The first humans walked on the land we today know as Australia some 60,000 years ago. They first lived as hunters and gatherers, developing broad cultures deeply rooted in the spirits of their land. As their culture developed and became more refined, separate tribes began forming. Their lifestyles and customs developed in distinct coordination with their surroundings, but all shared the characteristic of believing in the sacred power of the lands they inhabited. Though tribal warfare existed, indigenous Australians were for the most part a peaceful people. Most of the violence that took place was ritual-related and was considered acceptable until the Europeans began colonizing Australia in 1788.
Relations with Europeans
At the time of the first European colonizations around 1788, almost 1 million people were already living in Australia. While relations between the two vastly different cultures were always strained, the Australian government's most memorable atrocity was a period in history remembered as the Stolen Generations.
Beginning in 1910, the government decided it would be beneficial for the rest of Australian society to fully assimilate indigenous people into the mainstream culture. In order to complete this task, the government forcibly removed over 100,000 aboriginal children from their homes and tribes, and took them to be educated in Christian missions. Living conditions in such missions were often deplorable – many children suffered physical and sexual abuse – and the education they received only prepared them to do low-grade farming work. So in reality, even though the idea behind the project was to breed the Aborigine race out of Australia, societal standards still only allowed meager jobs for the people.
The lasting effects of the Stolen Generations were even worse. Children grew up in hostile environments, without a prevailing cultural identity. They could no more return to their home, where they knew nothing of the customs and traditions they left behind, than they could integrate themselves into white society. As adults, many products of the Generation resorted to alcoholism, depression and suicide, and became ineffective parents because of their lack of a true guardian in their youth. Also, the Aboriginal community as a whole became altogether angry and disillusioned with the Australian government, feelings that continue to exist today.
Culture and Pride
The complex and mysterious nature of the culture of many indigenous Australians is something few people fully understand. Thier stories are all rooted in the concept of Dreamtime, and range in explanations for everything from the cycles of the moon to the intricate balance between animals and the earth. While their cultures vary significantly among the nearly 400 separate tribes, the concept of creation is a story most tribes share.
Aborigines believe that during the time of creation, known as the Dreaming, ancestral spirits came to Earth and left symbols of their visit. These symbols are used by the aborigines to decipher complex situations in nature and decide what actions should be taken. These spirits exist all around the tribes, but are mainly felt along the many “song-lines” that criss-cross the continent. This song is said to tell one story in a single song and spread it across the whole of Australia. While each group interprets the song in a different way, all cultures respect other tribes’ ideas and come together as a whole to form the entire story.
I love the sky, so two of my favorite Aboriginal Dreaming stories have to do with constellations and the cycles of the moon. The famous Emu in the Sky constellation is significant to the aboriginal tribes living near Sydney because it tells them the time when real emus begin laying their eggs. Ancient people engraved a drawing of the constellation so that when the two are aligned it serves as a signal of this event. Another legend of the night comes from the Yolngu people of the far northern part of Australia:
“The Yolngu people call the Moon Ngalindi and he too travels across the sky. Originally, he was a fat lazy man (corresponding to the full Moon) for which he was punished by his wives, who chopped bits off him with their axes, producing the waning Moon. He managed to escape by climbing a tall tree to follow the Sun, but was mortally wounded, and died (the new Moon). After remaining dead for 3 days, he rose again, growing round and fat (the waxing Moon), until, after two weeks his wives attacked him again. The cycle continues to repeat every month. Until Ngalindi first died, everyone on Earth was immortal, but he cursed humans and animals so that only he could return to life. For everyone else, death would thereafter be final.”
This year, in an unprecedented move by the Australian government, the new Prime Minister, KevinRudd, issued a formal apology to the aboriginal people. In his speech (shown below), Rudd apologized specifically "for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country."
While his speech was met with great controversy, I, being detached from the entire situation, personally believe that this apology was a step in the right direction. Many leaders before Mr. Rudd, including his predecessor John Howard, have refused to acknowledge their government’s failure to its indigenous peoples, something many Australians of all races and backgrounds wanted to see happen. One of the reasons Mr.Rudd may have even been elected was his promise to the nation to issue this formal declaration. Even though this action was not met with any monetary commiseration, the acknowledgement of a governmental failure is not to be taken lightly.
While Mr.Rudd’s apology addressed the possibility of equal treatment of whites and indigenous Australians, in reality these peoples have little common ground. Those aborigines that wish to assimilate into a modern lifestyle can now, more than ever, reach their goals. However, those who wish to remain true to their ancestral cultures have a harder time accepting European ideals. Most indigenous tribes are so far out of reach of local medical facilities that they have a 2 to 10-fold increase in health problems such as heart disease and STDs. While these statistics are all true, the fact remains that Australians living in tribal communities, although they are Australian citizens, have the right to live separately from the rest of society. Some tribes may not even desire medical attention to alleviate their ills, and prefer to use their own healing methods. In more urban settings, alcoholism and crime are prevalent causes of death for aborigines who . An increasing trend, however, has developed to where more and more aboriginal children are being educated in public schools. This being said, education levels indicate a significant gap between indigenous and nonindigenous Australian school children from year 7-12 (as illustrated in the graph below).
All in all, aborigines still face an uphill battle for equality, but in today’s world more and more opportunities are presenting themselves.
ENAIR.org. 10 Dec. 2007. European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights. 9 Dec. 2008 http://www.eniar.org/index.html.
Humphrey, Michael. Aborigines. 2001 10 Dec. 2008 http://users.orac.net.au/~mhumphry/aborigin.html.
Luhrmann, Baz. Come Walkabout. 10 Dec. 2008. Tourism Australia. 10 Dec. 2008 http://www.australia.com/campaigns/walkabout/au/index.htm.
Norris, Ray. Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. 10 Dec. 2007. CSIRO. 7 Dec. 2008 http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/aboriginalastronomy/index.html.
Rudd, Kevin. Australia. Parliment. Prime Minister. Full Transcript of PM's Speech. Feb. 2008. The Australian: Online Newspaper of the Year. 9 Dec. 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23207256-5013172,00.html.