Cummings, now 78, is one of thousands of survivors of what Australia calls the “stolen generations.”
“They didn’t say anything to my mom, they just took me,” she recalled over the phone from Australia’s remote northeast on Thursday.
Australia’s federal government on Thursday agreed to pay about $280 million in reparations to survivors who were removed from their families in federally controlled areas including the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. It follows similar moves by state governments including New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in recent years.
“This is a long-called-for step,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told lawmakers Thursday. “To say formally not just that we’re deeply sorry for what happened, but that we will take responsibility for it.”
Comparable to Native American boarding schools in the United States and the Canadian residential schools for Indigenous children, Australia’s program aimed to eliminate all traces of Indigenous culture from their wards. Their actions ended up scarring many of the children for life, wrote Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in a major 1997 report.
Cummings, who has been part of a decades-long campaign for reparations, was a claimant in a class action launched against the federal government in April. It governed the Northern Territory for much of the 20th century but had resisted the push for financial compensation despite then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd making a public apology to “stolen generations” in Parliament in 2008.
“At long last the federal government has come to the party,” Cummings said Thursday.
In the United States, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission after World War II to resolve claims for compensation by federally recognized tribes for land that had been seized. More recently, after decades of work from activists pushing the issue, some lawmakers have begun addressing the issue of reparations for Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people.
Reparations for colonial injustices also pose a significant question for European countries, many of which have benefited greatly from wealth stolen in the colonial era.
In Australia, the reparations aim to help address the loss of language, culture and family attachments that have had a lasting impact on Indigenous well-being long after the children were taken from their homes.
The country’s 800,000 Indigenous people are more likely to be hospitalized for chronic illnesses than other Australians, according to government data, and their life expectancy lags behind the wider population by years. Colonialism’s dark legacy has also contributed to racial disparities in education and housing.
Under the compensation plan, eligible survivors will receive a one-off payment of about $55,000 for the harm caused by their forced removal. It is part of a wider program to reduce the disparity between Indigenous and other Australians, known as “closing the gap.”
Cummings, who didn’t speak English when she was taken to a Methodist mission on an island off the northeast coast of Australia back in 1948, said she became miserable and withdrawn, often running away and hiding within the mission grounds.
She was 19 when she was finally reunited with family, in a hospital in Darwin where her mother was being treated. Her mother, Florrie, sat there, speechless, and cried, she recalled.