‘Thinking back, I’m lucky because many children died there from starvation and sickness. I think about it a lot still to this day. I can’t get over it. That dormitory was open to anything. There is only three of us boys left and the other two don’t want to talk about the sexual abuse so I have no-one to talk to about it.’
In the mid-1930s Athol’s dad placed him and his older brother into the care of an Aboriginal mission, run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. ‘My father paid maintenance, but looking back there was no special care for me or my brother ... What happened to the money?’
Athol was only five, but he and his brother were placed in a dormitory with boys as old as 21. Conditions at the mission were harsh. ‘There were no special blankets, mattresses or bed for each person. The bigger people go in and grab what they want first ... Big ones tell us to get out of the bed. The little ones slept on the floor. It was very cold in winter.’
It was an extremely unsanitary environment, with only one shower and toilet for 30 people. Athol doesn’t remember ever seeing any soap, or owning a towel. The residents did not have their own individual clothes, and had no detergent to wash their dungarees with. ‘We always stunk and the dormitory stunk bad.’
Some of the kids got leprosy, and were sent away to the islands. ‘We had pus-filled sores. Our clothes stuck to them and we couldn’t wash them with soap. Plus we would end up with other people’s pus and blood and other body fluids on our bodies as we didn’t have our own clothes.’
Food was scarce too. ‘We were hungry all the time and had to steal food from the crops growing on the mission. There were a couple of Aboriginal women cooks. We just got one slice of bread with split pea soup so we were always hungry and skinny.’
Sexual abuse was rife in the dormitory. ‘I was raped by the older boys from when I was six years old to 10 years old. I couldn’t shower clean as we didn’t have soap. I had sores around my backside from the bigger boys interfering with me. There were six main older boys who did this. I told the superintendent but he did nothing about it and it just continued.’
The mission’s matron ‘would look at our sores’, and asked Athol why he had sores on his bottom. ‘I was telling her then too ... I’m sure the rest of them kids too had sores, I can see it. And I’m sure they was abused like me. But they never said nothing.’
Athol and his brother were all alone at the mission. ‘A lot of my mates had mother and father in the village and they would cook for them. I used to go up to the fence and my mates would share with me. I had no mother. No mum and dad on the mission. Other parents took their children out. I had nowhere to go.’
When Athol was around 16 years old his mother passed away, and he lost his father shortly after. He knows that the man he called Dad wasn’t the biological father of either himself or his brother, and they were ‘half-caste, and the rest [of their siblings] is all full-blood’.
Athol began drinking a lot after he left the mission, until he went to a rehabilitation place, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He worked all around Australia – in a sawmill, doing ringbarking, and on cattle stations.
The mission was a long way – over 400km – from where Athol was born. He still lives in this area, because he has connections there. A lot of his current neighbours are the children of people who lived at the mission, and ‘they all call me Uncle or Grandad’.
He doesn’t think that these young people understand what life was like for their parents. ‘They wasn’t brought up under the [Aboriginal Protection] Act, see, all they modern Aboriginal people ... They wouldn’t know what you are talking about now.’
Athol has spent time on his home country and wants to be buried there. In later years he approached a program which assists Indigenous people with obtaining land, and they bought a property in his home country for him and others to use.
‘You remember when Paul Keating was in government, he set aside so much money for Indigenous people that was dispossessed of their country, to go back on country. And that’s the money we got, for us to go back.
‘That’s why I want to go back up there. At least we’ll properly own it now, and go back and live there, do our hunting, fishing or whatever. For our grandchildren ... Come back and live on country.’
Although the abuse Athol experienced ‘still worries me’, counselling isn’t something that he has really considered. It was only when a lady came and spoke to him about the mission, for the purpose of applying to a state redress scheme, that he began talking about the abuse as an adult.
‘I done a story for that too. And I told her about this. I think that’s the first time I ever told anybody about it really. And it did hurt me a lot to bring it out.’
Athol keeps himself busy, working in a program teaching ‘young Aboriginal people how to do woodwork. I do a lot of Aboriginal stuff, making Aboriginal stuff – boomerangs, and clubs, and hook, you name it. I do a lot of that ... They respect me a lot. I’m the only one, Aboriginal people, doing this sort of stuff’.
He’s pleased with the young people he teaches, but is sure to keep them in line. ‘A few of them, they still play up and all that. I give them a talking to.’