Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a complex system of family relations, where each person knows their kin and their land.
Aboriginal spinning top, Cape York, Queensland
Australian Museum Photography Unit © Australian Museum
These extended family relationships are the core of Indigenous kinship systems that are central to the way culture is passed on and society is organised.
"All people with the same skin grouping as my mother are my mothers... They have the right, the same as my mother, to watch over me, to control what I'm doing, to make sure that I do the right thing. It's an extended family thing... It's a wonderful secure system."
Wadjularbinna Doomadgee, Gungalidda leader, Gulf of Carpentaria, 1996
Kinship systems define where a person fits in to the community, binding people together in relationships of sharing and obligation. These systems may vary across communities but they serve similar functions across Australia. Kinship defines roles and responsibilities for raising and educating children and structures systems of moral and financial support within the community.
About Indigenous Families
Elders bridge the past and the present and provide guidance for the future. They teach important traditions and pass on their skills, knowledge and personal experiences. It is for these reasons that in Indigenous societies elders are treated with respect.
"In Aboriginal Society the family unit is very large and extended, often with ties to the community... Having that family unit broken down has just opened the floodgates for a lot of problems, a lot of emotional problems, mental and physical turmoil. If you want to use a really hard term to describe the impact that removal of Aboriginal children has had on Aboriginal families,'attempted cultural genocide' is a good phrase."
Carol Kendal in 'Indigenous People and the Law' , C. Cunneen & T. Libesman (eds) Reed international Books, 1995
Indigenous communities have strong family values that are rarely endorsed or understood by government authorities. Children are not just the concern of the biological parents, but the entire community. Therefore, the raising, care, education and discipline of children are the responsibility of everyone - male, female, young and old.
Indigenous education stresses the relationship between the child and its social and natural environment, which children learn by close observation and practice. However, some knowledges are secret and are revealed only when the child is ready.
The government policies in which families and communities were separated were more than just heartbreaking for the individuals involved - they also effectively halted the passing of cultural knowledge from one generation to another.
Passing the Culture to Children - Storytelling
In Aboriginal Australian society storytelling makes up a large part of everyday life. Storytelling is not only about entertaining people but is also vital in educating children about life.
Storytelling is used in a variety of ways. It is used to teach children how they should behave and why, and to pass on knowledge about everyday life such as how and when to find certain foods. Stories are also used to explain peoples' spirituality, heritage and the laws. Dreaming stories pass on information to young people about creation, how the land was formed and populated, creation of plants, animals and humans, information about ancestral beings and places, the boundaries of peoples' tribal lands, how ancestors came to Australia, how people migrated across the country and arrived in a particular part of the country.
However, not all information can be known by all people. Some information can only be revealed to certain people. This information is known as sacred. For example, some sacred information can only be told to certain initiated women or men after they have carried out certain initiation rites.
The elders use every opportunity to educate the children about the way of life of their people. Stories are told while walking down to the waterhole or grinding up seeds to make damper (bread) or sitting around the campfire at night. As children grew older more information is passed on about their culture. Once a person becomes an adult they are responsible for passing on the information they had learned to the younger people.
Storytelling ensures that Aboriginal heritage is passed on to the younger people. This is how Dreaming stories have been passed down for thousands of years and continue to be passed on today.
Today storytelling in Indigenous Australia is still a very important way of passing on information to people. For thousands of years information has been passed on through stories and songs. Today you can also see and hear it in many types of music, plays, poetry, books, artwork, on television and on the Web and you can now read in books the traditional stories that were once only spoken.
These stories keep alive the traditions and heritage of Indigenous Australia not only within Indigenous communities but also within the wider community. This helps to increase understanding and awareness between people.
Today, as well as elders in the communities, we have professional story tellers who visit schools and other educational groups passing on their knowledge about Indigenous culture and beliefs.
Indigenous children across Australia often make their own toys, and like children everywhere, they are incredibly resourceful. Some toys are models of traditional tools and weapons, such as boomerangs, spears, baskets or boats, while others are model airplanes, torches or telephones. Some toys are created specifically for Indigenous games. Special throwing objects called weet weets were used in boys' throwing game in northern Queensland. This selection of toys is just a sample of the range found across the country.
String games are common in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures around the world. String figure designs often resembled objects that were, and in some parts of Australian still are, used in everyday life such as dilly bags and baskets, or they represented animals and people, or abstract ideas such as the forces of nature. As people played the string game designs would change quickly from one thing to another. This game was also used to help tell stories.
"They just came down and say, "We taking these kids". They just take you out if your mothers arms. That's what they done to me. I was still at my mother's breast when they took me."
Alex Kruger, 1995
The greatest assault on Indigenous cultures and family life was the forced separation or 'taking away' of Indigenous children from their families. This occurred in every Australian state form the late 1800s until the practice was officially ended in 1969. During this time as many as 100 000 children were separated from their families. These children became known as the Stolen Generation.
The separation took three forms: putting Indigenous children into government-run institutions; adoption of children by white families; and the fostering of children into white families. The last two strategies were particularly applied to 'fair-skinned' children.
These forced separations were part of deliberate policies of assimilation. Their aim was to cut children off from their culture to have them raised to think and act as 'white'.
"Well there was nine of us in the family, old (Lambert) came along and said: "You can't look after these kids by yourself Mrs Clayton", but we were for months without welfare coming near us. We had the two grandmothers and all our uncles and aunties there and our father's brothers were there. We weren't short of an extended family by any means. We never went without anything. But they still took us away. What right did they have? I am still seeking answers to [my] family's removal."
Iris Clayton, Wiradjuri Elder, Leeton/Canberra in 'Link-Up' Booklet 1995
Link-Up was formed in 1980 to work with Aboriginal adults who were separated as children from families. They may have been raised in state or sectarian institiutions specifically for Aboriginal children or in non-Aboriginal institutions, foster homes or adoptive homes.
Most of the children separated from their families grew up knowing little about their Aboriginal names, families, culture and heritage. These circumstances made it very difficult for those who wanted to find their families.
According to Link-Up, "empowerment is the basis of our work. Empowerment means that as workers we acknowledge the person's experience and we respect their ability to make decisions about their needs and their healing process. They are the experts of their own experience". Link-Up provides support and counselling before, during and after the reunion of families. Since its beginning Link-Up has worked with thousands of Aboriginal families.
Government Institutions for Children
Kinchela is a 13 hectare area of fertile land at the mouth of the Macleay River on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. In 1924, the Aboriginal Protection Board opened the Kinchela Boys Home with the 'official' purpose of providing training for Aboriginal boys between the ages of five and fifteen. These boys were taken from their families by the State from all over New South Wales.
Conditions at Kinchela were harsh. The boys received a poor education from unqualified teachers and worked long hours on vegetable and dairy farms run by the Board on the reserve land. Boys were beaten, tied up, given little emotional support, and no attention was given to developing skills of individual boys.
At the age of fifteen, the boys were sent to work as rural labourers. The board kept control of most of their earnings, which were supposed to be kept in trust for them until they reached adulthood. Most never saw their trust money.
Conditions improved in 1940, when the Protection Board was abolished and replaced by the Aboriginal Welfare Board. From the 1950s boys were sent to high school in Kempsey where they won many local athletics and sporting championships. Despite improvements, the fact remains that Kinchela was a home for 'stolen children'.
Kinchela closed down in 1969, when the Aboriginal Welfare Board was finally disbanded.
Cootamundra Girls Home
Cootamundra Girls Home, established in 1911, was the first of the homes for Aboriginal children set up by the Aborigines Protection Board. The main aim of the Board was to 'rescue' Aboriginal children from their families and assimilate them into the white community. Girls were the main target of the Board, especially so-called 'half-caste' or 'mixed blood' girls. The girls were trained as domestic servants and sent out to work for middle class white families.
At Cootamundra, Aboriginal girls were instructed to 'think white, look white, act white'. This was part of the process to make the girls suitable wives for white men, in the hope that through interracial marriages, Aboriginal blood would be 'bred out'. They were taught to look down on their own people and to fear Aboriginal men.
Girls in the home were not allowed to communicate with their families. They were often told that their parents were dead and even given forged death certificates. As a result, many of the girls in the home lost their families forever.
Cootamundra Home was closed in 1968, the year before the Aboriginal Welfare Board (previously the Aborigines Protection Board) was abolished.