71-year-old traumatised after Australian authorities 'erase' his name

After being stolen from his family at age eight, Michael is now working to re-establish his identity.

A 71-year-old Indigenous man has shared the trauma he carries of having his name “erased” by government bureaucrats when he was eight.

Despite being born James ‘Michael’ Welsh, authorities decided to begin calling him number 36 after he was taken from his family home in rural western NSW in 1960. He was made to watch as his clothes and shoes were incinerated.

“They stripped us of everything we had, shaved all our hair off, put delousing powder all over us,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “That was when they told us that you were no longer to use your name, if you were to use your name you’d get punished.”

Left - James Michael Widdy Welsh pointing to his phone which displays members of his family. Right - Michael in tears with a hanky to his eye.
Uncle James ‘Michael’ Widdy Welsh (right) was stolen from his family (left) at age eight. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Kinchela Boys Home on the NSW Mid North Coast was working with the government to strip Indigenous children of their cultural identities after they were stolen from their parents. Up to 600 boys were taken to the facility between 1924 and 1970 under the authority of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board where many were exposed to violence and sexual abuse.

Across Australia, thousands of other children were kidnapped as part of a program of cultural genocide perpetrated by a government dedicated to reprogramming them through separation from culture.

Michael’s brother Barry had already begun the process of his journey into manhood, but that was “broken” when the pair were taken by the authorities.

We were told that we were no longer Black, they were going to make us white. And we were told it was for our own good.James 'Michael' Widdy Welsh

Why Michael was given the name Widdy

He and his brother, who was given the number 17, were separated. What Michael remembers is the coldness of the place and it was the first time he’d been alone.

Michael and his brother suffered for five years inside Kinchela before they were returned to Coonamble. He believes they only got sent home because they were “troublemakers” and staff were happy to see the back of them.

Once home with his people, Michael met his father for the first time and an Indigenous word was added to his name during a ceremony to help revive his cultural identity. He was now James Michael Widdy Welsh and his aunty explained what the new name meant, “You will walk in the white man’s world but you will always be Aboriginal” in either the Weilwan or Kamilaroi language.

Jail not a problem when you've been locked up all your life

But a name alone could not set Michael right. He no longer fitted into his community or spoke its language.

His knuckles became deeply scarred from fights. “I turned to alcohol because I couldn’t talk. I didn’t know how to talk because we weren’t given the right,” he said. “We were told to shut up.”

Michael used to find himself swearing at people on the street, something he attributes to the fear that was instilled in him at a young age. "In this body there became a fight.. I was searching, trying to find out who I am.”

James Michael Widdy Welsh shows his scarred knuckles to the camera. His face can be seen behind.
Michael's knuckles are heavily scarred from fighting while drunk. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

He didn’t realise he had returned traumatised by his time at the boy’s home. “I didn’t even know what trauma was,” he said.

Pointing to his heart, Michael explains that it was given to him by his mother and his creator. Pointing to his head he remembers Kinchela and says, “this was given to me by those evil people”.

As a young man, Michael was angry. He would get drunk and search out those who belittled his people or showed disrespect to women. Having been locked up since he was eight years old, going to jail for brawling was hardly a punishment. “It stunk, there were hard bits, but I didn’t have to worry too much about anything else. They’d open my door, close my door, bring my food… it wasn’t great food, but it was food.”

Over time Michael's health started to fail and his doctor advised him to go back to his natural foods, but there was a problem with that advice. "My natural food's not there no more," he said. "They've put fences up and I'm not allowed to go there. The animals that I used to eat they've killed most of them. The plants I used to eat they've destroyed most of those."

Michael turns his life around and stops drinking

When Michael had his own children his ongoing trauma continued. He wouldn’t let anyone babysit them, and he was determined to teach them how to fight to protect themselves. “I thought I was doing the right thing but what I didn’t realise was, I shut my children’s lives down.”

At the age of 19, the authorities took Michael’s own son away from him. “I sat on the riverbank, I put a gun up in my mouth, but (the creator) didn’t want me to pull the trigger so that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I believe that I’m here for a purpose. What that purpose is I’ll learn as I go along and stay sober.”

James Michael Widdy Welsh at a stand providing information about Kinchela on January 26. Women can be seen behind him.
Michael is now a leader in his community, helping other Aboriginal men heal. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

By sharing his story, Michael says he is better able to understand himself and his pain and the intergenerational trauma he believes he has passed onto his children.

He is now a respected member of his community and called Uncle James Michael Widdy Welsh. He is a board member at Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation, a non-profit that works to reconstruct the identity of Aboriginal men stolen from their families. He also works with Kwibuka: Listen and Remember — a program for survivors of genocide.

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