“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“–George Satayana
When Deborah Cheetham was a young girl, her family was torn apart. They were torn apart for the crime of being Yorta Yorta Aboriginals in Australia in the mid-20th century. Taken from her mother at three weeks of age, she was given to a white, Southern Baptist Christian family to be raised. The intended purpose of the programwas to ‘civilize’ aboriginal peoples, to ‘protect’ their children by removing them and raising them to forget their culture, their history, their native language, and to remake them as darker-pigmented mainstream Australians.
Today, those children are known as the “Stolen Generations.” The practice of removing the children from their families was widespread from the late1860s into the early 1970s, sanctioned by the state and federal governments, and practiced by those governments and church groups.
In the early 1970s, the practice was halted, but the harm done, the wrongfulness of that action, and official culpability went unacknowledged for decades. In 1997 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs government inquiry published its findings in Bringing Them Home – Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Reporting on the findings brought broader awareness of the Stolen Generations, and in 2008, an official apology was delivered for consideration by the House of Commons by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and then passed unanimously.
I became more aware of this story because Deborah Cheetham grew up to be a world-acclaimed opera singer, now turning to composing as well. Cheetham recently wrote an opera, ‘Pecan Summer,’ detailing one episode in the sad history of the Stolen Generations. She was being interviewed on NPR (KUOW), and the story she related of the suffering moved me.
Her story also sounded familiar to me. Shortly after I became Mayor, I was hosted at the home of Bill and Fran James–Chief Tsi’li’xw and Che top ie, respectively in Lummi. I wanted to develop a better relationship with the Lummi Nation, as Bellingham and the Lummis have many overlapping interests, and I felt that local governments had too often failed to acknowledge the important role native communities and governments had to play in the larger community. Darrell Hillaire, a Lummi leader, suggested I meet with the James’s. After brief hellos, Fran began to tell me her story, a story of being taken forcibly from home, and sent to a school far away. There, students were forbidden to speak their native language, to wear traditional attire, to worship in their traditional ways. Corporal punishment awaited transgressors.
I felt a lot of anger directed at me in that conversation, for I represented the authority that had implemented this injustice so long ago. The first native American boarding school was founded by a US Army officer, Richard Pratt. His explicit philosophy was to expunge everything “Indian” in the children, just as the Australian authorities had advocated for Aboriginal peoples. One of the tragic results of our own stolen generations are that many tribes have lost their language. Thanks to rebels like Fran James, the Lummi language has rebounded, and is now proudly taught in their schools, and used in many ceremonies. After I listened patiently to the James’s, I expressed my regret at past policy, and we sat down to eat together. And I had a better understanding of the challenges facing repairing our relations.
Part of that understanding is recognizing that relationships are critical in making progress. For too long, too many of us in official capacities–mayors, council members, legislators–have ignored creating critical relationships until a crisis appears–and then it’s too late. The time to build relationships is before the crisis, so that in a crisis, a foundation of trust and goodwill exists to help smooth the bumps.
Building these foundations offers learning for everyone involved, as we experience different cultural and leadership styles. Part of that learning is that differences aren’t necessarily better or worse–just different. Learning that helps us live better with each other. And it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs.