• Eva Jo Edwards remains a strong advocate for her community and for the Stolen Generations, and has six children and four grandchildren. (Ali MC)Source: Ali MC
Eva Jo Edwards was taken from her family at age five, and spent her next 13 years in institutions. Today, she is the loving matriarch of a big family who are all connected to their culture and community.
By
Ali MC

21 Mar 2018 - 1:40 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2018 - 2:34 PM

Aunty Eva Jo Edwards is known around her community as someone always ready for a laugh, and always with a smile on her face.

A survivor of the Stolen Generations and a proud Boonwurrung, Mutti Mutti and Yorta Yorta woman, she conveys an inner strength that belies the trauma of her upbringing.

Currently working with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency in Melbourne, and having successfully raised six children, Eva Jo's story is one of sadness, but also of strength and resilience.

“The trauma and the impact of what happened will stay with me the rest of my life,” she says.

"I was raised with the non-Aboriginal values of Christianity, but on my journey I have found my identity as an Aboriginal woman with cultural values, which has made me strong in who I am."

It has been a long journey searching for family, finding identity and rediscovering culture.

Now 54 years old, Eva Jo was removed from her family at Swan Hill at age 5, and spent the next 13 years in institutions.

She was taken to Melbourne, firstly to live at the Allambie Reception Centre, along with her five siblings, Arthur, Lexi, Eddie, Angela and Dean.

Her records state that her mother a father were unfit parents, but of course, this type of removal was not uncommon as part of the assimilation process.

After two months at Allambie, Eva Jo would spend the next 13 years at the Lutheran Children's Home, where she was separated from her siblings.

Her Aboriginality was never discussed, and in this way, she was denied any knowledge or information about her identity.

"You just know you're different because of the colour of your skin. But that is all you know. We all got called names at school, there was never any cultural activities which would have empowered you. Being institutionalised was nothing but a roof over your head. There was never any sense that you were loved, wanted or needed, or told you could be anything you wanted to be. We were never told if you were smart enough you could be a doctor or a teacher."

In 1993 her brother tragically committed suicide on his 25th birthday, the severe impacts of removal and separation taking a severe toll.

It is an anniversary that never passes without tears.

Eva Jo was reunited with her mother Beatrice Kirby when she was 15-years-old, but struggled to find the right words to say. The separation had caused a fracture between both mother and daughter that would be never be mended.

At the meeting "my mother just cried and said it wasn't her fault. But there was nothing there after 10 years of separation from her. I didn't go back. I didn't feel any connection with her."

Eva Jo's mother had actually written letters to the state department requesting that her children be moved closer to her, but these requests were rejected.

Sadly, Eva Jo's mother passed away before she could meet her first grandchild.

“My first child was born the year she passed away,” she says.

Stories such as Eva Jo's are not uncommon for members of the Stolen Generations, the term used to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been forcibly removed from their families as part of past assimilation policies.

The effects of removal, along with abusive experiences in institutions and disconnection to family and culture, has had severe impacts on many, if not all, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

Such impacts include the high rates of incarceration, and ongoing high rates of child removal, as well as poor mental and physical health and the up to 20-year gap in life expectancy.

Yet Eva Jo's story also demonstrates the strength and power of culture, and of a determination to break the cycle of trauma and disconnection.

Eva Jo has a big family of six children and four grandchildren who are all connected to their culture and community, who have found success in education and employment.

"I wanted my kids to be strong in who they are, so I have made sure my children have grown up with dance and culture and a sense of belonging, and knowing who they are. They have all those things that I had to find along the way," Aunty Eva Jo says.

"My motivation to raise my kids in culture is because I wasn't. I was raised in the assimilation policy. I had non-Aboriginal influences growing up, until the age of 25 when I decided to go search for who I was."

"It was after I had my first 3 kids that I went searching, and it wasn't until I met my cousins and I found family, and other cousins had already gone home to find their families."

It is a process that continues today, and like many other members of the Stolen Generations, remains a lifetime journey of reconnection.

"It was only recently at the passing of my [older] brother in Swan Hill that for the first time I was able to spend time on country, to put my feet in the water, and feel like I am at home."

Today, Eva Jo remains a committed advocate for members of the Stolen Generations, and while admittedly her own trauma is never far away, says she manages it "in wanting to make a difference, in continuing to work."

"I want to ensure that our children today in out of home care don't have to go through the same traumas that we did, that there are supports put in place. I will always fight for our rights, this is our history, it might be a dark part of our history but it needs to be known. That way we can hopefully move forward a little bit more."

Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. He currently works at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. Follow @alimcphotos

 

The Point returns for 2018 with a special investigation on why some of the members of the Stolen Generation were given criminal records at age 2, why the rates of Indigenous children in out-of-home care is rising and how organisations are addressing the trauma of child removals. 

Watch The Point on Thursday evenings at 8.30pm from 22 March on NITV (Ch. 34). Join the conversation #ThePoint