Australia National Sorry Day

Celebrating National Sorry Day in Australia and the Cultural Significance its Indigenous Population

What is National Sorry Day?

National Sorry Day brings Australians together to commemorate the survivors of a dark time in Australian History. Officially known as the National Day of Healing, this holiday allows everyone to discuss the experiences of members of the Stolen Generations, as well as the current state of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians relations. The country of Australia obtained its name when British settlers reached the shores of Sydney and declared the land as a English territory. Prior to that, Dutch explorers gave it the name of New Holland. But before Europeans came, the land already bore the name given by its original inhabitants. It alrealdy flourished with Aboriginal cultures and arts. It already vibrated to the sound of ancient melodies and ritual dances. A National Sorry Day is thus more than obligatory, as the cultural richness of these lands has been trampled by numerous historical and traumatic events.

Picture of two women at a march on National Sorry Day.
Picture of two women at a march on National Sorry Day.
Credits: https://www.laportedelhistoire.fr/blog/

Disclaimer: the goal of this article is not to try to lump all First Peoples of Australia together. On the contrary, we acknowledge that all Aboriginal peoples have their own cultures, beliefs, histories, and of course names. This article was written to reflect on the current situation of these Aboriginal groups in present-day Australia in lights of their history.

National Sorry Day

Date and context of National Sorry Day

In the late 1930s, after centuries of oppression brought by the onslaught of British colonization, as well as various attempts to organize themselves against the White-exclusive Parliament, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island (ATSI) peoples of Australia formed the Aborigines Progressive Association. The association declared January 26th, the very same date as Australia day, a day of mourning and protest against the colonization of Australian lands. The words of President of the Aborigines Progress Association Jack Pratten reveals the significance of that date: “While the white man is enjoying the celebrations we mourn over the frightful conditions under which the aboriginal has existed, and is existing today in the continent which once belonged to our forefathers.” In one sentence, Jack Pratten epitomized the Aboriginal condition from the start of colonization to today.

Declaration of the Aborigines Progressive Association.
Declaration of the Aborigines Progressive Association.
Credits: http://www.kooriweb.org/

Banished from their lands, killed en masse, dehumanized, separated from their families, discriminated institutionally… ATSI people have had to carry the heavy burden of countless generational traumas due to colonization. As these wounds have yet to heal, another national day, “National Sorry Day”, has become more prominent than the Day of Mourning. Since 1998, Australians celebrate National Sorry Day on May 26th to pay tribute to the victims of the “Stolen Generations”. This dark episode of Australian history only dates back to a few decades, as the practice still existed in the 1970s. The date of May 26 was picked as a reference to the publishing of the Bringing Them Home report of 1997, a paper broaching the topic of the Stolen Generations, bringing to light the series of systematic abductions and separations inflicted on ATSI families in the 20th century.

Traditions

National Sorry Day was renamed into the National Day of Healing in 2005. To celebrate, Australians organize marches and ceremonies where they can share the beauty of Aboriginal art and culture. Many people also give speeches to discuss the issue of the Stolen Generations and commemorate the victims of British Colonization. However, National Sorry Day is only one step towards the path of reconciliation. Much work has yet to be done.

The celebration of National Sorry day: An apology to the Lost Generations

Colonization, dispossession and dehumanization

Colonization and dispossession

Upon the arrival of settlers in 1788 in Sydney Cove, relations between Aboriginal people and them were not so dire. For the most part, the Native population ignored the newcomers. Althought from time to time, they offered the British some help to adapt to the Australian environment. As the number of settlers increased, these relations deteriorated. Aboriginal people soon found out that both cultures wouldn’t be able to cohabitate on the territory, as the British hijacked more and more land, water, natural food resources and the much necessary free mobility required for them to thrive. In 1790, the Eora clan started organizing attacks against the colonizers. Things took a turn for the worse when Lachlan Macquarie became governor in 1810. After several failed attempts to force Aboriginal to assimilate in European culture, he made it legal to shoot Aboriginal people who resisted British control.

Dispossession of land became systematic. And, as Aboriginal people lost their land, their population dwindled due to the lack of food resources. Epidemic diseases and the introduction to alcohol further broke down the spirit and physical health of Aboriginal people. Massacres of Aboriginal clans got increasingly more common, as well as sexual abuse and enslavement. Traditional weapons and spears could not measure up to shotguns, as the English used increasingly violent methods (shooting them, poisoning them, pushing them off a cliff). The violence reached a turning point with the Caledon Bay crisis, from 1932 to 1934.

In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs. […] We have made them outcasts on their own land, and are rapidly consigning them to entire annihilation.” – Edward Wilson, 17th March 1856.

Dehumanization: a tool of the powerful to maim the psyche

Pseudo-scientific racial categorization of Austro-Asian races (from upper-right image to lower left).
Pseudo-scientific racial categorization of Austro-Asian races (from upper-right image to lower left). Credits: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

To justify their criminal acts and seizing of land, the settlers used, implicitely or explicitely, the tool of dehumanization. Indeed, in Australia, colonists used pseudo-scientific racial theories to establish ATSI people as subraces. Hence the dislike of some Aboriginals for the terminology of “Indigenous populations of Australia”, which is reminiscent of the way biologists talk about plants and animals. The cruel strategy of dehumanizing and animalizing a group of people allowed for settlers to deny rights to Aboriginal people. This view enabled them to appropriate the lands and impose their society over Aboriginals’, erasing significant parts of cultures of a thousand years.

Dehumanization didn’t just help colonists rationalize their crimes. It also served the purpose of breaking the spirit of ATSI people. Indeed, the goal of dehumanization was to impose a negative image of themselves to Aboriginal peoples. Such treatments, even nowadays, still have an impact on the Australian collective psyche. Aboriginals and other Indigenous people across the world still suffer from a lack of respect for their human integrity. Their health and wellbeing are still disregarded. This transpires in the maternity mortality rates of Aboriginal women in Australia, Indigenous women in Canada, and many other minority groups. Stereotypical terminologies like “primitive cultures” or “savages” still plague our modern day vocabulary.

The Stolen Generations

From 1905 to the 1970s, Australia was the theater of a sinister uprooting process organized by no other than the government. During that period, the Australian Church and state organizations, mostly the “Welfare”, took thousands of “half-caste” and full-Aboriginal children away from their families. In 1886, two Acts of Parliament, the Victorian Half-Caste Act and the Western Australia Aborigines Protection Act, officially allowed the removal of “half-caste” children, so as to provide them with a better quality of life. The term “half-caste” refered to biracial or mixed children of Aboriginal and English descent. Indeed, the Australian Parliament believed that ATSI families did not have the ability to bring up children in the best conditions. Some even believed that ATSI society were close to extinction. Hence their desire to remove mixed children from their Aboriginal, so called “Pure Blood” homes.

The Government… why did they do it? Why did they take us?” – Harrold Harrison, Stolen Generations survivor.

Notwithstanding the fact that this separation would create a huge wound in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In 1905, ASTI parents virtually lost their rights to having a family when the Aborigines Act took away their legal guardianship. Thus, their children officially became wards of state, and could be taken at will. Children removed from their family had to live in homes and learn either housekeeping or farming. That way, they would know early on how to work for a white family (usually, without pay). To further forsake their culture, they had to stop speaking their language and go by a new name. Many ended up growing up in shame and self-loath. The process ended in 1969, when New South Wales abolished the Aborigines Welfare Board. Saddly, it has lingered in modern society in a more insidious form.

The celebration of National Sorry Day to respond to a generational trauma

On February 13th 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd formally apologized to the members of the Stolen generation. But what does that mean? This, in fact, marks an historical turning point for ASTI Australians. The episode of the Stolen Generations engendered a huge trauma for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The act of uprooting a person, ripping them away from their families and culture, is one of utter violence, and very difficult to heal. According to the Genocide Convention, systematically separating families is part of the definition of genocide. After the harrowing killings, it seems that the Australian government resorted to a more implicit way of cultural destruction. This method left an incurable scar on several generations of children.

Many abducted children lived in misery in their group homes. Instead of benefitting from a better upbringing, many were sexually abused, beaten or neglected. To justify their abductions, the Welfare often pretended that the children had lice or were malnourished, further alienating the parents. Some children, taken as babies, could go decades without knowing their biological families, having only the mission or group home to cling onto for protection. Some would never meet them. Healing from such experiences has proved very difficult for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Unfortunately, a similar phenomenon is still occuring today. Indeed, the Western Australia Department of Communities and Department of Health reported that between 2012 and 2017, the number of Aboriginal children placed in Out of Home Care rose from 46,6 per 1000 children, to 56,6 per 1000 children.

I didn’t know what to do. I was very shaky. And then they said, ‘come, I want you to meet someone.’ And in the corner, there was this little lady sitting there. And then I looked straight at her in the face, and thought: ‘Oh, my goodness, I look like her!’” – Excerpt of Rita Wright’s testimony recounting the time she reunited with her mother.

Picture of Aboriginal marchers holding the Aboriginal flag on National Sorry Day.
Picture of Aboriginal marchers holding the Aboriginal flag on National Sorry Day.
Credits: https://www.stolengenerationstestimonies.com/rita-wright.html

Anthropology: How does National Sorry Day reflect the reality of Aboriginal people’s lives?

Can a national apology truly make a change in Australia? That is not for sure. Though acknowledging and raising awareness about the Stolen Generations will probably help Aboriginal communities heal their past wounds, it can not erase the issues of present-day Australia.

Poverty and inequality

Like many disenfranchized group, Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders do not benefit from the same quality of life as the majority group. They report lower rates of education and employment, which makes them more vulnerable to poverty. In 2016, 31% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were reported to living below the poverty line. Many believe that the decades of forced separations have directly resulted in a higher rate of poverty amongst Aboriginal communities.

Health issues

The destruction of Aboriginal cultures started with one evil: disease. Europeans brought with them a slew of epidemic diseases which wiped out the majority of Aboriginal peoples. Unfortunately, the phantom of this evil has lingered through our present time, and the health of Aboriginal Australians remains a plaguing issue. ATSI Australians have shorter life expectancies than non-Aboriginal Australians. They also have higher rates of infant mortality and fatalities while giving birth. In 2019, the Closing The Gap initiative reported that instead of closing, the gap in life expectancy kept getting wider. And, another study conducted in 2019 has also shown that members of the Stolen Generations were more likely to have anxiety, depression, PTSD or suicidal tendencies. In turn, a significant number as showed to be unstable when it comes to family dynamics.

Lack of consideration for Aboriginal cultures

Colonial Wallpapers - Mantle of Perception by Helen S. Tiernan, 2016. Cooee Gallery, Sydney.
Colonial Wallpapers – Mantle of Perception by Helen S. Tiernan, 2016. Cooee Gallery, Sydney. Credits: https://www.artandaustralia.com/

History has shaped the way non-Aboriginal Australians see their ATSI neigbours. With colonization and assimilation, seeing society outside of a European-centered frame has become more of a challenge. For, historically, the government put great efforts in erasing the cultural complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. For instance, Aboriginal arts have long been depreciated and misunderstood, as many have failed to contemplate them through the right lense. Europeans have imposed their views on a world that had already developed a rich, but different culture. More urgently, certain Aboriginal languages, like the Wiradjuri language, are on the verge of extinctions. In 2017, Australia implemented the New South Wales Aboriginal Languages Act, in order to recognize the significance of Aboriginal languages, at last. Hopefully, the preservative measures taken by the government of Australia will have a positive effect on the survival of Aboriginal languages, despite their tardiness.

The importance of acknowledging past faults and saying sorry

National Sorry Day opens the dialogue on the need for governments to apologize for their crimes (especially, their crimes against humanity). On December 7th 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to apologize to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. His gesture made history. The act of acknowledging the pain and struggle of a people, while simultaneously addressing a sincere apology, seems to be the only first step towards healing. For certain communities, no one proper apologies has ever been received, for no one as even acknowledged that a crime was committed against them. Such controversies surround the Japanese Government on the topic of the “Comfort Women”. Or the American government and its unwillingness to offer reparations to African American Descendants of Slaves. Which proves that a people can not head towards reconciliation without a proper acknowledgement of history.

For Aboriginal and Torres Island Australians, the path towards equality remains long and riddled with obstacles. As one apology was made, but other crimes, such as the genocide of Aboriginal tribes, have yet to be recognized. The topic remains very controversial, but that is why engaging in a discussion about it is more than necessary.

To hear testimonies of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders who survived the Stolen Generations, head to https://www.stolengenerationstestimonies.com/

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