Uncle Michael Welsh was only eight when he was bundled onto a train from his country out in Coonamble, in central-west New South Wales, with six of his siblings—the eldest only 10 and the youngest, six-month-old twins. They had already been ripped from their mother, and on reaching Sydney’s bustling Central Station were that day ripped from each other.
Uncle Michael and his ten-year old brother would begin a separate journey together, embarking on the same road, although with different endings (Michael says his brother’s journey ended at ‘around 43’ years old). They were taken to the notorious Kinchela Boys Home near Kempsey, where on their first day they saw a fellow detainee digging a hole for the sole purpose of filling it in again. This ‘home’ warehoused Aboriginal boys who had been taken from their families, imprinting trails of tears on generations of young Aboriginal warriors that are still visible today.
‘They took us away,’ Uncle Michael told Murri broadcaster Tiga Bayles and me on Aboriginal radio station 98.9 FM in 2015, as his son drove him to a reunion of brothers who had survived Kinchela. His voice cracked down the phone line as he recalled stepping behind the imposing gates of the home.
Uncle Michael remembers the staff shaving his head, and watching as they burnt his clothes. He remembers the beginning of the attempts to ‘reprogram’ his brain, to expunge any semblance of Aboriginality from his being—a ‘deliberate’ programming that he would recognise only years later when he was free of the gates.
‘They told us, this is your number—you are 37, Michael, and my brother Barry was number 17. And that was the beginning of that mongrel of a place.’
It was not until he turned 17, so close to that glowing age of freedom of 18, that he escaped the confines of his detention and returned to his traditional country with his aunty and uncle, and was reunited with his mother, living in a tent on the banks of the Namoi River. Those early years would lead to a lifetime of pain that he is only now beginning to recover from.
‘I watched my brothers and sisters come back home—there are only four of us left now—but I watched them [come back] and never be connected again,’ he says. ‘It hurts me.’
He says he would rather be ‘kicked between the legs any day’ than deal with ‘this pain every day of the week’, a pain that forces you to act out, that buries you beneath the weight of secrets you struggle to keep from your children. For decades Uncle Michael tried to hide these stories from his kids—perhaps a protection mechanism for them—but this pain has a way of bubbling, like poison, to the surface. ‘The hiding. I thought I was [hiding] it and every other brother [from Kinchela], they thought they were [hiding] it. But it’s something you can’t get away from, because it’s passed through your DNA now to your children. It hurts more to know that they know all these things.’
This trauma manifests in many ways and for Uncle Michael, who felt lucky being able to return to country, it was in alcohol and drugs, and in deep waves of depression and anger—all colliding to try to kill him before his time, even before the life expectancy statistic that condemns so many other Aboriginal men.
‘I tried to kill myself through 35 years of alcohol. I even put the gun up into my mouth and was going to shoot myself,’ he says, the pain evident in his voice.
But if it is evident to us in his speech, it was not always so evident to him. ‘It was dangerous,’ he says, ‘my children they tell me they couldn’t come over and just wake me up in the morning. They’d pat me and jump back and run away. I’d start swinging and kicking. It’s a good spot to be where I’m at now.’
He feels ‘lucky’ because his uncle took him out to work on his traditional country. ‘We can still go out and knock goanna out of the tree with a stick, or go porcupine hunting. All of those things. I was blessed to have that part all through this, even though we were going through the abuse of alcohol … and trying to kill the pain … I realise now coming out of the other side that all that I can draw upon now.’
Of all the interviews from 2015, it was this conversation that has always stuck out to me. And as I enter 2016, it reminds me of where we stand as a nation. Because Uncle Michael’s pain, and his articulation of this pain as something that never goes away but that you learn to live with, was so representative to me of the pain of Aboriginal Australia.
It is a pain that began at invasion and is manifest across the breadth of my people. Despite the often unacknowledged differences that separate our First Nations, despite the geography, history and growing class divides (there is now an emerging black upper and middle class), this pain still manifests itself in every black family. We are all given an inheritance of trauma that has expressed itself differently in each generation. It is the denial of this pain, the white Australian belief that Aboriginal people can ‘get over it’, without any justice or healing, that is holding back any progress on the idea of ‘reconciliation’.
As Australia participated in an important debate on family violence last year, we saw little debate on the other forms of violence that lead to the staggering domestic violence rates against the most vulnerable group in our communities—Aboriginal women. We didn’t talk about the violence of a bureaucrat signing away a child to another family, far removed from community, as rates of Aboriginal child removal continued to rise every year after Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. We didn’t talk about the violence of locking up these same children because they have nowhere else to go, where the safest place for them is on remand in a detention centre, where restrictive conditions under bail acts tie the hands of magistrates and force more Aboriginal children behind bars.
We didn’t talk about the violence in paving the pathway for their next destination—prison, where so many of them spend time—lost generation after lost generation. We didn’t talk about the violence of locking up their mothers, many of them now for protecting themselves against family violence, or for ‘victimless crimes’ such as unpaid fines and minor traffic offences. Aboriginal women are the fastest-growing group incarcerated in the country. We didn’t talk about other forms of violence that have devastating impacts on family violence rates—of the violence in ripping hundreds of millions of dollars out of the black budget, in refusing funding to already stretched Aboriginal legal aid services or Aboriginal women’s shelters, in rolling out a traumatic Indigenous ‘Advancement’ Strategy that awarded non-Aboriginal NGOs at the expense of small, Aboriginal community-controlled organisations. The denial of self-determination to a people historically disempowered is an act of violence in itself, in my view. It is a structural violence that manifests in the physical violence we see in communities—violence against women and children, men hurting other men, elder abuse, and violence against the self, suicide and self-harm.
But everywhere I see the denial of this violence, because it involves recognising the complicity of Australia in the suffering of Aboriginal Australia. It is easier to blame blackfellas than to acknowledge the pain of my people. It is why we are now in a farcical debate on ‘constitutional reform’, which so far seems to be a distraction, a means for white Australia to look like it is delivering a promise to Aboriginal Australia. But it has become an empty gesture, a tokenistic attempt, to deny the pain of my people. But denying the pain also means denying the strength of Aboriginal mob all around the country, particularly our old people like Uncle Michael Welsh. It means not acknowledging the strength in our ability to heal ourselves.
If Australia can’t even begin a conversation about how we deal with this pain, in a way that is controlled by Aboriginal people, we will remain forever stunted as a nation. •