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Programmed to be white

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Mary Terszak's story of surviving assimilation

I was two years as an Aboriginal child and then all taken away. I now, as I said, stand here not as the person that I was born to be – I am changed, programmed into ... white society.

A nation-wide search for an exemption certificate – a document of the government's assimilation policy – led us to Mary Terszak, who gave us both the certificate and her incredible story of survival as a member of the Stolen Generations.

And I used to joke and say to the other girls 'I'm white cause I've got proof', you know.

In February this year, Museum photographer Lannon Harley and I visited Mary Terszak (nee Woods), a Nyoongah woman from south-west Western Australia.

During the visit, we recorded Mary's memories and memorabilia of institutionalisation, as well as her reflections on how being a member of the Stolen Generations has affected her life. Lannon also photographed Mary, as well as a number of her childhood photographs and government-issue papers, and in particular her Certificate of Exemption.

The photo session marked the end of a long and complex search by the curators of From Little Things Big Things Grow to locate an Indigenous Australian who was willing to share their Certificate of Exemption within the exhibition. Once common documents, such certificates were issued to people identified as 'Aboriginal' by the State governments of the day to advance their policies of assimilation. Aboriginal people called them 'dog tags'.

Mary Terszak looking through her government papers with National Museum of Australia assistant curator Karolina Kilian.
Mary Terszak looking through her government papers with National Museum of Australia assistant curator Karolina Kilian. Photo: Lannon Harley.
Mary Terszak's (nee Woods) Certificate of Exemption from the Western Australian Department of Native Affairs.
Mary Terszak's (nee Woods) Certificate of Exemption from the Western Australian Department of Native Affairs. She has kept it as a reminder of the past.

Certificates of Exemption

From the 1940s, in most parts of Australia, the state governments issued thousands of these certificates. The granting of a certificate gave its Indigenous recipient citizenship rights that they otherwise did not possess, yet which were enjoyed by the non-Indigenous majority of Australian society. They included 'privileges' such as being allowed to vote, attend school, go into hotels, and be exempted from the restrictions of state protection laws. However, while many Indigenous Australians were able to apply for and obtain such a certificate, they were not easily granted, had to be carried at all times, be produced on demand, and in some states could be revoked at any time without any rights of appeal.

The conditions and requirements placed on applicants for certificates were also not easily satisfied. Applicants had to agree to abandon association with the Indigenous community, give up their traditional culture, including connections with Country, and to break off contact with their Indigenous kinship, except for their closest family.

If any of these culturally and personally alienating conditions were ever broken, the certificate could usually be revoked without warning. In addition to these requirements, applicants also had to demonstrate that they kept their home clean and in good repair, that they were of a 'sober disposition', that they were law-abiding individuals that stayed out of trouble- the list goes on.

Seeing the certificate as their only chance to obtain a level of freedom and a more comfortable life, some Indigenous Australians nonetheless decided to apply for a certificate, despite all the sacrifices that it required.

Others, without their knowledge, had received them as children after being forcefully removed from their families and placed in institutions; while still others decided that the injustice of it all outweighed the benefits and never applied.

Searching for a Certificate

Because of the complexities, sensitivities and highly personal decisions associated with this history, when we decided to include a Certificate of Exemption in the exhibition, it proved a very difficult object for the Museum to obtain for display.

The most accessible, of course, were blank certificates – ones that had never been assigned to a recipient and were therefore not filled in – which were held in the collections of some government institutions. These documents did not have that personal dimension that tied them to the life and experiences of a particular individual. Yet this is what we wanted for this part of the exhibition – to show the different forms of discrimination suffered by Indigenous Australians by highlighting the experiences of particular people whose lives had been affected, and often deeply changed, by this discrimination.

We managed to locate a small number of certificates that had been granted to particular individuals and filled out with their details. However, as they were no longer with their owners, and as none of these owners could be located and consulted about the use of their certificates in the exhibition, we did not feel that we either could or should use them.

We had also followed leads and suggestions and had approached a small number of Indigenous Australians to ask if we could borrow and display their certificate – for a number of reasons, we were refused. Some of these people had not kept their certificates because of the memories of discrimination that the object carried, or the negative emotions associated with having to apply for such a document. Others felt that they could not share something so deeply personal in such a public space.

Finding Mary Terszak

Finally, while at the Australian Government's Apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008, the exhibition's curator had the good fortune to meet Mary Terszak. Like many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Mary had called and hoped for years for the recognition of the pain and suffering caused by the government policies that promoted the forced removal of children from their families. Herself a member of the Stolen Generations, that day Mary, wearing a shirt she had specifically designed for the event, was celebrating the momentous occasion.

Mary Terszak, who wears a T-shirt she made for the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations, being interviewed by National Museum of Australia assistant curator Karolina Kilian.
Mary Terszak, who wears a T-shirt she made for the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations, being interviewed by National Museum of Australia assistant curator Karolina Kilian. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Luckily for the Museum, unlike others we had approached, Mary had carefully kept her certificate and she was happy for a copy of it to be displayed in the exhibition in order to illustrate the discriminatory and racist treatment of Indigenous Australians that had occurred in Australian society.

When later asked about her certificate, Mary's reply hinted at why she may be more comfortable in talking about her certificate than some older Indigenous holders:

It [the Certificate of Exemption] was among my papers when I left the home [Sister Kate's Children's Home] and I got some of my papers that were still there. I was surprised that I was actually having a certificate of exemption, because I thought I was known to be white anyway.

You didn't really take it as a serious situation; it was just a bit of a giggle. We used to laugh as kids, you know, this sort of thing, didn't think it was gone be a part of your life that you had one. And you just tucked it away and never thought anything about them. It was just part of your papers and all the things that made you who you are. And I used to joke and say to the other girls 'I'm white cause I've got proof', you know, so that was the giggle about the exemption.

But now when you are able to explain it to people a bit better, about what it actually did to our poor old people, that it didn't give them the right to be able to be out, or to be able to associate with their own people because then it gets taken off you, you are no longer a citizen. It has always been a thing in this country anyway, not to recognise people.
Mary Terszak holding her Certificate of Exemption.
Mary Terszak holding her Certificate of Exemption. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Mary's story

However, while Mary was generously willing to reveal this personal part of her past in order to ensure that this important history was told, and particularly in the personalized way that would resonate with visitors, she did express that she did not want the certificate to leave her possession – it was too precious.

An alternative solution had to be found, and since the certificate couldn't come to the Museum, the Museum came to the certificate. We travelled to Maitland New South Wales, where Mary now lives, and were given a very warm reception upon arrival in Mary's home.

During our visit, Lannon would use his professional skills to photograph Mary's certificate, so as to enable us to make a facsimile of it for display in the exhibition. More than that, however, we came to get to know Mary and find out more about her life, which we soon realized was quite incredible, though at the same time all too-often recreated within Australia's Indigenous communities.

Kindly granting us an interview, Mary began by speaking about the momentous events of her childhood – events that have shaped her life to this day, such as her removal from her mother at Moore River settlement just because she had fair skin.

Read the story that Mary shared with Karolina Kilian, Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program. The story includes:

  • Mary's childhood
  • How the events of Mary's childhood influenced the rest of her life
  • How institutionalisation made Mary a stronger person
  • Mary's feelings about reconnecting with her family
  • Continuation of friendships with 'family' from Sister Kate's Children's Home
  • Why Mary works with Indigenous children at a local school
  • Why Mary went to university and decided to study in Perth
  • Why it is important for members of the Stolen Generations, such as Mary, to speak abut their experiences

Karolina Kilian
Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program

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