After apology, it's back to the future

Boys' Dormitory 1973Thirty-five years ago, March 1973, I first went to live in a remote Aboriginal community. I was accompanied by another Jesuit, Pat Mullins. We had been asked by the local Bishop to work at Balgo, an Aboriginal Mission south of Halls Creek. Our task was to look after the boys dormitory (pictured), where around 50 boys aged from five to 15 lived.

We were students at the time. Moving from Melbourne and the university of the early 1970s to a very remote part of the Kimberley proved a great shock. The weather always seemed to be hot, the facilities were basic (no air-conditioning or phones), the resources were few (only a small number of staff, mainly religious) and the roads were unsealed, rough and poorly maintained. What I particularly remember was a vast social and communication gap between the Mission staff and the 250 desert people who lived there. My ability to communicate with the people in Kukatja was as severely limited as their ability to communicate with me in English.

The few notes I took at that time remind me how much I felt out of place. The sounds, smells and isolation took time to accept. I recorded my initial confusion about the dormitories, and why 'we' needed to place nearly 100 children in them. At that time, the young men would stay in the boys dormitory until their late teens when they found jobs as stockmen on neighbouring cattle stations or in work around the Mission. The young women often stayed in the dormitories until they married.

While there were opportunities for oral communication between the children and their families, contact was strictly controlled and limited. Children could meet their parents and younger siblings in the 'playground', a large recreational space that lay between the two dormitories. However, the children always returned to the dormitories to sleep at night. It was from there that they went to school and it was here where they lived. They were not allowed to visit 'the camp' where their families lived, 200 metres away.

The girls experienced more family separation than the boys. They were only allowed to go down to visit their families on Christmas day. For the rest of the year both boys and girls remained under the care of those who ran the dormitories, removed from the daily care and affection of their parents and extended relations.

In April 1973, a process to close the dormitories began. The children whose families lived at Balgo Mission were returned to their parents. Those children whose families came from neighbouring cattle stations remained in the dormitories for a few more years.

When the Prime Minister recently apologised to the Stolen Generations I wondered if he intended to include those dormitory children who were not taken away from their communities, but who spent large parts of their young lives separated from their families. Adults now, they remember their parents being forced to give them up when they were young. They continue to feel the hurt of that separation.

As I recall those days of change when children were returned to those who earlier had been considered unfit to raise them, I also remember the different conversations of the missionaries at that time. The arguments always returned to what the missionaries thought was best. For some, the removal of children 'for education' was both the good and only thing to do. They didn't believe they needed to communicate with or consult the parents. It was as if the missionaries did not know or could not consider any other way.

I continue to wonder how modern attitudes reflect old ones, especially when people enter Aboriginal communities with a set of ready-made answers around employment, health and education. I am reminded of a mind-set that seeks to change people's lives for the better, always 'for their own good'.

At the same time, I also hear that we do not know how to acknowledge the social and cultural gap that still exists between us. We forget our history and the lack of trust that has developed. We are not comfortable to sit, listen and develop long-term relationships. We struggle with the use of the word 'partnership'. We prefer 'outcomes' instead.

Brian McCoy Dr Brian F. McCoy SJ is NHMRC Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University.



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Brian, many thanks for an article that has helped my own understanding and insight greatly. I remember you and Pat going off to Balgo, and recall feeling puzzled and yet admiring at the same time. Puzzled because I could not see that that was an important apostolate for Jesuits at the time - not that I had a right to judge since I had left by then. How wrong I was!

Michael Gray | 27 February 2008  

Congratulations Eureka Street for two articles this day that speak of the experience of two men and their observations of events in their lives Brian McCoy and Brian Doyle. What both men have done in writing of their experiences is twofold. First is their stories and the facts, you might say, and second is the role the stories have in teaching those who read them. In my mind these two stories explain to me the very reason writing exists. This day is by far the best I have ever read in Eureka St.

Kevin Vaughan | 27 February 2008  

As one who has shared a long experience with Brian McCoy's in working with Balgo-Mulan people, I am most grateful for his comments. Brian is challenging us to explore a new relationship with our indigenous cousins. To enter into a partnership, one of mutual caring, support and understanding. How else can we bridge that immense cultural gap between us?

Jim Bowler | 27 February 2008  

How can we learn to sit and listen rather than take our packaged plans into what is really foreign territory. A powerful article from Brian McCoy - it needs to go to Jenny Macklin at least.

John Collins | 27 February 2008  

Dear Brian, Always good to read what you have to say. So true. Nothing beats being there and listening. I wonder who cares enough to live with the communities?

Steve Sinn | 27 February 2008  

Working in Balgo in the '70s would be a great immersion in working to find one's aptitude for empathy with the Aboriginal people and Brian McCoy has achieved that to a high degree. Let us hope that more Australians will give part of their lives to such immersion, somewhere, somehow.

Ray O'Donoghue | 27 February 2008  

Brian, you show how essential cultural sensitivity and respect are to the way forward - how the role of us non-Aboriginal people who want to help lies first of all in respecting Aboriginal people, and in realising that they are perfectly capable of managing their own lives. Our role can be to help set up the structures that enable them to do so. And we can help remove the obstacles in their way - obstacles in the areas of health, education, employment, provision of services and infrastructure that generations of social exclusion and discrimination have put in place. But of course, it all begins with the respect for Aboriginal people that is so evident in your article. Thank you.

Joe Castley | 27 February 2008  

Precisely put, Brian! Though to the social and cultural gap I would add the political gap, for the power differentials involved in dispossession also have not changed that much: hence 'outcomes' sit easier in conversations 'about' Aboriginal people than do 'partnerships' (i.e. 'with them').

When you were at Balgo I was in Roebourne as a 'District Welfare Officer'. I so well recall the 'case conference' dialogues that sent Pilbara children to Perth institutions 'for their own welfare', where 'welfare' was defined in white Australian, not black Australian, terms. So token contributions from parents were invited only if they were considered capable of expressing their 'wishes and intentions' for the child in white Australian terms.

The statement 'we want him go through the law (lore) and become a man for us' stood as incongruent in my DO's case conference report at Longmore (Perth) as an advert for a brothel would in our parish bulletin at Mass on Sunday.

Dr Frank Donovan | 27 February 2008  

Further to Brian's last comment, "We struggle with the use of the word 'partnership'. We prefer 'outcomes' instead." Having worked in the Halls Creek parish up the road from Balgo for nine years, I hope 'continuing struggle' is implicit in the title of the latest and official history of the Broome Diocese, "From Patrons to Partners".

Noel McMaster | 27 February 2008  

Brian, what you say here was similar to what was happening at Port Keats as you would be aware. The boys though were given more freedom as they often went down to the camp before/after the evening meal until it was time to go to bed. Girls had to have permission to go to the camp but they did go more often at the weekend.

Gerry Mccormack | 27 February 2008  

Brian - Keep up the good work. Your personal experience makes for a thought-provoking contribution to understanding what now needs to be done in partnership with Indigenous communities. Few of us have that experience and I value yours highly.

John Warhurst | 27 February 2008  

Brian thousand thanks for your words and insight. I worked a couple of years with our Aboriginal people in WA many years ago. I experienced as you did. I believe that I received more from our Aboriginal people than I gave them. Have you read Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen? I found the same principles are laid down in his experiences. I beleive that our Politicians should read it! Otherwise we will end up hated like the Americans are in Asia. It is not what we give that counts but how much we understand and how well we are able to walk with them on their journey in respect, reverence and love. Thanks Brian - keep up the good work

John P Evans | 28 February 2008  

Thank you, to this Brian--so slowly does the world turn!

minnie biggs | 02 March 2008  

A report in the AGE and the Medical journal taken over 10 years shows that the people of Utopia who have had minimal white interference live 40% longer, are healthier and go to school.

What a shame white men have this superiority complex about anyone with brown skin because they miss out on so much.

Marilyn Shepherd | 04 March 2008  

Re your suggestion that one live with the Aborigianl comunities before policy making begins - I could not agree more. Speak to some of the Josephites in the Kimberley, e.g. St Veronica Ryan – Kununurra. She will tell you just that after 30 years or so of being with communities.

I attended a Cardinal’s dinner just after Sir William Deane was installed as Governor General. He told us how he and his wife lived for six weeks with different Aboriginal communities to be sure he would be able to represent all Australians.

Having spent some time working with Aboriginal groups in NSW, Qld & WA when training their people to offer the loss & grief program 'Seasons for Growth', I learned that you offer and wait for the people to talk about it and then they will decide yea or nay. This is also what Von Ryan says.

Anon | 04 March 2008  

Brian, I think you are a little harsh on the people who worked with the Aboriginal community at Balgo. We have learnt much in the 35 years since you went there. At that time, I believe the decision-makers did have a deep understanding of the culture and the challenges presented, and did their very best. Many of these people were walking in from the desert - their first contact with "civilisation" was at Balgo. The custom of old men claiming young girls for their wives was addressed by Fr John McGuire. Whilst respecting the position of the elders, McGuire went in to bat for the young girls. They were in the dormitories for their own protection - as you stated, they did have contact with parents and siblings daily. The parents were certainly consulted - they would express a desire to have the Sisters "grow them up". There was great respect and affection for the St John of God Sisters working there.

Fran Spora | 18 March 2008  

Certainly younger girls were given to older men but this practice allowed Aboriginal culture to survive for thousands of years. It was not uncommon for young girls to be married to older men. This practice occured in the European culturea as well especiall when it involved the royals.In Aboriginal culture girls were promised to older men often as babies but there were protocols in place as to when they could actually consumate the relationship.So outsider did not fully understand Aboriginal culture at all and went ahead and forced their cultural values upon Aboriginal people.

joyce Summers | 03 February 2010  

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