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Hundreds of Aboriginal Children in Unmarked Graves

Hundreds of Aboriginal children likely buried in unmarked graves at three WA missions

Exclusive: More than 740 First Nations people, the majority of them very young, are believed to have been buried with no record at Moore River, Carrolup and New Norcia

The Benedictine monastic town of New Norcia. A Guardian Australia investigation has found hundreds of Aboriginal children are likely buried in unmarked graves at three former WA missions. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

As many as 400 Aboriginal children and babies are likely to have been buried in unmarked graves at three former Western Australian missions, the vast majority of them interred after dying when five or under, a Guardian Australia investigation can reveal.

Spanning decades, more than 740 First Nations people, the majority of them very young, were most likely buried with no record at just three church and government-run missions in the state: Moore River, Carrolup and New Norcia.

Guardian Australia has spent the past year investigating missions and institutions in Western Australia where children taken from their families were incarcerated as part of the Stolen Generations.

Up until the 1970s, Indigenous children were taken to institutions and reserves as part of government assimilation policies, sometimes with adults. Unsanitary, overcrowded and bleak conditions contributed to the deaths of hundreds.

First Nations people at the Carrolup Native Settlement, near Katanning, circa 1951. Photograph: Wiki Commons

The Guardian’s investigation examined public records, including WA births, deaths and marriages records, state library and public cemetery records and contemporary media reports.

Hundreds of people, mostly young children, babies and stillborns, were recorded as dying at Moore River, New Norcia and Carrolup. However, there are no official records of burial for those individuals and no marked graves that correspond with those numbers.

Survivors of the missions now want this to change. Some are calling for suspected burial sites to be excavated with bodies identified and the remains repatriated to their communities, while others want the graves to be honoured with proper recognition.

At New Norcia the Guardian found 312 people who were recorded in Western Australian registers as dying from the 1900s through to the 1950s but who have no burial or cemetery record. Of those, 178 were babies or children.

A statue in the monastic town of New Norcia. The head of the Benedictine monastery says the number of inmates lying in unmarked graves is ‘highly concerning’. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The cemetery at New Norcia. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The New Norcia mission operated under the control of Spanish Benedictine monks and nuns from 1848 until 1974 with Aboriginal families and children living there during this period.

When Guardian Australia approached Abbot John Herbert, the head of the Benedictine monastery, he said the investigation and the number of New Norcia inmates lying in unmarked graves were “highly concerning”.

He said a project was under way to go through mission records and registers, and so far they had identified 19 unmarked graves with unknown occupants and 31 graves marked with only a white cross. There were three unmarked graves with known occupants.

“I’m very concerned,” he said. “This is a historical thing that we’ve had to deal with but I can assure you we’re committed to finding out as much as we can.”

Herbert admitted the true number of unmarked graves may never be known. “Much of it we don’t know, which is the biggest problem. Many of the graves, we don’t know the history behind them and that’s what we’re trying to work on.”

He said that in light of the investigation, he would support ground-penetrating radar scans at New Norcia.

“If the government supported it, that would be a good idea. [GPR scans] might reveal some of these things that we don’t know.”

“It’s about acknowledging, it’s about apologising. We talk about healing and reconciliation, and these are steps working towards that.”

At least 51 men, women and children are recorded as dying at Carrolup between 1915 and 1949. It is likely that 28 of those buried in unmarked graves are children, babies and stillborns. Their names are not found on any of the three local cemetery registers in the nearest town Katanning or the shire districts.

The former Carrolup/Marribank Aboriginal mission. It is likely that 28 of those buried in unmarked graves are children, babies and stillborns. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The stone church at Carrolup circa 1916. Photograph: State Library of Western Australia

In 2007, Carrolup was registered as a historical site and listed as having an “unknown number of burials”.

There are also several instances of children whose deaths made headlines in contemporary media reports but whose burials are not found in cemetery records or burial registers.

In 2018, the WA government and the state library commemorated the 100th centenary of the Moore River Native Settlement, unveiling a remembrance wall, honouring the names of 374 men, women and children who died and are buried in unmarked graves at the cemetery.

Names of people buried at Moore River/Mogumber mission on the memorial wall at Moore River cemetery. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The Noongar man Howard Riley has several generations of his family buried somewhere at Moore River. Riley is calling for greater recognition of the “hundreds” who remain unmarked.

“My grandfather’s three sisters and two brothers are buried here. There were eight of them taken away, and only two walked out (of Moore River),” Uncle Howard told Guardian Australia.

Howard Riley looking for burial markers at Moore River/Mogumber mission, where he has family buried. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Dallas Phillips, a survivor of New Norcia, has long campaigned for the recognition of unmarked graves and for the current monastery to be more transparent about its history.

“They should let people from the outside go in and view their records … let the records be shown,” Aunty Dallas said.

Guardian Australia’s investigation in Western Australia comes as it has also revealed possible “clandestine” burials discovered through ground-penetrating radar at the former site of Kinchela Boys Home, near Kempsey in New South Wales. The revelation has sparked calls from the federal government for an investigation and a meeting with the NSW government.

The WA government declined to answer questions about whether it would commit funding to ground penetrating radar scans on former mission sites but said in a statement it was committed to supporting and helping Aboriginal people uncover their history and heritage including strategies important to “truth-telling and healing as a foundation for improving the lives of Aboriginal West Australians”.

  • For information and support in Australia call 13YARN on 13 92 76 for a crisis support line for Indigenous Australians; or call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636

© 2023 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies.


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