“And the thing that has kept most of us almost crippled in this society has been our complete lack of knowledge concerning the past” – Malcolm X.
“They can gaol me for the rest of my life but I want to make this country aware of what they’re doing to Aboriginal people’” – Fred Maynard.
From 1883 until 1969, the lives and affairs of Aboriginal people in NSW were governed and controlled by the Aborigines Protection/Welfare Board, yet there is no definitive history of the Board and its activities in NSW.
For the first time, a comprehensive investigation of the Board’s activities and subsequent affects on the lives and families of Aboriginal people in NSW will be researched with the assistance of the Australian Research Council and conducted by the University of Newcastle’s Wollotuka Institute.
The Aborigines Protection/Welfare Board was heavily involved in removing Aboriginal children from their families, putting them into institutions, revoking Aboriginal lands, and created what for many people was essentially a police state for many decades of the 20th century.
The government directives to the Board extended to housing, clothing, rationing of food, control of marriage, the imposition of Christianity, denial of education, as well as the removal of children.
The removal of children from their families and communities accelerated after 1910 and was one of the reasons for the rise of people like my grandfather, Fred Maynard, to try to stop that horrific process of institutionalising thousands of Aboriginal children. Aboriginal boys were put into institutions to train them as nothing better than farm labourers; the girls were placed in institutions to be trained as domestic servants.
This segregated institutionalisation also worked to keep them apart. If the girls and boys were kept separate, they couldn’t have children and the Aboriginal people would be ‘bred out’. However, significant numbers of these girls became pregnant to their white ‘carers’ and employers. These are stories we hear about the ‘Deep South’ in the US, but the same things were happening here and the actions of the Aboriginal Protection/Welfare Board have left a lasting impact on Aboriginal lives in this state.
There’s been a long demand from Aboriginal people to get these stories recorded and this research will collect information from communities, families, archives and cultural collections from local history societies and museums to the NSW State Library and NSW Archives.
There are situations where official archival records are missing. There are instances where there’s been a fire in the past – particularly with police records. We know from Board records that there was a lot of police intimidation and surveillance of Aboriginal activists but there’s no police record.
This is why oral and personal histories are important. Many individuals and communities kept correspondence from the Board so while the official correspondence is missing, we have the recipient’s half of it.
Aboriginal people have talked about these stories in the past but now it’s about making the information practical and useful for all Australians. If we can find a way to bring these stories to light it will give credibility to our story, our experience, and it will benefit the whole country.
Current generations of Aboriginal people were also being taught the ‘white’ version of their own history as they came through the school system. The only black fella I heard about at school was Jacky Jacky and ‘what a good black fella he was’.
This was in the 1950s and 1960s and there was no celebration, there was no Indigenous cultural history in the school curriculum. It’s important for us. The last 30 or 40 years have seen a dramatic change as far as teaching our history goes but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
A heavy component of this project will involve interviewing people who lived on missions and reserves through those years and recording their memories and stories. We need to find out what their lived experiences were during those decades of control and how it affected their families.
There are always new pieces of information being uncovered and even though I’ve been doing this for decades I recently found a newspaper article in which there’s a reference to my grandfather, Fred Maynard. In an interview he explicitly describes the threats made against him, “I’ve been told that the doors of Long Bay Gaol are opening for me unless I stop. They can gaol me for the rest of my life but I want to make this country aware of what they’re doing to Aboriginal people”.
From the time I came to university as a mature age student I’ve also been researching my family history but my desire and my role has always been to deliver histories to our people and our communities. Stories they can read and enjoy, perhaps gain inspiration from.
Our future generations have many heroes and heroines in their past that they can look up to and that is a great motivation.
There will be multiple sources investigated by this team of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. I hope this work will also educate wider white Australia as to what has happened to our people since 1788. If we record this history then people can start to really appreciate the impact on Aboriginal lives over such a long period of time.
But we must get these stories recorded now. Those people who lived under the control of the Board are getting older and the reality is it won’t be long before they’re gone. We need to document their experiences and memories while we can – the life expectancy for Aboriginal men and women born in NSW between 1996 and 2000 is still just 60 and 65 respectively.
Hopefully there is a healing process when people recognise that that we can all join hands and walk toward a future that is just for all Australians, in which there is equality for all people and we can be – dare I use the word – reconciled.
Professor John Maynard is Director of the Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle.
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