Ripped from her mother’s arms at the age of 2, Mary Terszak spent the next 18 years in a government run institution. She was denied speaking her own language and instead of going to school, was forced to work as a domestic servant. She endured physical abuse, mental torture and social isolation and rejection. Why? Because she was born in Australia as an Aboriginal baby with fair hair.
At first glance, Mary looks like the kind of grandmother we all wish we had – sweet, caring, with hint of a proud smile in her eye as she talks about her son traveling the world. She appears a happy woman. But when you look closely at how the defined lines across her face slope and droop sharply around her brow and mouth, you realise that they have been forged not by years of laughing, but by a lifetime littered with torment and anxiety.
“We were programmed into thinking that we were white children,” Mary somberly recounts. It is clear from her forlorn expression and quivering voice that this reflection is still very much at the forefront of her 65-year-old mind. “We were denied our own identity and we were told that our parents were dead. I often cry and say: Why did God make me an Aboriginal person? Why do I have the live like this? I can’t help the way I was born. I have feelings just like anyone else,” she adds.
Mary is a member of Australia’s dark secret – its Stolen Generation. From 1869 to 1969, the Australian government, via its constitutional mandate to legislate for the ‘protection’ of the ‘aboriginal race’, forcefully took Aboriginal children believed to have one Indigenous and one Caucasian parent from their homes. These innocent ‘half-castes’ were then sent thousands of miles away to be programmed as ‘white’. Over 100,000 Aboriginal children have suffered this fate.
According to Mary, “the hardest part of growing up was not being allowed to go near Aboriginal people because we were told that they were not nice people. Whenever we saw Aboriginal people, we would run. We were in fear for our lives. We had to forget about being Aboriginal.”
On 13 February 2008, the Australian government apologised. But the country remains divided. The 100 year policy and the resulting Stolen Generation has caused a crippling drought in Aboriginal identity, culture and pride. The reaction to the Apology throughout Australia shows that the drought has been cracked, but it has yet to be broken.
Professor Lynette Russell, Director of the Centre of Aboriginal and Indigenous Studies, Monash University, says she is “overwhelmed by the reaction to the Apology”. She adds: “Indigenous Australians have taken the Apology with tremendous grace and goodwill and non Indigenous Australians seem rightly proud of their government.”
Media reports around the world splurged on the Apology. Touching television footage of both Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians throwing the country’s stiff upper lip persona to one side and sharing a heartfelt embrace seemed to show a nation in the process of reconciliation. Over two thirds of Australians said they agreed and identified with Prime Minister Rudd’s poignant words. According to The Australian newspaper’s poll, Australia’s opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, had an approval rating of a mere 9% a week after he delivered his ‘counter’ Apology speech, which many people literally turned their back upon.
Recounting her personal reaction to the Apology, Professor Russell says: “For the first time I can remember, I truly felt proud to be an Australian. I have never really held much patriotism. After the stunning speech by Prime Minister Rudd, I was surprised to find myself feeling quite the patriot.”
But there still remains the one third of the population who did not want to apologise. This is a significant proportion. It equates to 7,103, 452 individuals.
Malcolm Boladeras, [ ], is one such Australian. Living on a cattle farm in [ ], situated just north of Kalgoorlie, right in the heart of the Western Australian outback, Malcolm sees a side of Australia’s physical and cultural landscape that most citizens of the continent will never experience or understand. He is a muscular, bearded fellow, with a shadow of a belly protruding through out of his flannelette shirt – not unlike Bill Hunter in many respects. Speaking with the endearing roughness we have come to expect from true-blue Australians, he says (with that quintessential vocal ascent at the end of each sentence): “I have the same opinion as John Howard. Why did we need to apologise?”
This is the question that many Australians have been pondering over for the four months after the historical Apology. I did not do anything wrong, so why did I have to apologise? Will Aboriginal people be asking for compensation now? The government integrated Indigenous people into mainstream society, why is this bad? Newspapers, talks shows, blogs, classrooms, pubs – these issues have been debated around Australia’s sprawling metropolises and red-dust towns in the years leading up the Apology and the months since. There is no indication that the nation is ready for true reconciliation.
“I understand that for some people the experience was terrible. But I speak to Aboriginal people every day. When you actually ask a lot of them, some say that being taken away was the best thing that every happened to them. They would not have moved on from their tribal ways otherwise,” says Malcolm.
Mary admits that in some ways she is fortunate. “I am successful,” she says, as she perches herself proudly on the edge of her stool. “I have been able to go university and have finished a Masters at the age of 58. My book, Orphaned by the Colour of My Skin, has been published and will hopefully be used in Aboriginal studies across the country. I am glad that I have been able to contribute to Australia’s black history in this way,” she adds with satisfaction.
But it is clear from Mary’s hurt and tired expression that she did not want to be taken from her mother, only to be reunited 48 years later. “She may be my mother by birth, but I don’t know her. I can’t accept her. I don’t love her. It is so painful” she says.
Did the Apology ease the pain? Mary, like many Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians, stood on the steps of Government House in Canberra to listen to Prime Minister Rudd state the words:
“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
“It was a wonderful speech. For the first time in Australian history, Aboriginal people were acknowledged,”, Mary fondly reflects. But she then simply adds, sorrowfully shaking her head, “But it does not take away the pain.”
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This post was written by Vanessa Stevens