Aboriginal peoples have lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years and probably longer; they currently represent around 3 per cent of the population. The largest population concentrations are in urban areas, but Aboriginal peoples achieve numerical dominance in the more remote northern and central areas of Australia. In the south-east of Australia many Aboriginal populations and languages have declined or disappeared, whereas in the north and west a number of languages have more than 10,000 speakers.
Although Aboriginal communities in the south and east are more likely to be involved in the wider social and economic environment, they are no less likely to perceive themselves as Aboriginal than those who are more physically remote from large urban areas, and live in more exclusive communities.
Approximately one per cent of Australia’s indigenous population report affiliation with Australian Aboriginal traditional religions, with the number rising to six per cent in more remote areas.
In the last four decades the Aboriginal population has grown steadily. That growth has been a result of higher birth rates, reduced infant mortality and growing identification of indigenous people in official counts.
Before the European invasion and settlement, Aboriginal peoples were migratory, often over long distances, and were primarily dependent on some combination of hunting, gathering and fishing. Social organization was complex, closely and intricately linked to the land and related to beliefs concerning the spiritual world. After 1788 such lifestyles began to change as Aboriginal peoples were displaced from land, wars were fought, women were raped and new diseases resulted in high death rates. The actual extent of direct European impact has been a topic of considerable recent contention in what has been styled the ‘history wars’. During the nineteenth century most of the south-eastern tribes, especially in Tasmania, were fragmented and marginalized. In inland areas violent attacks on Aborigines continued until the interwar years.
The Aboriginal population declined from perhaps a million people in 1778 to no more than about 70,000 in the 1930s. It was hitherto assumed (the belief in ‘Social Darwinism’) that the Aboriginal population would eventually die out and the most enlightened government policies sought merely to ‘smooth the dying pillow’ of the indigenous population. Nevertheless population numbers grew. Aboriginal peoples took up employment in cattle stations and in urban areas, and official policy increasingly moved towards one of assimilation. Health, education and other services were slowly extended into remote areas. However, so-called ‘half-castes’ (i.e. persons of mixed ancestry), who were regarded by whites as quite different from ‘full-bloods’, were driven into white institutions by legislation preventing them remaining on reserves. So-called ‘full-blooded’ Aboriginal people were to be dispersed.
Forcible separation of families
One of the most harmful elements of the new approach was the separation of children from parents when parents, for one reason or another, but often without foundation, were regarded as unsuitable and inadequate. Such children were often permanently separated from their families, including other siblings, brought up on mission stations and by foster parents, and denied access to knowledge of their own Aboriginality, let alone knowledge of Aboriginal languages and traditions. In 1995 the federal government mounted a Commission of Inquiry to examine the possibility of compensation for Aboriginal people who had been victimized and harmed in this way, but the ensuing Liberal coalition government ended any notion of reconciliation and compensation, and conservative commentators have mounted a fierce polemical campaign against the notion of the ‘stolen generation’ (indigenous children separated from their families by welfare workers, missionaries and government officials).
By the 1940s Aboriginal rights activists had formed their own organizations, such as the Australian Aborigines’ League and Aborigines’ Progressive Association, to campaign for improved status and better access to employment and services. The wartime employment of Aboriginal people had changed their perceptions of status and equality, as some were paid wages and shared the same accommodation and canteen facilities as whites. However, they had no legal status (and Aboriginal dispute settlement procedures were not recognized), no political status (being without the vote and denied citizenship) and were excluded from censuses, while assimilation policies denied them a separate identity. Many Aboriginal people, displaced from their land, with limited education and inadequate employment, were an impoverished and destitute population. Discrimination was rife in every context.
As late as 1951 the federal and state governments officially adopted assimilation as the main objective for all facets of Aboriginal affairs, but strategies varied between governments, partly because of differences in political composition. In 1967 it was decided that the federal government should legislate for all Aboriginal peoples, though states could also enact laws. For the first time, Aboriginal people were counted in censuses, and during the 1960s many discriminatory laws were repealed; Aboriginal people gained entitlement to state benefits and the right to vote. More attention was given to appropriate health and education policies, as their living conditions, health status and life expectancy were significantly below those of other Australians.
However, Aboriginal people were sometimes employed for very low wages and housed inadequately, especially in rural areas. Even when Aboriginal people could gain employment, they often faced discrimination in working conditions and wages. In Queensland and other regions, Aboriginal stockmen and other workers were paid low wages, with the money often held – and retained – in government controlled funds. Today, Aboriginal communities with the support of the Australian trade union movement are mounting a ‘stolen wages’ campaign to seek recompense.
In 1966 Aboriginal stockmen at Gurindji (Wave Hill) went on strike against their exploitation by the multinational Vestey Corporation, a strike which focused widespread attention on the circumstances of the Aboriginal population and marked the start of the contemporary land rights movement. There was more radical opposition to the existing system as Aborigines gained higher educational levels and parts of white society supported human rights issues, as in the Freedom Ride of 1965 which took a group of students to a number of New South Wales towns notorious for their racist practices. Two different kinds of issues were influential in the 1960s. One was civil rights: the rights of Aboriginal people to attend white schools, own property, buy land, drink in hotels and generally to integrate in white society. The other was a revival of cultural identity and thus land rights. Though the two issues were away from and towards white society, because Aboriginal peoples suffered both the denial of civil rights and a separate identity, they were intertwined.
Government and legal steps forward
The 1970s marked a turning point in Aboriginal control of their internal affairs, following the conservative Liberal and Country Party government rejection of land rights and the establishment of an Aboriginal tent embassy outside Parliament House in Canberra. The Australian Labour government, elected in 1972, promised changes, created a National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) and set up the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, but left much unaccomplished. Throughout the 1970s, a central feature of the Aboriginal rights movement was the creation of self-managed and self-determining institutions, such as Aboriginal legal services and Aboriginal health services – institutions that are under threat today due to lack of funding and pressure for ‘mainstreaming’ by conservative governments.
An important development was the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, enacted by the Liberal government in 1976, which handed over former reserve land in the Northern Territory to be held in trust by Aboriginal Land Councils: the Central and Northern Land Councils. Other land councils were formed in the 1980s. The Act provided the basis for some degree of long-term security and economic development for the Aboriginal population in the Northern Territory. During the 1970s other states sought to develop similar legislation, notably in South Australia, where the Pitjantjatjara people gained ownership of much of their land. However, conservative states, notably Queensland (which has the largest Aboriginal population in Australia), were reluctant to grant rights to Aboriginal peoples and mining interests were also often opposed. In Queensland, before it was repealed, the Aboriginal and Islanders Act 1971 prevented Aboriginal people from living or visiting reserves of their choice and forced them to work for below minimum wages.
The Aboriginal Development Commission was set up in 1980 and brought together various government-sponsored bureaus of land acquisition and economic enterprise which gave the Aboriginal commissioners powers to act without direct ministerial interference. However, relationships within the National Aboriginal Conference (the successor to the NACC) began to deteriorate, and pressures from some state governments and the Australian Mining Industry Council drove the federal government further away from the minimum demands of Aboriginal pressure groups (which now included the land councils and Aboriginal legal services) which centred on the implementation of a policy of national uniform land rights. There was considerable dismay when the Labour government abandoned the proposal in 1986. However, the land councils, housing associations, cooperatives and many other organizations indicated that regional management was almost entirely in Aboriginal hands. At a national level the failure of national land rights proposals emphasized that Aborigines had little more power than before; they had achieved considerable self-management but not self-determination.
The second half of the 1980s was marked by a number of institutional changes. In 1988, the bicentennial year, some 30,000 Aboriginal activists and their non-indigenous supporters marched through Sydney to protest against the invasion and subsequent displacement and discrimination. The Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, promised to negotiate a treaty between Aboriginal peoples and the Australian government, but the promise was never kept, and was effectively superseded by Mabo legislation and, to a lesser extent, debate over the existence of an early treaty in Tasmania. In the same year the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was replaced by a new structure, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ Commission (ATSIC), which enabled greater indigenous participation and was intended to draw together the executive, advisory and policy-making functions of many government and non-government Aboriginal organizations. Elections for membership of the ATSIC were held in constituencies of indigenous people across Australia.
The Mabo judgment
The treaty had failed to materialize, and the federal government’s Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had produced no recommendations, when in 1992 the Mabo Judgment of the Australian High Court was passed. The court, following initial submissions by Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander, recognized that the people of Murray Island, in Torres Strait, held and continued to hold Native Title to their land. The court therefore extinguished the old notion of terra nullius, that the land was empty and without owners until European settlement. In 1993 the federal government accepted the implications of the Mabo Judgement for the whole of Australia, in the Native Title Act, and thus recognized the continued existence of Native Title for all areas of Crown land held by the states and the Commonwealth, where it had not been specifically extinguished. Tribunals were established in all states to determine the eligibility of Native Title claims. The act confirmed the potential to settle difficult cases by negotiation and created a land acquisition fund to meet the needs of dispossessed indigenous peoples who would not otherwise be able to claim Native Title (though financial assistance proved difficult to obtain). The Federal Native Title Act met particular resistance in Western Australia where it was perceived by the conservative State government as having the potential to restrict mining companies from operating in a large proportion of the state. The Mabo decision thus influenced debate on state rights. It has also led to some new agreements between Aboriginal peoples and mining companies. Initially Native Title has been the source of both cohesion and dispute as the opportunity of gaining title has opened up both expectations of the return of country and also tensions and wounds around connections to country, family histories and community relationships. In late 2006 the Federal Court recognised native title over land in the city of Perth, the first time that native title has been recognised over a metropolitan area. The decision was unexpected, since a similar court hearing in 2002 had rejected Yorta Yorta claims to land on the New South Wales-Victorian border on the grounds that the Aboriginal population had not maintained unbroken contact with the land. The Perth decision was strongly welcomed by the local Noongar community and by Aborigines elsewhere, but was greeted with considerable concern but politicians from the two main parties. In every way the Native Title Act is central to the process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians.
The Howard years
The Australian government under John Howard, rejected measures it dubbed ‘symbolic reconciliation’ – negotiations on a treaty with Aboriginal Australia, further action on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into deaths in custody, and an apology for the ‘stolen generation’ (indigenous children separated from their families by welfare workers, missionaries and government officials). Instead, it is moving on ‘practical reconciliation’, by dismantling Aboriginal-run institutions and ‘mainstreaming’ specialist services (previously run by and for indigenous Australians) into government departments. A 2005 Senate Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs expressed concern that specialist organizational and cultural knowledge developed by self-managed organizations will be lost if funding for indigenous programmes is folded into Australian government agencies. However some Aboriginal leaders, notably Noel Pearson, also spoke out on the need to address social issues and remove welfare dependency. Mutual responsibility, employment and private home ownership have been seen as key themes in shifting the extent and considerable opportunity cost of welfare dependency.
Indigenous community leaders also lobbied for government action on the ongoing social and health crisis, including an epidemic of petrol sniffing in rural communities and significant violence against indigenous women and children. A 2001 study on violence in Aboriginal communities by the National Crime Prevention Programme estimated that the rate of deaths from family violence in indigenous communities is 10.8 times higher than for the non-indigenous population. Faced with significant failures in the criminal justice system, there has been increased emphasis in recent years on restorative justice mechanisms for addressing criminal behaviour in indigenous communities, and women are heading key community initiatives for youth employment and community reconciliation.
In October 2006 somewhat unexpectedly the Tasmanian state government announced a government apology and A$4 million compensation scheme for members of the ‘stolen generation’: those wrongfully removed by welfare agencies between approximately the 1930s and the 1950s. The package intended to remove a key barrier to reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Tasmanians. While Tasmania is both the smallest state and has the smallest Aboriginal population, the move was strongly supported by Aboriginal groups throughout the country as a model for reconciliation and a means of revitalisation of debate and action on reconciliation.
On every index of human needs Aboriginal peoples still fare worse than other Australians. Aboriginal life expectancy is still around a decade lower than that of other Australians, and infant mortality rates remain much higher than those of non-Aboriginal Australians. Diseases which are largely absent from other populations, such as trachoma and leprosy, continue to exist, and diabetes and renal disease reach high levels. Malnutrition is not unusual. Alcoholism is pervasive in both urban and rural communities.
Aboriginal housing conditions are poor, especially in rural areas, where there is also inadequate access to water supplies, health and education services. Education levels are below average, and there are disproportionately fewer high school and university graduates. Levels of unemployment are often very high, in small towns and remote communities where a combination of discrimination, lack of employment opportunities and sometimes an unwillingness or inability to work have led to a demoralized population. Most Aboriginal people who are employed are in lower skilled jobs.
The Aboriginal prison population and number of deaths in custody per head of population is still much higher than for the population as a whole. This situation has been exacerbated by the increasing use of draconian measures such as paperless arrest powers that have seen Aborigines targeted disproportionately for arrest and detention, often for minor offenses such as drunkenness. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, indigenous imprisonment rates increased by 51.5 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Though they make up only around 3 per cent of the overall population, indigenous Australians comprise 27 per cent of the country’s prison population. This is even higher in some regions, with Aboriginal youth making up 98 per cent of detained juveniles in the Northern Territory. Incarceration of indigenous young people is a particular issue; they are 24 times more likely to be behind bars than other Australians of their age group.
In recent years, a number of well publicized cases have highlighted the ongoing concern over Aboriginal deaths in custody: the death of Kumanjayi Langdon, a Warlpiri elder, who died in May 2015 alone in a Darwin police cell, after being locked up under the paperless arrest laws, and the initiation of a Coronial Inquest into the death of a young Aboriginal woman, Ms Dhu, in August 2014. Dhu died in agony from untreated septicaemia after being incarcerated in South Hedland police station for not paying around AU$3,500 worth of fines.
Aboriginal Australians have a long and unhappy experience of urbanization – forcibly taken from their lands at the time of the notorious policies of assimilation, Aboriginal Australians have experienced the worst of all aspects of urbanization: from the mid-nineteenth century they were isolated from their culture and traditions, introduced to alcohol and drugs, and not given access to decent jobs or education. The consequences of this history of forced displacement to urban settlements is still seen today, with high rates of alcoholism and drug dependence among Aboriginal youth and poor health compared to non-Aboriginal Australians across a wide range of health outcomes, including diabetes, maternal nutrition, heart disease and various lifestyle-related health problems.
These challenges remain to this day. Urban Aboriginal people are still often forced to choose between homelessness or overcrowded, low-income accommodation. Urban areas often lack the benefits of traditional healthy lifestyles, such as indigenous foods and medicines, with unhealthier alternatives such as processed foods and drinks taking their place. Indigenous peoples can also face more exposure in urban settings to infectious diseases and environmental pollution, including exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, particularly for indigenous women.
Updated November 2017
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