Several girls remember the staff telling them ‘don’t hang your heads, stand up straight’. It was only as adults that they realized that it was the staff themselves who, perhaps unconsciously, had taught the children to hang their heads in shame at their very existence.
— Peter Read on the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home
This statement is another example of how Read has constructed the evidence to indict welfare officials. There is no doubt that Aboriginal girls at Cootamundra were told to stand up straight and not hang their heads. Coral Edwards recalled:
All my memories of the Home is feeling shame because we were Aboriginal. Hanging your head when you walked down to school, and shuffling your feet when you were spoken to outside the Church by someone. And then getting’ roared at when you went back to the Home because you hung your head.
But none of this was exclusive to Aborigines. All Australian children who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s had the same words ringing in their ears most days of the week as teachers and principals struggled to get them to not only overcome their natural childhood shyness and deference to adults, but also to get their attention at school assemblies. Children were also told to hold their heads up when teachers sought to make them march upright from assembly hall and playground to classroom. If any child of that period, white or black, misbehaved and was being admonished by a teacher, the very same words were often the first used. The racist spin put by Read and Edwards on the familiar instructions to all schoolchildren of the period is another indicator of their embellishment of the evidence.
As I recorded in Chapter One, one of Read’s principal accusations in this debate is that the staff of the Cootamundra and Kinchela homes indoctrinated their charges with the view that blacks on reserves were ‘dirty, untrustworthy and bad’. They allegedly sought to make the children became ashamed of being Aboriginal. To put this allegation in its context of its times, let me quote a long but telling passage recorded by Merryl-Leigh Brindley in her thesis on the Cootamundra home. It comes from an interview with Mrs Ella Hiscocks who was matron there from 1945 to 1967. Recorded in 1993, it gives a balanced view of the subject and, indeed, speaks for itself.
Did you encourage them to be proud of being Aboriginal? To be honest, dear, we never thought much about it. To me they were children who needed care, black or white, they were all the same. It wasn’t the same then as it is now with all this publicity — people claiming to be Aboriginal as white as you and I are. Not too many people claimed to be Aboriginal then, I can tell you. Coral started this organization — yes, Link-Up, that’s what it was called — so they could go back and find their families. Trouble was, they’d grown apart — had different ideas, different values. One girl went to see her family and wrote back to me to tell her sisters not to go back whatever they did. I don’t think anybody who’d not actually been on the reserves could imagine how bad the conditions were. And the terrible trouble that drink caused. It was the drinking that broke up families more than anybody — when the mothers drank, that was the end for the kiddies.
Do you think they grew up ashamed of being Aboriginal? Yes I think they probably did. People used to call them names — at school, even the staff sometimes — ‘black this or that’ — or nigger. They didn’t in my hearing, I can tell you, but I’ve heard since they did — girls who’ve come back to visit have told me. We certainly didn’t try to turn them against their race but we wanted them to fit in the white world, so we had to teach them white ways, dear. That was the policy then — assimilation, they called it. Give them a better chance in life. Quite a lot of the girls married white men and we thought they’d be better off then — not the hardship their parents had gone through. Terrible poverty, no chance of a decent job, looked down on. The reserves should have been closed, but they weren’t, so we picked up the pieces. You just have to fix up living conditions first — how can you be proud of who you are if you live in a dump?