THE unsavoury and mostly hidden history of WA’s missions is laid bare in the exhibition Kerosene Tins and Love Hearts, part of Perth Heritage Days this weekend.
The project came about when Robert Eggington and wife Selina from the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation took students from Clontarf Aboriginal College on a tour of the missions through the south west, documenting the old sites with photographs and telling them the stories of kids who were taken from their parents under the 1905 Native Welfare Act.
“These kids got a lot out of the experience…they got knowledge of a hidden history that belongs to them as young Aboriginal people, that is not spoken about in their families all that much because it’s too painful, it’s too brutal to talk about, and they don’t hear about it in school. It gave them an insight into their own history.”
The pair had become familiar with many of the stories when they helped survivors of the Stolen Generation, and other abused people, write their applications for the Redress WA compensation scheme about 10 years ago.
“At the time, I was totally unaware of the psychological and physical demand this would have on me,” Mr Eggington says.
“My wife and I did over 300 stories of people who as children were taken, and stolen, and put into missions or fostered.”
He says not many people know the full extent of the atrocities in those missions. From near starvation to widespread child sexual abuse, and siblings being split up and sent all over the state.
“We were privy to the most intricate, the most personal and the most traumatic aspects of how this particular policy, the 1905 Native Welfare Act, actually affected the children on a day-to-day basis, and how those little children in those missions survived, and the knowledge they needed,” he says.
“In New Norcia, they were suffering incredible atrocities in terms of being near starved to death. They were given sheep’s head broth almost every night of their lives. In the end their minds conditioned the body to accept the stench of this filthy sheep’s head in the broth. [But] with a lack of vitamins, they broke out in rashes and boils.”
Some of the resourceful older girls realised they needed more in their diets and worked out how to get it: they would wait for the nuns to throw veggie scraps to the chickens, then once the nuns went back inside, the girls would scavenge the scraps before the chooks ate everything.
“The older girls realised if they were able to feed that to the young kids, they noticed the rashes and boils started to disappear,” Mr Eggington says.
During the Carpenter government years, the amount of compensation people were given under Redress was between $5,000 and $80,000 for children who’d been sexually abused and tortured.
“There was one lady, who as a young girl of 10, was thrown into a boiling hot bath, and has still got the scars to this very day,” Mr Eggington says.
In 2009 the Barnett government cut the already modest compensation limit to $45,000.
Mr Eggington says it’s hard to see the the mission system as anything more than legalised kidnapping.
“We heard stories of these big black ‘native welfare’ cars rolling up as kids were leaving school, and the door would open and they’d call the kids over with a bag of lollies. The mums expecting their kids home that day would find out they’d be taken and they wouldn’t see them again.”
Two years after Mr Eggington started working with the survivors, he says he came to properly understand the pain of the parents who’d had their kids taken away forever.
“I lost my only boy in 2009,” he says. “I was never the same after that. I lost him to what we lose a lot of our young people to today: Depression, mental health…racism…brutality, and constant police harassment.”
“When I lost my boy, I started to really understand what it was like to be a woman or father, with the authorities ripping your child out of your hands to take them to a mission, and you’d never see them again.”
Splitting up the siblings compounded the damage. “What they did was raise people void of the most powerful human emotion that keeps families together…it was love…they took that all away.
“I saw the remnants of the last stolen generation. I saw them living homeless in fringe camps. I saw them so emotionally distraught. They never talked about the missions in those days. No one sat down and had discussions of this hell, they were still living in it. They were washing away this emotional and psychological pain with alcohol abuse, with substance abuse, and nearly everyone was dead before they were 35.”
The exhibition’s title, Kerosene Tins and Love Hearts, came from two of the images featured in the exhibition that gave little hints of humanity in the ruined missions. One was a tin of kerosene hidden in long grass, the other was an etching of a love heart made by one of the children.
The exhibition runs Saturday October 14, 11am to 4pm, and Sunday, 10am to 4pm at Trades Hall, 80 Beaufort Street. There’s a panel discussion on Sunday at 3.30pm, book via heritageperth.com
by DAVID BELL