Why sorry is such an important word

Nellie_G_thNellie Green

E-mail: n.green@latrobe.edu.au 


As we are about to mark the 14th National Sorry Day and the fourth since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology, I can’t help but wonder if much has changed since the days when Aboriginal families had our children forcibly removed?

For many Aboriginal people, their lives are still controlled by government and various authorities like they were in the early days. 

The Racial Discrimination Act was suspended to enable the Northern Territory Emergency Response—aka The Intervention—to be enforced by the Liberal Government. Yet the succeeding Labor Government has extended its implementation to the detriment of those Aboriginal people and communities that it affects. 

But that is on a national level.

I believe a common thread connects us all—some of us recognise this and others do not. Some of us acknowledge that the pain of others is the distress of all, just as the happiness or contentment of others can be our own satisfaction. I like to share my experiences as an Indigenous person. Some people find the stories about Stolen family members distressing, confronting, challenging; I tell them, imagine the distress of the families it happened to.

I am often invited to talk at lectures and such about Indigenous perspectives, and my favourite to speak at is Gender, Sexuality and Diversity subject ‘Sexuality, Gender and Diversity’. I think it is apt because it is the subject I have been lecturing in the longest at La Trobe University.

This is important because the subject itself has a module within it dedicated to Indigenous perspectives across a range of topics—not just a week allocated to a one-off Indigenous guest lecturer. 

It has been this way as far as I can remember. It is not a token involvement on my part, or a tokenistic gesture, I am not one for tokenism especially when I am asked to talk about Identity, the Stolen Generations and Sorry Day.

Students often ask me: “But why should I say sorry? I wasn’t there. I personally didn’t do anything,” this I have found to be a common question amongst the general public as well. 

My response goes something like this: “When someone dies, we go to a funeral, we mourn the passing of a fellow human being who had a place in this world, and we tell their loved ones we are sorry for their loss. This ‘sorriness’ does not imply responsibility, but it extends remorse that someone is experiencing grief and loss.” It is not hard to understand really.

The other thing I like to point out about Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations is that these events are not as historical as some may think—the removal of children happened as recently as the early 70’s. The 1970’s. 

In my family alone, I have seven cousins who were at different times during the 1950’s and 1960’s, removed from their family and culture and ‘country’, including one cousin who was brought up and lives in Holland. 

My mother’s parents were both placed at Moore River Native Settlement, just north of Perth—even though they both had one white parent. My great grandmothers were not suitable parents according to the Chief Protector of Aborigines in WA. Ironic considering many Aboriginal women who had their own children forcibly removed were often placed with white families, their main responsibility to look after the children. 

Every birthday my own Mother has is another that marks the year her first-born son was removed. For years we couldn’t understand why Mum didn’t like a fuss on her birthday. We later discovered it was because it was also her son’s birthday and she had no idea what happened to him—no idea where he was. I am so sorry that my Mum had to go through that.

We finally found out that my brother was adopted by a family from England; he and another Aboriginal boy were not only taken from their families, they were taken from their country, half way around the world to be raised in Stockport. I took that journey in 1992 to meet my brother in the UK. Wow! I thought my brother looks Aboriginal, but sounds like one of the Beatles! 

This was 5 years before we had heard of the Stolen Generations in any great deal, years before the Bringing Them Home Report was received by Parliament in 1997.

I was later to discover that I also had another older sister—that made three sisters instead of two and two brothers instead of one. 

My sister was brought up here in rural Victoria with a white family, and also with an Aboriginal brother. I am so grateful that they each had an Aboriginal sibling to grow up with. We met in 1999 and are very close, but it’s inevitable you get to thinking about what’s been missed over those years.

So, it is not simply history or something in the past that we ‘need to get over’. The time lost between family members is something that can never be replaced. 

Personally, the lead up to Sorry Day is fraught with emotion and anxiety. I can only recall how it was to think I was one of four children, only to discover when I was 21 that I was actually one of six. I never grew up with my big brother because my big brother was not there. I never grew up with my second eldest sister because my second eldest sister was not there.

My story is just one of many stories. Our stories can reach into people’s hearts, remind people of things they might take for granted and influence the way we might go about addressing some of the things that cause disadvantage and exclusion. This is particularly so in relation to Indigenous people accessing education and educating others about the experiences, aspirations and realities of Indigenous peoples.

I guess at a local level, and personally, I can say we have space for hope here at La Trobe through education and awareness. I am committed to taking on the next stage of our journey, through simple communication, genuine engagement, and the knowledge that Indigenous students and staff are more than worth the investment. 

By holding the 2012 Sorry Day Ceremony at La Trobe on Monday 28 May, my hope is to instil some faith and keep the journey going with one easy step. Strong leadership can get you motivated again, reminding you of the reasons why you started this work in the first place and we will continue to mourn the passing of fellow human beings who had their place in this world.

Nellie Green, Badimaya woman from the Yamatji Nation, central wheatbelt area of WA, Living, learning and working on Wurundjeri land.