Parramatta Native Institution: Aboriginal children remembered 200 years later

This week, Rosemary Norman-Hill visited a site of a school where 200 years ago her great-great-great grandmother Kitty was forced to abandon her Aboriginal way of life and integrate into white society.

She said old records showed Kitty was one of the first Aboriginal children to be removed from their parents under forced assimilation orders. Kitty was in the founding group of students at the Parramatta Native Institution, opened by Governor Lachlan Macquarie on 18 January, 1915.

Three weeks earlier, Kitty had been split from her family of the Cannemegal Prospect tribe and forced to live at the school to be "civilised, educated and Christianised" - foreshadowing the policy leading to the Stolen Generations.

At least 37 Aboriginal children suffered the same trauma of separation before the school's closure in 1823.

On Sunday, 220 of their descendants gathered for the first time at Parramatta Town Hall to reflect on their shared histories and to begin work on preserving the students' legacy.

"We need to raise awareness to the wider community – both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples – about who these children were, what happened and why as this has largely been forgotten," said Ms Norman-Hill, who organised the 200th anniversary commemoration.

"It is clear from the General Orders that the intention was for these children to lose their language, their culture, their heritage and their Aboriginal way of life."

The children were taught to read and write, learn bible scriptures and arithmetic, according to the scant records available. The girls focused on domestic duties and needlework, while the boys learned about farming and machinery.

But Governor Macquarie's written orders show that no child was allowed to leave – even with their parents and relatives – until they had reached their mid-teens.

Ms Norman-Hill, in the midst of completing a PhD about the institution at Southern Cross University, was shocked by the dearth of documents and lack of knowledge about the school, which was once located next to St John's Church.

"I was mortified that when I spoke to people about it, Aboriginal people, they didn't know about it," she said.

With the support of Parramatta Council, Ms Norman-Hill wants to create a "healing" centre, a place where recorded oral histories, letters, photographs, and art works about the institution can be stored and displayed.

"Our elders are dying, and once they're gone, their knowledge and stories are also gone. So we need our storytelling to be passed on and to survive. Our oral history is critical," she said.

"We want our children to know. We want them to be resilient and build a strong culture. We are a testimony to the fact the Darug people not only survived but are thriving."

Parramatta lord mayor Scott Lloyd attended the commemoration on Sunday. He said he had discussed with community representatives about continuing the memories with art installations, music, theatre and the written word.

"It was a part of history that was nearly forgotten. For a community to learn about another part of our history, which a lot of people didn't even know existed, is important," he said. "It's a great opportunity to learn from the past so we don't repeat any mistakes."

Ms Norman-Hill also said it was difficult to swallow modern-day statistics showing that children from indigenous families are more likely to be taken away from their families.

"Recent studies show the rate of indigenous children being removed from their families is 10.6 times the rate of non-indigenous children nationally and higher in every jurisdiction," she said.

"History and research shows that removing our children from their families is not in their best interest."

The story Parramatta Native Institution: Aboriginal children remembered 200 years later first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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