If you want to understand what it’s like to be a member of the stolen generation, read Kick the Tin by Doris Kartinyeri, a member of the Ngarrindjeri nation. Not that we can ever truly know. As her sister, Dr Doreen Kartinyeri, says in her introduction: “Only those who have been taken from their families can know what Doris has been through in her life.”
Let’s start with an outline of her life story. Doris was born on the eighth of September, 1945. On the eighth of October her mother, Thelma, died. Sister McKenzie, the welfare officer from the Protector’s Office, decided that the motherless baby would be better in a home, and transferred her to Colebrook Home. Her father, Oswald, was told of this decision only when he came, after his wife’s funeral, to collect his daughter.
This woman was invested by a genocidal law with almost god-like powers. The effect of McKenzie’s intervention on Doris was destructive, almost fatal.
The indifferent callousness of her action is mind-numbing. She disposed of Doris as if she had been a stray kitten for whom she was finding a home. The whole Kartinyeri family, already grieving the loss of Thelma, now had to endure the pain of losing their new baby. “For a long time,” says Doreen in her introduction to the book, “our house was full of tears.”
But Doris knew nothing of this, nothing of her family. After an initial period of happiness at Colebrook Home — when Sisters Hyde and Rutter, two loving and caring women, were in charge — the institution passed into the control of a family of religious fanatics. The change was from a loving home to a penal institution. Doris attributes the fact that most of “our sisters and brothers went to either gaol or mental institutions” to the abuse they suffered. The Colebrook group photographs, which illustrate the book, make an even stronger point. In every single one, there are children with “deceased” in brackets after their names.
The other side of the story is the determination of her family to hold onto her. In her introduction, Doreen tells the story of how at the age of ten she “gave herself up” to the infamous Sister McKenzie so that she could be with Doris and look after her. No such luck! She was sent to Fullarton Home, deliberately separated from her sister.
Shunted about. At 14, totally without explanation, never mind consultation, Doris was taken from the only family she had ever been allowed to know, “the sisters and brothers” she loved. She was sent first to live with a white family, then, when she failed to do well at school, to work as a domestic servant with a lay minister and his family.
The next bit of the story has a horrid expectedness about it. Like so many vulnerable children, victims of the “protection” of the State, she was sexually abused by this “Christian” man.
Even now, it seems, she feels she needs permission to express her anger. “Can I show my anger as I write this?” she asks. As she says later: “Being brought up as a strict Christian, I found it hard to express my personal feelings and had a great need to belong to someone.” Emotional malnutrition was a major part of the abuse she suffered.
Her adult life has been a search for that sense of belonging, a struggle to cope with failed relationships and alcohol. The final blow she faced was bi-polar disease and long periods in a mental hospital. As her son John said: “Poor Mum, still being taken by the government.” She could have been one of the many children labelled “deceased” in her precious Colebrook photo album.
But, triumphantly, she is not. She has created her own family of three children and 13 grandchildren. She has found her own family and her Ngarrindjeri people, learned the language she was cut off from. None of this came easily, but she has been determined to recreate her links to her land, her people and her culture.
Finding a voice. Reclaiming her Indigenous heritage has been a powerful way of resisting victim status. Doris says “I am a survivor, one with a sense of pride and dignity.” Speaking out about injustice has given her a powerful sense of self. She now speaks regularly to groups and at conferences about her life experience as one of the Stolen Generation. She has also become involved in the Ngarrindjeri political struggle over the Hindmarsh Island Bridge, and she understands that her mental illness was a response to the callous inhumanity of the system that stole her.
Kick the Tin tells a deeply disturbing story. Feel good it’s not. None of it will give the reader the comfortable feeling that everything has come right in the end. Doris will carry the scars of her abuse all her life and so will her family.
But it will give the reader a sober and proud knowledge of the ability of the most powerless and the most oppressed to harness the strength of their humanity and oppose the inhuman power of the State. In telling the stories, Doris is engaging in a powerful act of resistance.
In her poem, Broken Spirit, Doris Kartinyeri, proud Ngarrindjeri woman, says it all:
I search for my soul
I search for my heart
my spirit is broken the white fella’s way
I journey into a world of confusion
travelling deep into my thoughts
my journey is dark with no opening
my cries are not heard
I look into my soul’s emptiness
I’m in tune with my surroundings
on the Ngarrindjeri land
my spirit is not broken
I fight, I survive