Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.
Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest for this episode of the F Word Podcast is Ray Minniecon, an Aboriginal leader from Australia, where he has spent most of his life working to highlight the appalling plight of the Aboriginal people and The Stolen Generations. He has worked tirelessly to support them in their very long and difficult road towards healing.
This episode of the Podcast is a little bit different from the others in that Ray shares less of his own story and more of the history and the stories of The Stolen Generations. My conversation with Ray reminded me of when I first met Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2003. I was in South Africa keen to collect his personal story about his experience of the Apartheid era but he was very clear with me and said, “I don’t like to talk about my own personal experience because I have witnessed so many stories of appalling atrocity from people who have suffered pain far greater than mine”. I think it is the same with Ray.
So Ray, it is really wonderful to have this opportunity of speaking to you today and I believe all the way from Sidney in Australia? I have given you a very brief introduction in the opening to this Podcast but I want to ask you how you would actually introduce yourself.
Ray: My name is Pastor Ray Minniecon. On my father’s side I am from the Kabi Kabi people of Southern Queensland. My Aboriginal heritage is located in that particular area and on my mother’s side I am from the Gurang Gurang people which is from Bundaberg to just around the Gladstone area.
I also share my heritage with 60,000 other Southsea Island people who were forcibly removed from the Southseas and brought into Australia to build the sugar industry and other industries and the economical development of this country. So, my grandfather was taken from a place called Ambrym Island and brought into this country and I am a result of those interactions.
Marina: You always introduce yourself in that way, Ray. And, I think it is really important that your heritage is recognised and in a way it is unusual, isn’t it? Because, often you ask other people you know where are you from and in a very quick way they will say, “I am from this town or this country”. So, just really interested to know why it is so important for us to hear and, I believe it is, exactly your lineage and your heritage.
Ray: Well, look it has always been important for indigenous peoples to know not just who they are but how they are connected to each other. In some of our communities we were also given a skin name. For example, if I am amongst my Warlpiri my skin name out there is Jampijinpa and it has a very, very clear sense of belonging to that country and within that name has all the responsibilities of those particular people who are also Jampijinpas and also tells me who I am related to, how I am related to, what my responsibilities are, who I can marry, all of those kind of things, just wrapped up in that one word, Jampijinpa.
Marina: I think that is very important to know and so, thank you for sharing that, Ray.
Your story is immense by which I mean you have been subjected and your people have been, to wide-scale harm perpetrated by successive governments. Could we start, maybe, with the whole story of The Stolen Generations because I think many people have heard that term and many people have some understanding of it, but also, some people have absolutely no idea. So, I wonder if you could just tell me a bit about who are The Stolen Generations and how your life was impacted from a very young age.
Ray: Before 1967 there was a clause in the Constitution that gave the federal government the power not to recognise us. We came under this Sate Regimes that were designed for Aboriginal protection. They called them Aboriginal Protection Acts. And, so that meant that I was living on Reserves and Missions with very little opportunities to participate in the broader economy because of the disadvantages that were placed upon us and also the attitudes towards the Aboriginal people that were perpetrated upon us too.
We know, for example, that Australia was occupied by Aboriginal people who had settled here for thousands of years before British settlement in 1788 but many of us have also suffered dispossession, dispersal from our traditional lands by the British crown with their own heritage, culture, families, our own language forcibly removed from us because we were taken and put into these Missions and Reserves.
On top of that, there were certain children who were taken from their families and then placed in institutions and abused so, so badly by the people who ran these places. The Government practised then a policy of assimilation and what that meant was, that if I had a white father and a black mother I was then deemed somebody who would be taken to be trained as an Aboriginal who had the opportunity to becoming a “white fella” (Ray Laughs). And, so many of the Aboriginal children were taken for that particular purpose. It was, what they called, “A breed out the Black policy”. It was genocide.
Marina: And really State sectioned genocide. So, all I can say is laws were passed to ensure that the Aboriginal people had their identities and their heritage completely eradicated.
Ray: Oh, yes. Those laws gave the police as well as the Aboriginal Protection Board the powers to take and forcibly remove children at will. In some places here in Australia they actually had bounties on Aboriginal children so that bounty hunters would go out and find those children and get a bounty on that.
Here, in New South Wales, for example, there were three Government homes that were utilised to take our children and train them up to become, so called, “white fellas”. The one where they were taken as babies was called Bomaderry Children’s Home. The Bomaderry Boys home was up north of Sidney and the girls were taken down to a place called Cootamundra and so they were the three main homes. There were three hundred different homes throughout New South Wales where Aboriginal children as well as non-Aboriginal children were taken because they were delinquents or they were seen to be not being looked after by their mothers or their parents.
Marina: Right. So, coming to your own personal story, Ray. Were you at risk of being taken?
Ray: Every day under the old regime before 1967 I was under that particular risk and I always had drummed into my head by my mother and father that when we were driving along the road if the police pulled us up I was to jump out of that vehicle and “run for my life and don’t get caught”. On the Missions itself, when the black car came into the community, you could hear from one end of the community to the other the shout of the women, the cries of the women, the screaming of the women to all the children to run and hide because the car was coming in. And so, I remember running through the bush there. That was quite a regular occurrence for lots of our communities.
I do recall you playing with your friends and your neighbours and then suddenly there not being there the next day. When I thought they had gone on holiday, they were forcibly removed and I didn’t realise until later on that it was the Government who came and took those children and put them into institutions. And then I met them some 30 to 40 years later and then they told me their stories so that was quite profound for me.
My first experience of a father who told his story. He was a shearer, he was a hard worker and he was out shearing sheep one day. His wife was home with the children. The black car came in, took his children, the children were gone. And, he was living in a little shack with dirt floors and the only memory he had of his children was footprints on the floor. And, so he would get a carpet and he put it over those footprints and he knew which footprints belonged to which child. And, every time he wanted to remember his children he would lift up that carpet and then remember his children. When he told me that story it was incredibly deep, tears and pain and suffering.
Marina: That is just an incredibly evocative and I can see a really meaningful memory for you, Ray.
So you mentioned 1967 and I know then there was a great upsurge of Aboriginal activism and a referendum which then gave indigenous people full citizenship. So, as a result, I am presuming that brought an end to the “bleed out the black” policy and the forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their homes.
Ray: That is what they would like us to believe but there is many more children taken today under different policies but with a similar result of taking children from their parents and putting them into either foster care or at home care or some other places. It is a huge, big, painful experience and traumatic experience for many of their families today.
Marina: Fear of white Australians must have become very ingrained in the way that you led your life as you grew into adulthood, Ray. It can’t not have had a huge impact on you, mentally and emotionally.
Ray: Oh yes, every day we had this radar that looks at where we are, who we are associating with and to see whether these people here have our best interests at heart or not.
Marina: And, how did your life change as you grew up into adulthood? How did it impact on you when you left the Reserves and lived independently, away from your parents? What was the impact of that childhood so filled with fear?
Ray: It was quite challenging for us because when we moved into the towns around us we didn’t have any means of surviving in those places and so what happened was that my parents really had to go and find housing for us. There was a lot of racism. I mean, we didn’t want to be there at one level and the white people didn’t want us there either. So, you can imagine the number of scuffles and things that we had. It was quite a rough time.
Marina: And, how did you personally lead your life during that time, Ray?
Ray: I did have very good parents who loved us and really were instrumental in trying to ensure that we were looked after. Not only that, they also helped us to get into employment. They were very hard workers. They were also part of the church. Fortuitously, after 1967 I was able to get an apprenticeship as a boilermaker with a very friendly company, a small outfit, which I really appreciate to this day because they gave me that opportunity.
Marina: Alcohol is a huge problem with Aboriginal people, isn’t it? I wondered if that had been tempting to you as well.
Ray: Oh, definitely. (Ray laughs) It was because you just felt like you didn’t belong anywhere and therefore, the only friend you had was alcohol or drugs. That became a part of the major challenges, personal challenges as well as family challenges for me. Thankfully, my father and my mother didn’t drink and they encouraged us that way. My father was a great preacher of the Gospel so he really tried to live out the values and the integrity of being that kind of leader in our community. I really thank him for that to this day.
And, I remember the story of the Prodigal Son coming back to his father and that was what I remember very strongly about coming out of drugs and out of alcohol and going back to my father and he embracing me and looking after us and getting us back on track again.
Marina: And, was it his influence as well that led to researching the whole history of The Stolen Generations?
Ray: Oh, yes. I personally have been involved in The Stolen Generations of our country for the last 45 years. I did work for a number of organisations and one of those was World Vision, here in Australia. They had an Aboriginal programme at that time and one of the first things I did was to hire a Stolen Generation member who was taken to Cootamundra, the girls’ home and for her to help the World Vision organisation to come to grips with these kind of very important challenges of The Stolen Generation.
Marina: And, what did you discover, things that you hadn’t known?
Ray: The pain, the trauma is just so deep within our work in the communities that it sometimes feels almost impossible to comprehend how our people survived all these things.
Marina: So, how would you say, Ray that the trauma of their lost childhood manifested for these adult survivors of The Stolen Generations?
Ray: Much of the evidence of the effects of forced Removal Policies are due to none attachment of a child to its natural mother and primary care giver. If you don’t have that then you come into the world with anxiety, depression, psychotic personalities, the lack of personal identity, personal self-worth. You have lost your cultural identity. There’s the effects of being institutionalised.
The lack of sense of trust in others, high levels of poverty. You are living in unhealthy physical environments. High levels of chronic illness. If you are going through secular abuse then there is social isolation that you experience. There is a drug and alcohol abuse that you get into. Criminal involvement. Self-mutilation. Suicide.
For us there is also the effects of racism because the tactics usually range from continual denigration of Aboriginal people and values to lies about the attitude of families to the children themselves. Some of them were even told that their mother and parents had died and they would come back out and they would find out that they are alive.
But, also, there is the intergenerational effects too because most Stolen Generation children were denied the experience of being parented properly. So, parenting skills were severely compromised for them and so, they too, have suffered from child abuse, child neglect. All of these kind of things that children are supposed to have.
Marina: I think you have brilliantly described the multi-layered, multi-facetted wounds on every level, every level, physical, emotional, mental. And, so it is enormous…
Ray: It is.
Marina: ….. what happened to the indigenous people of Australia, absolutely enormous. And so, the fact that people are able, somehow, to live a life of value and not to be completely destroyed by what has happened to them is extraordinary and it doesn’t always happen as well, I know that.
How do people come through it? How do people live with the pain of the past?
Ray: I think the first thing is to recognise these particular painful experiences and the traumas that we go through. That is the first thing.
Marina: Right. But, you said something once to me Ray which I found so powerful and really made me think. You said, “Healing is a meaningless word for Aboriginal people because we possess a wound that cannot be healed”. And I just thought what do you do in that circumstance because it’s not like you’re necessarily stuck in the trauma of the past and unable to move forward, is it? But if it can’t be healed, what can you do to alleviate the pain, I suppose is the question?
Ray: Yes, we have to find our own way of looking at how we heal ourselves. It is not something that you can find in books or anything of that nature. I mean, I did go to the Government on many occasions and say, “you know you took us, please you are going to help us fix this somehow”. But really, the Government did not know what to do either with things that they have done to us.
And so, it became a huge, big issue for us to work that out. So I did a lot of research and study on what it meant to be “taken” and we had an investigation into The Stolen Generation, called “The Bring Them Home Report”. And out of that, for the first time, a lot of the children started telling their stories.
Just by the way, when we are talking about this, we are talking about children, and if you look at Bomaderry Children’s Home, for example, that was where our babies were taken. They were just from five months onwards and their struggles are different to the ones when they graduated to go to Kinchela Boys Home or Cootamundra Girls Home and here they were treated like criminals really. The police were there to take them to these places.
What I found was that the traumatic experiences of being in these homes were evident in every conversation we had. And, even some of the words we would say would trigger conversations about the deep wounds inflicted when they were in the Homes and they told about other horror stories which occurred in the Homes, whether it be sexual abuse, as children, whether it be physical abuse, starvation, all of these things were a part of their story.
Marina: The black American author and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you”. You have spoken about how The Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal people, have told their stories and it sounds as if that has been largely very helpful.
How do you use your voice, Ray, to help your people?
Ray: I didn’t want to be their voice because I always knew that they had their own voice. They had their own brains. They had their own abilities to say and tell their truth. And, so, it was always important for me to take them out there and say listen. Brother, you can tell your story even though it was difficult for them but they did.
But, there were also cases there where I have taken some of the children from the Children’s Home and journalists have wanted to know their story and I have taken them to these journalists. But, they couldn’t tell their story because they were children when they were taken. And, so they haven’t got a memory and you have got to redevelop and reconstruct those memories so they know what happened to them before they can understand why they act in this particular way. And, then they can find this word called “healing” in their own way.
Ray: There’s one time when Uncle Ses and I was invited by these girls who were taken into a place called Parramatta Girls Home. I will just say this about them. They were just young girls from 12 years or even younger. The guards were all male and you can then imagine what happened to them.
And so, when I walked into this group of women, who were now in their 30s and 40s and 50s, I had never in my whole life witnessed such incredible destruction of human life. I could feel their pain. I could feel what they had gone through. Many of the women could not even look at me because I was a male and so they turned their backs on me.
Many of them would not live near the cities. that would be feared in many ways because they just could not stand humanity again. Now I don’t know whether they will ever find healing but I did want to work with them. I had a heart of compassion to say to them, “How can I help?”
Also when the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse came along, I did stand outside the courts there and sat with a number of those women. All they wanted from me was if I could give them a hug. I just felt an honour and a privilege to be able to offer that one little thing. But, for them it was the biggest thing in the world for them to give them the strength to go and face those Commissioners and tell their story.
Marina: Yes, that is really important.
So, how do you help these people, who have lost so much, put meaning back into their lives.
Ray: What I am saying to them is very simple, that they have never had control of their own lives and so I want them to take more control of their own future. And, if I can give that one small message or vision or mission statement, they have this incredible realisation that, “oh, I can do this. I can take control of my future because who is going to stop me”.
You can also use other things like hard work and many of them have become good artists, brilliant artists actually and also one of the first guys here in New South Wales wrote his own book to tell his story and that was his way of finding some kind of meaningful future for himself.
One of the problems that a lot of the men had in telling their story was that they would not be believed. Actually, when the Howard Government came into power, one of the things that they did say was that there was no such thing as a Stolen Generation. So, you can imagine the feelings of anxiety and stuff on our community.
Marina: You were saying that people weren’t believed, so to be believed and to have your story heard and to be acknowledged, is that a part of moving forward then?
Ray: Oh yes, most definitely. When The Bringing Them Home Report was handed down on the 26th May, we made that day into a Sorry Day.
Marina: That’s “Sorry” as in apology?
Ray: This is Sorry Day when we commemorate The Stolen Generations and then for ten years the Howard Government wouldn’t apologise. But, then in 2008 the Rudd Government came into power and Kevin Rudd was the one who formally apologised to The Stolen Generation and that was a huge big thing.
I mean, I sat in Government House there with Stolen Generation members there for them to hear that. They needed to hear that, that the Government did this, when Kevin Rudd apologised on the 13th February. And, so every year we also commemorate that particular day.
Marina: I just wanted to say here that concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation are so much easier to get your head around on an inter-personal level either to do with reconciliation between two people or individual self-healing. When you are talking about the systemic erasure of a whole people, I think only sincere apology in acknowledgement and reparations can bring justice. And, it seems totally fair to say in this context, as many do, there can be no forgiveness without true justice.
So, Kevin Rudd’s apology was, as Ray says, a breakthrough moment, largely because of what had happened to the Aboriginal people stopped being a debate at that point and became a fact. It was also a moment of great hope. But, “sorry” wasn’t enough. National reparations schemes were largely abandoned. Indigenous communities complained of being shut out of any consultation and it didn’t really bring the healing and change that was promised.
Nevertheless, I would say that the annual National Apology Day at least is there to remind Australians of this blemished chapter in their national history.
Val Napoleon, who is one of Canada’s most influential indigenous legal scholars, said something interesting here about the plight of Aboriginals in Canada who have a very similar story. She says, “If reconciliation for Aboriginal people in Canada is ever going to move beyond rhetoric, then reconciliation discussion must include substantive societal and structural changes that deal with power imbalances, land and resources”.
Anyway, I then went on to ask Ray about his involvement with any reparations.
Ray: When I was with World Vision some of the men who went through Kinchela Boys Home came to us and said, “Listen, can you help us?” And, I then set up the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation in order for them to have some voice as well as some mechanism to actually receive funds to be able to do their own healing. The men still feel deeply that the Government needs to offer appropriate reparations for justice and they want to work out how they can ease their sufferings in their trauma. They need hope.
Marina: I am really interested by that because I have also always thought that hope can be a bit of a poisoned chalice sometimes. I mean, I know it is a great motivator to keep going, but also what about this whole idea of fool’s hope when you keep looking for that glimmer of that way out and if it never comes it can just exasperate the pain and keep you kind of stuck?
Ray: If they had lost hope then they would have killed themselves and some of them did. Some of the stories of the incredible traumas, they had taken their own lives or the ways in which they did that was quite terrible.
Marina: Can we come on to, Ray, the very difficult, complicated subject of forgiveness. I think when it is connected to such wholescale and systematic acts of cruelty and racism, it can feel like a very weak word.
I just wondered if you have heard, both from your own experience but also the people you talk to, whether forgiveness can be useful in alleviating pain because pain is a great motivator to forgive. It can make people feel relieved of intrusive thoughts, calmer, less depressed, more connected, freer. You know, it has all sorts of both physical and emotional results. I just wondered does it ever come into any of your conversations.
Ray: Yes, it does and quite often. But, it depends also on the framework that you build around the community there to help that to take place.
For me and my work with The Stolen Generations, the first thing I want them to understand is how to reconnect to their community, to their culture, to their language, to their family whom they are estranged from and really to reconnect with who they are and reconnect to their sixty thousand years of history and heritage.
Once they start that particular journey you can see that they are starting to feel a lot more stronger within themselves and they say, “Well I can do this”. And, once they start doing that, the second phase is really how do they then start to restore that’s been taken away, to go on journeys back to their country and connect with the old people there and the elders and the families that are already there, to tell them the story of who they are. But, also in that taking them back to their country and their communities, they can also reconnect with, perhaps, even their parents.
But most of those parents, I know, from the stories that they have told me, is when they have gone back home you know mum is still drinking herself and all that kind of stuff and they are trying to help her to get over it and get back on track again. So, how do you reconstruct all that identity that has been completely demolished around them and build it up again so that they know who they are and they can stand up strong and tall again?
For me, reconciliation in all of its forms is one of the most important issues on our planet today. Reconciliation amongst ourselves, with our environment, reconciliation with our creation and that takes, at the heart of it, is this word called “forgiveness”.
Marina: Everything you have described is about moving on to a certain degree but, I mean if forgiveness is about compassion and empathy for the person or people or Governments who have hurt you and a level of understanding perhaps and letting go of the trauma, is that actually possible? Everything you have described isn’t quite what I would say is forgiveness. That is why I am pressing you on this, Ray.
Ray: Yes, that is why I am trying to say, we don’t know what true healing would look like because that memory of who we were has been completely annihilated by the whole colonisation process. We are desperate to find out how we can reconnect and restore all that has been taken. We are desperate to work out how we can do that together as a people. And, we are desperate also to figure out how we can do that with our Governments and with our neighbours.
Marina: Do you think these words sometimes can be almost meaningless – forgiveness, apology, reconciliation?
Ray: I wouldn’t say meaningless in that way. What I would say is that they are a dream and an aspiration to reach out to and say it’s possible and to see if it is possible. And, for some they might have achieved that in their own understanding of what that word might mean.
Marina: Ray, can we just end up by going back to you and your personal life? You didn’t suffer the extreme abuses of many of the people you have worked with but, nevertheless, you are part of the community that was so damaged and it had a profound impact on you, I know that. Would you say that you have been on a journey of healing? Would you say that you have explored what forgiveness means in your life?
Ray: What an interesting question! I would like to think that I have achieved a level of forgiveness of my own lifework in dealing with these issues. Maybe, my work with The Stolen Generations is my way of forgiving myself for allowing these things to happen and to work with my community in helping them to achieve some kind of way forward for themselves, too.
I hadn’t thought about it that way but I have to have a heart of forgiveness myself because when you hear these stories you can get so depressed and so angry yourself and filled with such anxiety. I have spent time in bed in the foetal position for days just trying to work through some of these issues internally and personally. So, I, too, have to work out how I forgive myself and get back into my own spirit to realise that.
One of the things that has helped me, as someone who is a follower of the teachings of Jesus, he preached this forgiveness and loving one another and I am trying to live out those kind of aspirations as well, as someone who knows how to forgive myself, before I can forgive others.
Marina: And, you must continue to experience incidents of racism in your everyday life. Does forgiveness come into that?
Ray: I think rage comes first. Deep anger (Ray laughs). Funny that you should ask that because I am dealing with someone who has really hurt me deeply by suggesting some things about me and my people today. And, I have had to do some writing about it to actually help me to understand what I was feeling and share it with a few other deep friends of mine to say, “Look this is what happened. This is how I have responded to it. What do you think?”
And many of those people aren’t Aboriginal. They are just friends that have walked with me and I have just found that their wisdom was a very important thing to get hold of. They, too, are coming to grips with the issues here in this country. Not all of them. This guy didn’t have a clue, he just was so clueless. It just frustrated me and I am still feeling the hurt of what he said so I’ll work through it.
Marina: I am really sorry to hear that but thank you for sharing, Ray, that very recent event. You are absolutely right. It is too easy to think anger and rage don’t have a place. They really do. Also, it is often not that healthy to suppress it.
At the same time it does sound like you have an intention to move beyond it with support from those in your circle and your friends.
Ray: Yes. Anger I can manage and control and understand because there is a righteous anger that you can be angry. It is a part of your human makeup. It’s a part of who you are. It’s how you manage that anger that is very important in any relationship.
It’s when anger turns to bitterness and I have experienced that bitterness. It really does buckle you up internally and twist you up. You want to lash out in so many different ways and I have got to be very careful that I don’t dive into that bitterness myself or fall into it. It’s like a deep pit and I have fallen into that pit and it takes a long time to climb out of it and get back on to your feet again.
So it is there. It is always there. You always know that trap is there. The trapdoor is always open waiting for you to fall into it. You’ve just got to be very conscious and mindful of your inner compass and your inner realities of where you are every day, every moment of the day, because you are experiencing it every day.
Marina: I think that’s a really beautiful way to end, Ray, with that reminder.
I want to thank you so much for sharing some of your life story and all your incredibly important work with The Stolen Generations in Australia.
Ray: Well, no, thank you, too. Thank you for the opportunity.
Marina: Thank you for listening to The F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join The F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.