By Dr Elfie Shiosaki
It was we who did the dispossessing… We took the children from their mothers. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? (Paul Keating, 1992)
In his historic speech at Redfern Park in Sydney in 1992, Paul Keating became the first Australian prime minister to recognise and account for the seemingly invisible histories of dispossession and their recurring trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. On National Sorry Day, we remember the trauma of the Stolen Generations, the generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families.
These histories of dispossession are astonishing: stolen children, stolen generations and stolen futures. Yet within these histories, there are also astonishing histories of the strength, courage and resilience shown by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In Letters from Berlin (2012), Margarete Dos, a young German woman working as a nurse for the Red Cross in East Berlin during the Soviet occupation, reminds us that ‘what is astonishing though, is the human will, which regardless of the fight, continues to hold its head high’. Recognising and accounting for these histories of resilience, almost 25 years after the Redfern Park speech, contributes to emerging transnational narratives of Indigenous political autonomy that revitalise enduring dominant colonial narratives of dispossession.
Archival traces of discursive activism by many Noongar people from the south-west region of Western Australia, as they campaigned for the return of their children, contribute to these emerging narratives of autonomy. Although the archive in Western Australia produces more knowledge about how the State exercised power over Noongar people than knowledge about Noongar people themselves, sometimes we hear the voices of Noongar people. These voices speak to us – some loudly, some quietly, others in a whisper – from the many letters written by Noongar people in the archive. These letters reveal that since the second half of the nineteenth century, many Noongar people have adapted writing to contest and negotiate State power. Restoring these letters to their families transforms the archive into a dynamic site of Indigenous cultural heritage.
One of the many histories of discursive activism is that of my grandmother’s grandfather, Edward Harris, who campaigned for more than a decade between 1915 and 1926 for the return of his four children. They were institutionalised at the Carrolup River Native Settlement, and later at the Moore River Native Settlement. He corresponded with the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville, during this period, pleading for his children back. Edward Harris wrote these letters from the heart, a place where he held his children close to him.
Edward Harris’s writing is not only a treasured record of his love for his children and his unrelenting campaign for their return, but also an historical record of his discursive activism. Taking up pen and paper, Edward Harris, and many other Indigenous activists of his generation in Australia and internationally, were involved in fundamental normative work to construct a new discourse of Indigenous human rights. In a letter to Chief Protector Neville dated 1 February 1918, he wrote:
And now before bringing this letter to a close I again appeal to you to have my children placed in my care, and to remind you that I am their father [emphasis mine], and if you cannot do that, I’ll have to try some other means to have my children restored to me, either through the press or else a court of justice.
Edward Harris, with his brother William Harris, went on to establish the first Aboriginal political organisation in Western Australia to advocate for equal rights for Aboriginal people in the state, the Native Union, in 1926. William Harris described the organisation as a ‘protective union’ for all Aboriginal people. The movement gained national prominence when William Harris led a deputation of Aboriginal people to meet with the Western Australian premier, Philip Collier, in 1928. The deputation demanded the repeal of the Aborigines Act 1905, in particular the power of the State to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their families. It also held Chief Protector Neville’s administration to account for its systematic violation of Indigenous human rights.
The many letters written by Noongar people in the archive illuminate brightly a dark period in Western Australian history. Some letters are acts of pleading. Some are acts of subversion or protest. Some are strong assertions of Indigenous human rights. All honour Noongar peoples’ political autonomy and their strength, courage and resilience. This writing is not only an archival trace of how many Noongar people negotiated the State, its institutions and its policies. It is also a trace of how they constructed a new discourse of Indigenous human rights by renegotiating the language of human rights. This campaign has been passed down from one generation to the next.
The past reverberates inside our bodies like a second heartbeat. On National Sorry Day, I will feel the reverberation of histories of dispossession beating inside my chest. Yet, I will also feel the reverberation of these histories of resilience and move in time to its beat.
Dr Elfie Shiosaki is an Associate Investigator with CHE and an Indigenous Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University, Western Australia. She was awarded her PhD by at The University of Western Australia in 2015, and she is one of the Chief Investigators of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project that aims to produce the first account of letter writing by Noongar people in archives in Western Australia from 1860 to 1960.
 M. Dos and K. Lieff, Letters from Berlin: A Story of War, Survival, and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2012), pp. 298–99.
 Excerpts of Edward Harris’s letters have been reproduced with permission.
Thanks, Effie. Sorry. These letters are a reminder that violations of the human rights of indigenous people continued in the government’s full knowledge of the shocking distress their policies were causing. Keatings question is still tthe right one.