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Aboriginal Australia – Neighbours it ain’t

Australia does not want to face the terrible history of how they have oppressed Aborigianal people, or their present-day suffering, writes Angela Hinds

On November 6th John Pilger, the renowned journalist and filmmaker, was awarded the Sydney Peace prize at the famous Opera House. For those who might have been hoping Pilger would accept the prize quietly and exit without due comment he used the opportunity to express blistering views on the way Australia treats Aboriginal people.

He urged his fellow Australians to open their eyes and see what so often stares them in the face and yet still appears to go unseen. In his speech, he remembers a time as a child when he would go to stare at those he had been told were ‘dirty and feckless.’

Historian Russell Ward once stated: ‘We are civilised today and they are not.’ The ‘they’ that he was refering to were the indigenous people of Australia, the Aboriginals.

Angela Hinds

On visiting an Aboriginal compound for the first time in the 60’s, Pilger says he was shocked by the poverty, sickness and despair he saw.

I lived in Sydney in the 90s. Like many others, despite my own research, I allowed some of my opinions to be shaped by those glossy Australian soap operas we are privy to on British TV.

However what I found, except for the glorious weather, bore little similarity to Neighbours.

Don’t get me wrong, Sydney is a beautiful city with a great deal to be proud of and Australia has made great progress since its humble beginnings, but it has to be acknowledged that progress has rarely included or integrated the original occupants of this land.

There was open racism and hostility towards the Aboriginal community. Instead of a people visible on all levels of society I found Aboriginals to be almost totally marginalised.

Even in Sydney, the majority of Aboriginals were located in what can only be best described as the ghetto, with hugely disproportionate problems like alcoholism and unemployment.

Australia is often referred to as a country ‘discovered’ by Captain Cook. The only problem with this oversight is the 300,000 Aboriginals already resident there at the time of the Captains arrival in 1770 when he claimed the territory for Britain.

Spirital: Uluru Rock

Eighteen years later the first fleet arrived at Botany Bay to establish the settlement as a penal colony. The date of his arrival the 26th January is now celebrated as Australia Day.

However there was little to celebrate for the Aboriginal occupants as then commenced a period where they were driven out of their homes, killed and wiped out by diseases new to their land and people.

The early part of the 20th century saw legislation introduced to further control the Aboriginal population. There were moves by the government to assimilate this community.

It was felt this could be best achieved by taking away all of their rights, including land rights and attempting to ‘Europeanise’ them.

Uluru, the famous sandstone rock formation near to Alice Springs, recognised as one of the great wonders of the world was renamed Ayers rock in 1873 by European explorers.

This land considered by Aboriginals to be one of their most sacred sites was handed back to the local traditional owners, the Anangu in 1985. It is now known as Uluru/Ayers Rock.

Aboriginal traditions states that: “The world was unformed and featureless until ancestral beings emerged from the void and journeyed across the land, creating all living species and the features of the desert landscape.”

Uluru is regarded as a physical manifestation of the ancestor’s activities during this creation period known as ‘Dreamtime’. It is written that the path to the top of this sacred site was the traditional route taken by the Anangu when they arrived at Uluru during creation.

They believe that by touching the rock, an Aborigine can invoke the spirits for blessing and communicate with Dreamtime. The Anangu ask visitors to respect the spiritual significance of Uluru and not to climb it.

It is said that those who take rocks from the formation will be cursed and suffer misfortune.

There have been a number of unexplained deaths and disappearances that have taken place at Uluru/Ayers Rock, amongst them the disappearance of nine week old baby Azaria Chamberlain in 1980, said by her mother Lindy Chamberlain to have been taken and killed by Dingoes.

Today the management of this site is mostly undertaken by the traditional owners and local Aborigines.

On the 13th February 2008 a formal apology was made to the ‘The Stolen Generations’ a term given to Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families under the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869. This contributed to all Aboriginal people effectively being made wards of state.

At a time when wide scale democratic processes were being implemented for white Australians such as free public education, Aboriginal people were having controls implemented on their communities that limited where they could live and work, what they could do and even who they could meet and marry.

These controls, implemented by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, destroying communities and tearing apart families. This begs the question of whether the greatest ‘protection’ needed was from those who claimed to be ‘protecting?’

In 1886 under the Half Cast Act they started to implement a policy to remove people of mixed descent, referred to as ‘half cast’ from Aboriginal reserves in an attempt to assimilate them into white society.

The award winning film Rabbit Proof Fence, based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, depicts accurately this disturbing period of history. It tells the true story of two mixed race Aboriginal girls who escape from the Moore River Native Settlement after being brutally stolen from their families.

It depicts their attempt to track along a 1,500 fence in order to be reunited with their family whilst being tracked down by authorities.

In the Bringing Them Home – The Stolen Generation report of 1997, it is conservatively estimated that at least 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. Aboriginals were finally given full status as Australian citizens in 1967.

Australia fundamentally operated a controversial White Australia policy for a number of years, a policy that basically placed tight controls on immigration by people from certain countries under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.

In 1941 Prime Minister Curtin reinforced Australia’s dedication to this policy by stating: “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.”

In 1973 the Australian government implemented policies which effectively brought this policy to end including making all migrants, regardless of origin, eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of residence and instructions to overseas posts to totally disregard race as a factor in the selection of migrants.

Today, Australia’s indigenous population still have a host of issues to contend with. Despite 460,000 Aboriginals making up 2% of the general population, they make up 20% of the prison population.

Figures show an indigenous Australian is 11 times more likely to be imprisoned than any other Australian. In 1987 a Royal Report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was carried out due to concern over the high levels of suspicious aboriginal deaths in custody.

The New South Wales Bureau of Crime statistics recently released research that shows indigenous imprisonment rate rose 48% between 2001 and 2008, compared to 7% for non indigenous people over the same period, this despite a national commitment to reduce  over-representation in prison.

A 2008 report shows a life expectancy 17 years shorter for Aboriginals than other Australians and some States of Australia show Aboriginal unemployment running at 20.3% compared to 7.5% for the general population.

The Aboriginal story is not an easy tale. It is the often-hidden face of modern Australia, a face that many neither want to see or acknowledge.

The Aboriginal experience is one where the level of inhumanity unleashed upon a native people by those for whom the power to do so came easily, often beggars belief when explored in its fullness. Pilger says the Australian Silence has unique feathers:

In my lifetime, we have become one of the most culturally diverse places on earth, and it has happened peacefully, by and large. That is a remarkable achievement, until we look for those whose Australian civilisation has seldom been acknowledged, whose genius for survival and generosity and forgiving have rarely been a source of pride. For they are what is unique about us.”

Despite the challenges there are many Aboriginals groups striving to make a difference in their society. Don from Babana, an Aboriginal men’s group based in New South Wales says:

There are still problems and the community is responding to those problems as best we can, with little support from government departments and other funding bodies.

Yes, things are changing, positively changing. This is in spite of the funding authorities and their idea of controlling Aboriginal organisations by withholding funding, in spite of the empire builders who like to think this is their territory, in spite of the drinkers and the drug takers.

It will keep on changing too as the men and women of New South Wales, black and white work to create a more positive community for themselves and their children.”

We can but hope that the positive change Don speaks of can heal the scars of the past and allow Australia’s indigenous population to be afforded the full scope of rights afforded to other inhabitants of this nation but denied to them for so long. This must happen sooner rather than later.

Maybe it’s time for the great Australian Silence to end before it transcends into a deafening roar.

© Angela Hinds

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2 Responses

  1. Really good article Angela, Australia is some way from reconciliation, with such a tragic past to deal with. But if enough people continue to work together breaking the barriers they will get there. It’s just hard to fathom the statistics included in your article. Such a high percentage of Aboriginals in Australian prisons-there is a lot of work to be done.

  2. Thank you for this article – It is often a forgotten plight of our brothers and sister down there.

    What has happened and what is still happening really weights my heart – what have darker skinned people ever really done to deserve this type of treatment – what is wrong with these white imperialist racists?

    I have studied racial formation, colonialism, slavery etc for years – but then there is always a reminder that this is a very much alive set of practices.

    Creation help us all.

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