Hundreds of people gathered on Ingaada country in Western Australia last week to remember Indigenous ancestors forcibly taken in chains to Bernier and Dorre Islands, 50kms off the coast from Carnarvon, after they were diagnosed by government authorities with having venereal diseases.
While confined in the ‘Lock Hospitals’ on the two islands between 1908 and 1919, over 200 people died, with the men interred on Bernier and the women on Dorre Island.
During this period, hundreds more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were held as patient prisoners, with many regularly subjected to medical experiments.
Archeologist Jade Pervan addressed the audience at the Centennial.
“Archeological evidence shows that patients were interred on the islands, they were deprived of certain liberties and decision-making powers until deemed cured,” she said.
“Many patients probably didn’t have the disease in which they were incarcerated for. We know that there are hundreds of burials on the Islands of the ancestors and unmarked graves and most of these deaths were due to poor living conditions.
“Many of the Aboriginal people continued their cultural traditions. They undertook ceremonies, they made glass spears and grinding stones. They made message sticks, they fished, hunted and foraged for food and bush medicine."
Ingaada elder, Kath Ryan shared a story her mother told her from the early 1900s.
“As they were camping there, they could hear a mob in chains coming along … up the river and those people were their ancestors … the people were crying and couldn't communicate.”
Not many people know about the history of the medical incarceration of First Nation people.
Another Ingaada elder, Merle Dann, told NITV News her grandfather was a local tracker in the early 1900s. Ms Dann’s grandfather told her mother of the difficulties he faced.
He had no choice but to go and catch the Caranua people who were stealing, said Ms Dann.
“He used to say, ‘I don’t want to end up at the islands for not telling the truth,’” said Ms Dann.
Chairperson of the Carnarvon Aboriginal Medical Service, Gail Belotti said her ancestors got a life sentence for a disease that can be treated in 15 minutes today.
“[It] was a lifetime, they were there until they died … how tragic is it that our people had to suffer,” she said.
“All of us as Aboriginal people know about the islands …, we also know that our families on the mainland are still grieving about the fact that those islands were death islands, and right now there are people all over Australia that treat them as islands for recreation.
"I look at it exactly the same as us going and having picnics and dancing on the graves of their ancestors, that’s what disappoints me. So, for us, we need to be healed … the islands need to be healed .. for us, we see them as sorrow and grief.”
Traditional owners performed a smoking ceremony to send the spirits of their ancestors home.
“Look, learn and listen, and then you’ll understand .. we just helped the old people go through and they did come and they whistled as they went past … you can feel it now, they’re all here,” said Ingaada elder, Marion Crowe.
The Lock Hospitals Working Group has developed a year-long commemoration program.
Lotterywest funded Wednesday's commemoration ceremony, with the Shire of Carnarvon also providing support.
A sculpture partially funded by the State Government along with the Shire of Carnarvon will be installed by the Lock Hospitals Working Group in March.
Titled, 'Don't Look at the Islands' the work will feature a young girl covering her face and pointing to the Islands as she stands alongside her brother. Other projects will follow throughout the year.