NO ONE WAS surprised when, in 1977, the Western Australian Government put a blanket ban on its recently decommissioned Aboriginal archive and even threatened legal action against researchers. The archive was a ticking time bomb: the dutifully documented words in its files exposed for the first time the extent of despotic powers wielded by state governments over Aboriginal people during the twentieth century. Read in the present context they show how racism, denial of rights, segregation, incarceration and breaking up of families structured and institutionalised the Aboriginal problems of today. These words from the past speak directly to the Uluru Statement: they ‘tell plainly the structural nature of our problem…the torment of our powerlessness’.
Many archive collections are stored away and forgotten, but there was no rest for Western Australia’s Aboriginal archive. AO Neville, the chief protector of Aborigines from 1915–36 and commissioner of native affairs from 1936–40, was their principal creator. He inherited a disorganised set of records that he turned into a finely tuned apparatus of surveillance and control likened to the relic instrument of a ‘repressive regime’ in the manner of Stasi records in the former East Germany. Installed in his office at 57 Murray Street, Perth, the wooden drawers and filing cabinets crammed with cards and files were a reassuring presence for Neville, signifying the expanse of his knowledge and the reach of his control over Aboriginal people. Armed with these records, Neville enforced the 1905 Aborigines Act with ferocity. For Nyungar people in the south this was catastrophic, threatening their independence, freedoms and way of life. Neville’s actions diminished their livelihood by controlling employment and wages, enforcing segregation, ‘civilising’ their children in institutions, deciding where they could live and even whom they could marry. With the endorsement of his peers, Neville engineered a scenario of spiralling poverty that rippled out across the families and down the generations, causing broken spirits and arousing anger that spurred protest. Elder Cliff Humphries explained in For Their Own Good (UWA Press, 1990), ‘We were a bunch of cast-offs in our own country.’
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