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A member of Australia’s Stolen Generations tells his truths on Sydney streets. An anthropologist considers her responsibilities to these stories of violence and suffering.

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Confessing, retelling, bearing witness to the story of Aboriginal child removal in Australia, Peter moves through the streets of Redfern, long identified as one of Sydney’s largest Aboriginal precincts. He stops to speak to those who amble along—those who tarry and have time to bear witness to this shared Australian-Aboriginal history. He also dares to stop those who move with alacrity. I, as ethnographer, walk with him sometimes. He tells me that his rationale for confessing his “total” self was inspired by religion. Born again now, he believes that a public confessing of all his past discretions is what is required of him to move forward but also to educate. He tells me as we walk that his testimony of suffering should be seen as a gift to those who hurt him, and to his family whom he had hurt. This wandering is healing and instructive, but he is berated, ignored, congratulated, and pitied as he moves through the streets. A TV crew come to make a documentary of him, but some other members of the Stolen Generations dismiss him; this hurts him most. But he continues to walk. His mission is to convey how damaging the experience of Aboriginal child removal has been, is, and will continue to be—to bear witness to a past both misrecognized and misrepresented.

Is revealing really healing?

Peter, an Indigenous Australian man in his seventies, removed from his family as a young boy, is a member of a transgenerational group of Aboriginal people removed from kith, kin, and land now commonly known as the “Stolen Generations.” Peter’s life story is one of many years of institutionalization, abuse, and prison sentences. Under the glare of the hot Sydney sun, I walked the dusty city streets with Peter many times to understand why he felt he had to atone for the entanglements of sin that others had visited upon him. His desire to retrospectively redeem the brutal injustices of Aboriginal child removal through becoming a “confessing self” yearning for recognition, legitimacy, healing, and even reconciliation sat deep in his bones. Yet this walking and confessing, this steadfast attachment to a deep belief in the retrospective redemption that bearing witness might bring often gave way to deep sorrow. A simple rejection, a hand held up aggressively as one individual or another rushed past to catch their train or bus made tangible the perils of trying to account for one’s past in this way. Busy commuters or day shoppers, caught in the dry tedium of their own lives, did not want to hear that fate had not been kind to this confessing stranger. Peter felt this rejection bodily, often clutching his chest and speaking with force and speed. These experiences often also meant Peter’s mood became dependent on the sway of the day. An imaginative anarchy, freedom from past and future suffering, was projected onto this act of walking confession, but it was never quite the salve that Peter sought out. Instead, Peter encountered the borders that divide intimate and public life, regularly feeling the heavy mood of separation that had come to define his world as a member of the Stolen Generations.

Ancient mariner-like, Peter’s quest brings him up against a hydra of competing narratives and legitimacies but even in and maybe in spite of his alienation, he continues to make his own stories.

Credit: © Malcolm Taylor
Abstract painting
Upon a Painted Ocean.

Cornerstones of truth and responsibility

On May 26, 1997, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) tabled one of the most painful reports that Australia had ever witnessed. The Bringing Them Home (1997) report—which was the result of months of consultations across the continent of Australia—established that from 1910 to the late 1970s between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families. The Commission listened to 535 stories of removal, abuse, and loss and had access to nearly a thousand more in written form. The manner in which the report, subsequent debates, and its effectiveness in mobilizing a deep activism and politics of reparation among both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populace formed the cornerstone of my research. Coming to the field a number of years after the tabling of the report meant arriving in a context radicalized through activism, campaigning, the discourse of reconciliation, human rights, and a deep desire for reparation and healing. This movement is anchored in a broader global discourse of truth recovery, reparation, and reconciliation. The growing interest on a global level with Indigenous land rights, questions of reparations, memorialization, and apology has seen a rewriting of the fictions of colonialism. In this rewriting, the place of trauma has also been openly considered. In recent years, particularly since the creation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC) and the push for global Indigenous rights with the UN International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1994–2004) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the movement toward establishing accountability for past wrongs has dominated debate in many countries around the globe. In Australia, since the early 1990s, with the granting of native title rights, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody inquiry and the Bringing Them Home Commission, the place of trauma in Australian (Indigenous and non-Indigenous, national and social) “memory” and how this might be “repaired” has become pivotal and controversial.

Reflection one
So why did I “the anthropologist” choose to walk with Peter? What were the layers of ethnography as witness that I had imagined? I had read many texts constructing anthropology as a form of bearing witness in contexts of truth, responsibility, and recovery for past injustices. Did I walk with Peter to confirm their verity or was I there to capture the frequencies of the long lineages of violence responsible for carving out Australia’s Aboriginal child removal policies? Come on, they whisper, offering an invitation to dwell despite Peter’s attempt to exorcise them. Come on, they whisper, psychically magnifying Peter’s walking as part of a global matrix of colonialism, violence, suffering, and repair.

A time for every story

Peter, the wandering confessor, did not tell his story to the Bringing Them Home Commission of inquiry in the 1990s. This would only come much later. Inspired by a reunion of Stolen Generations in the early 2000s at the site of the former institution in which he lived as a child, he finally began to speak. For the first time, his wife and his children heard his story, and the more he spoke, the more he recalled. In the years since that reunion—that first moment of speaking out—he turned to religion. In his search for God, he felt the need to tell everyone of his time in the institution, of the abuse he suffered there and later inflicted on his wife and children, and of his time in prison. Once he felt that he was “healed” and had found solace from his confessing, he decided to continue publicly confessing, and he urged other Stolen Generations to do so as well. The force with which he told his story was, however, alarming to many of his fellow Aboriginal friends and family. Peter’s persistent retelling of his story certainly did not bring solace to a wounded circle of friends, as he had intended. Telling, or “confessing” as Peter saw it, proved too much for those who had to listen to his story repeatedly. They found no recovery or repair in this act of confessional witness.

So, Peter became more and more isolated from many of his Stolen Generation’s friends.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Reflection two
How should I tell Peter’s story? Where should his attempts at exorcism and transgression sit in my anthropology? What are the limits of representing the fractures and permutations of recital, reception, and recognition, the boundaries of diverse publics and the ways Peter’s life is reframed in these spaces? How to convey the tensions and moral ambiguities in this story or these stories? What is at stake for Peter and other Stolen Generations in this? What is at stake for the kind of anthropology that should remain attentive, even inhabit all of this complexity?

Religion has gone to his head
Spirals and dots. Greens and blues. A giant turtle is in motion, leaving her children to a motherless ocean. These young babies are left to face a lionheaded wall of blue-grey water. Peter points to this painting—this reflection of loss, of life as a stolen child. He has painted this image many times, the slow yet deft, unhurried turtle departing with half a heart. Beside it stands another painting, orange, black, and yellow dolphins composed of thick pelts of pearling paint. They appear to be embracing—dancing atop a frothy tideline, a heart reunited. Peter’s art is a collection of totem and symbol, evocative in the uproar of the continued pain of Aboriginal child removal. It is also a conversation starter, through it he tells his personal story of removal, through it he relates tales of how he became a wandering preacher (Fieldnotes 2018).

In the years since I first began my fieldwork in Australia with members of the Stolen Generations, I have returned to visit many times. Peter also left Sydney moving to the countryside for his retirement, and he has continued to paint and preach. When I asked about him during my return visits, I was told that “religion had gone to his head” and that I would struggle to have a conversation with him without God being present too. In late 2018, I finally encountered Peter again. On a visit to the coastal town that Peter lives in with some of my closest Stolen Generations friends, I was told to keep an eye out for him. In the yellow glow of the local shopping mall, I spotted him completely by chance, standing, confessing as always, much aged now, trying to sell his art. In the confused haze of our chance encounter, recognition came slowly but then opened onto the embrace of warm familiarity. The perpetual demand that confessing had placed on Peter had not yielded with time, and I sensed the toll it had taken. Peter worked hard to convert me that day: he had clearly become more stalwart in his religious devotion. He asked if I could help him put some religious art up in the women’s bathrooms of the shopping mall. He told me that God had told him he must become a wandering preacher in this small town:

I preach in bars and at the pokies, I tell women and men who are split apart to phone one another and go back to where they first had coffee and then get back together again because that is what God has told me. I have prayed with five people with different illnesses, and they have all come back to me cured. I am still a wandering preacher.

The price Peter has paid for cultivating this persona of a wandering preacher is to write himself out (to some degree) of the collective story of the Stolen Generations. In casting himself as a witness to a particular set of experiences, in mapping out his own songlines of sorrow, Peter believes he is creating awareness and bringing healing and reconciliation. But many of his counterparts remain dismayed by his activities. His acts, they have long believed, will not bring recognition, legitimization, or reconciliation, but alienation. Peter has never allowed himself to be pinned down by these concerns—he wants the collective narrative of the Stolen Generations to have different faces and names. Peter refuses to be stifled by concerns with legitimacy and recognition, finding freedom and religion in his daily wandering.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me :
To him my tale I teach.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Reflection three
Some say that we should only practice an anthropology that will break our heart, others suggest we should just let it all burn—perhaps it can be both? In taking a plunge into the folded worlds of Peter and other Stolen Generations, I wonder what might be at the other side of this abyss? Many things are well beyond repair but what part should we play in tracing and mapping the lineaments of violence and colonialism? Who am I to do so or is it now my obligation having dwelled for so long with these stories of violence and pain? I have spiralled into this rusted portal—heart and mind firmly in its grip. There is a responsibility in this, for this—an inventory of suffering and injustice collected in the name of anthropology.


Fiona Murphy

Fiona Murphy is an anthropologist based in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies (SALIS) at Dublin City University. As an anthropologist of displacement, she works with Stolen Generations in Australia and people seeking asylum and refuge in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Turkey. She has a particular passion for creative and public anthropologies and is always interested in experimenting with new forms and genres―see her TEDx talk on displacement here.

Cite as

Murphy, Fiona. 2021. “Songlines of Suffering.” Anthropology News website, December 20, 2021.

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