What is National Sorry Day?
National Sorry Day gathers Australians to commemorate the survivors of a dark time in Australian history. Officially known as National Healing Day, this holiday allows everyone to discuss the experiences of members of the stolen generations, as well as the current state of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The country Australia got its name when British settlers reached the coast of Sydney and declared the country an English territory. Before that, Dutch explorers gave the name New Holland. But before the Europeans arrived, the country already bore the name given by the original inhabitants. It flourished mostly with Aboriginal cultures and art. It was already vibrating to the sound of ancient melodies and ritual dances. A national day of mourning is thus more than obligatory, as the cultural richness of these countries has been trampled by many historical and traumatic events.
Disclaimer:The purpose of this article is not to try to bring all the First Peoples of Australia together. On the contrary, we recognize that all indigenous peoples have their own cultures, perceptions, stories and, of course, names. This article was written to reflect on the current situation of these Aboriginal groups in present-day Australia in the light of their history.
National Day of Apologies
National Sorry Day Date and Context
In the late 1930s, after centuries of oppression caused by the onslaught of British colonization, as well as various attempts to organize against the white exclusive parliament, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island (ATSI) formed the people of the Australia Aborigines Progressive Association. The association declared January 26, the same date as Australia day, a day of mourning and protest against the colonization of Australian lands. The words of the president of the Aboriginal Progress Association, Jack Pratten, reveal the significance of this date:. "In one sentence, Jack Pratten described the Aboriginal state from the beginning of colonization to the present day.
Exiled from their lands, killed en masse, dehumanized, separated from their families, institutionally discriminated against ... ATSI people have had to bear the heavy burden of countless generational traumas due to colonization. As these wounds have not yet healed, another national day, "National Sorry Day", has become more prominent than the day of mourning. Since 1998, Australians have celebrated National Sorry Day on May 26 to pay tribute to the victims of "Chair Generations". This dark episode of Australian history dates back only a few decades, as the practice still existed in the 1970s. The date of May 26 was chosen as a reference to the release of Bring Them Home report from 1997, a paper dealing with the topic of Stolen Generations, showing the series of systematic abductions and separations inflicted on ATSI families in the 1920s.
National Sorry Day was renamed 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 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 not yet been done.
The celebration of National Sorry day:An apology to the lost generations
Colonization, possession and dehumanization
With the arrival of settlers in 1788 in Sydney Cove, the relationship between the Aborigines and them was not so serious. For the most part, the native population ignored the newcomers. Although from time to time they offered the British some help in adapting to the Australian environment. As the number of settlers increased, these conditions deteriorated. The Aborigines soon discovered that both cultures would not be able to live together in the territory, as the British captured more and more land, water, natural food resources and the much-needed free mobility required for them to thrive. In 1790, the Eora clan began to organize attacks on the colonizers. Things took a turn for the worse when Lachlan Macquarie became governor in 1810. After several unsuccessful attempts to force Aborigines to assimilate into European culture, he made it legal to shoot Aborigines who resisted British control.
Disposal of land became systematic. And as the Aborigines lost their land, the population dwindled due to a lack of food resources. Epidemic diseases and the introduction of alcohol further destroyed the spirit and physical health of indigenous peoples. Massacres of Aboriginal clans became increasingly common, in addition to sexual assault and slavery. Traditional weapons and spears could not be compared to shotguns, as the English used increasingly violent methods (shooting them, poisoning them and 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 almost 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 transferring them to complete annihilation. ”- Edward Wilson, March 17, 1856.
Dehumanization:a tool for the powerful to relax the psyche
To justify their criminal acts and the seizure of land, the settlers used, implicitly or explicitly, the tool of dehumanization. In fact, in Australia, colonists used pseudo-scientific racial theories to establish ATSI humans as subraces. Therefore, some Aborigines dislike the terminology of the "indigenous people of Australia", which is reminiscent of the way biologists talk about plants and animals. The cruel strategy of dehumanizing and costing a group of people allowed settlers to deny rights to indigenous peoples. This view enabled them to acquire the lands and impose their society on the aboriginals and erase significant sections of cultures in a thousand years.
Dehumanization not only helped colonists rationalize their crimes. It also served the purpose of breaking the spirit of ATSI people. The goal of dehumanization was, in fact, to impose an original image of oneself on indigenous peoples. Such treatments, even today, continue to have an impact on the Australian collective psyche. Aboriginals and other indigenous peoples around the world continue to suffer from a lack of respect for their human integrity. Their health and well-being are still ignored. This is reflected in the birth mortality of Aboriginal women in Australia, indigenous peoples in Canada and many other minority groups. Stereotypical terminologies such as "primitive cultures" or "savages" still plague our modern vocabulary.
The Stolen Generations
From the 1905s to the 1970s, Australia was the theater of a sinister procrastination process organized by none other than the government. During this period, the Australian Church and government organizations, mostly "welfare", took thousands of "half-cast" and full-aboriginal children from the family. In 1886, two parliamentary acts, the Victorian Half-Cast Act and Western Australia Aborigines Protection Act , officially allowed the removal of "half-cast" children, to give them a better quality of life. The term "half-caste" referred to biracial or mixed children of Aboriginal and English descent. In fact, the Australian Parliament believed that ATSI families did not have the opportunity to raise children under the best of conditions. Some even believed that the ATSI community was 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, Survivor of Stolen Generations.
Despite the fact that this separation would create a huge wound in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In 1905, ASTI parents virtually lost their rights to have a family when the Aborigines Act took from their guardianship. Thus, their children became official state departments, and could be taken as desired. Children who were removed from the family had to live in homes and learn either household or agriculture. That way, they would know early on how to work for a white family (usually without pay). To further abandon their culture, they had to stop speaking their language and go by a new name. Many ended up growing up in shame and self-loathing. The process ended in 1969, when New South Wales abolished the Aborigines Welfare Board. Unfortunately, it has lingered in modern society in a more insidious form.
The celebration of National Sorry Day to respond to a generational trauma
On 13 February 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd formally apologized to the members of the stolen generation. But what does that mean? In fact, this marks a historic turning point for ASTI Australians. The episode of the stolen generations created a great trauma for the aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The act of tearing up a person, tearing it away from families and culture, is completely violent and very difficult to heal. According to the Genocide Convention, systematic separation of families is part of the definition of genocide. Following the shocking killings, the Australian government appears to be resorting 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 the group homes. Instead of benefiting from a better upbringing, many were sexually abused, beaten, or neglected. To justify the abductions, the welfare often pretended that the children had lice or were malnourished, which further alienated the parents. Some children, taken as babies, can go decades without knowing their biological families, just having the mission or group at home to cling to for protection. Some would never meet them. Healing from such experiences has proved very difficult for the residents of Torres Strait Island. Unfortunately, a similar phenomenon still occurs today. In fact Western Australia Department of Communities and Department of Health reported that between 2012 and 2017, the number of Aboriginal children placed in the home care service increased from 46.6 per 1,000 children to 56.6 per 1,000 children.
"I did not know what to do. I was very shaky. And then they said, 'Come on, I want you to meet someone.' And in the corner there was this little lady sitting there, and then I looked straight at her face, and I thought, 'Oh my God, I look like her!' Excerpt from Rita Wright's testimony about the time she was reunited with her mother.
Can a national excuse really make a difference in Australia? It's not safe. While acknowledging and raising awareness about the stolen generations is likely to help Aboriginal communities heal their past wounds, it cannot erase the problems of today's Australia.
Poverty and inequality
Like many rights-free groups, Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders do not enjoy the same quality of life as the majority group. They report lower education and employment, making them more vulnerable to poverty. In 2016, 31% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were reported living below the poverty line. Many believe that decades of forced segregation have directly resulted in higher poverty among Aboriginal communities.
The destruction of Aboriginal cultures began with an evil:disease. The Europeans brought with them a number of epidemic diseases that exterminated the majority of the indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, the phantom of this evil has lingered in our present time, and the health of Aboriginal Australians is still a troublesome problem. ATSI Australians have a shorter life expectancy than non-Aboriginal Australians. They also have higher infant mortality and deaths while giving birth. In 2019, the Closing The Gap initiative reported that the gap in life expectancy instead of closing was growing. 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. On the other hand, a significant number proved to be unstable in terms of family dynamics.
Lack of consideration for Aboriginal cultures
History has shaped the way non-Aboriginal Australians view their ATSI neighbors. With colonization and assimilation, it has become more of a challenge to see society outside a European-centered framework. Historically, the government has made great efforts to erase the cultural complexity of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander Australians. For example, Aboriginal art has long been written off and misunderstood, as many have failed to think about it through the right lens. Europeans have imposed their views on a world that had already developed a rich but different culture. More urgent are certain Aboriginal languages, such as the Wiradjuri language, on the verge of extinction. In 2017, Australia New South Wales implemented the Aboriginal Languages Act, to finally recognize the importance of Aboriginal languages. Hopefully, the conservation measures taken by the Australian Government will have a positive effect on the survival of Aboriginal languages, despite their slowness.
The importance of acknowledging past mistakes 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 7, 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt in front of the Ghetto Heroes Monument 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 making a sincere apology, seems to be the only first step towards healing. For certain communities, no proper apologies have ever been received, for no one acknowledged that a crime was committed against them. Such controversy surrounds the Japanese government on the issue of "Comfort Women". Or the US government and its unwillingness to offer compensation to African-American descendants of slaves. Which proves that a people cannot go towards reconciliation without a proper recognition of history.
For Australians from Aboriginal and Torres Island, the road to equality is long and full of obstacles. As an excuse was made, but other crimes, such as the genocide of Aboriginal tribes, have not yet been recognized. The topic is still very controversial, but that's why it's more than necessary to participate in a discussion about it.
To hear testimonies about indigenous peoples and the Torres Strait Islanders who survived the stolen generations, go to https://www.stolengenerationstestimonies.com/