A Minority Group

According to the 1996 Census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia number around 352 970, about 2% of the total Australian population. In 1976, when they were first included in the national census, 115 953 persons identified themselves as of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. In 1981 there were about 159 897, and this figure has gradually increased over time.

Despite thousands of years of living in Australia, over the last two hundred years Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have remained a minority. This is due in no small measure to the prejudice and discrimination of the European settlers. Government policies such as extermination and assimilation have either destroyed the living Aborigines or bred out the Aboriginal blood.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770. The British had instructed Cook "You are . . . with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Gt. Britain or: if you find the Country uninhabited take possession for his Maj by setting up Proper Marks & Inscriptions, as first discoverers and Possessors." However, the European law of "terra nullius" decreed that the natives only owned the land if they farmed land and had buildings on it. This meant Captain Cook had the right to take possession of the land and authority over the "inferior" natives.

Bowes was one of the many early settlers who prejudged the Aborigines. In 1778 he wrote that Aborigines were a ". . . stupid and indolent (lazy) a set of people . . . they seem altogether a most stupid, insensible set of beings." Others called them savages, while Governor Phillip treated them almost like pests: "(The Aborigines) certainly are not pleased with our remaining among them, as they see we deprive them of fish . . . but if they set fire to the corn, necessity will oblige me to drive them to greater distance." A squatter's view of the Aborigines in 1843 was as follows:
"The worthless, idle aborigine has been driven back from the land that he knew not how to make use of, and valued not, to make room for a more noble race of beings, who are capable of estimating the value of this fine country. Is it not right that it should be so?"
Around 1830, many European settlers sought to exterminate the Aborigines. In Tasmania in 1827, after more than sixty Aborigines were killed in a fight with the Europeans, Governor Arthur decided to move all Aborigines from settled areas. He announced martial law the following year, with a reward given for every Aborigine that was brought in alive. During this time the whites killed two-thirds of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania. The few hundred that survived were shifted around until finally settling at Oyster Bay, near Hobart. However, by 1876 they were all dead.

Another instance of genocide, now known as the Myall Creek Massacre, occurred in June 1838. A large group of Aboriginal men, women and children were killed in cold blood by a group of farmers. They were found not guilty of killing 11 of the men. Later they were convicted for the murder of one of the children, though public opinion was against punishing them.

In 1883 the Aborigines Protection Board was set up to replace the earlier government policy of extermination. In a parliamentary report its aim was given as:
  1. to civilise, Christianise and above all train Aborigines on stations established for the purpose
  2. ;
  3. to remove as many children as possible from their 'bad' environment and parental 'influence' to training homes and thence to 'situations' (work) with white families.
Reserves and stations were set up throughout New South Wales on which Aboriginal people were forced to live. A single white manager had total control over most aspects of the Aborigines lives in his station. They could refuse to hand out food rations to families, carry out inspections of houses, take control of people's money, and remove children from their families and have them sent away. Meanwhile Aborigines were given European names and clothes and were not permitted to make contact with "Part-Aboriginal" people. The government expected the "Aboriginal problem" would be "solved" when the Aboriginal race died out.

White Supervisors oversaw nearly every aspect of Aboriginal life in the 1930s. To shop in town a superintendent would write out a permit for how many hours they were going shopping. The children in the dormitories were only allowed to see their families for a couple of hours on a Sunday, as long as they had a permit. If an Aboriginal parent asked the matron if the children could go out he or she would be given a permit with a set number of hours. If the family was not back on time a tracker would collect them and they would not be allowed out again. Aboriginal children were not permitted to play in the white people's area, and when purchasing meat Aborigines were given whatever the butcher wanted to give them for their ration. This treatment continued right through to the 1950s.

Around 1938 the policy of assimilation was introduced. This method of solving the "Aboriginal problem" involved turning Aborigines into whites by making them part of the white culture. The best way of achieving this was to separate young Aboriginal children from their parents before they learned about the Aboriginal ways of life. Often these children were used as a form of cheap labour and were taught the ways of the white people. In 1940 the assimilation policy became official in New South Wales. Aborigines had to give up their Aboriginality and carry a certificate with them to prove they had done this in order to become Australian citizens. When few Aborigines applied for this certificate, they were forcibly moved to the towns or cities.

As recently as the late 1960s Aborigines have been segregated. They were often not allowed to use the same facilities as whites or as much as whites. The following account is from Nigel Parbury's book Survival — a history of Aboriginal life in NSW.
At Moree Aboriginals were not allowed to go inside the council chambers or even use the toilets, and some hotels did not serve Aboriginals . . . But the main discrimination was at the swimming pool. Aboriginal adults were never allowed in and Aboriginal children were only allowed in with school groups on Wednesdays. When school hours finished, the whistle blew. Aboriginal children had to leave the water and only white children were allowed to stay.
Today the law still does not treat Aborigines as equal. A report by the Australian Council of Churches entitled "Racism in Australia in the 80s" stated: "They are more likely to be arrested for a mirror offence, more likely to be jailed than fined and if fined, the level of fine is more likely to be higher." A sample of trials in 1980 showed that 99% of proven Aboriginal criminals had a conviction recorded, compared to 92% for the rest of the general population. Today, there is a higher rate proportion of Aboriginals in gaols than the rest of the country. Until such figures as these can be balanced, none can honestly say that discrimination is absent in Australia.

Impact of the Prejudice and Discrimination

As a result of centuries of prejudice and discrimination, is a mental scar on a great number of Aborigines. As part of the protection and assimilation policies, around 5625 children were separated from their Aboriginal parents. A general feeling of confusion and loss resulted in both parents and children. Pat Dodson, an Australian Aboriginal, wrote that such policies ". . . left us either marginalised or totally frustrated and angry with white society . . . It's also produced a strong survival instinct among Aboriginal people."

Some Aborigines have developed prejudice against all whites because of the way many whites have treated them. A man named Parbury made clear how he and many other Aborigines felt about their treatment. In his book Survival. A History of Aboriginal Life in New South Wales, Parbury wrote:
This festival of 150 years' so called 'progress' in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country . . . You came here only recently, and you took away our land from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to tell how cruel and bad white Australians have been . . . We do not want charity nor protection, but justice, citizenship rights and freedom from the Protection Act.
Various government policies denied Aborigines a stable upbringing, causing many to lose their sense of identity. Where traditional ways of thinking and living have not been lost, morals and values have been clouded. The "stolen generation" of children has meant that much of the Aboriginal culture, language and history have been lost. Nevertheless, not all Aborigines resisted assimilation. Often, Aborigines tried their best to assimilate, usually so they could keep their children. Others developed a resentment of authority and turned to crime. The latter response is so common that Aborigines are 25 times more likely to be incarcerted than non-Aboriginal people.

Lately, the large number of Aboriginal deaths in police custody has a lot to do with dispossession, institutionalisation and poor treatment. One man, Malcolm Charles Smith speared his eye with an artist's paint brush in Long Bay Gaol and died of head wounds, having lived most of his life in government-run institutions. Royal Commissioner Hal Wootten, QC, led an investigation into the Aboriginal deaths and concluded: "The horror of a regime that took Aboriginal children and prepared them harshly for a life as the lowest level of worker in a prejudiced white community, is still a living legacy among many Aboriginals today. (Smith's) life (was) destroyed . . . by the regular operation of the system of self-righteous, heartless and racist destruction of Aboriginal families that went on under the name of protection or welfare."

Overcoming the Prejudice and Discrimination

Governor Gipps was among the first non-Aboriginal people to stand up publicly for Aborigines, despite strong opposition. In 1838 he ordered a full investigation into the aforementioned Myall Creek Massacre, and saw to it that eleven men were tried. When they were found innocent for the murder of one man, he re-arrested them on the charge of murdering one of the children. On 19 December 1838 Governor Gipps wrote:
. . . I had despatched a party of Mounted Police in search of some white men, who were supposed to have put to death in cold blood not less than twenty-two helpless and unoffending Blacks; it is now my painful duty to inform your Lordship that seven of the perpetrators of this atrocious deed, having been convicted on the clearest evidence, suffered yesterday morning the extreme penalty which the law awards for the crime of murder . . ."
Unfortunately, Gipps actions were not much of a deterrence to many Europeans, massacres continued by other means, like the poisoning of flour or sugar.

Around the 1920s Aboriginal activists and sympathisers began to appear. In 1924 the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association began in Sydney, and in 1932, a group known as William Cooper's Australian Aborigines League made a petition to send to the King. This petition asked for an Aboriginal representative in parliament and better conditions for Aborigines, but the Federal government did not allow the petition to be sent. On Australia Day 1938, Cooper joined with William Ferguson and John Patten and formally asked the Prime Minister for equal rights for Aboriginal people. When denied, the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aborigines League declared Australia Day 1938 a day of Mourning for all the Aboriginal people who had died or suffered.

A.P. Elkin and David Thompson were anthropologists who wanted to learn from Aboriginal culture. The former was a clergyman from Sydney University who was of the belief that Aboriginal culture was valuable and that Australian society could learn from the Aborigines. Elkin was a major influence to the government when the protection policy was changed in the 1930s. The Commonwealth government sent Thompson, from Melbourne University to make contact with the Arnhem Land Aborigines. He lived with them from 1935 until 1937, learning about their language and culture. Through cooperation, the Aborigines chose to form a military guerrilla force to fight the expected Japanese invasion. Both Elkin and Thompson respected the Aboriginal way of life and sought not to change it.

Faith Bandler is an Aboriginal rights campaigner who came to prominence when she co-founded the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship in 1956, which lobbied for a federal referendum to remove legal discrimination against Aborigines. Bandler's work culminated in the passing of the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal citizenship through a 92 per cent majority. This result gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate on Aboriginal matters and to have Aborigines included in the national census. Recently, Bandler has concentrated on working for rights for her own people, Australians of South Sea Islander descent.

Two Aboriginal student activists who were very popular were Charles Nelson Perkins and Chicka Dixon. In 1965, they set off with other students from Sydney University in a bus for northwestern New South Wales with the aim of publicising discrimination in New South Wales country towns. One result of the freedom riders' protests was that Aboriginal people were allowed to swim at public pools at all times. These "rides" also picketed clubs, cafes and other public places in New South Wales that practised discrimination against Aborigines. The actions of the freedom riders also brought the injustice of the Aboriginal position to public attention in the lead up to the 1967 Aboriginal referendum. They also contributed to the abolishment of the Welfare Board in 1969.

Australia Day of 1972 marked the formation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the centre of claims for land rights, compensation, justice and a greater degree of self-management. It came into being when four Aborigines, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Gary Williams, set up a tent on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra. By setting up an Aboriginal Embassy the leaders were pointing out that they felt like foriegners in Australia. The tent signified present-day Aboriginal living conditions. Television news showed Aboriginal people defending themselves from the police, who pulled down the tents and arrested the people. Masses of Aboriginal people continued to set up tents, forcing the Federal government to take notice. Government policy became self-determination, giving Aboriginal people the right to manage their affairs themselves and to have a greater say in decisions about their future. Twelve years later, on 1 August, Commonwealth and State anti-discrimination legislation became operative.

Eddie Mabo, of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, declared in 1982 that the Meriam people had lived in permanenet communities with their own social and political organisation before contact with the Europeans. He and four other Meriam people went to the High Court of Australia with the claim that Murray Island (Mer) and surrounding islands and reefs were the exclusive property of the Meriam people, who had continuously inhabited the area. The claim of terra nullius, or land belonging to no-one, was not valid in this situation, and was upheld by the High Court on 3 June 1992 by a majority of six to one.

The High Court judgement contained statements to the effect that, as the terra nullius law that allowed Britain to claim Australia was unjust and did not respect all Australians as equal, it could not be upheld or perpetuated. They also recognised that Aboriginal people had, according to their own laws and customs, enjoyed rights to their land for thousands of years. As the British colony grew, they dispossessed more and more Aboriginal land, a fact that nevertheless underwrote the development of Australia into a nation. Part of the Commonwealth Government's response to that historical High Court decision was the Native Title Act 1993.

In view of the fact that much of the Aboriginal culture and history have been forgotten since the European settlement, there are now schools and curriculum that seek to change this. The stereotype of Aboriginal people that was present in school textbooks has been removed, and Aboriginal children are being taught to have pride in their heritage. Entire topic areas in some school subjects are devoted to understanding the Aboriginal experience and the prejudice and discrimination associated with it.

On 14 October 1996, opposition leader Kim Beazley appealed to Prime Minister John Howard to support a motion reaffirming multiculturalism and Aboriginal reconciliation. Sixteen days later the Federal Government and the Opposition both endorsed a bipartisan motion denouncing racial intolerance, reaffirming the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights regardless of race, colour, creed or origin, and reaffirming the reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A classic example of noding your homework. I have misplaced the bibliography (about 10 books) but I'll include them in the write up as soon as I find them.

Let us consider the aboriginal's point of view in Australia: most people living in that country are unlikely to have fully understood the term "heirship" as it pertains to descendants of those native inhabitants who have been systematically and quite cynically displaced, murdered, and had their land stolen by foreign newcomers.

When outsiders come into a country and seize the land upon which the original and existing inhabitants dwell, they have effectively robbed them, and their down through the ages, right to inherit, not only the land, but to continue their millenary and complex cultural ways and approach to life, as well as robbing them of their inalienable natural rights to their history.

Some Australians feel and argue that the fairest long-term plan for the Australian Aborigines must be their total and radical integration into Anglo-Australian society as "equal" citizens.

However, most indigenous societies have no interest whatsoever in integrating with a way of life and mindset which is fundamentally alien to them. The now numerically dominant culture calls this "assimilation". There are truer and more honest words which describe this better, even though they may seem radical.

The fairest long term plan would have been for the European settlement to have asked permission to integrate into the Aboriginal culture and live peacefully side by side, adhering to the native laws, not surely the other way round.

The Australian Aborigines are the oldest continuous population outside Africa: they are the people who have longest occupied their traditional territory. Hence, modern Aborigines are the direct descendants of the explorers who arrived 50,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, this represents 2000 to 3000 generations. Thousands of generations in which an entire and complex culture has developed, which has adapted in an optimal way to the territories, fauna and vegetation. In a world that so often misuses "green" issues for short-term political convenience, should the carefully balanced native ways which embody true husbandry of resources not have their say in any intelligent and sincere political debate?

Had the original Australians not been forced to live on reservations or in missions, had they not been undereducated, forced to work for rations, and generally treated like dogs they would not be reliant upon the government dole today. Alcohol has also been a scourge in the deepest social way possible, and for this the newcomers must shoulder the full responsibility.

Perhaps those who feel the Aboriginees are taking unfair advantage of the handout system should read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines to get an idea of who these ancient people were and what they have lost, before expressing an opinion on what would be an equitable fate for this unique race. Perhaps the person who takes that trouble to inform themselves about what richness of culture can bring to everyone involved would radically rethink their position. A fair and sincere person can surely only come to one conclusion about where the balance of fairness and unfairness really lies.

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