As a girl, Mari Melito Russell felt out of place. She was darker than the other kids at school, she felt more comfortable in the forest than her suburban home and she had vivid dreams of an Aboriginal woman beckoning her.
At age 24, she learned a shocking truth that helped explain her unease and set her on an agonizing search for an identity snatched away from her the day she was born.
Russell is among thousands of Australian Aborigines who were forcibly removed from their families under policies that lasted for decades until 1970, leaving deep scars on countless lives and the nation’s psyche.
Australia’s government said Wednesday it would formally apologize to the so-called “stolen generations” next month, as the first item of business of the new Parliament.
The issue has divided Australians for decades, and an apology would be a crucial step toward righting injustices many blame for the marginalized existence of Australia’s original inhabitants — it’s poorest and most deprived citizens.
“It’s not going to bring back my life,” Russell, 72, told The Associated Press Wednesday at her home on Sydney’s outskirts. “It’s not going to bring back my mum. It’s not going to take away the abuse that I had to endure when I was growing up.”
“But at least it’s a start.”
Compensation ruled out
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, elected last November and whose pledge to apologize overturns a decade of refusals by his predecessor, has ruled out paying compensation. But he says he is determined to help all Aborigines achieve better health, education and living standards.
“This is about getting the symbolic covenant, if you like, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia right and then moving on,” Rudd said this week.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said Wednesday the apology would “be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people.”
Her statement reflects the lingering concerns of many Australians that they should not be made responsible for mistakes by their forebears.
Aborigines — 450,000 among Australia’s population of 21 million — are the country’s poorest ethnic group and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians.
From 1910 until 1970, some 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws that argued the race was doomed and that integrating the children was a humane alternative.
An inquiry by the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission concluded in 1997 that many stolen generation children suffered long-term psychological effects stemming from their loss of family and culture. It recommended that state and federal authorities apologize and pay compensation to those who were removed. All state governments have apologized, but the question of compensation was left to the federal government.
Then-Prime Minister John Howard steadfastly refused to apologize or pay compensation, saying his government should not be held responsible for past policies.
Although the last laws granting authorities the power to take Aboriginal children from their families were abolished in 1970, many Aborigines say statistics show the government is still far more likely to take Aboriginal children into foster care than white children.
Last summer, the government passed a package of bills to fight what it said was rampant child abuse among Aborigines in the Northern Territory, fueled by widespread alcoholism, unemployment and poverty. The legislation, which included a controversial plan to take control of some Aboriginal lands, was condemned by critics as a racist attack on indigenous rights.
Aboriginal leaders generally welcomed Wednesday’s pledge to issue a formal apology.
“Older people thought they would never live to see this day,” said Christine King, whose group the Stolen Generations Alliance was consulted by the government about the apology.
Others still want compensation. Michael Mansell of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center wants the government to set aside $882 million for compensation.
Russell grew up in Sydney with parents of Scottish and Irish backgrounds. She says her father beat her and sexually abused her. Russell’s mother once scolded her for bringing an Aboriginal girl home to play, calling them “dirty” people.
She recalls having vivid dreams of an Aboriginal woman who sat on a rock and said, “Come back to your culture.” Confused by the dream then, she now believes it was her ancestors beckoning her.
For Russell, the first hard evidence that she was adopted came after her mother died in 1959 and her aunt sent a letter saying she did not belong in the family and was no longer welcome.
She began scouring hospital records, birth and marriage registries and even shipping logs to try to discover her true identity, but clues were few.
Change in adoption law opened records
In the mid-1990s, changes to the law made it easier for adopted children to access birth records and Russell discovered her true heritage: She was born to a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl named Joyce Russell, from whose arms she was taken on the day of her birth on Sept. 4, 1935.
A group called Link-Up, established to reunite families of the stolen generations, helped Russell trace her birth mother to a nursing home in Easton, Pa., and a nervous reunion between mother and daughter was finally arranged in 2001.
“I was trying to be really strong and not cry,” Russell recalled. “It was a bit of a shock when they brought her up because the resemblance between me and her was really strong. She kept grabbing my hand, she kept walking with me everywhere. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight.”
At first the elderly woman didn’t realize who the younger woman was, and welfare workers asked gently probing questions to try to prompt her memory, mentioning Mari Russell’s birth date and the hospital she was born in.
“She started crying, and then she got so angry and she was sobbing,” Russell said. “She said ‘I had a baby girl and they took her away from me. Why did they do that? Why did they do that?”’
“I said to her, ‘It’s OK mum, I’m that little girl.”’
Russell spent two weeks with her mother in Pennsylvania. Joyce Russell died last month at the age of 84, and her daughter was bringing her ashes home for burial.
For Russell, the apology is a positive step but will never replace what she and so many others lost.
“We missed out on our culture, our language, our history,” she said. “You can never get back those lost years, you just can’t.”