Kinchela Boys’ Home, a feared place where boys removed from their families were kept in loneliness and abuse, to teach them to forget their Aboriginality.
— Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy
If the Aborigines Protection Board really had a policy to make boys forget their Aboriginality, it chose an odd way to go about it. If anyone seriously wanted to assimilate a minority group into a mainstream population, the last thing they would do is create an ethnically segregated institution. The very existence of institutions exclusively for Aborigines guaranteed that they would not forget their Aboriginality. Keeping Aboriginal boys together only emphasized their common interests and common grievances. If you really wanted people to forget they were Aborigines, you would send them to institutions that did not recognize any ethnic identity or social minority status. During World War II, there was one important institution that acted in this very way, the Australian Army, which made a major positive contribution towards ending racial divisions by treating Aboriginal men as soldiers first, just like everyone else.
Nothing was more certain to produce the opposite outcome than establishing an institution with its entire intake from a minority group who could be distinguished from both its staff and the outside majority population by the colour of their skin. Ushering Aboriginal children together from various regions would only give them a sense of how they shared a common fate. The sole mutual identity these institutions would have created would have been that of Aboriginality.
This happened not only in the handful of little institutions established by the Aborigines Protection Board in the 1910s and 1920s. It was also one of the results of herding Aboriginal adults together onto stations and reserves in the same period. Until the British came to Australia, there was no such thing as ‘Aboriginality’, that is, a self-conscious ethnic identity that applied to all indigenous people. Instead, they were divided into hundreds of small groups with their own languages and customs, each of whom had their own identity. Segregating some onto missions, stations and reserves where they shared a common experience was probably the single biggest progenitor of a pan-Aboriginal identity. Even left-wing academic historians such as Bain Attwood have recognised the truth of this.
Hence, the idea that the institutions at Kinchela and Cootamundra would have made children lose their Aboriginality is inherently implausible. On the contrary, these places were more likely to have produced a sense of Aboriginality. In fact, one can see this clearly from the fact that many of the leading Aboriginal political activists of the past 30 years, in particular Charles Perkins and Lowitja O’Donohue, had spent some of their childhood in segregated institutions.