Stolen generations provokes new clothes project

Issue 

This year marks 100 years since the opening of the Kahlin compound in Darwin, a place where Aboriginal children, stolen from their families, were forced to live and work.

The compound was closed in 1938, but lives on in the memory of many who were held there — many of whom are still in Darwin today, and would like the site to be recognised and protected as part of their heritage.

June Mills is a Larrakia woman, activist, musician and artist, who has family connections to Kahlin. She has started a project, Memorial to Stolen Children, as part of the Kahlin centenary commemoration events. Her project involves making 100 baby outfits, which she is sewing and then painting with stories from the land, traditional stories from the country that children were taken from.

Mills spoke to Green Left Weekly's Emma Murphy about the project.

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Can you explain the project and its inspiration?

My mum and I were thinking of things we could do to commemorate the children, for the centenary of Kahlin. I thought about how the big thing with the stolen generations … it’s not well-known, you know, the stories those kids lost.

My Nanna died before I was born. She was taken when she was about four. [She was eventually sent] all the way to Warrnambool — so far away from her country. She had four or five name changes during her childhood, but every night she would say to herself “Me Kilngarree, me Kilngarree”.

She was brainwashing herself, to remember her real name.

Then, in middle age, she was living in Katherine. She said that name to some people there, and they knew it was related to some land in Gurindji country, Wave Hill. The old people told her, and she found her way home. I was totally fascinated by that.

I wrote a song for her, “Remember your name”, and sometimes I wonder if, as she was being stolen, her grandmother yelled out “remember your name!” — because that’s what saved her, that’s how she found her way home.

Years ago, I started designing and making clothes for my children, so they could wear their culture. Because our family’s Dreaming is crocodile — we can’t go anywhere to buy that, unless we go to tourist shops!

But I want to go into a land rights meeting wearing my crocodile, my Dreaming, to empower myself. So I had to make these clothes for myself.

And that made me think about how our children who were taken away, they were stripped bare. They went around in flour bags. There was no culture and love enveloping them, they just had an institutional life.

I wanted to do something special for my Nanna. So I started making these clothes as a way of giving back. I wanted the outfits to encompass love, culture, spirituality — everything that was taken from them.

It started just as something for my family, but since I began this project, I’ve had women contact me [from] around Australia, saying: “Can you make an outfit for my Nanna? She was taken from such-and-such country.”

I ask them to tell me a bit of a story, what they know about their relative who was stolen, and that’s the starting point for the story I paint on the outfit.

Today I’m starting a really personal outfit for my Nanna. I’ll start with the red dirt, because that’s the country she was taken from, and the map of where she was taken to — Warrnambool, because it’s really significant for a little baby to have to go that far away. I’ll also put in the birds of her Dreaming, the river stones.

It’s cultural maintenance, because so much of our story has been taken, since invasion day. So I am going to write down what I know about my Nanna, into that painting.

She was taken from red dirt country, Wave Hill, to Warrnambool — really cold forest country. This project is like giving back to my Nanna what was taken from her. It’s also an acknowledgement of her story, because she died before she had an opportunity to tell it.

Memorial to Stolen Children is a way for the stories to continue.

A lot of the women around Darwin who are involved in the stolen generations’ struggle for compensation and for remembering Kahlin are now asking me if their children and grandchildren can wear the outfits at the official commemoration at Kahlin in early August.

All around the country, people are asking if their children can wear the clothes for the commemoration.

So descendants of the person who the garment represents can wear those stories, and talk about what they represent. The family is telling their story, and I just think that’s great.

The children of this generation will be acknowledging that generation. How much they missed out on, the poor darlings.

How do you feel about recent comments from Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles, about culture not being an important consideration in terms of putting Aboriginal children into adopted families?

I can't even relate to what's coming out of his mouth. I am shock and disappointed in the statements he is making. To be quite frank, I expected more from an Indigenous chief minister.

He needs to go through the law, and because he’s on Larrakia country he has to go through Larrakia law.

He doesn’t know the damage he is doing. I think he is talking from a place of really significant ignorance. His comments reinforce assimilation, integration and the continuation of genocide.

He is just not very creative in his thinking. Children do need to be in a safe environment. But why isn’t Adam Giles thinking about empowering Aboriginal people to be able to look after their children.

Why not empower the good people out there in the communities, support them with the infrastructure to accommodate that need. Don’t just farm it out to people who are rich and have the material stuff.

Raising children isn’t about the material aspects, it’s about language, culture, lovingness … My people are materially impoverished but when it comes to the culture, the love, we’ve got it, and we’re the only ones who’ve got it.

When you kill the spirit, that child may as well be dead. We need cultural, spiritual nurturing, and that comes back to my clothing project: that’s what it is all about.

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