Death in the Outback

January 10, 2015 Updated: January 10, 2015

Healthcare in Australia’s Aboriginal communities is hindered by a long history of racial discord between very different cultures. Georgina Kenyon discovers the story of one young woman who died in the 1980s, and asks whether anything has changed since. The names in this story have been changed to protect the source’s privacy.

I sit with my friend Kay on her old ‘Queenslander’ verandah, half-listening to the radio. It’s that half-hour just before it gets dark in the tropical north of Australia. The fruit bats are waking each other up with their chatter and the curlews join in, screeching and rustling about in the dry leaf-litter below us on the lawn.

Kay holds up her hand, drawing my attention back to the radio. I catch fragments of a report about complaints from Australians whose children and grandchildren were taken away from their families to live in institutions and in foster care. Some have since been emotionally abused and physically assaulted. It’s shocking news, of course. Dreadful.

Kay turns up the volume on the radio.

Almost 30 per cent of children in care in Australia come from an Aboriginal background, the reporter continues: “The Stolen Generation – when Aborigines were forcibly taken away from their families – may not just be a shameful part of Australia’s history…”

Kay’s face looks contemplative and sad.

“Is this seriously happening, in 2014?” I wonder. Most Australians are aware of the Stolen Generation, when it was legal for the government to take Aboriginal children away from their families. But this forced separation, I thought, had ended decades before.

The humidity has dropped and the sky is turning a grainy, dark blue. Even now, the stars are starting to blink, shining down on the corrugated iron roofs that are finally cooling down after the heat of the day.

Kay doesn’t look at me as she slowly starts to speak.

“I had an Aboriginal daughter,” she says. “A foster child…”

For nearly ten years we have been friends but I have never heard her talk about her foster daughter before.

“Where is she now?” I ask.

Kay is quiet again. I regret being blunt.

“No one can live without their own culture,” she says. “After a few years, I made the decision. I decided that my daughter needed to go home.”


Fostering had seemed hopeful, kinder than the old ‘mission’ system. Many people in government and the church believed that placing Aboriginal children in white families would bypass cultural divisions in Australia and increase access to benefits like modern healthcare and a stable education. Today, the reasons behind the fostering of Aboriginal children can be viewed as fundamentally racist, although some children did receive better healthcare and education as a result. Yet for many others it did not work, and divisions remain strong today, still trapping many Aboriginal communities in a way of life awkwardly stalled between old traditions and new opportunities.

Hannah*, Kay’s foster child, came from an Aboriginal family who, in the early 1970s, had asked for help from the local government to bring up their daughter. They were Kuku Yalanji people, rainforest people. Yalanji is a language spoken from Cooktown in the north to Port Douglas in the south, and as far inland as the arid area of Chillagoe in the west, where Hannah’s parents lived. They were poor, and followed a relatively traditional, nomadic way of life, far from schools and hospitals, which they knew Hannah needed. She suffered from diabetes and serious kidney problems, and required regular dialysis.

So, aged 12, she came to live in Kay’s family home, with Kay’s husband and their own daughter, near the town of Mossman at the southern edge of Yalanji country. Over the next four years she intermittently returned to see her own family when she got too homesick. Fostering gave her access to education and healthcare, but it wasn’t a cure-all.

“What people didn’t understand was the incredible sadness she felt,” Kay says. “Half in white culture, half in black. Many Aboriginal people took their own lives because they felt they didn’t fit anywhere…there was a big incidence of suicide among fostered young people…”

Hannah did not commit suicide, but when she chose to go back to live with her family, she was effectively choosing to die with them.

It takes strong cultural forces to keep a family in the bush when their child needs regular medical attention. Hannah’s parents were scared of the mission near Mossman. Kay thinks they may have spent time in a mission in the 1960s; certainly some of their other relatives had been moved there. She thinks that’s why they opted for fostering.

“If you want to learn why people thought fostering was better than the mission days,” she tells me, “you need to go to the old mission up there.”

The Mission

“See where there used to be the fence? Even though the fence has gone, the church mission closed, over 30 Indigenous families now choose to live here. These people are the children of those forced to be here by the government up until the 1960s.”

Shaun Sellwood and his team work for the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) in the Mossman Gorge Aboriginal Community, a ten-minute drive from the town of Mossman. Today, the RFDS is not simply an emergency care service but is also involved in helping Aborigines on the old mission stations throughout Queensland. Shaun specialises in drug and alcohol prevention and, although he is white, has spent his life living and working in Aboriginal communities in northern Australia.

As we walk through the Aboriginal community in Mossman Gorge, a middle-aged man sits on a broken chair under a tree by the road, looking at us as we pass, while a small dog and a young man with a toddler in nappies and with bare feet walk up and down the street. It is Friday but many people seem to be wandering aimlessly around the town.

Shaun explains that many people in the Aboriginal community are on benefits, and that there is a high incidence of drug and alcohol problems.

I ask why people want to stay here, in a place where surely they have bad memories of the past.

“I know it’s hard for white people to understand why people do not leave this place,” Shaun replies. “Some want to stay because they see it as their home: they lived here on this mission with their parents and they see it as their land now. Others because they are Yalanji people…and this is Yalanji country.

“But others are here because they don’t know what to do. There is still an ‘invisible fence’ around them. It is almost as if the mission system is still alive today for many people.”

Spirits of the Past

Mossman was attractive to white English and European settlers from the late 1800s, for growing sugar cane, mining tin and cutting down red cedar. Today the cane industry still thrives, and fields of sugar stretch to the base of vast green, forested hills that seem to touch the clouds.

Up to the 1960s the government forced many Aboriginal people, some of Hannah’s relatives among them, to move here from their traditional camps and ‘humpies’ by the river and from other, more remote communities. By 1934 one-third of Indigenous people in Queensland were living on missions and settlements like the one in Mossman Gorge. They were seen as cheap labour, like slaves in many cases. The mission had strict rules and harsh penalties if you broke them. The Indigenous people had to ask permission to marry, to travel and to work. 

This caused many to feel disconnected from their past, like they belonged neither to white nor Indigenous culture, and it was difficult for many people, after a childhood of institutional care, to feel a sense of purpose or independence. Some of Hannah’s aunts and uncles experienced this in the mission, and it was this feeling of dislocation between cultures that Hannah was to feel again through the foster system.

“When I first got to know Hannah,” says Kay, “she was pretty shy, but enthusiastic – just like most girls her age, and she liked going to school most of the time. Although I am a Christian and I taught her some of the basic ideas about what I believe, I didn’t force her to think differently to her old family ways.”

In return Hannah taught Kay about totems: many Aboriginal people are given several animal spirits to care for when they are born, and they must not hurt these animals at any time throughout their life.

“Hannah’s totems were the eagle, the snake and the bandicoot…she felt sorry for me that all I had to look after was our family cattle dog!”