The Guardian • Issue #1976

Querying Carrolup: Stolen Generations, art and healing through truth

Carrolup Native Settlement was established near Katanning in the Great Southern region of Western Australia in 1915 under the auspices of the Aborigines Act 1905 – a WA act supposedly designed for the care and protection of Aboriginal people, but ultimately served for the removal of Aboriginal peoples from their country, to institutionalise and assimilate them into white society “for their own good.” Carrolup was closed in 1922 and reopened in 1939, and run by the Department of Native Affairs. By 1944 there were 129 boys and girls held at the settlement under the guardianship of the Commissioner for Native Affairs.

On the 9th August, the Department of Justice belatedly held its sixth Aboriginal cultural symposium, delayed due to COVID restrictions during NAIDOC Week which talked about what happened at Carrolup.

The first speaker at the symposium was Tony Hansen, from the Carrolup Elders Reference Group within the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University, the caretaker of the 122 artworks by the Carrolup Aboriginal child artists. In the 1940s, said Hansen, the Aboriginal children were taken from their families in the surrounding area from as far away as Kojonup on the pretext that they weren’t attending school or their mothers weren’t looking after them properly. The children were separated, segregated, isolated, and traumatised by this experience of being taken away from their parents. Away from their parents, they were discouraged from learning about their language, culture, and art. In 1946 Noel and Lily White took over the management of Carrolup, and Noel decided he would take the boys out on rambles through the nearby countryside and talk about and describe what they had seen. When they returned from these rambles, he gave them paper and pencils and asked them to draw what they had remembered and what they had seen. What the children ended up drawing were not the representations of landscape that white people might see but the way Aboriginal people see their country – imbued with social and cultural meaning. The children drew native animals, cultural activities such as corroborees, hunting, and cooking in settings among the rolling hills and bush around the Carrolup Settlement. The paintings reflected what the children remembered of their culture and way of life; it was a way of healing and coming to terms with being taken away from everything they knew.

British philanthropist Mrs Florence Rutter visited the settlement during this time. Upon seeing the calibre of the artworks, she decided she would bring them to the wider attention of the world. The money used to buy the artworks went back to the Aboriginal children for further art materials and their general welfare. However, in 1950 the association of the Whites with Carrolup ended. Soon after, the use of Carrolup as a place for Aboriginal settlement ended. It was converted into a farm school for older Aboriginal youth and later to a Baptist Church run mission until 1988.

The Aboriginal artworks acquired by Rutter went first to London and then to Colgate University in New York state, where they stayed mostly unknown until a chance rediscovery in 2004 brought their attention to the world. In 2013 they were returned to Curtin University.

The second speaker was Michelle Broun, a First Nations curator at John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University and also a Yindjibarndi woman. Her mother, Bigali Hanlon, had also been part of the Stolen Generations, having had her mother taken from her at Mulga Downs Station near Wittenoom. Broun’s film, Walking Tracks Back Home, was screened which recounts her mother’s experience of being taken away as a child to Sister Kates, a halfway house, where the lighter-skinned children were taken in an attempt to bring them up as white children. Hanlon recounts how being taken away from her mother, family, and language at four years old is like genocide. Once leaving Sister Kates, Hanlon returned to Mulga Downs Station and Wittenoom to try to find her family. At Sister Kates, she remembered being told she didn’t have a family, which hurt her and made her more determined to find them once the institution could no longer hold her. When Hanlon’s own mother found her in Wittenoom, she was overcome with joy that she spoke a language that Hanlon could no longer speak due to the white institutionalisation she suffered. The other legacy of Wittenoom, the asbestos mine, robbed Hanlon of the life of her father, who died of asbestosis.

During the symposium, both speakers reflected on how the institutionalisation of Aboriginal people in missions like Carrolup/Marribank and halfway houses like Sister Kates pushed many young Aboriginal people into the criminal justice system.  It did this through the trauma and resentment built up while they were in these places – made to feel shame or ashamed of themselves, said Broun. In many of the prisons in the early days, there was no understanding of the loss of culture and language on the identity and dignity of Aboriginal people that we have today.

Eventually, there will also be increased understanding, empathy, and resources among the wider community, which will ensure increased participation, acceptance, and opportunities for Aboriginal people, leading to Aboriginal people being represented less in the justice system. It is one more gap that needs to be closed.

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