Tag Archives: Alistair Crooks

The Truth of SA’s ‘Stolen Generations’

January 10th 2017 print


Papers rescued from a landfill, painstakingly unearthed archival material, long-forgotten records, diary entries and correspondence put pay to the myth that racist policies saw many Aboriginal children removed from their parents. The reasons were good and the numbers tiny

stolen IIOn May 28, 1997, in Adelaide, South Australian parliamentary leaders vied to apologise to the “Stolen Generations”. That was more than a decade before the Rudd national apology of February 13, 2008. Yet the details of any child-stealing in SA remain elusive.

The SA Department of Human Services on the date of the state’s apology provided a 40-page guide to the previous century’s Aboriginal policy implementation. From this rather perfunctory booklet we learn

  • There were only minuscule numbers of part-Aboriginal children removed for any reason in various years of the early 20th century
  • The authors had no idea about the total number of removals in SA (for whatever reasons),  so they just said there were “many”.
  • Child removals (for any reason) could be effected only after approvals were obtained – usually with difficulty –  from courts and higher levels of the bureaucracy. And even then, there could be “a storm of protest”  from pro-Aborigine lobby groups and the media.
  • The intent of removals was benevolent, designed to rescue children from camp squalor and (in a pre-welfare era) to ensure their future self-supported living.

In the May, 1997, apologies in the SA State Parliament from government and opposition figures, they cite no evidence, other than hearsay, beyond that specially-prepared document. Opposition Leader Michael Rann (Lab.), for example, said, “I am told other mothers at settlements around Australia had to temporarily bury their children in the ground in order to prevent their being taken away, supposedly for their own good.” Legislative Council opposition leader Carolyn Pickles (Lab.) said,  “In some cases they [children] were rounded up like animals and torn away from [their mothers].”

Accessing the  SA archives

There are enormous resources of untouched primary documents on SA Aboriginal affairs lumped in half a dozen warehouse archives around Adelaide. For the past five years, volunteer researchers Joe Lane, 73, and Alistair Crooks, 65, have been intensively re-keying and posting SA archival documents on-line. So far they’ve published at least 15,000  pages from the century to 1940 including more than 13,000 letters in, and 9000 letters out, from the SA Protectors of Aborigines, circa 1840-1912.

From the documents inspected, they say that in SA the black-armband view of Aboriginal/white relations, as taught to students, is wrong. [1] They have found no evidence of the systematic taking for racist reasons of part-Aboriginal SA children. Removals of small numbers of children, such as orphans, did occur for welfare reasons – as also occurred with white children. Officialdom often considered that getting part-Aboriginal children out of squalid camps and wurleys was a matter of life and death, whether to protect them from infanticide, disease or abuse.[2] For girls, removal also meant rescue from degradation and prostitution. But such removals were infrequent and treated as incidental to Protectors’ main job of organizing statewide distributions of rations.

Crooks and Lane’s documents are available at firstsources.info. The two men have now published an annotated collection of key papers in Voices from the Past: Extracts from the Annual Reports of the South Australian Chief Protectors of Aborigines, 1837 Onwards. 309pp.[3]

The researchers’ background

To declare an interest, I wrote the book’s foreword, largely a biographical sketch of the authors. Joe Lane  was married to a Ngarrindjeri woman, Maria Rigney (1949- 2008), who later became a senior academic in the Aboriginal education sector. Together in the 1970s they hand-made more than 100 of the red, yellow and black Aboriginal flags, enabling this powerful symbol to displace scores of   complex and kitsch designs around the country.

Joe and Maria Lane as activists at first accepted and promoted in the journal Black News the black-armband histories. But over time they recognized that the much of the accounts were based on second/third-hand sources, oral recollections and hearsay. In 1983, Joe  was delighted to come across typewritten paper copies of the journals of  Rev. George Taplin, who ran the McLeay Mission on the SE coast from 1859-79, where Lane’s wife was born. Lane re-keyed the documents in 1997.

Lane says, “I wished that some fool should re-key the material for the internet. As it turned out, I was that fool. But I had discovered a goldmine of information.

“A friend gave me some old letter-books to 1900 from the mission that he rescued from a tip. By then I was hooked on searching out first-hand sources and went on to type up the thousand pages of three early Royal Commissions. More recently, I’ve been typing up the correspondence of the SA Protectors of Aborigines.”

Early in the work he joined with retired geologist Alistair  Crooks who had independently begun a similar exercise re-keying papers from important conferences, such as the 1937 national meeting of all the states’ Protectors.

Counting the “stolen” children

The duo’s first surprise was the miniscule numbers of “half-caste” children that came to SA missions and institutions without a parent.  According to Sir Ronald Wilson’s Stolen Generation report of 1997, 10-30% of all Aboriginal children nationally were forcibly taken (that report’s co-author, Mick Dodson, claimed about 100,000 “stolen” children). The Rudd apology of 2008, without explanation, halved the number of forcible removals, and referred to  “up to 50,000”.

Overall, Crooks and Lane estimate that in the 100 years from first settlement to 1940,  an average two to three  SA Aboriginal children per year were removed into care, usually  orphaned, or given up voluntarily by a parent. Historian Keith Windschuttle’s grand total for SA Aboriginal children taken into care for all reasons  from 1900-1970 was 1100 — about 16 a year.[4]

The Crooks/Lane documents show that in SA from 1911-20, the numbers of “half-caste” SA children (mainly girls) taken from the interior camps averaged only about two per year. And these included children who were neglected, orphaned, destitute, in moral jeopardy or willingly given up by a parent. In the 1920s the numbers taken were even fewer.

Windschuttle arrived at a similar figure for the 1895-1914 period in SA. He found 54 children “taken” during about 20 years, two or three per year.

In the two decades from 1880 to 1900 at Point McLeay settlement, only eight out of 200 children had been brought there officially. In the next 50 years, children brought there officially again hardly totaled double-digits. The McLeay school’s records from 1880-1960 show that only 47 out of 800 enrolled children were ever put into care, and all but one such child (whose mother died) returned within a year to their families. Not one was adopted out.[5]

In 1926-27 the United Aborigines Mission opened the Colebrook Home at Quorn for at-risk “half-caste” SA children, mostly from northern cattle country during droughts. Crooks and Lane estimate from the reports that admissions averaged only about two per year. By 1937-38 Colebrook Home had 31 children. Five were from a single family, the O’Donahues, brought there in 1934 by their white father. The O’Donahues included  Lowitja O’Donahue (later an ATSIC chair) and her four siblings.

Another home used for domestic training of “half-caste” girls (though mainly for white girls) was Fullarton, run by the Salvation Army, in Adelaide. Again, the numbers were miniscule – it was built to cater for a dozen girls. Crooks says the 1944-45 report mentions only two “half-castes” completing training and another being dux of the school. In 1948-49 there were only eight there, still in close contact with their families. Other Aboriginal parents were reportedly keen to place their children at Fullarton.

The 1997 SA apology document similarly cites miniscule numbers. It mentions “several” teenage boys being removed for apprenticeships after an 1844 ordnance and “significantly fewer” girls. Those removals needed consent of parents and of the Governor, it said. There is another reference to “several” removals in 1896 which ignited protests in the press. In 1909-13, the document says the Protector’s tally of removed Aboriginal children was 18, i.e. an average 4-5 a year.[6] The document does not clarify whether such removals were voluntary or forced, or what welfare considerations were involved. But it does say magistrates were initially  reluctant to commit such children.

Legal rationales

In 1911, the Premier produced a draconian and unprecedented Bill for removals, aimed at preventing contact with alcohol, prostitution and other dangers. The ‘apology’ document says, “So far as can be ascertained, it was not used by itself to authorise the removal of children from their parents.”

Amid the bureaucratic reports, glimpses of sad children sometimes emerge. In 1878,  a Mr Marlin reported on a ten-year-old orphan, Joanna,

“She has no-one to look after her or care for her, and she gets her living as best she can by associating with the blacks, and has to content herself with any old rags she can find about the wurlies.” Mr Marlin successfully lobbied for her to be sent to school and cared for. “She is an intelligent little girl, and if now taken in hand and properly cared for, will no doubt be able to go to service and earn her own living in a few years.”

Crooks and Lane also found frequent references to infanticide and health hazards. Some snapshots:

1865: The issuer of rations at Overland Corner reported that in his district in the recent years, “every living child appears to have been destroyed immediately after birth.”

1868:  Sub-Protector Butterfield — “There are in many parts of my district, several half-caste children whose fathers have abandoned [them] to a wurley life , a certain degradation, and, in the case of females, infamy and prostitution. It is a pity something cannot be done to rescue such from their perilous position.”

1874: Point McLeay missionary, Rev. Taplin, wrote, “Savage life is most destructive of infant life.” In the same year, Sub-Protector W.R. Thompson reported that “half-castes”  in camps rarely survived to adulthood.

1908: Protector South wrote, “I think all half-caste children at least should be gathered in, instead of being left in the camps where they are subjected to the brutalizing customs and ceremonial operations still prevalent in outlying districts.”

1911: Protector South mentioned a “quadroon” girl of nine officially taken from Stuart’s Creek after her single mother had gone to Hergott Springs near Marree (700km north of Adelaide). “To have left her to the inevitable fate of all half-caste girls brought up in the blacks’ camps in the interior would have been, to say the least of it, cruel…”

1924: Protector Garnett wrote, “It is generally reported and doubtless true, that aborigines in these parts of Australia often kill children not wanted, and especially ‘half-castes’.”

1948: Aboriginal Protection Board – “One of the principal causes of ill-health, particularly among children, is the irregular and inadequate meals provided by some mothers, who are incompetent and neglectful. No doubt such children would enjoy better health, and be much happier, if placed in institution provided by missionary organisations, and in some cases, action along these lines has been taken. The board desires, however, as far as possible, to preserve family life intact…”

1960s: Infanticide rates around Ernabella Mission were up to a fifth of all births, according to anthropologist Aram A. Yengolen.

Adelaide public backlash

The records show Protectors in their annual reports  – such as Protector South in 1908 – expressing a desire for part-Aboriginal children to be removed and separated until adulthood from their kin and clan. The view was that otherwise, the clan would encourage idleness and dependency. The Protectors’ desire was not translated into reality, given the legal safeguards and political resistance involved from church and philanthropic groups. Those groups, whose audience stretched to London, were eager to condemn any infraction and to publicise complaints about mistreatment.

From 1881 to 1895, the SA Destitute Persons Act allowed neglected children, white or black, to be taken into foster care or an industrial school, but taking an Aboriginal child also needed the consent of the Aborigines Department, i.e. its single employee, the Protector, plus Destitute Board, plus a court. The successor State Children’s Act was just as reluctant to concern itself with Aboriginal children.

Sub-Inspector Besley wrote in 1892:

“If forcefully taken there would be a cry of cruelty but it is cruelly unkind to leave them where they are. The girls become trained for a life of easy virtue, and the men drunken loafers. I have arranged with a Mr and Mrs Schneider at Port Augusta to take three of these children, with their parents’ consent. They are kind and good to them, though they both have to work hard for a living. These children appear to be fond of their adopted parents, and are kept clean and tidy, and attend school regularly…” (My emphasis here and below).

Besley concluded with a wish for an apprenticing, adding, “Before anything can be done Ministerial instructions should be given.”

In a revealing note in 1900, Protector Hamilton urged efforts to protect young female “half-castes” from the camps:

“In some cases they object to leave their tribe and in others the mothers of the girls will not consent to give them up.”

By 1911 state Parliament permitted removals from missions, but only of entire families, with no separation of children, and only with prior consent of two JPs.  Protector South in 1916-17 mentioned several girls being removed from camps in the interior for their own protection, “chiefly at the request of their aboriginal and half-caste parents”.

In 1923 the SA Parliament passed an Aboriginal Children’s Training Act enabling removal of neglected illegitimate aboriginal children to institutions without a court order. But the Act was quickly suspended because Aborigines objected to it. The Protector could then only remove children where the parents were willing.

Protector South’s successor, Francis Garnett, reported in 1924 that about 20 “half-caste” girls from Alice Springs  had been put into domestic placements in SA,  since jobs were scarce in the NT and the girls were at risk from predatory white station hands. But he said such transfers were inhumane and  “should be considered a temporary expedient and stopped as soon as possible.”

The 1997 apology document concedes that Protectors and departmental officials lacked power or ability for arbitrary removals. Such actions not only required the cooperation of  courts but also several  branches of the government, it said. It cites the “storm of protest” when Parliament sought to drop safeguards.

More on the 1997 booklet

In the whole 1997  document, there is only one instance cited of an Aboriginal child being targeted for removal  because of race rather than welfare or neglect. It quotes the Protector in 1912 about

“an illegitimate quadroon girl, aged between 9 and 12 years, called [girl’s name] at Point McLeay Mission Station. Although the girl is fairly well cared for, I consider that she should not be reared amongst the aborigines, and would respectfully suggest that the matter be referred to the State Children’s Council with a view to her being brought under their control.”

The document does not say whether the removal actually occurred. But it notes contemporary testimony that police were reluctant to get involved in removals  — even if a child was “in a really bad state” — because they could suffer violent clan  retaliation. Moreover, magistrates tended to have no objection to children being brought up in a wurley.

Another church home for children was at Koonibba, which had 67 children in 1920. The 1997 document says they were

“hence  separated from their families. Reports of the day claim that ‘many parents voluntarily [gave] up their children’ to be placed in the children’s home. This claim is disputed by many Aboriginal people today.”

This wording is quite dishonest. The reality was that parents worked during the week on local stations, while their children were being schooled and cared for on the mission. Of course, they were re-united for the weekends. This occurred at many missions, well into recent times – for example, at Gerard Mission until 1961, when the government took it over and ceased the service.

The same apology document claimed that from about 1913-63, removed children, shamefully, “were rarely allowed contact, or reunited with their parents.” Crooks and Lane find the opposite.

Children not separated

In 1919, Crooks and Lane cite, Protector South complained that when girls were placed in domestic work (one of the very few occupations for working-class girls at the time) they still had liberty to return to their camps or parents whenever they wished, and to live there in idleness.

At Point McLeay and Point Pearce missions there had been a degree of separation after children were voluntarily placed by parents in a dormitory. When the state took the missions over in 1917 and closed the dormitories, policy became to bring mothers more closely  into the child’s upbringing, with requirements to wash and mend the school clothes, for example.

Aborigines on the missions came and went at will, Crooks and Lane say. Children who wanted to go back to their home districts were supported for the trip. One boy was supported to Oodnadatta and then further to his home country. He was back at the mission a year or so later, when his successful request for a harmonium (a small organ) was recorded. He had saved 15 pounds, half the substantial cost. The Protector paid the other 15 pounds. Lane adds, “No mission was ever fenced to keep people in.”

Far from wanting to herd communities onto missions, the Protectors sought to keep groups self-sufficient. From the 1860s onwards the  Protector provided dozens, perhaps a hundred or more, fifteen-foot boats and smaller canoes, fishing gear and guns for hunting to people on the Murray and Coopers Creek  waterways to help them “stay in their own districts”. Non-workers got the items and repairs free; working Aboriginals paid half costs.

In the 1940s an explicit goal of the Aborigines Protection Board  was to preserve family life intact as far as possible, and it created travelling welfare officers to coach Aboriginal mothers on child-rearing and thus avoid the need for removals because of neglect.

Today’s odd priorities

As for the modern era, more than one in twenty (5.23%) of South Australian Aboriginal children as of  June, 2015, were in out-of-home care, more than nine times the rate of non-Aboriginal children. In Victoria, of the 1511 Aboriginal children in care (up 59% since 2013), close to 90% had experienced family violence and parental alcohol/substance abuse.[7]  There seems more pressing social issues today than painting grim and exaggerated pictures of “stolen generations”.

Tony Thomas’ new book of Quadrant essays, “That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print” is available here.

[1] A typical example: “Tearing drawings. Students make a drawing of their family at home and include valued items such as pets or computers. The teacher then tells the story of stolen children and, while walking around the room, tears away part of each student’s drawing. A student could then talk about how they felt about their valuable work being ripped apart and how they would feel being ripped from their family.”

[2]  Health aspects were mentioned by Point McLeay missionary Rev George Taplin on 5/7/1864:

The practice of the natives in drying their dead is a very horrible one. Fancy a corpse over a slow fire in a state of putrefaction and the juices of the body gradually frying out and dropping into the fire below and making a horrible fetid smoke…I have no doubt that the practice is killing them, and will do so in increasing numbers, for every death causes disease. I have known horrible old men to catch the corruption dropping from a dead body in a pannican, and then besmear their bodies with it to make them strong. Fancy how they smell afterwards. I would fain visit the wurleys more, but am often kept outside by the horrid smell. There will be perhaps 15 or 20 dead bodies all more or less decayed in the wurley or hut, and the stench from them is indescribable.

How horrible it is too, to see a mother or father basting with oil and red ochre an infant’s corpse as it is squat up on a sort of bier or stage. And then the mourners will be daubed (that is, the women) with human ordure and consequently stink till you cannot approach them. I have known people to die through the stench of the dead and yet the poor souls keep on the practice. The young men and women would I believe fain to do away with it, and would be glad if the civil power compelled them to bury their dead.  And then, most of their witchcraft depends on the practice.

Elsewhere a horrified Taplin notes breast-feeding mothers smearing their breasts with these body juices and then suckling their children.

[3] Hoplon Press, Adelaide. Available from Bookdepository.com   $A29 paperback or $A44 hardback, post-free.

[4] Nationally from about 1880 to 1970, Windschuttle found 8250 Aboriginal children taken into care for all reasons, including NSW (2600); WA (2500); NT (1000) and  Victoria (700). That’s about 90 a year, including orphans, the destitute, the neglected and those given up voluntarily by parents. The small numbers leave small scope for any “stolen generation” national genocide involving a total 50,000-100,000 forcible removals.

[5] The schooling appeared to be effective, a contrast to the remote schools today. Protector South commented in 1908, “It is now seldom in the settled districts that one meets a native who cannot read and write.” The Closing The Gap report (2015) said remote attendance rates were as low as 14%, and only 35% of children there met minimum Year 7 reading standards. Overall there was no significant literacy improvement by Aboriginal students generally from 2008-14.

[6]  Confusingly, the 1997 document says a few pages later that removals from 1909 had “gathered pace” and the total of removals from 1909-14 was 58.

[7] The Jackomos report to the Victorian government on neglected Aboriginal children (October, 2016) described “a catalogue of failure and neglect in many areas by the [Victorian] State.”


  1. Jody

    This was always the great lie, catapulting the aboriginal community into a downward spiral of helpless dependency and victimhood; the bigotry of the soft left, described by Pearson. Short of disability, chronic or terminal illness we all have the capability to lift ourselves out of crisis and penury. The aboriginal population is now different, assuming that we are told correctly – all people are equal. That being the case we should demand of them the same as we demand of all people – resilience and independent responsibility. Anything less is abuse. And it’s what the left does oh, so well.

    One of my last tasks in teaching was to show Year 12 English students how they had been comprehensively brainwashed in the film “Rabbit Proof Fence”. As a narrative it’s a good yarn, but it’s essentially propaganda from the black armband brigade. As I have a background in documentary film, and university qualifications in film study, it was as easy as falling off a log to demonstrate to 16/17 y/o how they had been propagandized. I hadn’t seen the film before I had to teach it, but it was so infuriating to me that I stopped the film midway through and said, “oh, wait a minute; this isn’t going to stand”. So, while teaching the kids about “the Journey” for their “Area of Study” I taught them an invaluable lesson about how image and sound are used to propagandize – and they learned all about “agitprop”. Yes, that was very satisfying.

  2. en passant

    There were a number of aboriginal soldiers in units in which I served. I always asked them why they joined the Army. The unfailing answer was: “to get away from the clan and give myself a better life.”

  3. Salome

    minuscule, not miniscule.

  4. Bill Martin

    Reading an article like this brings one’s blood to boiling point. The principal target of one’s rage is not the politically correct progressive left but the educated Aborigines who condemn their less fortunate kin to perpetual misery by vigorously promoting the black armband victimhood narrative while enjoying a lavish lifestyle funded by those despicable, heartless, racist whities. There is no lower form of life than that.

    • Warty

      And that creep Mick Dodson participated in the lie, with his 100, 000 stolen children. He for one wouldn’t want this report to get out: it would be one more nail in the Constitutional Recognition coffin.

    • rosross

      I don’t think it helps to attack people personally. Generally people are acting in what they perceive are their own best interests even if they are misinformed or willingly ill-informed.

  5. Patrick McCauley

    And the historians are in this fraud up to their necks. Entire history departments of most universities are pedalling the Stolen Generations as the height and proof of Australian cruelty and racism – as attempted Genocide. Every student has seen “Rabbit Proof fence’ at least ten times during their school years and no mention of Doris Pilkington’s outrage at having her story so thoroughly mutilated by Phillip Noyce. Nor the images of having children ripped out of their mother’s arms by a policemen. This film has done more harm to Australians than Mein Kampf did to Germans. This lie has been profound, deliberate, extended, celebrated and has fuelled such resentment as to actually manifest itself into further disfunction. It has stopped Aboriginal children attending school. It has served to prevent Aboriginal children from learning to read and write in English. This of all things is what finally drove me out of left wing thinking, and it is the left who have perpetrated and fuelled this lie for over thirty years. What is shameful, is not Australia’s efforts at providing a Christian compassion to Aboriginal children with absent white fathers and vulnerable Aboriginal mothers, but the intellectuals who have driven this lie into a National Apology for something we did not do. Phillip Noyce made Australia bend down in shame before his nasty lie purporting to be a documentary. And don’t forget the parts that Robert Manne and Rai Gaita played in this shameful fiction.

    • Jody

      Nasty individuals, all. You could see from the first 15 minutes of the film what agitprop it was!! These are one and the same that luvvie Meryl Streep are “defending” against Donald trump. The latter is full of faults and will probably fail but I agree with my eldest son; Trump is taking a sledgehammer to the Left.

    • joelane94@hotmail.com

      In one of Arthur Upfield’s earliest ‘Bony’ novels, published in 1937, Bony has to work undercover on the Rabbit Fence, at Burracoppin, As usual, Upfield goes into fine detail about the job: each man was assigned about seven miles of fence to maintain, fork tumbleweed over, fix rotten posts, etc. So perhaps 150 men were working every day on the Fence, from one end to the other. Is it really possible that none of them spoke to each other, or to their drinking mates in the local pub each night, and that such information wouldn’t get into the local paper, and from there into the West Australian ? There is no reference whatever to such a story on Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/

      I don’t think that Doris Pilkington (born 1937) lied, but it is highly unlikely that a story can be remembered with perfect accuracy after twenty year, let alone sixty.

      In the 1934 Moseley Commission, set up by the new Labor Government t enquire into Aboriginal issues, there are no references to this story, not by Neville nor by Mrs. Mary Bennett, his perennial thorn in the side. There are refr3ences to girls running away from Moore River settlement, usually sixteen or seventeen years old, but where did they run to, or towards ? Fremantle, the bright lights. So this story directly contradicts not only the truth but the direction in which girls went, and the story and film, in their anti-assimilationist fervour, contradict the intent of those girls to get as much ‘assimilation’ as they could.

      I was born on the Left, I pent twenty years as a Maoist, but I have been disillusioned by so many aspects of the Aboriginal story. Poverty ? I did an income study of community where we had lived for four years, and to my horror, found that the average family income was equal to the Australian average, while rents were a fifth of the Australian average. Deaths in custody ? The proportion of DIC was lower than the proportion of Aboriginal people in the prison system. The Hindmarsh Island Scam ? My wife was from that group: it was clearly a fraud, perhaps dreamt up by Aboriginal people who found out about secret women’s business’ up in the North, and assumed that since all Aboriginal culture is the same across Australia, they must have had it down that way, but whites had kept it from them. Bastards. A little learning is a dangerous thing …..

    • Alistair

      “Evil” is the word (to describe our historians and academics) that comes to my mind – which is why Joe and I wrote the book – Voices from the Past. After reading the Protectors’annual reports we thought they were being misrepresented and denied natural justice. The book allows the Protectors their own voice in the current debate – instead of hearing only distortions by academics, historians and the aborigines themselves.

      • gary@erko

        Many of the links on your First Sources website end up nowhere, or open a page of unreadable characters.

      • rosross

        Evil, defined as that which negates, live spelled backwards perhaps, but not evil in the conventional sense.

        Academics at worst are self-serving do-gooders, seeking to profit from their position in an industry which provides benefits financial, professional, political and in terms of general power.

        The represent the debasement of academia in an age where opinions are considered as important, if not more important, than facts.

  6. rosross

    The heartening thing is that there are voices now, and some coming from within the indigenous community, breaking free of the black-armband lies and distortions and seeking to speak not just truth, but common sense.


Brand-New Timeless Traditions

It seems no public event can begin without a Welcome to Country, quite possibly involving an ochre-daubed performer with a smoking bark pot and lots of ethno-gibberish neither star nor audience understand. Let us hope the quest for ‘authenticity’ does not embrace penis-touching and cannibalism

indigenous smokoWelcome to Country and smoking ceremonies involve professional mock-ups of supposed thousand-year Aboriginal traditions. Someone hires a local troupe to dance in body paint and laplaps to didgeridoo and clapstick music. The leader says a few words in the traditional language and self- translates it into New Age platitudes about peace and goodwill. Everyone goes home smug.

Matilda House-Williams, an elder of the Ngambri Clan, went home particularly happy with an undisclosed sum  for a welcome-to-country speech of six minutes for Kevin Rudd at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in 2008.[1]  She was back (as plain Matilda “House”) in 2010 for Gillard’s 43rd Parliament (fee undisclosed), and again for the 44th Parliament, led by Tony Abbott. This time her fee was disclosed: $10,500, for “entertainment services”. With stakes like that, it’s not surprising that the Ngunnawal clan, led by Aunty Agnes Shea , themselves claimed to be Canberra’s traditional owners. Parliament has now squared the circle by naming both clans as owners.[2]

In Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Abbotsford, the Wurundjeri Tribe Land & Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Inc.   quotes (below) $570  for a Welcome to Country (Community not for profit clients, $470); $300 for a Smoking /Cleansing Ceremony ($300); $820 for a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony ($720); $1700 for Jindyworabak Dancers ($1700) and $250 for didgeridoo player ($250). Travel and parking are included; 10% GST to be added.

welcome rates

Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council quotes Welcome to Country speeches at $385-450, with a 20% surcharge after 5pm and weekends.  Dancers, didgeridoo players and smoking-ceremony handlers are not supplied by this council and come at extra expense. The council warns that its three “uncles” providing welcomes “are in high demand”, unsurprising given that welcomes are becoming mandatory.

Even the CSIRO, an organisation nominally pledged to rational inquiry and scientific rigour (OK, there is that climate-change hysteria), has bought in to the ‘welcome’ business, having issued guidelines for pay rates and accommodations when its laboratories need to be cleansed of “evil spirits” by an ochred contractor waving fiery foliage. Exposed and widely ridiculed, those guidelines were quietly removed for the internet. They remain available via Wayback Machine’s web archive, however, and can be read in full here.

The supposedly ancient ‘welcome’ tradition goes back 30-40 years, whereas the House of Commons goes back  nearly 700 years. Indigenous entertainers Ernie Dingo and Richard Whalley, of the Middar Aboriginal Theatre, claim to have invented the “welcome to country” in 1976 because two pairs of Maori visitors from NZ and the Cook Islands wanted an equivalent of their own traditional ceremony before they would dance at the Perth International Arts Festival.[3]  Another version is that activists shrewdly created the ceremony at about the same time to buttress land-rights claims. And Aboriginal Rhoda Roberts, head of indigenous programming at the Sydney Opera House, says the ceremonies were developed in the 1980s by members of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trustwhich she co-founded. Her speaker-for-hire profile claims she personally invented the term “welcome to country” along with the protocols involved.  She would like welcomes to include marking guests with ochre and Aboriginal sweat. Eccch.

Not to be outdone, current ABC chair and then NSW Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, said in 2011 that he created first official use of the ceremony for the Court’s 175th anniversary in 1999, and that ceremony inspired the NSW Parliament to take it up too. Spigelman, with all respect, erred. Governor-General Sir William Deane did the deed in his annual Vincent Lingiari Lecture in 1996.[4]

Whatever the motives, the welcome meme fitted perfectly into the zeitgeist. Welcomes To and/or Acknowledgements Of Country  are now mandated by Parliaments, governments, departments,  the military, shires, corporates, educators and right-thinking groups all around the country. The mandating is normally done by Labor powerbrokers, while conservatives drag their feet but are too intimidated to resist.

Anthropologists and early settlers failed to record anything much resembling “welcome to country” ceremonies. Bess Price, CLP Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory Parliament and Minister for Community Services, has described “welcomes” as  “not particularly meaningful to traditional people anyway. We don’t do that in communities. It’s just a recent thing. It’s just people who are trying to grapple at something that they believe should be traditional.”

Tony Thomas’s new book of essays, That’s Debatable, will be launched at 6.30pm Thursday, May 19, at Il Gamberos Restaurant, 166 Lygon St, Carlton.
Order your copy here

Anthropologist Ron Brunton found in WA some evidence for permissions being required to enter neighbouring clans’ land (although more honoured in the breach these days) but saw no evidence of any welcome-to-countries  in the state where the ceremonies were (probably) first invented.

Adelaide archival researcher and geologist Alistair Crooks says,

“During years of geological site inspections, I have never seen or heard of a welcome ceremony being performed when entering tribal land (invited), nor have I seen the ceremony performed when transporting Aborigines into or across various tribal boundaries. Nor is any such ceremony described by any of the early explorers or anthropologists that I am aware of.”

Except, of course, the rather simple penis-touching ceremony around Oodnadatta described by Berndt and Berndt and Roheim.[5]

The Berndts recorded,

“When a man with a subincised penis enters a strange camp, he takes up the hand of each local man in turn, pressing his penis flatly on the palm.[6] This gesture, of offering and acceptance in a close physical contact, signifies the establishment of friendly relations, and is associated with the settling of grievances.”[7]

Explorer Edward John Eyre also describes the permissions of one group wanting to enter the land of a neighbouring group for ceremonial reasons, and what the process involved. There didn’t appear to be any “welcome” ceremony.

Crooks says,

“Central to Eyre’s notes is the aboriginal belief that only the old and young can die of natural causes. All adults only die as the result of contact with sickness country, by the action of malignant spirits, or by the intervention of sorcery by neighboring tribes.

Thus when two tribes meet at one tribal boundary, they first settle accounts for all the tribal deaths attributable to sorcery by each tribe since they last met. After a discussion a group of men would be selected out and would allow themselves to be speared by the other tribe. After this settling of accounts, normal relations were established and they could get on with the business.” [8]

One early observer, a certain Mrs Smith, wife of a Mt Gambier missionary, noted that welcomes don’t always end well: “The tribes, like most savage peoples, were in continual dread of each other; and although they occasionally met up on friendly terms to hold a murapena (corroboree), it usually eventuated in a fight, in which one or two were killed and afterwards eaten.”[9]

A typical modern “welcome” was the 2014 ceremonial year-opening for the Australian Command & Staff College in Canberra.  About 170 middle-ranking officers took part, preparatory to a year’s “intensive course which includes strategic policy, leadership and ethics, joint operations, single service studies and capability development components”. Nearly all officers wore ribbons signifying their valor and active service.

The welcome ceremony was by Canberra’s popular Wiradjuri Echoes Dance Troupe (or “troop”, as the ADF  misprinted it). It comprises Wiradjuri man Duncan Smith and his four teenagers, who’ve performed for Denmark’s Prince Frederik and Princess Mary and three of our Prime Ministers. As Duncan explains his career, “Having five kids, it isn’t easy to raise them, I’ll start a business up in culture. But I had no idea about doing it, I sat in business seminar after seminar [laughs]. ‘Yes, I can do this!’ I got the ABN and stuff and started building a business and reputation.”  His much-awarded Echoes are the go-to group for high-level  performances.

Good luck to the  Echoes as a thriving small business catering to whites’ liking for color, movement and exotica. But it was the reverential behaviour of the 170 military officers that intrigued me.  After the dance, Duncan stood on the pathway into the lecture theatre with a bark holder containing smoking gum leaves. Every one of the officers filed past and mimed pushing the smoke into their faces. Their expressions were as solemn as at church-going. Inside,  Ngunnawal elder Aunty Agnes Shea (Matilda House’s rival claimant to Canberra land) presented the commander, Brigadier Peter Gates, with a nicely-painted message stick. Any officer raising an eyebrow at possible inauthenticity, would kiss his/her career goodbye.[10]

Lisa Phelps, head of the ADF’s Directorate of Indigenous Affairs, joined the speakers. Like those responsible for the  national school curriculum, the ADF wants “a cultural awareness piece in every training package continuum that is developed.” The ADF has also committed to more than double its intake of Indigenous recruits, to 2.7% of the force. This quest is seriously chewing up resources that could otherwise be recruiting more successfully elsewhere to help eventually push back ISIS and other bad guys. I sometimes wonder if the ADF has any inclination for combat after all this cultural correctness. See also here.

These days, Indigenous ceremonies are everyone’s feel-good exercise, but not long ago, with Indigenes more stroppy, there were glitches. The greatest was the Pageant of Australian History organized by the National Trust at Old Government House at Parramatta to celebrate the Federation Centenary in 2001.  The audience included the mayor, state and federal parliamentarians, and local Indigenes.

As recounted by anthropologist Kristina Everett, the Trust’s plan was to round up some local Darug to welcome attendees and display pre-contact Australian life.[11]  White actors were lined up to orate as Governor Philip, the MacArthurs, the Macquaries, Marsden, Greenway, the Rum Corps etc. The Indigenes were to do their picturesque things and then conveniently disappear after  dispersal by Red Coats firing muskets.

The Darugs, embittered by failed attempts to establish land-claim title to the end on which Sydney is built,  played along with the script at rehearsals. But for the performance, they dispersed only temporarily at the musket fire and re-instated themselves in the shrubbery, shouting at the Governor Philip actor in their ersatz Darug tongue and then re-emerging, Everett said, “moaning, groaning, clutching their stomachs, their heads, their hearts, and then ‘dying’ on the lawn of Old Government House.”

 “I became increasingly concerned that the theatrical ‘Governor Philip’ would retaliate by calling the Red Coats. ‘Governor Philip’ began to lose his concentration when delivering his speech concerning his mission to establish a new British colony and to treat Aboriginal inhabitants according to British justice and fairness. His words became labored as dancers began to ‘die’ at his feet.”

The audience, both black and white, got queasy, unused to disrespectful interruptions of theatrical performances. Plus it was obvious that the Darug had a  point.

“Stifled giggles, soft murmurs, and puzzled expressions emanated from the audience as many shifted in their seats.  As ‘Governor Philip’ exited back into Old Government House, I, for one, felt relieved when the Darug performers ‘rose from the dead’ and disappeared into the shrubs followed by spirited applause.”

The actor playing Francis Greenway came out on the portico  clad in powdered wig, velvet knickerbockers, ruffled blouse and buckled shoes, and the painted-up Darug in loin-cloths returned in force to writhe, moan and expire once more “on the grass at his feet.” Each time colonial worthies came out for inspired oratory, the Darug repeated their counterpoint.

“The pageant became for me, almost impossible to watch. It was programmed to take only one hour, but seemed interminable. It was clear from the tension, comments and restlessness of other audience members that I was not alone in my distress. One Aboriginal man near me complained to a woman beside him,  ‘Gawd Lornie, I dunno if I can take much more o’ this. It’s embarrassin’.”

The actors playing   founding white mothers and fathers stuttered awkwardly, whether at being interrupted or feeling their roles had been subverted by the bodies littering the lawn.

One of the female dancers later explained to Everett, “Feelin’ uncomfortable in our own country is what bein’ Aboriginal is all about. It don’t do no harm for whitefellas to get a taste o’ it.” She writes:

“’Dead’ bodies remained on the lawn until some National Trust organisers discreetly escorted them out of sight. The audience did not know how to respond. A few people began to applaud but it was not taken up by everybody.  It was not until a ‘thank you and good night’ speech was made by a National Trust representative that the audience broke into applause.”

Everett in her preamble explains that “the Darug” as a group only emerged in the 1980s after genealogical research by a biologist Dr James Kohen identifying 6000 suburbanites as Darug.  The “vast majority” didn’t identify even as Aboriginal before or after Kohen’s research. But between 200 and 300 took up the cause of being Darug and began creating a Darug identity, putting in three unsuccessful land rights claims to Sydney. She wrote, “The process of becoming an Aboriginal community has not, however, been without its share of sweat, blood and tears. Over the last thirty years Darug people have been experimenting with various ideas about how to be Aboriginal.” Over time they convinced themselves:

“It seems that the expressions of group identity they have developed over some decades have now become such values in themselves that they cannot and will not be relinquished. Welcome to country ceremonies are one of these articulations.” (author’s emphasis).

Facets include learning from academics about original Darug ancestors, “to some people actually behaving in ways that they imagine Darug ancestors behaved.” Those facets include forms of ‘primitive’ dancing, ceremonies and speaking a claimed version of Darug language.

One group leaned towards the academic knowledge, the other group towards “more cultural and behavioral forms of expression”, causing the original group to split, sometimes with acrimony. Notwithstanding, local councils, governments and schools have fallen over themselves to invite Darugs to give welcome to country ceremonies, even to massively-attended shows like the 2000 Olympics, the 2006 Commonwealth Games torch relay and the 2001 Federation shows, along with numerous minor shows, flag-raisings and conferences. About the only group that does not invite Darugs to do welcome-to-country shows are rival Aborigines.

Everett gets particularly interesting on the re-creation of Aboriginal languages for use at such ceremonies. This is symbolically important in claiming pre-contact ancestry — although, at best, only a few vestiges of the language remain in urban settings. Everett says current Darugs have virtually no knowledge of the old Darug spoken language, other than a few words.

“There is no Darug language community. Nor are there any records in full and very little in part of Darug language…The Darug descendants…use what they insist is a version of Darug language that they have developed with the help of word lists from a white supporter in the early days and then by themselves over the last thirty years to conduct welcome to country ceremonies.”

When they use it, “it is not understood either by the audience or the speakers themselves” – since it is  “a recently invented verbal ritual affirming Darug identity…and is hence more of a dramatic ritual performance than a language”.  Everett cites the following example of Darug “language” as spoken by a senior woman in the 2001 Federation pageant:

Tiati murra Daruga pemel,
Koi murra ya pemel ngalaringi bubbuna.
Ban nye yenma wurra nang.
Ney dice gai dyi ya nangami dyarralang.
Ngalaringi tiati nglararingi gai.
Gu-ya willy angara gu-nu-gal dag u-nu-gal
Da la-loey gnia tarimi gi-mi-gal.
Jam ya tiati nglararingi eorah jumna.
Mittigar gurrung burruk gneene da Daruga pemel.[12]

Make of all that what you will. Everett says this speech was received with great audience enthusiasm, spirited applause, head-nodding and warm smiles at this ‘authentic’ display.

Meanwhile, state education departments are handing authority over Aboriginal teaching and curriculum to local Aboriginal groups. This is seen as being culturally sensitive, but in reality endows the Aboriginal lobby with classroom control. As last year’s Victorian official guideline on the courses puts it, “Any education materials produced must be developed directly by or in partnership with Koorie community representatives — at the local level this work must be in consultation with LAECGs [Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Groups].

As Ronald Berndt noted 30 years ago,  “Aboriginality is sought in an Aboriginal past. Not in the reality of traditional Aboriginal life, contemporary or otherwise, but in their idea of what it was (or is) like…in re-creation of what they think Aboriginal life should be…

“A great deal of interesting myth-making is going on.”[13]

Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope


[1]  She concluded the speech: “With this renewed hope and our pride, our strength is refreshed. Like our ancestors, we can reach new heights soaring on the wings of the eagles. Thank you very much, and welcome to the land of my ancestors.”

[2] The President now says, “I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia’s Indigenous peoples.”

[3] The Middar Theatre was actually founded in 1978, hence the invention date may be 1978 rather than 1976.

[4] “We acknowledge that we are meeting on country for which they and their forbears have been custodians for many centuries and on which Aboriginal people have performed age-old ceremonies of celebration, initiation and renewal. We acknowledge their living culture and unique role in the life of this region”

[5] The author studied under the Berndts in 1961 at UWA

[6] In the Western Desert a boy becomes a man by having an upper central incisor pounded out of his head with a rock, without anaesthetic, without permission to express pain or terror; by having his foreskin cut off in little pieces with a stone knife and seeing it eaten by certain of his male relatives, and as a climax of agony, by having his penis slit through to the urethra from the scrotum to the meatus, like a hot dog… Professor of Anthropology John Greenway, Down Among the Wild Men. Little, Brown, 1972. p3

[7] Berndt R. and Berndt C., The World of the First Australians. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra 1999. p176

[8] To be whimsical, such ritual spearings   of white leaders by Aboriginal performers at Welcome ceremonies could lend an authentic touch and generate some literal healing of past wounds.

[9]  Mrs. James Smith, 1880. The Booandik Tribe of South Australia. South Australian Government Printer. 1965 facsimile produced by the SA Libraries Board.

[10] To some extent, the ADF was providing some local culture for the 25 or so foreign officers taking the course, as occurs on a reciprocal basis in defence circles. But the ADF is suffusing this culture through its total systems.

[11] Kristina Everett, Welcome to Country…Not. Oceania, Vol 1/79,  March 2009, pp53-64.

[12] Coincidentally, I assisted noted linguist Dr Carl Georg Von Brandenstein on his work translating Pilbara song-poetry from four dialects (Taruru, by Brandenstein and Thomas, Rigby, 1974). To give the flavor of some authentic Aboriginal language, however remote from NSW,  here’s a sample,  “Air Raid on Broome”, Karierra dialect, by Billy Thomas-Wombi:

palanamu jiaanimalgu wajangaarnu
savan nulikadaer jiaanimalgu
palanamu jiaanimalgu wajangaarnu


They’re coming in from the east
– terrifying!
Seven they are – coming in from the east.
Coming in from the east
– terrifying!
Those chaps with the protruding eyes.

(We’re not sure if “protruding eyes” refers to the pilots’ goggles).


[13] In Johns, G. 2011. Aboriginal Self-Determination, The Whiteman’s Dream. Connor Court Publishing.



  1. Tig

    I would have thought the ADF would be much too practical to be blindsided by Left political correctness and falderal but they seem to be out there leading the way of late.

  2. Richard H

    As potent a sign of how degenerate our governing institutions have become is what how happens in our parliaments.

    Since the seventeenth century, parliaments in the Westminster tradition have refused to allow the Sovereign or the Sovereign’s representative to enter the popularly-elected chamber, such as the House of Representatives. The symbolism is stark: even the most mighty power in the land cannot intrude into the solemn precincts of the people’s representatives.

    Now we have an inversion whereby the location of those solemn precincts is deemed to be the traditional home of some tiny band of painted frauds, and our elected representatives allow themselves to be “welcomed” there.

  3. Geoffrey Luck

    The Darug racket has been shrewdly advanced by picking the soft targets. The official website of Macquarie University, built on what were market gardens as recently as the 1950s, acknowledges that the university is on the land of the Darug people. Not – what was once the land of the Darug people, mind you. In a presentational video featuring one Jacinta Tobin, she adopts an arrogantly proprietorial attitude: “Our family has learnt in this country for forty, fifty thousand years. We ask you to come here and learn again.” Tobin concludes with a song which she has cleverly copyrighted – as if many would want to borrow it. It’s not exactly a “Happy Birthday!” Welcome to country and/or smoking ceremonies are now part of all graduation ceremonies and official conferences on the Macquarie campus; the University boasts its own resident “elder”. Uncle Lexodious (Is that poking fun at white man’s law?) Dodd has his own office and telephone (02 9850 8653) and when not welcoming people to his country, “informs our teaching and research practice within the discipline of Indigenous Studies.” In 1974 when the University hosted a high tea for foundation alumni to celebrate its jubilee, Dodd and one of his mates gave not merely a welcome but also a ten minute historical harangue. When I wrote a lettr of protest about this nonsense to the new Vice Chancellor, I received a peremptory rebuke about my cultural insensitivity, with the implication that he would have taken away my MBA if he could have. Sentimentality, guilt and childish fascination with ersatz cultural performances have gripped the nation. Tony has done well to expose what is really a surreptitious part of the campaign to establish a two-nation Australia.

  4. Davidovich

    Given that we are now being forced to accept that white men invaded Australia, it seems incongruous that there would have been any welcome to country ceremonies back then.

  5. Alistair

    Nice article Tony.
    I noticed in your translation in the footnotes “seven they are coming”. This surprised me as I know of no aboriginal language which has a word for a numeral higher than three. The word “seven” though is presumably a translation of that ancient indigenous word “savan”. Perhaps this proves a link between aboriginal languages and proto-indo-european languages. From the time of first settlement they been considered to part of the Caucasian family.

    • padraic

      I just about puke when I am at a function where this patronising “Welcome to Country” is trotted out. To me it is saying we native born Australians of the paler variety are not real citizens of our own country. Well, sorry guys. I’ve got news for you.