David Whitley takes a look at the 50,000 year old history of Aboriginal and the issues that still face the country’s indigenous population today.
It is often said that Australia lacks culture. This is rather ironic, as it’s home to the longest continual human culture on earth. It is thought that Australia has been inhabited for over 50,000 years by Aboriginal groups, and the indigenous way of life continued largely uninterrupted until European colonisation.
Since then, a series of cultural differences and questionable decisions have created a number of issues for the Aboriginal community that still resonate today.
Before the Europeans
It is thought that Aboriginal Australians first arrived on the continent in around 50,000BC. There’s no absolute consensus on how they got there, but it is thought that a land bridge connected Australia and New Guinea, and that people island-hopped their way across from either Timor or Sulawesi in modern-day Indonesia.
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There is a tendency to associate Aboriginal Australians with the Outback, but most settlement occurred in fertile areas, such as the Murray River along the NSW/ Victoria border.
Indeed it’s important to realise that the country’s indigenous people are ‘Australian’ in the same way that we are ‘European’. Different tribes had (and have) different languages, beliefs and ways of doing things.
The first documented European landing in Australia occurred in 1606, and there were plenty of skirmishes between investigating parties and locals during the early days of exploration. However, it was the landing of the First Fleet in 1788 that properly impacted upon Australia’s native inhabitants.
As the colonists spread out across the continent, they naturally settled on the best land. They assumed (wrongly) that the Aboriginal Australians were nomads with no attachment to particular areas or concept of land ownership.
Many communities elected to move further afield, and attempted to make homes in much harsher areas, while others tried to adapt to European ways. Many became farm workers or stockmen.
However, some Aboriginal communities were wiped out entirely. Occasionally this was due to being moved off traditional land and social bonds being destroyed, but the major factor was disease.
When the Europeans arrived, so did their diseases and infections. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for so long, these were entirely new to the Aboriginal Australians. Tragically, this meant that no resistance had built up, and the population was decimated by imports such as chickenpox, influenza and venereal disease.
Worst of all was smallpox, which is thought to have killed 50% of the indigenous people.
Alcohol also took its toll, as the Aboriginal Australians had not built up any tolerance towards it. It is still a major problem today – rates of addiction and kidney disease are far higher in Aboriginal communities than in the general population.
With the indigenous Australians effectively forced off their lands by settlers, it is no surprise that there was conflict. In many cases, the native people refused to go quietly, leading to clashes and tit-for-tat attacks. While disease claimed far more lives than violence, it is an undeniable fact that many Aboriginal Australians were killed by settlers. Sometimes it was in self-defence, but there was also the occasional senseless massacre.
In, in particular, there was distinct persecution, although historians argue about the extent of it.
Sadly, in the early days white settlers often got away with murder without even being brought to trial. This did change in 1838, however, when the perpetrators of a massacre at Myall Creek inwere hanged for their crime. Even so, the justice system wasn’t exactly watertight in the 19th century – many murderers escaped scot free.
The Stolen Generation
One issue that is still a major hot potato today is the so-called Stolen Generation. This refers to the policy of removing Aboriginal children – particularly those of mixed race – from their families and placing them in institutions. Some commentators deny it ever happened, but there is a wealth of evidence to prove that it did.
Records are unfortunately hazy, but it’s generally agreed that at least 100,000 children were taken from their parents by the state between (approximately) 1869 and 1969. In some cases, this was because mixed-race children were rejected by their community, and in others it was because they were neglected.
However, the vast majority were forcibly removed in a thoroughly misguided attempt to integrate them with the rest of Australia. The community-wrecking effects of the Government action were far-reaching, and can be linked to many present day problems.
In respect to the Stolen Generation, “sorry” seems to be the hardest word. The Australian people, by and large, are prepared to say it. Remember rock group Midnight Oil at the closing ceremony of theOlympics, wearing black shirts with “SORRY” emblazoned across them? That was an attempt to bring awareness to a global audience.
However, the previous Government under John Howard steadfastly refused to say the magic word, partly due to the fears of legal consequences and partly because no member of the Government had actually been involved in the policy.
The new Labor Government, however, has changed tack. It has pledged to make a full apology, with the wording to be decided in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.
Aboriginal rights, Terra Nullius and Native Title
Astonishingly, Aboriginal Australians did not gain the right to vote in Commonwealth elections until 1962. And it took even longer for previous injustices about Aboriginal land to be addressed.
Things really started to change in 1971, with the Gove Land Rights case. The Yolngu people of the Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory had tried to get the courts to stop a bauxite mining company operating on their traditional lands, but the ruling went against them. The judge determined that before European settlement, Australia was terra nullius – an empty land.
The clear absurdity of the Gove decision was reversed in the historic Mabo case. Brought about in 1992 to determine indigenous rights on three islands in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, the previous assertion of terra nullius was rejected.
It also established the concept of Native Title in common law, in effect stating that Aboriginal Australians had a right to claim any land their group has historical links to, so long as that land is not currently being put to use in a way that is incompatible with Native Title (ie. There’s a big city built on it).
This has led to large parts of the country being reclaimed by Aboriginal groups. For example, around 40% of the Northern Territory is now back in the hands of the original inhabitants.
It is undeniable that there are some major problems facing Aboriginal Australians today. The average indigenous Australian dies 17 years earlier than his white counterpart and is eleven times more likely to be in prison. Levels of education and wealth are lower pretty much across the board, while prevalence of kidney ailments, communicable diseases and mental illness are far higher.
There are also issues with alcohol dependence, substance abuse and, tragically, child abuse within Aboriginal communities. The question is what to do about it, and Aboriginal leaders themselves are split on the matter. Some believe it should be left to the communities themselves to police, while others urge Governmental ‘tough love’ policies.
There are some signs that the former can work – many communities have gone voluntarily ‘grog-free’, imposing strict alcohol bans on their land – but strong leadership is not always at hand.
The recently deposed Howard government opted for an interventionist approach. In 2004 it introduced Shared Responsibility Agreements, tying welfare payments to behaviour, such as ensuring children attend school. This was criticised by many as paternalistic, and praised by others for taking necessary action.
The Federal Government went further in 2007, launching an intervention strategy in the Northern Territory. It effectively overrode the Territory’s own government to take control of indigenous affairs. This meant stronger policing, welfare clampdowns and outright alcohol bans. The Federal Government encouraged the State Governments to impose the same strategy, although it doesn’t have the power to enforce it in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. What happens next remains to be seen.
This story was originally written for Australia andmagazine.