Photo by Charlotte Sawyer
Ray Minniecon is an Aboriginal pastor with roots in the Kabikabi and Gurang-Gurang tribes of Queensland. He lives in Sydney and has dedicated his life to supporting members of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginals. The term “Stolen Generations” refers to the tens of thousands of Aboriginal children who, from the late 1800s until the 1970s, were forcibly removed from their families by government agencies and church missions in an attempt to assimilate them into the culture of white Australia.
As a child I lived in fear. My parents told me that if the police tried to pick us up we should run like crazy. There were times when the black police car would come into the missions and I’d hear women screaming from one end of the community to the other for their children to run into the bush and hide. I was one of the lucky ones who never got caught.
My father was a Christian leader who worked as a cane cutter and this gave him permission to work on cane farms throughout Queensland. So we would move with him from farm to farm, and when the cane season finished we lived back on the designated reserves or missions. In those days Aboriginal people weren’t allowed into the towns.
The Aboriginal Protection Acts (which didn’t protect us at all) gave the police the authority to remove Aboriginal children from their families and put them in institutional facilities or foster homes. These children later became known as the Stolen Generations and were subjected to abuse of every possible kind.
Aboriginal people had no recognition. We had never been counted in the census, so no one knew exactly how many massacres there had been. The government had control over every aspect of our life. We had to live on reserves, we weren’t allowed out after 6 pm; we could not mix with white people. The government would determine if we could marry and who we could marry, how much money we had and who we could work for. We were also restricted in our capacity to get involved in any political agendas and forbidden to speak our languages or practise our traditional cultures.
Then in 1967 there was a National Referendum, called the “Yes” Vote, when Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census. The vote was supposed to make us all equal citizens and although it did bring an end to the era of false removals, it created a different set of problems. As we came out of these reserves and foster homes we were forced to live in new urban environments where we now had to face the daily onslaught of racism. I joined the rest of the young people who didn’t have the wherewithal to counteract this racism and like them found the only way to relieve the pain was to get drunk and take drugs. It was also a freedom for us. Living without restrictions, meant for the first time we could do whatever we wanted to do.
My parents were also struggling with these issues but what kept them together was my father’s incredible faith and eventually I felt the call to follow in his footsteps and leave behind the drug induced state I was so enjoying. I knew I had to draw back into his faith to find a different direction for my life. That’s when I became politically activated. I did eight years of studying which gave me access to the records and stories of my people. I learnt about injustices that none of my community knew about because we hadn’t had access to newspapers. We were blinded to the cruel actions of the Government which had been implemented with impunity.
Once I graduated I was headhunted to go into government because I was one of the few Aboriginals with a degree, but I decided I wanted to work on the streets, at the grass roots where the greatest need lay. The terrible pain you still see on the streets shows how the brutality of our history is continuing into the present.
Many times I’ve witnessed a white Australian ask a Stolen Generations member for their forgiveness, and the Stolen Generations person will then look them straight in the eye and say “You can’t apologise if you weren’t directly responsible. The Government knew what they were doing. They are the guilty ones.”
There was an apology in a sense. Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister in 2008, apologised on behalf of all Australians following a national “Sorry” movement. Whilst many of the promises the Government made have not been implemented, it pricked the conscience of a nation and was a turning point. When someone says “I’m sorry” then something changes in your spirit.
Rape of the soul is so profound – and particularly for the Stolen Generations who were forcibly removed from their parents, communities, and culture. You can’t put a band aid on that. For these people the concept of healing, and the concept of forgiveness is difficult. Reconciliation only happens when you’re restored in your own spirit. That’s why we prefer to talk about emotional and psychological well-being. If you fix the psyche and restore wellbeing through a process of reconnection and reconstruction of identity, then you have a platform for someone to deal with intergenerational pain and be a human being again. Only then can someone have an opportunity to receive or express forgiveness.
I struggle with forgiveness but I know I have to practise it every day to relieve my bitterness. It’s a moment by moment thing because I can walk into a shop and have a person do racist acts without even knowing they are racist. And when that happens I have to walk away and deal with my rage and anger, and learn to say “okay Ray, forgive that person”. If I didn’t forgive then the past would always be present.