbara Cummings notes, this Act was still aimed primarily at Aborigines. While it was officially directed at a wider range of persons 'the mechanics of the language' was derived from earlier, repealed legislation. Although definitions which could only apply to 'full-blood' Aborigines were removed from the statutes — and bureaucrats were required to deal with people on the basis of need rather than 'race' — in practice the legislation continued to apply mainly to Aborigines. The system had retained much of the personnel, administrative perspectives, values and rationalities of the assimilationist era of the 1950s, and local white populations continued to demand the enforcement of controls over the presence of Aborigines and their behaviour.
With the introduction of award wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers in 1968 and growing mechanisation of the industry pastoralists cut their work forces, leaving many indigenous pastoral workers unemployed. They and their families thereafter had to lead a precarious existence in town. Their presence was not welcomed by most white townspeople, who viewed the town camps and Aboriginal consumption of alcohol as well-established problems and deemed the government's action in liberalising controls over Aborigines' movement and access to alcohol as absurd and disastrous for all concerned.
Some Aborigines had been able to earn cash wages in Alice Springs since the 1930s at least, largely through doing odd jobs and cleaning for the white townspeople and working on the town sanitary carts. In the hinterland they did stock work and domestic duties on the stations for minimal wages or rations. The inflow of cash increased dramatically as social security benefits were extended to all Aboriginal people during the 1960s. As Rowse demonstrates, this served to further undermine administrative control. Old age and invalid pensions, available to Aborigines from 1960, were paid in the form of cash or rations. By the early 1970s, reforms in relation to Aborigines' eligibility for social security payments and to payment of wages on settlements meant that most Aboriginal adults on missions and settlements were receiving some cash. With Aboriginal consumption 'liberated' from rationing and the major reforms in social welfare legislation in 1964, the administration's strict control of Aborigines on settlements came to an end. This also made it more difficult for European authorities to monitor the presence of Aborigines in Alice Springs.
Among front-page headlines such as 'Police Discontent Grows: Human "Garbage Collectors' Claim"', the following summaries of press articles from 1973 give an idea of the public representation of disorder amongst Aborigines at the time, a state which was widely attributed to the granting of drinking rights in the Territory. Many of these events related to intra-communal violence, suggesting an actual breakdown in internal Aboriginal social control mechanisms.
Fifty-eight Aboriginal people charged with drunkenness are kept in jail an extra twenty-four hours awaiting the arrival of the magistrate.
Of sixty-seven court cases on Christmas Eve, fifty were for Aboriginal drunkenness.
Aborigines reported fighting on Todd Street. Reports of continued brawls involving Aborigines in Alice Springs streets, camps and hotels.
Five Aborigines charged with assaulting a former Alice Springs police officer are sentenced to two months hard labour, an Aboriginal man charged with indecently assaulting an Aboriginal woman is sentenced to three months hard labour.
An Aboriginal man is on trial for poking a burning stick into an Aboriginal woman's face.
Aboriginal women are reported fighting half naked in an Alice Springs hotel, one woman is sentenced to two weeks jail.
Feature articles and an identikit photo of a 'part Aboriginal' suspected by police of the murder of a driver outside Alice Springs.
Police are attacked by Aborigines with rocks at the Alice Springs Show after they arrest a group of Aborigines for drunkenness.
Excerpted from Broken Circles by Anna Haebich. Copyright © 2000 Anna Haebich. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: REMEMBERING BACK THROUGH THE HEART,
1. A BOY'S SHORT LIFE,
2. EXPERIMENTS IN CIVILISING,
3. OF CITIZENS AND OUTCASTS,
4. SPECIAL TREATMENT WESTERN AUSTRALIAN STYLE,
5. FIGHTING OVER THE CHILDREN,
6. BROOMS, SPADES AND BIBLES,
7. VISIONS OF ASSIMILATION,
8. MAKING NUCLEAR FAMILIES,
9. A TWILIGHT OF KNOWING,