Stolen Generations: Dreams of whiteness

Stolen Generations: Dreams of whiteness
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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Historical news footage of Aboriginal girls removed from their families and being adopted by a white family as a result of the assimilation policies. Henry Reynolds tells us why Aboriginal children were removed from their families, and the policies that sought to justify such forced removal. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

Stolen Generations is a documentary that humanises the inhumane practice of removing children from their families. 'Stolen generations’, a term coined by Peter Read, refers to the assimilation practice of the Australian Government throughout history designed to remove the physical and cultural presence of Indigenous peoples from Australian society and cultural consciousness, and was informed by sciences such as eugenics, which the film explains. It became a less acceptable way of dealing with the Aboriginal population after the Second World War.

Stolen Generations offers a solid theoretical foundation while providing an emotional insight into the consequence of the implementation of the policies, and the children who endured them. The destruction of the familial, cultural and social fabric of Indigenous communities as the intention of the Australian Government throughout the history of colonisation, is demystified by Johnson’s documentary. The befuddlement of the children, now adults, as they try to translate the experience of being removed, means that the intensity of the experience is still being processed by those caught up in the administration of child removal. These experiences are also well documented in the Bringing Them Home Report, that provides personal accounts of children removed, and the confusion into which they were condemned. Testimonies in Stolen Generations show that, isolated and alienated within a strange culture, Indigenous children subjected to the cruel policies of removal are still healing, and some were never able to reconnect with their birth families.

The three main characters in this film are Bob Randall, Daisy Howard, and Cleonie Quayle, who give different accounts of the same policy.Stolen Generations takes us through the history of social theory that eventually led to children being stolen, and Johnson’s instigation to find answers to her own questions which thankfully, provide questions for the wider audience.


Stolen Generations synopsis

A documentary using historical and interview footage to tell the story of three people removed as children from their families, who are now one of the many referred to as the Stolen Generations. The tapestry of life experiences is woven around the filmmaker’s own personal questions of identity, and an administration put in place with the sole purpose of annihilating Aboriginal peoples.

Notes by Romaine Moreton


Education notes

This clip explores attitudes about the Stolen Generations. It begins with a black-and-white newsreel feature titled 'A Dream Comes True: NATIVE GIRLS’ “FAIRY PALACE”’. The feature shows two Indigenous children and an older Indigenous girl from Melville Island in the Northern Territory with their adoptive family at home in suburban Melbourne. This is followed by excerpts from interviews with professors Henry Reynolds and Marcia Langton. The interviews continue over black-and-white archival footage of anthropologists taking physical measurements of Indigenous people in the bush, and a shot of a page from an anthropological text of the 1930s containing calculations assessing ‘degrees’ of Aboriginality.

Educational value points

  • Physical anthropology, which the clip indirectly refers to, studies the mechanisms of biological evolution, the biological bases of human behaviour, adaptability and variation, largely through looking at physical evidence such as physiology and anatomy. Anthropometry, which is demonstrated in the clip, involves the measurement of the body to understand human physical development and evolution. It was once used to determine and define racial characteristics and to explain individual character traits, but today such use is understood to be pseudo-science.
  • Professor Henry Reynolds (1938–) explains in the clip that eugenics (the science of improving the qualities of the human race via parental selection) was once popular in Australia and the West generally and gave rise to the racist notion of 'breeding out the colour’ of Indigenous Australians to 'improve’ the population.
  • Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian and expert in the field of Indigenous–European relations in Australia. He has been accused by some of propagating a 'black armband’ view of history. As well as having written a number of books on race relations, recognition under the law and the Indigenous struggle for land rights, in 1999 Reynolds published Why Weren’t We Told?, in which he asks why non-Indigenous Australians were not told about the history of relations with Indigenous people.
  • Professor Marcia Langton, noted Australian anthropologist and one of Australia’s leading scholars on Indigenous issues, is interviewed in this clip. Langton (1951–) has become known for her work in several academic fields; the common feature of her work is her interest in Indigenous rights, justice and artistic expression. Her anthropological work supports land claims and negotiations with mining companies.
  • The term Stolen Generations was coined by Australian historian Peter Read to draw attention to the generations affected by the government policy of removing some Indigenous children from their families and placing them in white homes or institutions. Several generations of Indigenous children who were removed from their families between about 1910 and 1970, as well as generations of their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and other family members, were affected.
  • The Stolen Generations was the focus of a national inquiry commissioned in 1995 and headed by Sir Ronald Wilson, a former High Court judge and president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and Mick Dodson, the Commission’s Social Justice Commissioner. The inquiry visited every state and territory, receiving testimony from 535 Indigenous Australians. Its official report, Bringing Them Home, was released in 1997.
  • The clip highlights the work of Indigenous filmmaker Darlene Johnson. A Dunghutti woman from New South Wales, she has specialised in Indigenous issues – both in her studies and in the subjects of her films. Her interest in the ways in which Indigenous Australians negotiate two worlds is an underlying theme in her films. These range from her first drama, Two Bob Mermaid (1996), and her award-winning Stolen Generations (2000) to Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), a documentary she wrote and directed on the making of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). After Stolen Generations she wrote an Indigenous protocol for filmmakers for SBS.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Jotz Productions
Tom Zubrycki
Darlene Johnson

A black-and-white newsreel feature shows two Indigenous children and an older Indigenous girl from Melville Island in the Northern Territory with their adoptive family at home in suburban Melbourne.


Narrator This luxurious Melbourne home is a fairytale come true for three Aboriginal girls from Melville Island, 180 miles from Darwin. Mr and Mrs Deutscher visited the island last year and adopted three Aborigines to bring up with their own three children. Christine is four and for the first time in her life she has a mother and father. Two-year-old Faye was rescued by a Territory policeman who found her abandoned. They’ve been cared for by the Methodist mission and now they live in a 15-room mansion. Mr Deutscher says he believes it’s possible to integrate Aboriginals into white families. Christine certainly seems to be proving that Mr Deutscher is right and so does Faye. It’s all so new to them and they’re still a little wide-eyed. A long way from Melville Island but at last a home and the love and affection of a family of their own. Sleep tight, children, because you know that dreams do come true, don’t you?

Henry Reynolds is interviewed.

Professor Henry Reynolds, Australian historian How do you determine what is a good intention? I mean, there was certainly people who said, particularly if they saw light-coloured children, and said 'these children shouldn’t be allowed to grow up in the Aboriginal camp. They should be brought into white society and their level of civilisation raised.’ That was the sort of view. There were also people who thought that the conditions in camps were bad, as they were. I mean because the social, medical conditions of many Aboriginal people was very, very poor and so people thought, ‘Well, it’s better if you take the children away. They’ll have a better life.’ And many individuals adopted Aboriginal children on this assumption – ‘We can give them a better life.’ So good intentions were there but behind that, particularly in the 1930s and right through to the 1940s, was this, this quite deliberate plan to breed the Aborigines out.

Marcia Langton is interviewed. Also shown is black-and-white archival footage of anthropologists taking physical measurements of Indigenous people in the bush, and a shot of a page from an anthropological text of the 1930s containing calculations assessing ‘degrees’ of Aboriginality.

Professor Marcia Langton, Australian anthropologist Norman B. Tindale, the physical anthropologist, wrote the theory of race in Australia and it looks like a studbook. It looks like a breeding manual for animals. ‘If you mix one fullblood with one half-caste equals a three-quarter-caste. One three-quarter-caste mixed with one quadroon equals one half-caste.’ And that’s published in a scholary journal, in an anthropological journal.

Another excerpt from the interview with Henry Reynolds is played over more black-and-white archival footage of anthropologists taking physical measurements of Indigenous people in the bush.

Henry Eugenics was an idea which was extremely important in most Western countries and the idea was that, through breeding, you would improve the race of the nation, that you would breed out bad charateristics with large-scale plans. That is, you would sterilise the unfit, and that happened widely in many Western countries, and in Australia it took the form of trying to breed out the colour.