1936 it was. I would
have been five. We went visiting Ernabella the day the police came. Our
great-uncle Sid was leasing Ernabella from the government at that time
so we went there.
We had been playing
all together, just a happy community and the air was filled with screams
because the police came and mothers tried to hide their children and blacken
their children's faces and tried to hide them in caves. We three, Essie,
Brenda and me together with our three cousins ... the six of us were put
on my old truck and taken to Oodnadatta which was hundreds of miles away
and then we got there in the darkness.
My mother had to
come with us. She had already lost her eldest daughter down to the Children's
Hospital because she had infantile paralysis, polio, and now there was
the prospect of losing her three other children, all the children she
had. I remember that she came in the truck with us curled up in the foetal
position. Who can understand that, the trauma of knowing that you're going
to lose all your children? We talk about it from the point of view of
our trauma but - our mother - to understand what she went through, I don't
think anyone can really understand that.
It was 1936 and we
went to the United Aborigines Mission in Oodnadatta. We got there in the
dark and then we didn't see our mother again. She just kind of disappeared
into the darkness. I've since found out in the intervening years that
there was a place they called the natives' camp and obviously my mother
would have been whisked to the natives' camp. There was no time given
to us to say goodbye to our mothers.
From there we had
to learn to eat new food, have our heads shaved. So one day not long after
we got there my cousin and I ... we tried to run back to Ernabella. We
came across the train. We'd never seen a train before and it frightened
the hell out of us with the steam shooting out. So we ran back to the
mission because that was the only place of safety that we knew. She was
only four and I was only five.
Then we had to learn
to sleep in a house. We'd only ever slept in our wilchas and always had
the stars there and the embers of the fire and the closeness of the family.
And all of a sudden we had high beds and that was very frightening. You
just thought you were going to fall out and to be separated. There was
a corridor and our cousins were in another room. We'd never been separated
before. And the awful part was we had to get into that train later on
with one little grey blanket and go down to Colebrook ... a matter of
weeks after. From that time until 1968 I didn't see [my mother]. Thirty-two
years it was.
[I stayed at Colebrook]
till 1946 [when] I was fourteen or fifteen. We were trained to go into
people's home and clean and look after other people's children. I went
to a doctor and his wife. They were beautiful people. I stayed with them
a couple of years.
I guess the most
traumatic thing for me is that, though I don't like missionaries being
criticised - the only criticism that I have is that you forbad us to our
speak our own language and we had no communication with our family. We
just seemed to be getting further and further away from our people, we
went to Oodnadatta first, then to Quorn next, then when there was a drought
there we went to Adelaide and went out to Eden Hills and that's where
we stayed till we went out to work and did whatever we had to do.
I realised later
how much I'd missed of my culture...
I realised later
how much I'd missed of my culture and how much I'd been devastated. Up
until this point of time I can't communicate with my family, can't hold
a conversation. I can't go to my uncle and ask him anything because we
don't have that language ...
You hear lots and
lots of the criticisms of the missionaries but we only learnt from being
brought up by missionaries. They took some of that grief away in teaching
us another way to overcome the grief and the hurt and the pain and the
suffering. So I'm very thankful from that point of view and I believe
that nothing comes without a purpose. You knew that in those days there
was no possibility of going back because cars were so few and far between
and the train took forever to get anywhere so how could a five year old
get back to the people.
I guess the government
didn't mean it as something bad but our mothers weren't treated as people
having feelings. Naturally a mother's got a heart for her children and
for them to be taken away, no-one can ever know the heartache. She was
still grieving when I met her in 1968.
When me and my little
family stood there - my husband and me and my two little children - and
all my family was there, there wasn't a word we could say to each other.
All the years that you wanted to ask this and ask that, there was no way
we could ever regain that. It was like somebody came and stabbed me with
a knife. I couldn't communicate with my family because I had no way of
communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away,
we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family
was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone.
When I finally met
[my mother] through an interpreter she said that because my name had been
changed she had heard about the other children but she'd never heard about
me. And every sun, every morning as the sun came up the whole family would
wail. They did that for 32 years until they saw me again. Who can imagine
what a mother went through?
But you have to learn
305, South Australia. Fiona's story appears on page 129 of Bringing
Last updated 2 December 2001.