Stolen generation survivor
Australian Aboriginal Marlene Jackamarra’s courageous journey to rediscover her identity, find healing and work for human rights
By Mary V. Cass
How do you overcome a huge loss caused by someone else? You can drown in your grief, you can become bitter, or you can overcome hatred with love.
Australian Marlene Jackamarra went for the last option. She is a Yamuji woman of the Inguda Peoples on her father’s side and a Noongar woman of the Yued Peoples on her mother’s. She was just 7 years old when she was forcibly removed from her family, making her part of Australia’s “stolen generations” of Aboriginal people.
From the late 1800's through to the 1970's, Australian federal, state, and territorial agencies, sometimes together with church missions, carried out a policy of removal of Aboriginal children from their native communities, sending them to institutions and placing them for adoption of non-indigenous families so they could be “prepared” to live in a white society.
For most of them, all ties with their native community were cut, leaving the removed children without a personal or cultural identity. Nearly every Aboriginal family was affected by these policies of forcible removal. Their parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, and the community as a whole rarely saw them again. The deep spiritual and psychological wounds left by the severance of family ties, traditions and land are still being healed for the many thousands of those who were victims of this policy.
Jackamarra shares the story of her life, one of great suffering, but also of spiritual enlightenment.
“My father, whose father had been white, was separated from his family in 1925 at the age of 9, together with his brothers and sisters. They were put onto a boat to Fremantle, where they were put into a jail until they were transferred to Moore River Native Settlement, around 80 miles north of Perth.”
It was at this settlement, planned to be a self-sufficient farm community but with soil useless for cultivation, that he met Jackamarra’s mother. When little Marlene was born, the Chief Protector of Aborigines was her legal guardian, as of all Aboriginal children, and had dominion over her life.
“In 1954 they sent me away with my sister and aunt to Wandering Mission, a desolate spot south of Perth,” she remembers. “My mother had no say in what happened to her children.”
Jackamarra experienced poverty and loneliness; she still remembers the mournful cries of the little children for their parents. However, she found some help in this dire situation.
“The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary were entrusted with our care, and notwithstanding the circumstances, they did all they could for us. I felt their love. I still keep in touch with Sr. Luitfrede, who is now 93 years old; she became like a second mother.”
Despite this relationship, the estrangement from their family and community left wounds and scars, and even the rare family visits or vacation at home were painful.
“One of my saddest experiences was when my grandparents came to visit us at the Mission, and we didn’t know who they were,” she shares. “I would visit my mother at Moora Reserve at Christmas; I loved her, but the opportunity to build a familiar bond between us had been taken from me.”
From an early age, Jackamarra experienced prejudice and discrimination. She remembers vividly one evening while visiting her mother at the Moora Reserve.
“Just down the road was a farm where we would go to get kerosene to light the lamps in the tin shed where she lived. As we were approaching the farmhouse, I overheard the lady say: ‘Oh, it’s those n—’s kids again …’ and she continued to describe us with horrible racist language to her husband. I returned to the Mission with those words stuck in my mind.” Children should not hear such language and experience its terrible effects, she vowed to herself. This incident was the trigger to what later became her involvement with social renewal and human rights.
When the 1967 Australian Referendum was passed to give more constitutional rights under the Commonwealth to the Aboriginal people, more funding became available for medical, social and legal services for the their communities.
“I got involved in a community medical service center and became their first secretary,” Jackamarra says. “I was part of the Aboriginal Advancement Council and worked with the trade unions for equal opportunity for my people. Frequently I was out there with the flags, marching, trying to make things better … trying to combat the violence and abuse in our communities due to poverty, drugs and alcohol.” In 1998, Jackamarra was invited to Botswana in Africa to speak about regional development in indigenous communities by the San Peoples of Southern Africa.
“I returned home filled with renewed resolve and excitement to do more. Together with a group of multicultural women, we began the Coalition of Peoples to bring people together in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and dialogue. This led to the creation of Survival Day Concerts in Perth to pay tribute to the resiliency and struggle of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”
This annual festival — an expo of art, music, dance and storytelling — continues today to affirm that Aboriginal people and cultures have survived and are an integral part of the national identity of all Australians.
Jackamarra later became aware that no courses existed at the university level on Aboriginal studies. She worked together with others to establish the first course on Aboriginal History and Culture and taught it at one of Western Australia’s leading universities for five years. “It’s so important to share the story of the Stolen Generation,” she says. “I don’t know what will remain when my generation passes on. The struggle of the past that made what is possible today for an Aboriginal person is not always acknowledged.”
Jackamarra is concerned about where today’s legislation is leading the Aboriginals as a people. As many others do, she fears that they could lose that spiritual base from which they came. “The spirituality is in the land — where the water trickles, where the rain comes down and you see and hear the transformation of the Earth. In the land, in the bush, one forgets the horror of what was.” A year ago, she had the opportunity to return to the place from where her father was taken. It was a spiritual experience.
“It was the loveliest sacred place, down by the river. It was just awesome … the awesome power of God, the sacredness. My father’s younger sister and I were just dangling our feet in the water, talking to one another and remembering the good things that have happened in our lives.” Although having experienced “the awful impact of not ever having any continuity of family,” Jackamarra has worked for unity and equality for all Australians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, receiving many recognitions and awards. She is grateful for meeting her husband Reginald, a pastoral care worker, for her five children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and for being part of a loving Christian community, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. That would not have been possible without her own healing process she worked hard for, and she tries to help others as well.
“I know that our communities have been terribly affected by colonization, but I also know that we must now take our own action and responsibility for ensuring that violence in our communities stops. Our spirituality has sustained us … for many thousands of years, enabling us to defy great odds. Healing comes through the gift of forgiveness and our ability to listen to and to share in the stories that people find sacred, including the pain of being a child of the Stolen Generation.
“It’s been a long road, and walking it requires courage and faith. I’ve already come a long way.”