This history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within Australia, is not one that is widely spoken about in international circles. Many people, including Australians, are unaware or ignorant to the injustices that the indigenous inhabitants of what is now known as Australia had to, and still have to, endure as a result of a violent, destructive colonization. As neither one of us (Miriam nor Lucy) are Indigenous Australian, we consulted heavily with Jaida Conway. Jaida is an Arts Law student, studying at The University of Sydney and majoring in Indigenous Studies. She also topped the state in Aboriginal Studies for her Higher School Certificate in 2020, and is, herself, Aboriginal, being a Gamilaroi woman from North West New South Wales. She has a wealth of knowledge on this topic, both from personal experience and from an academic perspective, and we are so grateful for her help.
The Colonization of Aboriginal Peoples
Aboriginal peoples have been living in Australia for over sixty thousand years, making them the oldest culture in the world. Their culture revolves around Country, including the lands, skies, and waters, and their role in taking care of it. “We had intricate systems of land management, ceremonies, languages that were continual and based [off] an oral system of passing down [which varied from place to place]” says Jaida. However, many of these incredibly rich and diverse cultures were destroyed and irreparable after the British arrived in Australia in 1770, followed by colonization beginning in 1788. In school, we were always taught “Captain Cook discovered Australia.” While we were also taught about the Aboriginal people, a lot of what we were taught was quite superficial, focusing mainly on Dreamtime, the Aboriginal religio-cultural worldview and beliefs. But this really painted all Aboriginal people under one brush, and failed to acknowledge the hundreds of Aboriginal groups within Australia, and the differences and discrepancies between them. We were also taught about the Stolen Generation (which we will focus on later in this article), so we were aware of the oppression that the Aboriginal peoples faced, but not to the extent of the systemic ethnic cleansing and mass destruction of culture that took place. The British began to inhabit Australia in 1783 as a penal colony to send convicts on the First Fleet. While many of the Indigenous population were killed from the introduction of unfamiliar diseases to which they had no immunity, many were also massacred by the British colonists. The aim was to exterminate Aboriginal cultures and assimilate the indigenous peoples into what the British deemed to be their more “civil” culture. In fact, Anthony Forster, one of the South Australian colonists said, “The native would be sooner civilized if their language was extinct.” This history continues to impact Aboriginal people to this day.
One of the most evil decisions made by the government was removing lighter skinned Aboriginal children from their homes as a means of assimilation to “make Aboriginal peoples white.” These children were taken either to white families or boys and girls homes. This has since caused many Aboriginal people to be either unaware of their ancestry or just never seeing their families again. This has caused an immense amount of intergenerational trauma.
Statistically, according to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey from 2010, thirty-one percent of respondents above the age of fifteen experience high or very high psychological distress. This is two and a half times that of non-Indigenous Australians. These rates are undoubtedly linked with the trauma associated with the Stolen Generation, which resulted from colonization, and caused a further loss of culture and language. Barngarla man, Howard Richards, who was taken from Port Lincoln to Adelaide, described his experience as a victim of the Stolen Generations in an interview with Ghil’ad Zuckermann by saying:“I’ve gone through all that, and come out through the other way, I see that as part of my life, since I’ve survived that and lived through that, and I looked at it in a positive way, so even for my children, they’ll say ‘that’s my life, and that did happen.” Howard’s description demonstrates not only an immense resilience, but also shows that this trauma has been something unfortunately accepted as part of his story. He continued by talking about his experiences as a lighter-skinned Aboriginal man, which is a contributing factor to why he was selected to be taken away. He said: “I’m first-generation from Traditional [full-blooded Aboriginal people]. My mum and my grandparents and my aunties and all of them [are black], and so when I see myself, I see myself as a black man.” This touches on the white-passing issue which many Aboriginal people face today, which we will explore later on in this article.
In recognition of the extreme damage caused by the colonization of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, two national weeks in Australia have been established: NAIDOC Week and Reconciliation Week. While well-intentioned, these two weeks can come across as tokenistic due the fact that we are being told to focus on Indigenous Australians and celebrate their communities for only two weeks out of the year. Proper acknowledgement should actively occur every day. However, given that these weeks are organized by Indigenous communities, it is a time to also listen to these communities. It is also a time to focus on the issues affecting Aboriginal peoples and how to move forward.
Reconciliation Week, on the other hand, founded in 1996 is both a time to celebrate Aboriginal culture, as well as a time to find ways to reconcile with the Aboriginal communities and offer support. It is a time to really listen to Aboriginal stories with empathy and understanding. This week in particular is extremely significant because since 1998, the day before Reconciliation Week starts, it is National Sorry Day, which is commemorated annually in honor of the victims of the Stolen Generations.
How has the government commemorated the loss of Aboriginal cultures and lives?
In recognition of the atrocities inflicted upon the Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the government has attempted to rectify the damage in some small and few ways, especially within the health and education systems. Even more recently, our national anthem changed from “for we are young and free” to “for we are one and free”, as a way to acknowledge the long-standing history of the Indigenous Australians. However, in a larger scope, the government has passed legislation such as Native Title and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. These are a means of attempted reparation, to make up for all the negative impacts colonization and the subsequent government has had on Aboriginal people. Native Title is essentially an act by the Australian Government which recognizes the Indigenous Australians’ rights as the original custodians of Australia. It is important to note that there is a difference between rights and ownership. They have rights to access and use the land, but not necessarily the ownership over it. So while it may seem like a step in the right direction, it is still denying the original custodians ownership of the land which was forcefully taken for them. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, however, is a different story. Upon consultation with over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from across Australia, a statement was developed in acknowledgement of the original custodians of Australia, and was finalized and read in 2017. According to Jaida, “Amending legislation like the Native Title Act by listening to Aboriginal peoples, or implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was made by Aboriginal peoples is the best way forward.”
Some important general knowledge:
- Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that does not have a treaty with its Indigenous people
- The Indigenous flag is privately owned by a non-Aboriginal company (there are currently funds being raised to have it fly on the harbour bridge alongside the Australian flag all year round as it is “too expensive” and so doesn’t have government funding.)
- The Indigenous community is incredibly diverse there are over 500 different clan and nation groups across Australia.
- Amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples there are over 250 different languages, many of which are dying.
- They make up nearly 3% of the population yet around 30% of the prison population
- Their culture is at least 50,000 years old and some argue closer to 65,000
Racial Ambiguity and Jaida’s Personal Experience…
Due to the forced assimilation, many Aboriginal people are white-passing or are ethnically ambiguous. Jaida says, “As a white-passing Aboriginal person, it is really important for me to acknowledge my privilege. I do not get seen as Aboriginal unless people ask or know my background, allowing me to escape a lot of negative stereotypes based on my looks.” She stresses that culture is “not defined by percentage of Aboriginality”, explaining the offensiveness in questioning purity, considering the nature of the Stolen Generations where there was categorization based on whether they were fullblood, half caste, quadroon, octoroon etc. Given the racist history of such a classification, as well as the forced assimilation, it is no surprise that asking someone “How Aborignal” they are is offensive, just as it is no surprise that there are “white-passing” Aboriginal people. Jaida continues, “For me personally, my identity as Aboriginal has mainly been invalidated by non-Aboriginal peoples who don’t understand what it means to be Aboriginal or the experiences of the Aboriginal peoples.”
Invasion Day vs. Australia Day
As we continue to acknowledge our country’s past, January 26th otherwise known as Australia Day and Invasion Day is something that always comes up. It was on the 26th of January in 1788 that the first fleet set foot on Australian soil, claiming its land through horrific violence for the British, despite it not being theirs to claim.
“For me [Jaida] it is a day of mourning – the beginning of the end. It is important to remember what really happened and undergo an experience of truth telling.” There have been urges for a date change for many years since its official standing as a public holiday in 1994, protests have been held annually for many years and have increased in numbers, expressing great need for a change to our national day‘s date to no avail. Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman described the date as a day when “A war was declared on the first people of this land… that war has not ended.”
“How are we gonna come together as a nation and reconcile if the day of our nation is the beginning of our genocide?”
It is evident that while Australia has come a long way, there is still an even longer way to go in recognising and supporting our First Nations people. Better acknowledgement of and active listening to Indigenous Australians is key in making these necessary changes. We hope that we have shed some much needed light on the issues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have faced and continue to face in today’s society, and we would also like to thank Jaida, especially, for her overwhelming amount of help in developing this article.
Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.
Written on stolen Gadigal, Darug, and Gundungurra land.
Jaida Conway is a first-year Arts-Law student at The University of Sydney, majoring in Indigenous Studies. She topped the subject, Aboriginal Studies, in the completion of her Higher School Certificate last year, and is a Gamilaroi woman from North West New South Wales.
By Miriam Itzkowitz and Lucy Burrell.
This article was edited by Tiffany Leveille and shortened for clarification.