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Today is National Sorry Day, but many Indigenous Australians say ...

At just two years old, Monica Wallabindi's mother was stolen from her family. She says National Sorry Day isn't about making anyone feel personally guilty or responsible, but acknowledging Australia's past.

When Monica Wallabindi's mother was just two years old, she was stolen from her family's shanty on the outskirts of Geraldton, Western Australia.

She was one of 10 children, and her family was living in a tin humpy with a dirt floor and no running water.

But despite the challenges her family faced, the siblings enjoyed spending time together, making and playing with dolls.

Using what they had available to them, the dolls were often made from old glass or beer bottles and wrapped in used flour bags or old rags.

On November 4, 1959, the children were forcibly removed from their home and their beloved makeshift toys were discarded without a second thought.

Monica Wallabindi's mother as a two-year-old, when she was separated from her family as part of the Stolen Generations.(Supplied: Monica Wallabindi)

Ms Wallabindi is a proud Wadandi Bibbulmun Noongar woman from Perth and has lived in Canberra for the past 20 years.

She is a singer, who uses her platform to share her family's stories.

Recently, she wrote the song Beer Bottle Baby, drawing inspiration from an old government report given to Ms Wallabindi by an Aunty.

"The government report documented the removal of my mother and her siblings and talked about that whole process," she said.

"To see that part of my family history written in black and white in a government document, and just people that I love being talked about in such a clinical manner, really moved me."

The document detailed how the 10 children had been separated and sent to different parts of the country.

It also mentioned that their precious toys had been thrown in the bin.


Ms Wallabindi reflected on her experience learning about her family's history, and said she had since felt more compelled to share the stories and engage in conversations with others.

"It's not about making anyone feel personally guilty or responsible, or putting blame on people who are here now," she said.

"It's just about learning about our past, our collective past here in Australia. To know that, I think, is a responsibility of every Australian."

What is National Sorry Day?
The Bringing Them Home report found the forced removal of Aboriginal children had caused lifelong impacts on Stolen Generations survivors and their families.(ABC: Mitchell Woolnough)

Australia marks National Sorry Day on May 26 each year, remembering and acknowledging the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed as children from their families and communities, otherwise known as the Stolen Generations.

Children were taken because of official laws and government policies at the time, which aimed to assimilate the Indigenous population into the non-Indigenous community.

The children were renamed, forced to stop speaking their native language, and were told their parents no longer wanted them.

The policies were in effect right up until the 1970s, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still searching for lost parents and siblings today.

Monica Wallabindi, a proud Wadandi Bibbulmun Noongar woman from Perth, says Sorry Day is about acknowledging Australia's shared past.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

The first National Sorry Day was held 25 years ago, commemorating one year after the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in federal parliament.

The report found the forced removal of Indigenous children had caused lifelong impacts on Stolen Generations survivors and their families.

Ten years later, in February 2008, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; saying sorry to the Stolen Generations.

Ms Wallabindi said she remembered speaking to her mother on the day of the national apology.

"She was just so happy that it had happened," she said.

"It didn't change what had happened to her, but it meant that there was this nation-wide acknowledgement that it had happened.

"It acknowledged the pain and trauma of a lot of people."

'Why should I apologise?'

But Ms Wallabindi said, around this time of year, Indigenous Australians can be subject to comments and abuse from the broader community.

She said she had heard many people questioning why they should be apologising, asking: "Why should I apologise? I didn't have anything to do with it, my ancestors didn't have anything to do with it", or "It was such a long time ago, why are we apologising?"

"It's about acknowledging that it happened," Ms Wallabindi said.

"Whether or not your ancestors played a part in that is irrelevant."

Proud Wiradjuri woman Katrina Fanning says Sorry Day is a time for refecting on the past and looking to the future.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Former rugby league star and proud Wiradjuri woman Katrina Fanning said National Sorry Day was about having empathy.

"Where there's parts of our history where there's tragedy, where there's struggle, I feel emotions for those people," she said.

Ms Fanning said providing support to others should not be limited to people you had personally wronged.

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"I haven't caused a drought, I never fought in a war, but I have empathy for the situation that fellow Australians went through and the sacrifices they made to make this country a better place."

Ms Fanning said she felt a sense of sadness for those who did not acknowledge the Stolen Generations or want to say sorry, as they weren't able to understand the shared history of Australia.

"They don't understand that this whole community of people exemplify what it is to be Australian, with resilience and toughness and dignity and pride," she said.

"I feel like they're missing out on the fabric of Australia, not the other way around."

Ms Fanning said her family had been subject to similar comments about not wanting to apologise, but they tended not to react.

"They lived at a time where reacting would have them arrested, have them banned from town, have them banned from school," she said.

"I see a simmer in them. I see something that they've had to carry, and a burden that they've had to shoulder for a very long time."

Having the conversation
Maurice Walker is an Indigenous man originally from the Woorabinda region of Queensland, but now calls Canberra home.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

Maurice Walker was originally from Woorabinda in Queensland, and now invests his time back into the Indigenous community in Canberra.

He said his parents and ancestors were removed from their homelands before they settled in Queensland.

Mr Walker said marking National Sorry Day was important because it acknowledged the trauma and loss that was created through government policies.

"It creates a sense that the government acknowledges the wrong they did," he said.

But Mr Walker said it was important for Australians to have open conversations and allow people to ask questions, rather than allowing a continued spread of hearsay or myths.

Mr Walker recalled a time when he had been working as a crowd controller at a bar, and had overheard a group of people discussing Indigenous people losing their culture and their language.

"I pulled them up and said, 'That's an interesting conversation, where did you hear that?'"

"I think sometimes it comes down to people not taking the time to understand why Aboriginal people are acting the way they do."

'There are things that happened in our past that are unforgettable'

Ms Wallabindi agreed that learning about and educating others on significant events of the past, like the Stolen Generations, was important to address misconceptions or negative perceptions about National Sorry Day.

"I can't reconcile how you could live on this land, this land that's been looked after for tens of thousands of years and not at least do your duty to learn about our shared history," Ms Wallabindi said.

Ms Fanning said one of the best ways to move forward was through education and truth-telling.

"I guess that for most Australians, until out most recent history, our school curriculums, our education systems, even our social norms and what's okay to talk about, have really blunted the ability for us all to learn more about what happened in our past, the impacts that has," she said.

Mr Walker said he understood that people of today's society weren't involved in the actions of the past, but learning about the past was still an important step.

"There are things that happened in our past that are unforgettable, and our ancestors, our parents, our grandparents actually lived through that trauma, and that's what's been passed down to us as children," he said.

'Whole new level of negotiation' needed for Voice to Parliament
Debate on a bill to set up a referendum on whether an Indigenous Voice to Parliament should be enshrined in the constitution began on Monday.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

As a country, Australia will soon have to vote on whether an Indigenous Voice to Parliament should be enshrined in the constitution.

But Mr Walker said it was important to address how the Voice would work differently than other structures in the past, to ensure its success.

"There's a whole new level of negotiation that needs to take place before people are convinced that this structure is going to do anything different," he said.

Ms Fanning said she hoped the referendum would help bring an Indigenous voice to the table.

She said in the past, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had not had the chance to select a representative at the highest level of influence who represented the community on issues affecting them.

"By embedding something that doesn't just change at the whim of the government or an election cycle, but is guaranteed, will help us to tackle long-term issues that can't be addressed in just one election or funding cycle," she said.

"To be perfectly honest, to keep doing things the way we've done for a couple hundred years and expecting a different result is not good enough."

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