Vic stolen generation elder 'whitewashed'

·3-min read

Stolen from his mother as a baby, prominent Indigenous elder and actor Jack Charles felt "whitewashed" by an assimilation experiment.

Victoria's Yoorrook Justice Commission opened public hearings on Tuesday, with Uncle Jack its first witness.

The 78-year-old described to the truth-telling inquiry how he was taken from his Bunurong mother as a four-month-old after being discovered at Daish's Paddock, an Aboriginal camp near Shepparton.

He was moved to a city mission in Brunswick and then to the Box Hill Boys' Home, where he was abused - at times sexually - by staff and other boys during his 12-year stay.

As the only registered Aboriginal child at the home, Uncle Jack was taunted over the colour of his skin, bashed because "Captain Cook was killed by blackfellas", and "whitewashed" of his family and race.

"I wasn't even told I was Aboriginal - I had to discover that for myself," Uncle Jack told the inquiry.

In his testimony, the former heroin addict and thief-turned-respected elder gave a rendition of a tune he used to sing at the Salvation Army-run home, referencing everybody living in "gladness" because of the white man's arrival in Australia.

His troubles didn't end when he was fostered at age 14 to a woman who told him he was an orphan, which he came to learn was a lie.

At age 17, he was informed by family members at a local pub that his mother was alive and living in Swan Hill. He told his foster mother and was surprised she didn't share his joy.

"She says 'Oh, those people will tell you anything, you can't believe them'. I raised my arm and I said 'Yeah, well I believe them' and I could see the fright in her eyes," he said.

He put on his pyjamas to go to bed but was instead called to the front door, where a divvy wagon was waiting to take him to a home for juvenile offenders.

"I do remember crying myself to sleep," Uncle Jack said.

It was the first of his 22 incarcerations for crimes including burglary and drugs offences. In prison, he wrote letters for other criminals and deflected questions about his sexuality as a then-closeted gay man.

He was able to reconnect with his mother at age 18, but it took until 2021 for him to learn the identity of his father, Hilton Hamilton Walsh, in an episode of SBS program Who Do You Think You Are?

Uncle Jack never got a chance to meet his Wiradjuri father before his death but was proud to discover he's following in his footsteps as a Indigenous mentor.

Genealogists have linked Uncle Jack's family tree to Tasmania, where his five-times great grandfather Mannalargenna was a leader of the Pairrebeenne/Trawlwoolway clan.

His ancestor, he said, was conned into convincing his people who hadn't been killed or married into white society to move to a "death camp" on Flinders Island, run by British-born colonial official George Augustus Robinson.

"You put a church on this death camp, it becomes a mission," Uncle Jack said.

Uncle Jack said he had only made his mark on society because he now understands who he is.

"I was a lost boy but now I am found," he said.

The commission is establishing an official public record of Indigenous experiences since the start of colonisation.

It will recommend reform and redress by June 2024, with the findings to guide Victoria's Treaty negotiations.

The inquiry will hear from Gunditjmara/Boandik elder Uncle Johnny Lovett when public hearings resume on Thursday.

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