Island of Isolation

Palm Island is home to descendants of Aborigine women sent there for bearing white-men's children. Today they fight poverty, racism.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

School is out on Palm Island, and the laughter and screams of children, as they fling themselves off the town pier into the water 20 feet below, ring in the rain-forested hills above the town.

For the Aboriginal children, life, though filled with poverty, is relatively uncomplicated. They are sheltered from the racism their parents and grandparents confronted and the ongoing controversy regarding their isolated way of life.

Palm Island, the largest in a group of coral-reef islands off the northeast coast of Australia, was established in 1918 as an Aboriginal penal colony. Today, it is the largest Aboriginal community in Queensland state.

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Many Aboriginal residents, such as Agnes Morgan, remember the harsh regime that marred their childhoods. "We were segregated from the whites, and we were not allowed in the areas where the whites had their houses," she says. "If children talked back, they had their heads shaved and were put in sackcloth and made to sweep the streets. That only changed in the late '60s."

Her contemporary, Annie Walsh, says children were separated from their parents and housed in dormitories. "We had to have permission for them to visit us on the weekends," she says.

Most of the islanders today are the descendants of women who, because of their half-caste children, were forcibly moved to the island in the 1930s. As happened all over Australia, the women and their children were plucked from their families regardless of tribal and geographic roots and forced to live in isolated areas with other Aborigines with whom they shared neither language, customs, nor religion.

Consequently, Ms. Morgan says, her Aboriginal religion was lost when her grandmother was young. "I am the fifth generation where both the religion and the language has been lost," she says.

The resulting cultural heritage is a medley of tribal, linguistic, and customary traditions. Because several tribes were forced to live together, they had to create a common language - a form of pidgin English - that now creates an obstacle for the children in their education.

Palm Island made national headlines last year after a controversial visit by Member of Parliament Pauline Hanson, who publicly decried the islanders' lifestyle. She implied that the people should move off the island because its isolation was causing serious social problems, such as high crime and joblessness.

She also attacked the cleanliness of the island. "Why is there so much rubbish lying about on the streets? Start cleaning up the environment, then do something with the tourist trade," she was quoted as saying.

Prime Minister John Howard has attracted criticism for allowing "the Hanson factor" to flourish. He recently added to his political problems when he remarked that Australia did not have a "racist and bigoted past." This denial of what has been described by academics as Australia's "near genocide" of Aborigines outraged liberal thinkers and damaged Mr. Howard's political reputation at home and abroad.

Geoff Warner, the chief executive officer of the Palm Island Council and the first Aboriginal manager of an Aboriginal community in Queensland, is critical of the state government.

"Our council has a budget of $1.8 million [Australian ($1.5 million US)] with which we have to build and maintain housing, roads, the water system, and provide youth and community services," he says. "The sewerage and water system is overtaxed; it is only sufficient for a third of our population. There are only 356 houses on the island, and with a population of 3,000, there are often up to 20 people living in one house.

"When the council was handed the authority in 1984 there was $300,000 owed in back rent, and 60 percent of the houses were in disrepair. We were well behind the eight ball before we started, and ... the council is only coming to terms with these problems now."

Mr. Warner says the islanders do not have the resources to deal with the root cause of the problems. "The resources we have are nothing more than Band-Aids," he says. Unemployment stands at a staggering 40 percent, and a significant number are dependent on welfare. Compounding these problems, Warner says, is the widespread abuse of alcohol. The problem is particularly acute, he says, because alcohol was suddenly permitted in the community in 1981 after being banned for 60 years.

Despite these obstacles, many people are working to overcome the social problems of the island. For example, workers at the Kootana Women's Center help victims of domestic abuse. The center, which contains an office, a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bedroom, is a quiet haven where women and their children can seek refuge.

Selena Solomon, a field worker at the center, says the facilities, though useful, are insufficient. The center needs more space so women can stay for more than one night. She says domestic violence is not the only problem that needs to be addressed. Last year, there were 50 cases of breaking and entering, mostly by youths.

"We really need a youth center that operates 24 hours where the kids could go when their parents are not home," she says. "Life is much wilder now, and the kids are getting into trouble."

She also agrees there is a problem of rubbish on the island. "We complain about the same things Pauline Hanson complained about," Ms. Solomon says. "The island used to be so clean. The community needs to be more aware of the problem; they need to be taught more about environmental issues."

Delina Foster, a council member, says the island's problems have a more fundamental cause. "I think the thing that is missing is God. There used to be three churches on the island; now there is only one, with a very small congregation," she says.

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