Alice Keath and Margo Neale with music by Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, produced by ABC Classic, 2021
ALICE KEATH: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that the following program contains depictions of people who have died.
Objects and stories from Australian life.
MULTIPLE VOICES: This is us.
LEONARD GRIGORYAN: Kinchela boy’s home gate.
ALICE KEATH: I’m looking at a gate that has two sides. It’s a little bit bent and rusty and most of the wire has come off. But the frame is intact and if an average 5 or 6 year old stood in front of it their head would just about reach the top, where there are 8 letters that spell the words ‘boys home’.
This is the gate that once stood at the entry to the Kinchela boy’s home, near Kempsey on the mid-north coast of New South Wales.
I’m looking at this gate now with Margo Neale, Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges at the National Museum of Australia. Margo, looking at this gate, what goes through your mind? What do you feel looking at it?
MARGO NEALE: Well, great sadness of course — enormous sadness. A poignant reminder of a gateway to hell for children. A gateway to hell for the families who lost their children. A gate from a life they knew to a life they don’t know. A gate from a black or an Aboriginal world of familiarly, from their own culture, into a world of total alienation from their cultural identity.
ALICE KEATH: From 1924 to 1970 the Kinchela boy’s home housed more than 500 Aboriginal boys who’d been taken from their families. When they passed through the gate, they weren’t known by their names anymore, but by numbers. Survivors say it was a bad place.
Authorities at the time told a different story. In one glowing article, the manager was quoted as saying that he had the most bonzer bunch of kids in Australia and that the boys were neglected before, but now they received truly dedicated care and real affection from the home’s mum and dad — the manager and matron at Kinchela.
Margo how does that track with the realities of life for these children?
MARGO NEALE: There’s no doubt that in the minds of some of the people who wrote that, believed it. But the overriding government policy, the overriding view of Aboriginal people in those days was that we were the remnants of a bygone age, our time had passed, it was the government’s responsibility to move us into the new era and this is how they chose to do it.
While the government policy was about so called protection, looking after those bonzer boys and girls, there was brutality, there was disease, there was assault, there was treating human beings regardless of culture — let alone innocent children — in the most horrendous, awful ways.
ALICE KEATH: One survivor describes boys being chained to a large Moreton Bay fig as punishment for having dirty nails or for wetting the bed. Today survivors meet at the fig tree to actively reflect on the past and to tell their stories, to make sure this history is never forgotten.
This gate helps to tell that story, but it was almost lost. Gates to the home were replaced in 1950 and the original gate was found years later, discarded beside the Macleay River in Kempsey.
Margo, what does that say to you?
MARGO NEALE: At the Museum we get all sorts of things from granny’s sewing machine to nuts and bolts from some important bridge, because that’s the privileged history. These gates were probably just seen as gates of no significance and they needed to be replaced. So, the discarding of them perhaps from the Western perspective, from a physical sense, is probably that. But from our sense, from an Aboriginal sense, it says a lot about how our history was discarded.
So it’s a good metaphor for the way both us as a people and our culture and anything associated with us was considered of no consequence, of no historic value and again relegated to the past.
The fact that they were retrieved and found their way into a museum, you could say is an optimistic note. That this is part of what else is happening now. We are retrieving our histories, we are owning them and we’re sharing them with other Australians so we all own them together.
Having this gate in the Museum and exposing the story to all who go there. All who have children or know about children feel very deeply when they go. That’s where they’re going to cry, right. They’re going to cry in front of this gate.
Some of the boys from that home I’ve toured them to this gate. They’ve converted it. Like people who go to war who see horrific things yet somehow they all come back and they rally around it, and then they commemorate it. It’s a shared experience. So it becomes a rallying point and there’s no question it’s a healing point, more than the physical gate.
ALICE KEATH: That’s Margo Neale and here is the Grigoryan Brother’s musical response to this object. They say as a whole the work grapples with survival, resilience and optimism. This work is called ‘Stolen’.
[‘Stolen’ played by Leonard and Slava Grigoryan]
ALICE KEATH: ‘Stolen’ written and performed by the Grigoryan Brothers. I’m Alice Keath and This is us: A musical reflection of Australia was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to mark their 20th anniversary. Head to the ABC Classic website to view the objects, find out more and buy the Grigoryan Brothers album featuring
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Date published: 09 March 2021