Survivors' tales heal stolen hearts

By Dionne Christian

Father’s experience inspires harrowing accounts of Aboriginal families torn apart
Ian Michael says Hart is a personal journey. Photo / Gabi Briggs
Ian Michael says Hart is a personal journey. Photo / Gabi Briggs

For performer Ian Michael, the story of Australia's Stolen Generations - Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their families - is personal.

In 2014, Michael began researching stories of the Stolen Generations to create a show about the bleak chapter in Australia's history, which began with colonisation and continued until the 1970s. He knew his father, who wants to remain anonymous, grew up in a foster home but did not know why he was placed there.

It wasn't until they spoke about the theatre project that Michael learned his father and his six brothers and sisters had been taken from the family home in 1973, after their mother left.

They remained in the small southwestern Australian town of Collie, but went to different homes and were forbidden to contact or speak, even if they passed one another in the street.

"Their father was still there but the feeling seemed to be that a man, especially an Aboriginal man, couldn't raise his own children," says Michael, 26.

"He learned his father died on the street not long after the children were removed. He had an epileptic fit and no one helped him."

Michael's one-person theatre show, Hart, arises from his research into the Stolen Generations and reflections on his own history. First performed at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in September, the show comes to New Zealand next week. It uses the first-hand accounts of four men from the Noongar country of Western Australia, Michael's own people, and owes its name to a man who used the surname Hart throughout his early years not realising he had another legal birth name.

The accounts were mainly found on the Stolen Generations' Testimonies website, part of a project to film first-hand stories from survivors and put them on the web as an online museum.

Michael joined forces with Melbourne's She Said Theatre, a company using performance to explore Australia's alternative histories and forgotten stories, to produce Hart. He and co-writer Seanna van Helten spent long hours reading the online testimonies.

They describe these variously as harrowing, deeply upsetting and heartbreaking but say telling their stories has allowed survivors to have their experiences acknowledged, which is crucial to the healing process. Michael obtained permission from the survivors, saying he wouldn't have used a story without getting agreement first.

"I didn't use any from women because I didn't feel it was my place to tell a female story but, one day, I hope the show will grow to include other performers telling other stories and it will include women."

He and Van Helten say they weren't aware of how long the abductions had gone on or the lasting damage caused to individuals, families and entire communities.

"There were times when it felt overwhelming, but there was an incredible feeling of, 'why is this not taught?' I think Australia has a real difficulty in addressing parts of its history," says Van Helten, saying that until 1967 Aboriginal people were classified as fauna.

She and Michael stress that Hart isn't about pointing the finger. Although Michael acknowledges anger is a natural response, he says most of the survivors simply wanted to tell their story and have people reflect on the events.

"Hart isn't about making people feel guilty or bad about what happened. A lot of people involved genuinely thought they were doing the right thing for indigenous people and saw themselves as simply doing their jobs."

But he says Aboriginal children continue to be taken from their families, more so now than during the Stolen Generations years.

In 2012, a Northern Territory government official was sacked after revealing almost A$80 million was spent on the surveillance and removal of Aboriginal children compared with A$500,000 on supporting the same families. "It's more about the idea that people should be making decisions for themselves and the need to ask individuals what they want or need."

Performance

What: Hart
Where and when: Basement Theatre, February 2-6; Bats Theatre, February 20-24

- Weekend magazine

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