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A Civilized Savagery: The Story of Stolen Generations

Amit Phansalkar Jun 6, 2019
The story of Australia's stolen generations is the story of cultural bigotry. Thousands of native children were forcibly taken away from their families, owing to the government policy. It is a story that raises questions about the very notions of civilization.
Language is a strong cultural agent in the creation of stereotypes, and in turn, prejudices. Most people learn language by default, and over the years the prejudices get into their system, unquestioned. Some of these prejudices are so deep-rooted in our minds, that many times we don't even consider the possibility that we might harbor some of them.
However, sooner or later, our language betrays those prejudices, without our conscious knowledge. How subtle, and yet powerful, such prejudices could be, while reading a review of a film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Film Rabbit Proof Fence deals with the issue of Australia's stolen generations.
We will come back to what these stolen generations are, but let's just look at these lines in the review, written in a matter-of-fact way:

"There existed a program which aimed to assimilate the natives into mainstream. They did this by rehabilitating the children in foster homes and groom them to be housemaids and workers".
There is something wrong with the description, as it sounded like it's straight from some history book, written by a colonial historian; words like, assimilation and rehabilitation used with the same colonial impunity. But once you read further, the story becomes more interesting, and your doubts also might get clear.

Stolen Generations - Victims of Cultural Arrogance

Stolen generations is widely used to describe an estimated hundred thousand Aboriginal kids in Australia, who were forcibly taken away from their homes-as a matter of government policy. They were kept in State or Church institutions, while some were adopted by white people. They were allowed no contact with their parents or relatives, letters were destroyed.
Some were taken miles away from their country, even overseas. They were forbidden to speak their languages or to practice their religion. Most received a little education, and were pushed into low-grade domestic and/or farming work.
They suffered various mental traumas, as their support systems-their families-were taken away from them. Many suffered physical, and even sexual abuse. To add insult to injury, they were not even accepted in the white society, whose ways they were expected to learn.
It is horrific that something like this happened, but what's more horrifying is that it was happening for almost sixty years, till as late as the 1970s. It was in 1995 that finally, a National Inquiry was set up, which came out with an indicting report. Still the question remains-what made such a thing possible in a modern, civilized country like Australia?
It was made possible by prejudices of cultural supremacy; by a deep-rooted cultural arrogance. An arrogance that makes one set of people look down upon another set of people as basically worthless, sub-human bunch. An arrogance, which makes one set of people think that their way is the only way.
For instance, the official aim of this project, was to assimilate Aboriginal children into European society over one or two generations. How can being forced to change ways ever be called assimilation?
How can uprooting and denial of cultural identity ever be called rehabilitation? How can this happen as a matter of government policy, and continue in one form or the other, even into the late 20th century?

Irony of Civilizations

Australia, of course, is not the only place where such things have happened. Be it the British colonialism in Asia, where whole tribes were notified as criminal, and treated inhumanly; or the American/European history of slavery-where blacks were captured like animals, and bought/sold like animals.
Or the so-called tribal groups in various part of the world, who are driven out of their homelands, with their forests and rivers taken away from them, and whole communities displaced in the name of development-the root cause is the same.
Notions of civilization "My civilization the supreme", or "My civilization, the only civilization"-play a major part here. Sadly, this would not be the last time that we will see human rights disasters of this scale, and for this very reason. It keeps happening around us every now and then.
Today, in the post 9/11 world, America is out onto another civilization mission-of civilizing the Muslim world. When Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, the whole world (rightly) aligned against him. But, when America attacked Afghanistan/Iraq on flimsy pretexts, the same world watched silently.
Notions of civilization play a munificent role in such exchanges. After all, America-a symbol of modernity, freedom, and civilization-was attacking a symbol of barbarism. And history has taught us time and again, how potent such symbolism can be. It is indeed ironic that these notions of civilization lead us to the worst of barbaric behavior.