As the young girl’s voice rings out into the desert night, singing a soft lullaby to the restless baby she holds, the audience is spellbound. For Australia’s “stolen generation” of Aboriginal children taken from their families and placed in institutions, the scene evokes what happened when babies cried for their lost mothers and were comforted by older girls.
“It was hard,” one man says as he recalls his childhood for the open-air performance of Bungalow Song on the outskirts of Alice Springs, a remote town near the geographical center of Australia.
“I believe every single one of us kids who was raised in institutions such as this had our language and our culture beaten out of us. That’s the way it was,” he said.
The centerpiece of this month’s Mbantua Festival celebrating indigenous culture, Bungalow Song tells the stories of those who were taken to the often harsh home known as The Bungalow from 1932 to 1942.
Not only did the performances take place on the site of the long-gone corrugated iron sheds that made up The Bungalow, but the children involved in the Opera Australia collaboration were mostly the grandchildren of its former charges.
“A lot of the kids here had one of their relatives taken away or brought here so I think it’s great that we’re able to tell those stories,” 15-year-old performer Kaya Jarrett said. “I feel like ... we are still at the surface of knowing how everything was back then and ... as much as it is talked about, I feel like it should probably be talked about a lot more because it has had a big impact on a lot of people lives.”
It took until 2008 for Australia to apologize for the forcible removal of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children of so-called mixed parentage from their families between 1910 and 1970, many in the name of assimilation.
Many like Harold Furber, who tells part of his story in Bungalow Song, were separated not only from their parents and grandparents, but their siblings, their land, their language and their culture.
Furber was taken from Alice Springs when he was four along with his two-year-old sister and sent hundreds of kilometers away to Croker Island off Darwin. He never saw his mother again.
“Makes no sense whatsoever, none of it,” he said. “My little sister was gone [to Queensland] within a year, and I didn’t know. I didn’t know how it was done.”
He says his story was “not unique one little bit, it’s the norm” and his experience made him withdrawn as a teenager.
“I could hardly talk. The social worker from the Methodist church used to come and see me and asked if there’s something he can do. I said: ‘There’s something you can do — you can locate my sister.’ And if he hadn’t done that, well, I wouldn’t have spoken to him again. What’s the point? Over the years I suppose you deal with it, you get the confidence to do other things and talk up,” he said.
Mbantua Festival’s co-artistic director Rachel Perkins said Bungalow Song is very much a story about the history of central Australia, and the clash of the ancient culture of the Aboriginal desert peoples and the European settlers, including the children that they produced together.
“Of course, this show is part of feeling proud about that, feeling proud that we have this mixed heritage ... because the people who we are, I am, is part of the story of the country,” she said. “People used to not want to talk about it, now we want to talk about it.”