For almost ten years, right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt has claimed the Stolen Generation is a myth. “Show me three of them?” was his common taunt, but it was a taunt that showed more about his ignorance and his lazy journalism than the truth. The data shows thousands of people caught up in the system over many decades, mostly so-called “half-castes” which the ill-guided theories of the time believed were best kept away from the influence of their parents. They left hundreds of testaments scattered in the record.
One of those was from Aboriginal woman Roslyn Choikee. I learned her story today in Mount Isa city library. I had been there a few times before but never noticed they had a tray of books about Indigenous issues. I picked Jonathan Richards’ The Secret War, an important book about the Queensland Native Police I’d read before and one I hadn’t read before Stuart Rintoul’s 1993 book “The Wailing – A National Black Oral History”.
It is as the title suggests, a collection of Indigenous testimony of people that lived through the 20th century. Nearly all faced hardship of some kind but some stories were less clear cut than others, such as Roslyn Choikee. I was interested in her story because she was born in Cloncurry, near Mount Isa, and I typed out her testimony for an article for the paper.
Her story was simple but not straight forward. It was both terrifying – she was stolen from her parents aged six – and satisfying – because she had a happy childhood and a good life by the shores of Mission Bay, regardless. She became a happily married Christian on the coast, and never missed her home. It helped she landed in Yarrabah on Mission Bay near Cairns. Yarrabah was established as a Christian mission for Aboriginal people in 1892. Many people like Roslyn were forced to go there. But it remains a beautiful spot nestled between the sea and the mountains. Seven decades later Roslyn was still there, aged 77, when in the sunshine of a July afternoon she told her story to Rintoul on a stone veranda at the Yarrabah home for the aged. Her happiness didn’t justify an appalling system but it showed the resilience of people to adapt to whatever life throws at them.
Choikee: “I come from Cloncurry. I was taken away from my parents in 1920. I was six years old. I didn’t know what was happening when I came to Yarrabah. It was good schooling here. We used to go down to the beach and get shells. That’s how we learned to count, with shells or with seeds at that time. We had a good teacher. She was a dark girl, a big girl, a senior girl. We had senior room, intermediate room and junior room. When you came to Yarrabah, if you came big they would put you in the intermediate room and if you came small, like my age, you would go into the junior room.”
Rintoul: Do you remember what happened the day you were taken away?
“The policeman took us to the police station, me and some other girls. But the two girls who were with me there went to Cherbourg, and they’ve passed away now, those girls. They sent me here to Yarrabah. I liked Yarrabah: Yarrabah is a pretty place. I never got homesick here, because I found a lot of nice little girls the same age as my age.”
You didn’t miss your parents?
“Oh yes. Now and again I missed them, but here at Yarrabah we had too many mates. Go to school, come back, play.
“We were living on a reserve at Cloncurry – a little dark people’s reserve. That’s all right too. We used to go to Boulia to see the rodeo when I was a little girl. That’s where I saw buck-jumping. A bullock-wagon used to take us from Cloncurry to Boulia. That was a bridle track then. They say it’s a big bitumen road now.
“I won’t go back because there is nobody there now. My cousin’s son went back there two years ago to look around and there’s not one of our friends there, not one Aboriginal in the area that was there. They don’t know where they shifted them. We never heard nothing and they never heard about us.
“All the half-caste children were taken away at the time and sent to different missions. Some of them went to Barrambah (Cherbourg), Palm island, here. I was sent here to Yarrabah. My father was a white man and my mother was a dark woman, you see. They weren’t married. I didn’t know about marriage till I came to Yarrabah. They were good though. They helped them and they helped us children too. They took us to Boulia now and again. The white men used to just come around. I was too young to know what was happening when they would come around to visit us. We didn’t go to the town part at Cloncurry. We would just stay down where the Aboriginal reserve was. We had tents and humpies, no houses.
“I never heard nothing about my mother from the day I was taken away, no more. But when I came to Yarrabah I was happy here and I never thought of it anymore. I did think of my mother, but I wouldn’t go back to see if she was there or anything like that. When I came to Yarrabah we started going to school and at school we made mates, here and there, our own age. It was really good. We didn’t know how to talk much till we came here to Yarrabah. Till I came here, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know anything about the Lord. I’m a Christian now. I didn’t know nothing about it till I came to Yarrabah. That’s where we learned Christianity, at Yarrabah.
“My name was Daisy Sheridan. It was changed when I came here and was baptised. My godmother, Ciccy Thompson, gave me the name Roslyn Bell. Everyone who came here was baptised at St Alban’s Church. I knew that my name was Daisy, but that was all right. I had to change my name when I got married, to Choikee. Choikee is a traditional name of Aboriginal people around the Yarrabah area.
“The dormitory was really good. We had two matrons, Miss Ardley and Miss Newbury, when I first came. During the day we played. We never used to work much. Only we used to rake up, with our hands. We used to clean the yard, and when you grew up, coming on to full age, you did harder work. We went to school only up to grade five at that time. When we got to grade five we left school.
“Mr Dobar came up to Yarrabah one time. He was a white man who looked after the missions. He came to school and we had to stand up and spell ornithorhynchus (she spells it out) because he had left that with us to learn, and some didn’t know and some knew, and he say to them, ‘That’s a good girl’. Ornithorhynchus is a platypus. My granddaughter who goes to school in Brisbane reckons they learned that ‘ornithorhynchus’ in grade eight, but we learned that ‘ornithorhychus’ in grade five. That was the last year that we were in school.
“After grade five we worked and did fancy work. We used to sew fancy work, crochet around. Miss Hogan used to send us a big box of clothes for us to sew and do fancy work on. They got us ready to be wives. We had to learn to cook, we had to learn to wash, we had to learn to iron. Miss Hahn, the matron, would send us back anything that had grease on it. Boys went to school in the morning, the boys would go out one road down to church and we would go another road down to church. We didn’t go together all: we didn’t see each other. If we fell in love they’d come and talk to us in the yard, with matron. We’d get engaged then. That’s how I got engaged.”
How could you fall in love if you couldn’t talk to each other?
(She laughs.) “I don’t know. We’d look at each other in church and sometimes matron would see us. Oh she’d growl, ‘You mustn’t look over there where the boys are,’ she’d say. I didn’t care for boys while we were young, until we were going into the intermediate room, going onto thirteen and fourteen.
“My husband was Robert Choikee. He was one of the boys who came up and talked to us. They used to come up from the dormitory and sit on a big seat around the mango tree. There were about nine of us all sitting around, just yarning and having a joke of our own. That was all right. We’d sit there and matron would be on the veranda sitting down and when it was time for them to go she’d blow a whistle and they’d go then. They weren’t there long. But we never met alone at any time until we got married. We weren’t allowed. We were told not to do it.
“There was a song that we would sing in the dormitory at night, ‘Oh where is my wandering boy tonight?’ That’s a Christian song. That was the Virgin Mary singing that time when Jesus was in the temple and she couldn’t find him. They wanted to go to Jerusalem but she couldn’t find him, so she sang that song and we learned it. But Miss Hahn, our matron, though we were encouraging the boys around all the time. She would sing out, ‘Are you encouraging the boys again? Do you want the boys to sneak around?’ We’d stop that and start some other song, but if we went back to something to bring the boys back again, she’d start again. ‘Stop it now, stop it now, no encouraging the boys,’ she’d say. That was a good song.”