William Brian Butler
Born 13th September 1938 at the Bagot Detention Centre in Darwin, Northern Territory
My mother Emily Anne was born Annie Lawrie and my grandmother Eliza Gordon was born Lady Wilson and are of the Aranda tribe and my grandfather Toby is of the Luritja tribe from the Uluru and Areyonga areas.
My tribal name is Jangala.
Nana Eliza Gordon and her sister Nana Mabel Smith, my mother Emily Ann Gordon and her sister, my auntie Mavis Webb were taken from their homeland at Altunga east of Alice Springs in central Australia.
So, I guess my story begins right back in the mid ‘1900s or perhaps a bit earlier than that. My grandmother, Eliza Gordon was just a young girl, and from this very young age she was used by the police troopers, forced to assist them in finding all of the children of mixed relationships between Aboriginal women and the pastoralists and the miners out from Altunga in the goldfields, the railway workers and all those other non-Aboriginal people that came to Alice Springs for various government work.
The stories that she told us were about how she was forced by the police troopers to ride with them out around the countryside to find and locate the various Aboriginal camps and to identify and let the police know where those camps were so that they could search them for the children, all the half caste children.
For many, many, years she was subjected to riding at the tail of the troopers, and she ended up with trachoma from the dust and sandy blight as it was called in those days. The troopers failed to get her medical help when she needed it and her eyesight was severely affected causing her to be completely blind for the rest of her life. Not only was she forced to find all the half caste children out on their patrols but she was also used as their sex object, the troopers’ sex slave as well. We don’t know how many children she had apart from Mum and Auntie Mavis, but she always talked about how she was forced to smother her first born baby at birth and bury that baby in the creek at a place called ‘wipe out’ in central Australia.
You know after listening to her and in her later years, certainly nearing the end of her life when she was effected by the loss of her faculties, she didn’t actually have a heart attack or blood pressure or any of those sorts of things or bad kidneys, she lived well into her 90’s possibly even close to 100 and she just went back into her foetal position at her death. For weeks and weeks, even months before she died, Nana talked about her childhood, she literally went back there in her mind, back into her childhood days. She would tell us again and again about ‘wipe out’ you know, and it was always that story, about that baby that she buried there. That was the one that she told us about. So that pain must have been with her right until the end of her days and she was really affected so much by that act of terror forced upon her at the hands of that trooper in his uniform.
We do not know which of the troopers’ it was that fathered that child, but we think that this is where the name ‘Gordon’ comes from. The father of that child did not want her to have her baby and expose him to the rest of the community. That was just the sort of thing that happened and I have no doubt that this was not a unique event isolated to my Nana and the women from Altunga, other people would have had the same experience right across Australia.
So then Nana Eliza married an Aboriginal man from the Luritja tribe and from that relationship my mother, Emily Ann arrived, she was born Annie Lawrie though as I mentioned above. When Mum was only small she remembers that there was a lot of tribal conflict between the Aranda and Luritja peoples. One night Mum clearly remembered the experience of her father being sang, he was taken away by the men in the night, the kadaicha men and she never saw him after that. Mum was told that he was dealt with in that way for having been with Nana, so I never ever knew my Aboriginal grandfather or who he really was until much later when Mum told me his name was Toby.
Nana Eliza then had another child, my Auntie Mavis, to one of the pastoralists by the name of Webb. He was from Mount Riddoch Station and as far as I know, there were only those two children that survived. By the time Mum and Auntie Mavis were in their early teens they had been taken away from Nana Eliza and placed in the detention centre in Alice Springs known as ‘The Bungalow’. It was in the mid ‘20s when they were first separated from Nana Eliza. Then Auntie Mavis was taken from ‘The Bungalow’ and sent away down south to a place called Balaklava in South Australia miles away from her sister, my Mum.
When my mother was taken from ‘The Bungalow’, she was then separated from her mother and taken to Darwin where she was placed in the Bagot Reserve Detention Centre. She was sent to Government House to be trained as a domestic to work for the Governor and it was at this time that my father James Henry (Jim) Butler came on to the scene, whilst she was training at Government House. Jim found out where she was living and took on a job as the cook at the Bagot Reserve Detention Centre so he could be with her. He actually had to marry my mother in Darwin because the association was going to land him in jail had he not because of the consorting laws, so this is where I was born. In 1938 in Darwin, while Mum was still at the Bagot Reserve Detention Centre and this is where my Mum lovingly cared for me and she shared that care with my two godmothers Aunty Daisy Ruddick and Auntie Dolly Jamieson.
It was around this time that I was actually grateful for the Japanese when they dropped the bombs on Darwin, because they in fact blew us out of Darwin and back down to Alice Springs where we were reunited with Nana and the rest of our extended family from east of Alice Springs, from the Altunga area. I guess that my early childhood days were not particularly happy ones because we were constantly being uplifted and moved from pillar to post and by the time we got back to Alice Springs my mother had another child, my brother Stanley Winston in tow. All tolled there were eight children, five boys and three girls by spanning from 1938 – 1952.
Racism, such blatant racism…in their life it was just terrifying because my mother, along with the other Aboriginal ladies who were married to white men, went through tremendous experiences with domestic violence, physical abuse, mental abuse and unimaginable maltreatment at the hands of their so called husbands. The reason why they used to get bashed a lot was because the white men would go out and they would all be having liaisons with other women around the town. My father in particular would come back, after having been gone for a couple of days, off having relationships with other women, he would return and bash my mother, accusing her of being promiscuous, he would accuse her of doing all the hideous things that he was guilty of. He used to bash her in front of us children, dragging her around the floor by her long black hair and sink those big army boots into her ribs and that sort of stuff. That was the way things happened in Alice Springs.
From about the age of three or four I can remember, along with my brother Stan who is now deceased, the two of us getting flogged all the time, our father used to do that a lot, from way back then when we were just tiny he would flog us. Especially when we tried to learn the language from our aunties and Nana and Mother, every time that we would start to get a hold of the language. If we got caught by him he would thrash the living daylights out of us kids and not only that, he would also thrash Mum and Nana Eliza as well, who by this time was totally blind from the sandy blight from when she was forced to go with the police troopers.
And so that, I guess, was my early experience of racism, the racism that existed from our fathers towards our mothers, and all the white people there including my father, the way they used to speak about the Aboriginal people and call them names, referring to them as boongs and niggers and all that sort of stuff, we use to get that too right from when we were babies. My father would flog the living daylights out of me or my brothers and sisters if we didn’t have a shirt on our back or a hat on in the hot days and he would bellow at us ‘because you are black enough as it is’…’you don’t want to end up like the boongs out there in the bush do you?’ That is what we grew up with and I remember it as clear as if it was only yesterday. Fathers mother Ollie, my grandmother, in the early days, would even scrub our skin with the hard scrubbing brush, the one that she used to scrub the floors with, trying to get the black out of us.
My schooling days bring back many memories, not many of them good ones I can tell you. I started my schooling at the Alice Springs Primary School in Hartley Street in a green octangular building that is still standing there to this day. I was very restless at school, mainly because I was able to see that the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids were treated differently then, I remembered why but I couldn’t understand why Aboriginal kids had to have a shower in the shower block at the school before they could go into the class room, and I felt so unsettled that I schemed up a plan with my cousin Billy Liddle for me to go up to the convent and I went and enrolled myself. The nun’s took me in, and into the class room I went. I spent 3 or 4 days there at the Convent before the Hartley Street School Headmaster rang my father to see where I was. So again, I got the biggest thrashing for transferring from one school to the other without his permission. When I look back, I can see that I started to question things about right and wrong from a very early age.
As a result my Father then sent me to St John’s Boarding House which was run by Father Percy Smith and his wife. From this point on, the responsibility for making sure I was in school was passed on to Father Smith. This was the beginning of my experience of separation from my mother and my family, the beginning of years of anxiety and apprehension. What was supposed to be a ‘normal’ family upbringing was interrupted by being placed into an institution.
From St John’s Boarding House, Father Smith took Charlie Perkins, Billy Espie, John Palmer, Malcolm Cooper, Gordon Briscoe, David Woodforde and me to Pembroke Street in Kensington, South Australia where we all attended the Kensington Primary School. From there we were again uplifted and transferred from Kensington to St Francis House at Semaphore where we then continued our schooling at Ethelton Primary School. Soon after other boys joined our group, and among them were John Moriarty, Maxie Wilson, Jim Foster, Peter Tilmouth, Wilfred Huddleston, Robert Walker, Bamford Campbell, Vince Copley, Harry Russell, Wally McArthur, Ernie Perkins, Lawrie Bray, Gerry Hill, Charlie Kunnoth and Sonny Morey.
And again I experienced another separation, but this time it was from my family of brothers, brothers whom I had bonded with at St Francis House, when my father decided that I needed more discipline in my life. He thought that I would get this from the Marist Brothers at Sacred Heart College in Sommerton Park and everybody knew that the Marist Brothers were renowned as disciplinarians and they knew how to wield the cane, as I was to learn over the four years that I was a boarder there. I soon became known as the trouble maker and was blamed for all of the disruptions with other boys at the college and for the most part the other boys would get off scot-free. Needless to say, my ability to learn was reduced even further because I was still in a state of constant grieving at being separated from my family and now I was also always in trouble.
Some of the good things about being a tall, fit, good looking black fulla was the fact that I was pretty good at sports and could I run like the wind. During my time at Sacred Heart I was Captain of the Under 12’s Football Team, and there on that football field I was the star. I was a high jump champion for my age group and held the title for three years running due to my long skinny legs. I was a champion swimmer and one year during the interschool swimming carnivals held at the Old City Baths, we were all pretty small kids and we had to dive in the shallow end and swim up to the deep end for the heats, but when the time came for the final, we were required to dive in at the deep end. I was the only one who wasn’t scared to do that, so when I dived into the deep end and swam the distance, I came away with 1st, 2nd and 3rd place because the others were too frightened to jump in.
So to put all of this into context and where my life was heading, back in those days it was a widely held belief by the non-Aboriginal people, that separation from family and other Aboriginal influences would allow for kids to buckle down and get the mainstream education and discipline they needed to be successfully assimilated into white mainstream society. What was actually the case, well for me anyway, was that the grief I experienced constantly at being removed from my mother at such an early age, left me in a perpetual state of grieving with no interest or commitment to education and learning…I didn’t enjoy anything about school because I was fretting for my mother and my grandmother.
The strongest memories I do hold from my childhood days come from the return trips that I made back to Alice Springs in the school holidays. The holidays meant I got to go home and that allowed me the opportunity to sit with the old people from the communities outside of the town. My fondest memories are from sitting down with Albert Namatjira in the sandy creeks at Simpson’s Gap and Honeymoon Gap watching him paint his masterpieces, however, it was also at this time as I was going from family to family when I was back in town, where I was to hear the cries of many mothers and grandmothers, all of whom were wondering when someone was going to give them some information as to the whereabouts of their children that were taken away, some never to be seen again. And it was through these times that I made up my mind, I was going to devote my life to searching for the children, in order that they be found and reunited with family. I remember thinking when I was a teenager and wondering what the hell had occurred in this place.
In the early ‘50s up to the mid ‘60s we began to hear the stories from some of the old people because they were then asking the questions, ‘Where are these kids that the health department has taken away from the hospital down to Adelaide, supposedly for medical reasons?…And why hadn’t they been returned’…‘Where are these children that have been taken away supposedly for education purposes also never to be returned?’.
People had begun asking the questions but they were not getting any answers from anybody. Nobody was telling them the truth about what was happening, nobody was telling the truth about where any of those kids had been taken. Some had been taken up to Melville Island, some had been taken up to Charleville in Queensland, and some had been taken to Mulgoa in New South Wales. Certainly a lot down to South Australia, just like my Auntie Mavis had been, and by the time I was old enough to be able to leave Alice Springs and find out how I could do my bit for trying to trace these kids that had been taken away, they were all young teenagers and adults.
When I was sent down to Adelaide by my father, it was right back then when I decided that whatever I was going to do I would try and get myself a job where I could travel around to all of the places right around Australia and try to find these kids. So that’s just what I did.
I joined the Merchant Navy, but I guess it is important to say that when I was in boarding school down in Adelaide I was one of about 500 students at the Sacred Heart College and I was the only Aboriginal border at that time. There had been a couple of other Aboriginal boys there before me, John Turner was one of them from Alice Springs too, but I was the only one there at that time amongst those 500 students. The only Aboriginal bloke and it was a boys school, I used to get flogged every day. I used to get into fights every day because of my Aboriginality, I would then end up getting into trouble with the Marist Brothers and they would end up giving me the cane every day, almost every day it was. For six months after I left that college I still had blood blisters right across both sides of both my hands, that’s probably why my hands are still so strong.
This racism stuff that was going on was really starting to eat away at me, making me all the more determined to do what I knew had to be done, and that was, try and find all these kids, try and fit together the pieces, play my part in fitting together the puzzle that was puzzling so many, all of those cousins if you like, my brothers and sisters.
So when I did finally join the Merchant Navy in about 1952, I put my age up by two years because like I said before, I was pretty tall by this time. I wasn’t even 14 but I put my age up to about 15 or 16 so that I could get away as a deck boy on a passenger ship called the Manoora, which belonged to the Adelaide Steamship Company. That particular ship took me right around Australia from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns. Then back around to Western Australia and down to Fremantle. That allowed me then to go all over the place.
Every time I travelled I would see many young Aboriginal people in the streets. When I found them I would start talking to them and start getting a feel as to their circumstances, and where they were from. I would find out whether they were fostered, adopted, or placed in a home. After a few months of doing this I finally got from Western Australia right up to Cairns and I was able to tell where those kids came from, which families they belonged to, because I knew their features, I learnt the features of the people from the various towns. You can always know just by the way they look, pretty quickly you can tell the difference between a Northern Territory, Darwin, Alice Springs person as opposed to somebody from New South Wales and so on.
So the more I got to know these people and heard about their stories, the more and more it drove me on, and then I was able to tell the stories to other people as well, about who I had found and who I had spoken to, what their names were and all this sort of stuff. But I didn’t have any documentation. When I went back to Alice Springs I would go out and speak to all the old people and say, ‘I saw this one, I saw that one.’ I would be able to tell them that they were still in the land of the living. All the mothers and Community people had been deceived because the people originally had been told that the Alice Springs Hospital was not able to treat their babies and that is how they were then sent away. I mean the Health Department has a lot to answer for because they were sending kids down south who were not going anywhere near a hospital; They were going directly into the Salvation Army, into those institutions where they were fostered out and adopted. I even know now today the name of the Doctor that is totally responsible for sending the children away and because I challenged him as to why he did that, he threatened to take me to court and sue me. In so many cases they were adopted. It was basically all lies.
My generation grew up on all of the lies and deceit, and those lies and deceit became embedded throughout the psyche of our communities during the ‘50s and ‘60s. As I said earlier, we all learnt then from my experience travelling around on the Manoora, talking to other people, that this was not just something that was isolated to Alice Springs, it was happening throughout the whole country on a grand scale.
I, along with many other people at this time, we were still hamstrung as to how we were going to penetrate the Government system, how we would be able to highlight this horrible separation of children from their parents and communities throughout this country. In the early ‘70s I joined the Department of Public Health at a place called Port Augusta in South Australia, in order to a) get into the system, and b) to see if we could get into that system so that we could get close to those files and documentation. At the end of the day, we knew that all of this information was contained in files, either in the Health Department, the Welfare Authority, with the Police and in a lot of cases with the churches. The church files were important because the church, particularly in Alice Springs, played a big part.
The Lutheran Church, The Church of England and the Catholic Church all assisted in the separation of children from their mothers and families in that part of the country. So it was then that I realised that in working for that department we were not going to be able to have access to or find access or a legal way to have access to any of those files. It then became critically important to rally the Aboriginal people in Port Augusta to develop our own organisation so that we could muster the strength to be able to connect with other groups in other towns all the way back to Alice Springs, up to Darwin and all around the country.
We knew even in the early stages that a big movement was going to be needed in trying to overcome what had happened and to find where all of our kids were, where all of our people had been taken. So with the development of that organisation, with the help of the community we started and we called ourselves the Aboriginal Social Club of Port Augusta Inc. (ASCOPA).
It was just a ploy to be able to get established so that from there we could kick off other things to lift the credibility of the organisation so we started the Pika Wiya Medical Service out in the Davenport Community on the fringe of Port Augusta. Pika Wiya started with just one doctor, a doctor by the name of Dr John Bully who was kindly on loan from the Redfern Medical Centre in NSW, thanks to Director Naomi Meyers.
Next we started off the pre-school which is now called TjiTji Wiltja under the management of Linda Leidig (nee Walker) and that was originally a ‘pre’ pre-school designed to get the toddlers with the older people, the grandparents so as to start instilling cultural principles and cultural aspects into their life at that early age, when we knew that they were most receptive. This was such an important development to get the support of the people. Then we got other things going as well, our own housing society the Port Augusta Aboriginal Housing Society where we owned our own houses, we had title to our own houses. We had the responsibility for the parks and gardens projects and we even had an earth moving business that provided the sand for Moniers to make the sleepers for the railway line.
But all those sorts of things were developed to get the community strengthened up, to lift the profile of the community to a level whereby people were starting to take notice of what we were doing and listening to us and giving credit to some of the things we were trying to do and some of the things that we were trying to say. We were all aware that Port Augusta was and still is one of the most Racist towns in Australia. Once we got that, there were people from all around South Australia looking at what we were doing in Port Augusta. We travelled from Port Augusta to other places like Murray Bridge, Mount Gambier, Port Lincoln and Ceduna to influence them and to help the get established with their organisations, and it happened.
During this time I moved to Adelaide and through the Aboriginal Community Centre in Wakefield Street, which at that time was under the Directorship of Mrs Gladys Elphick, Auntie Gladie Elphick, we saw that it was important to establish the Aboriginal Child Care Agency. She spoke to me and asked me if I was interested in heading up that organisation and if I would be interested in going across to Victoria to meet up with the Victorian Agency Director, Mollie Dyer. So that’s what I did, I accepted her offer of the position and I went to Melbourne and I lived with Mick Dodson and his wife Alicia for the time that I was being mentored by Auntie Mollie. My time with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) working under Mollie Dyer and a whole group of other committed people there was invaluable.
Mollie told me how she had been supported by Senator Margaret Gilfoyle, a Liberal Federal Minister, to travel to America where she was able to meet up with a woman by the name of Ms Maxine Robins from the Yakama Nation in Washington State. She spent quite some time with Maxine Robins because Maxine Robins was the woman responsible for mustering all the people, similar to the way in which I described before, how we had to do that profile raising and Maxine Robins did that same thing with the American Indian tribes’ right throughout America. They finally came up with and achieved The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 intended to limit the historical practice of removing Native American children from their tribes, it is a Federal law that governs jurisdiction over the removal of Native American (Indian) children from their families.
When Mollie came back from America, she passed all of this information on to us and I then came back to Adelaide, launched the program in Adelaide and we started off with two people in the Agency. Before too long we had developed the organisation and had something in the order of 40-50 people working in the South Australian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (SAACCA). In the meantime we were focussing on other communities in other states and territories and looking for them to establish Aboriginal Child Care Agencies as well and for the reasons that we have already talked about, we identified with them as to the similar types of things that had happened to their children right around the country.
From the formation of the ACCA’s we then formed a national body which was called the Secretariat to National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. That was commonly known as SNAICC to all of us, that was the acronym. From there we knew our very first principle and our very first goal was to work towards getting a national inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal children in this country. It was in 1978 that we started the push for the inquiry that would become The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families and form the basis for the Bringing Them Home Report which was released in May of 1997.
Muriel Bamblett was very much the power and force that has kept SNAICC going in Victoria. Nigel D’Souza played an important role in bringing about the laws that we now have in place to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in this country. Mollie Dyer coined the phrase ‘Stolen Generations’ and she set up all of the foundations for us to do the work that has happened since then. I am proud of the fact that we have kept her dream going, justice for our kids and the families that had their children taken away. SNAICC from the very outset had that first resolution to bring about the inquiry into the forced removal and separation of Aboriginal children from their parents. We still find ourselves today in a situation where Aboriginal and Islander children continue to be taken and placed in the care of non-Aboriginal people. You need to understand the whole story of each generation since the first forced removals to understand the very complex issues around what we see happening today. It wasn’t all bad parents, there were some good parents and good foster parents but they were very few and far between.
From there we went on to set up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation. People think that it is because of the Kevin Rudd Apology that this new era of Healing Foundations was born, but this was not the case. It started way back then with everything Mollie Dyer did back in the 70’s. I get really annoyed when people come along in later years and take credit for all that important work that was done right back at the beginning. There are many women who have failed to get the recognition they so rightfully deserve. Colonisation had done a damn good job at undermining the Aboriginal men in this country and it was left to the women to bring us back from the brink, so I always pay my respects to those people who set all of these things in motion to allow us to go forward with the work we are still carrying on to this day.
We had no end of trouble getting trying to get people to support us back then. We had to sit around endlessly at the board level with our Aboriginal commissioners and Aboriginal leaders to try and convince them that we wanted them to support us and that it was necessary to have the inquiry. We were told on many occasions by many of these leaders that we were ‘wasting our time’, that we would ‘never get the Government to agree to have a national inquiring into the forced removal of Aboriginal children’ in this country. We defied them. We kept on going back to them, time after time after time. SNAICC then became affiliated with National Aboriginal Health Organisation (NAHO) which was the national health body representing health agencies around the country.
We then became affiliated with the education people around about the same time as Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo was appealing to Aboriginal people around the country to support him in his push for land rights that overturned the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ for the Murray Island and his people, to try and see if we couldn’t get the support we needed from them. At that time nobody wanted to even know Eddie Mabo or myself as they were too afraid to come out of their comfort zones and run the risk of becoming branded as trouble makers by the Government. We then finally got Sir Ronald Wilson, who was the Director of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Sydney New South Wales to support us. He agreed that if we were able to get the money from the Commonwealth that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission would conduct the inquiry.
We were all surprised that we were only able to get $1.3 million from the Commonwealth and that was the disappointing thing because we knew that all those other Aboriginal people that had the authority to provide funding still didn’t back us fully to be able to give us more money, you know to push for more money so that we could do a proper inquiry. We knew that as soon as they announced that they were only going to give us $1.3 million we were only ever going to be able to do a partial inquiry.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission were very reluctant to go ahead because they thought we are not going to be able to do this properly with only $1.3 million. But they then agreed to do it. This was in the ‘80s by this time when they agreed to go ahead and they agreed that they would supplement that $1.3 million with monies of their own that they had. They put a lot of money into what we still call, a partial inquiry. The actual inquiry was not conducted over a very long period of time, because as I said the money didn’t allow us or them to do a lengthy inquiry. And once the inquiry started it proved to be a very traumatic experience, not only for those people that were conducting the inquiry but it proved to be traumatic for all of the families involved, even though families knew that there were people talking about the removal, the circumstances of their removal, they were very traumatised by all of this. A lot of people were very concerned that we didn’t have enough support in terms of getting counsellors around to help those people.
The inquiry was fraught with needs that were left mostly unmet. I think that even to this day, even though the inquiry did uncover a lot of these terrible things that happened, some of the terrible things that happened to those children while they were in adoption settings, in foster care settings and in those institutions we are still only just hearing about them now. Some people are only just starting to have enough strength to be able to talk about their experience, even now in their 50s and 60s the people are still unable to talk about these issues and what happened to them. Like my nana for arguments sake, who went to her grave well into her 90’s still very much in perpetual grief, grieving and talking and feeling about the things that happened to her when she was a child!
There are certainly many reasons why it was important to have a national inquiry. There are many reasons why it was important for people to know the truth and I think that alone is one of the really important things that came out of all of this. At least people are now demanding the truth, the truth about what actually happened to them. Even though there are many books written by individuals and many books written by historians and by other people in academic circles, there are still thousands and thousands of stories that remain untold. I think that even in my living days I do not expect that we are going to hear the last of the stories that were experienced by the forced removal of children from their mothers, their families and their communities. But I think that it is important to say too that here we are in 2012 and there are still subtle ways in which our children are being removed or are being separated from their mothers and their families and their communities.
When people today turn around and say ‘why should Aboriginal people get special consideration for this, that and the other’…’why do they have special opportunities’ in the attempt to lift us to that elusive ‘level playing field’ to understand why this is happening you have to understand the whole story from way back when, right back in the beginning from the invasion and colonisation of this country.
To even begin to understand why young mothers are incapable of having that ‘natural ability’ to care for their children in a way that should have been passed on in normal circumstances, to understand all of the traumatic experiences that have undermined their ability and prevented them from being able to learn about those all-important nurturing skills that people must have to be able to raise a child. And around about this time the Health Department saw it fit to administer Depo-Provera to young women to prevent them from being able to have children of their own, which still to me seems like a bizarre act that has never been properly justified by the Health Authorities in South Australia. As we all know Depo-Provera is the drug that rendered women infertile.
This, to me, was the first impact of Lateral violence for young Mothers. Not just about the hindrance to child rearing but also about our ability to be in relationships with other people, the ability to be able to communicate effectively with each other and all of those sorts of things. Those inabilities have been passed down from generation to generation and these are the sorts of things that we must recognise today. And not just mainstream society but our own people as well, we need to have the collective strength to deal with the sensitive and emotive issues that addressing Lateral violence will bring.
We all know fine well that the life expectancy of Aboriginal people is 20 years below that of white people. We have to learn why all of this is happening. We have to know that the nutrition that we would normally have been exposed to, we were denied that. The enforced ‘nutritional food’ that has replaced our traditional diet played a major part in our inability to cope or to have confidence within ourselves. This is why we have got so much obesity within the Aboriginal community, so much high blood pressure, so much diabetes in our communities. People are now being born with these ailments, starting their precious lives with already diminished abilities to lead a normal, healthy and enriching life, that life expectancy is being even further reduced. If we do not change the situation of many communities today we are going to find that the life expectancy level is going to drop even further.
In some communities throughout this country, particularly in some of the isolated communities I can see that within 5, 10, and 15 –20 years’ time anyway, that those communities will be no longer exist because the people will have just died out. Their health is so bad that they have no hope of recovering. They have no hope of bringing up healthy children in those communities. Those children are dying even before their lives begin and in many cases before the older people. It is very tragic even more so now, as we see such a rise in child and youth suicide in this country where we see Aboriginal and Islander children between the ages or 9 and 14 being successful in their attempts at suicide 7 times higher than those in the mainstream population.
Legislation in the Northern Territory has mandatory sentencing, which is just another way of crippling the ability of Aboriginal families to nurture their children and because their young children are being subjected to those sorts of harsh laws the cycle continues to perpetuate this dysfunction within our communities. There is a whole range of things that contribute towards the inability of young families to care for their children. I am still very worried as to what is going to happen in the future. We must keep an eye on all of the legislations in the States and Territories. As soon as we get wind of any change that will impact on our families, we MUST play a big part in resisting anything that is going to further reduce the ability of our young people to raise their children in a way in which they can ensure them of a positive future steeped in strong and healthy Aboriginal culture hence the current Lateral Violence Campaign and why we will persist in running it, forever in a day.
One of the big concerns that we had in the early days was that as Aboriginal people we were marching down the streets; we were banging on Governments doors, to try and get our people into proper education facilities to be able to give them the opportunity to achieve their potential in the areas of education. What happened was that a lot of people got into universities and into other programs that gave them the ability to be able to move into Government departments. Once they got into those Government departments they didn’t come back to the communities to work, only very few of them anyway. The whole idea behind all that noise was for people to be educated and to come back into their communities so that they could then take control of the administration, they would take control of the management of the communities, take control of the medical services, the educational services and everything else. But that did not happen, all we see today and over all those years was that the communities were and still are being flooded by non-Aboriginal people. To this day they still have that control.
We still have not got the Aboriginal academics coming out of the education system and going back into the communities. They disappear and go into either private enterprise, work for the mining companies, or work for the Government. Then when we have Community Controlled Organisations trying to get programs up and running we have not got the people there to do those jobs where they are needed. You know, we are struggling. And the other thing that is really important to understand is this, in many cases Aboriginal people in those communities, in those so-called Community Controlled Organisation, they did not have the ability to have Aboriginal Directors and Aboriginal Accountants and Bookkeepers, so what they did was elect some Aboriginal people into those positions only to find that they could not do the job and they would then have to bring in non-Aboriginal people instead. Aboriginal Directors or Aboriginal Chairpersons had all these white people who then became their lackeys. Those white people then turned into black overlords. We also have Aboriginal black overlords right around the country in our Communities, they have white advisers and white bookkeepers and white solicitors and everything like that and so they just sit there and they press buttons and make them go out and do all the work for them and they sit back and they do nothing. They do nothing about capacity building within the community, they do nothing to enable that community or people within the community, particularly the young ones and the children, to be able to have the wherewithal to understand what their rights are and how they fit into governance within their communities.
So this is the situation that we still have today.
We have to understand all of these things first and you then have to then link it back, right back to the colonial days, to the invasion to where the colonialists came in and terrorised the Aboriginal groups as they moved across this land. You know people talk about terrorism today, in 2012 the foreign countries, America and the rest of the world, the sorts of terrorism that we are seeing on televisions and through the press today are no different to the terror that was experienced by our mothers, by those mothers when their children were being taken away from them. There is no difference, the terrorism that was experienced by those tribes when the troopers came in and shot all those people and poisoned their watering holes, and poisoned their flour, sugar and tea. The Coniston massacre in 1926 in the Northern Territory is in my mind forever. Then down on the west coast when the troopers herded all those people over the cliff into the Great Australian Bight. There are numerous stories about the atrocities that happened to the Aboriginal people in Tasmania as well. Think of the terror that those people experienced. So when I hear or see on television about some of the terrorist activities overseas it doesn’t even give me a jolt at all, it is not something new or shocking because I have only got to think of the way in which my grandmother was forced to kill her little child and bury that little baby in the sand in that creek bed at that time. I think about the terror that she must have felt and how she spent her whole life with that terror inside.
There was a time that I would never have spoken about these things, I would be just so full of emotion that I just could not even begin to verbalise it. Back in 2002 was the first time in actual fact, that I was able to do so without breaking down, but I know now, that along with a lot of other people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country, that we have got to work our way through this sort of stuff because it is always the emotion, the emotional affect that it has on people that stops you from actually moving forward in a positive way, in a way that other people are perhaps going to take heed of, because we really must move forward with all our vigour and fight to break the cycle of Lateral violence for our children and the generations that are yet to come. The cycle has not been broken yet but we are right on the verge of a mass spiritual cultural awakening.
I have very strong views about Lateral violence. Raising awareness, enabling understanding and knowledge of Lateral violence has become the sole culmination of my life’s work that I will pursue with passion and vigour for as long as I have air in my lungs. I personally experienced Lateral violence many times throughout my life and my own son was murdered back in 1974 as a direct result of Lateral violence. And in addition to my own personal experiences I continue to hear about and witness endless accounts of maltreatment, abuse and the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal and Islander people all around me, right across this land both from mainstream society and from our own people towards each other and this is pure Lateral violence.
I believe from my own experience, that every suicide in this country, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, is the end result of Lateral violence.
The true meaning of Lateral violence must be explained and understood by all Aboriginal & Islander peoples if we are to improve and advance as a strong healthy culture. By ‘true meaning’ I am talking about the complex notions embedded in our national psyche stemming from colonisation, from the years and years of oppression and the trans-generational impact experienced by each generation forthwith that have culminated up until this current point in time where we have been continuously wedged into a perpetual cycle of survival and abuse.
Right now each and every one of us as individuals have the opportunity to make a conscious decision to transform our personal thinking and create an impact on mass to improve the way we take the future generations forward through our journey of personal healing.
The legal definition of Lateral violence as found via USLegal is: Lateral violence happens when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both. Lateral violence occurs when oppressed groups/individuals internalize feelings such as anger and rage, and manifest their feelings through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming.
Paul Memmott’s Community Based Strategies for Combating Indigenous Violence 2001 states that the ‘unresolved grief that is associated with multiple layers of trauma spanning many generations’ these ‘layers of trauma’ include: colonial aggression; genocide; racism; alienation from tribal lands; breakdown of social structure; loss of spirituality and languages; removal of rights and responsibilities; labour exploitation; and large-scale removal of Aboriginal children from their families (‘stolen generations’). These and other factors have contributed to the erosion of social structures and traditional values, and a range of social problems in current Aboriginal communities’ (Memmott et al. 2001).
I will be addressing Lateral violence at the upcoming Social Determinants of Indigenous Health Conference being held in Sydney on the 28th & 29th March 2012. Talking about how Lateral violence is affecting participation and employment opportunities for Aboriginal people, how embedding equality and adequate support in the health workforce will enable Aboriginal people to progress to meaningful positions, and the priorities for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress) moving forward.
Now, I always believed that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) model was an ideal model for our people. It was unfortunately convenient for government to get rid of it because it could be seen as a model for the positive advancement of our people.
I nominated for the Congress because as you have just read, representing Aboriginal and Islander people is my life’s work and as the need for further recognition of our peoples continues, I became a member in an effort to have our issues properly recognised and addressed. We have been elected to the Congress and I believe that we should make every post a winner here and my position in Chamber 3 is responsible to the individuals, Chamber 2 is responsible for working with Non-Government Organisations across the country and Chamber 1 is responsible for working with the peak bodies. Being elected as one of the Directors for Chamber 3 along with Tammy Solonec from WA, I want to be talking to people every day, not just once in a blue moon. I’m not going to be a stop–start director. I want to make sure that every day I am in contact with the community.
The thrust of my energy has always been working towards this change of attitudes, giving rights to the community and talking about governance, in getting ready for the constitutional change discussions have been taking place and going on around heads of communities, but the other Chambers are not talking to the real grass roots people the traditional owners and that’s where I want to be working, talking to the individual about governance and true democratic process. Our Mob does not want another pamphlet or another piece of paper, they want to sit around the kitchen table yarning about things together the way information was meant to be shared. We must improve the way we carry important information and issues from the grass roots level to where it needs to be heard if we are to realise any true improvement or change. The right things need to be talked about with the right people, at the right time to make the necessary changes.
I have contacted each Local Government Council, every single Mayor across Australia in an attempt to try and bring about opportunities to improve dialogue between the councils and local ward members, so that in those wards Aboriginal and Islander people can start to get an understanding about how governance and democracy are meant to work properly.
I subscribe to the formation of total National unity of the continents first nations peoples. We must fight for justice for the Aboriginal community and a return of respect to our Elders if we are to improve the plight of our youth in this country.
I am confident that there is the ability for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples movement to gain the support of Aboriginal and Islander people around the country, whereby it will be imperative to have unity by all tribal language groups. From my own perspective as a Chamber 3 Director, I believe that my response to individual Aboriginal and Islander people in this country is being accepted in the manner that it is, because, I am picking up on the raw issues, this has given me cause to link them with already existing organisations and operations to form a National understanding for our children to comprehend how society has changed and needs to change further to give them confidence to learn how to over-come and control the way in which they deal with confrontation that is fraught with racism, Lateral violence and all things designed to holt Aboriginal peoples progression.
If the Congress subscribes to a policy of Zero Tolerance to Lateral Violence within its constitution, I have no doubt that we will have the way and the means with which to achieve what is needed in this country by means of a model built on the strong cultural foundations needed for us to move forward as a united culture within this country.
We only have to look at the life works of some of the amazing people whom I am proud to say were my role models and heed the way in which they paved the paths for our contemporaries’, I am talking about people like
David Uniapon (1872 – 1967), Eddie ‘Koiko’ Mabo (1936 – 1992), Charles “Chicka” Dixon (1928 – 2010), Charlie Perkins (1936 – 2000), John ‘Jack’ Patten (1904 – 1957), Kath ‘Oodgeroo’ Walker (1920 – 1993), Vincent Lingiarri (1908 – 1988), Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959), Mum Shirl Smith (1925 – 1998) Mollie Trove – Dyer (1927 – 1998), Sir Doug Nicholls (1906 – 1988), Gladys Elphick (1904 – 1988), William Cooper (1861 – 1941), Bill Onus (1906 – 1968), and many of the strong role models still paving the way for our people today including the likes of Nelson Mandela, Muriel Bamblett, Nigel D’Souza and many more.
My dear mum Emily Ann Gordon and old nana Eliza Gordon, they were my true heroes. The two most important people in my life and they played the critical role in shaping the man I am today, along with my godmothers Daisy Ruddick and Dolly Jamieson. The heartbreaking story about the police troopers and that first born baby didn’t come out of my Nana until years and years later, when she was very old. She was really our strength and the one that our family looked up to. Knowing that she was still in perpetual grief just like many of us now, the old aunties and uncles, our grief is rekindled every time another elder passes away today, taking with them the important culture and spiritual strength needed to pass on to our young ones.
It was from their strength and courage that saw me embarked on that difficult journey back in 1952. Their resilience, determination and drive have propelled me to continue to fight for our rights as human beings in the work that I continue to do to this day.
Politicians and Government representatives would be able to do the right thing for Aboriginal and Islanders in this country is they just Listen…It really is that simple. Listen to what we are trying to tell you, Listen to the Tradition Owners of this land.
Then truly comprehend and understand what it is we are telling you.
This is what is needed for us to move forward together in unity, to plan the way forward together, improving our standard of living, by our own standards. Improve our health and wellbeing in the way that will actually benefit each and every Aboriginal and Islander person living in this country today.
Funnily enough, the things the mainstream populations will learn from Aboriginal people are the very things that will bring about true governance and democracy, not only in this country but for every other colonised peoples around the world.
By William Brian Butler, as told to Nicola Butler 04 March 2012