Protectionism in Australia was symbolised largely by the cruel segregation of families to missions, and the removal of Indigenous children from their parents. This was to be the main driver of government policy until the late 60s. However, some children were still living in missions in the 1970s.
Following the Australian constitution on 1 January 1901, the legal status of Aboriginal people was to make them all wards of the state. In each state, a Chief Protector was appointed. This meant authorities were able to move Aboriginal people out of towns and into the reserves and missions, and remove children to be raised as ‘white’ with other families. In some States and in the Northern Territory the Chief Protector was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait children, overruling the rights of parents.
In relation to midwifery and parenting, separation and protectionism had a dramatic impact on Grandmother’s Law, and social and physical dislocation from Country and clan saw a significant decline in Indigenous health. Cultural identity was lost as traditional birthing practices were disrupted and prohibited. Passing on cultural knowledge across generations became difficult, as families were forcibly separated and communities were spread across various Mission stations. By the 1920’s, some States had prohibited birth on Country, and enforced a system of hospital births (hospitals where the women were segregated). Many women were reluctant to reveal their pregnancy to those outside the family, particularly to the Missionaries that might send them even further away from home and family to birth. As Andy Bryan describes below, the role of the midwife became critical to keeping Aboriginal families strong and connected, despite the desperate circumstances they had been forced into.
Aboriginal midwives are described with reverence, admiration and pride.
The ability to name the Aboriginal woman who was your midwife provided social connection and strengthened identity
Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson, 2018, p.86
There are many accounts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living through the Stolen Generation and the inter-generational trauma this caused. Great harm was done to First Nations children over many generations. They were offered little or no education except being trained to be domestic or farm slaves. Many Indigenous mothers and families today still have a deep fear of authority following this historical institutional policy of ‘protection’ and segregation.