state of play since white man arrived  

So let’s look at Aboriginal life once the white settlers started arriving and from when colonisation started (1788).

The word Aboriginal, appearing in English since at least the 17th century and meaning "first or earliest known, indigenous," (from the Latin Aborigines: ab (from), and origo (origin/beginning)), has been used in Australia to describe its indigenous peoples as early as 1789. It soon became capitalised and employed as the common name to refer to all Indigenous Australians. Strictly speaking, "Aborigine" is the noun and "Aboriginal" the adjectival form; however the latter is often also employed to stand as a noun. Other expressions are "Aboriginal Australians" or "Aboriginal people", though even this is sometimes regarded as an expression to be avoided because of its historical associations with colonialism. "Indigenous Australians" has found increasing acceptance, particularly since the 1980s.

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Aboriginal history since 1788

The colonisation of Australia in 1788 and onwards was based on the false premise of Terra Nullius or empty land. Yet in Captain Cook’s and many other explorer’s records and diaries there are numerous confirmations of sightings of Aboriginal people and in fact Cook’s diaries record him actually stepping onto mainland Australia in North Queensland and bartering with Aboriginal people.

When Captain Cook arrived, he started exploring the land and he attempted to make a treaty with the native population, but was unable to do so partly because of limited resources, partly due to language difficulties but mostly because there was no central Aboriginal authority to deal with.

The First Fleet arrived and built a settlement at Port Jackson in NSW. As modern day commentator Robert Manne writes “At Sydney Cove two incompatible versions of life collided. The British could never understand why the Australians did not appreciate their civilisation and the protection it provided under an impersonal law. The Australians could not understand why the British disapproved of their system of justice - based on revenge, honour and complex intertribal relationships. The longer the two peoples lived together, the more mysterious to each other did they become.”

So, during a period of undeclared war, non-Aboriginal claims to land nearly always overrode the Aboriginals’ right to life. Aboriginal people were seen as a ‘doomed’ race, destined to disappear in the face of the superior white civilisation. Massacres, poisoning of flour and waterholes and the banishment of Aboriginal people from traditional sources of food and water were used by pastoralists and others to ‘disperse’ Aboriginal groups.

Another consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources. The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence reduced the Aboriginal population by up to 80% between 1788 and 1900. A wave of massacres and resistance followed the frontier of British settlement. By the 1870s all the fertile areas of Australia had been appropriated, and indigenous communities reduced to impoverished remnants living either on the fringes of Australian communities or on lands considered unsuitable for settlement. Many indigenous people adapted to European culture, working as stock hands or labourers. With the exception of a few in the remote interior, all surviving indigenous communities gradually became dependent on the settler population for their livelihood. By the early 20th century the indigenous population had declined to an estimated 150,000 to 190,000.

Then followed a period of isolation and protection as the government realised that Aboriginal people were not going to die out as a race and decided that they needed to be both isolated and ‘protected’ from white society. This was the ‘out of sight out of mind’ solution.

In the late 1890s, Aboriginal people were used as a cheap labour pool, being employed as station hands or crewmen for fishing and pearling boats. Child labour, sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by non-Aboriginal men, disease, drunkenness and drug addiction led to the Queensland Government policy and practice of forced relocation of the majority of Aboriginal groups and families from their traditional lands onto foreign lands where government reserves and or church run missions were established. In addition, many Aboriginal family groups were split up and sent to different reserves.

The Europeans considered Aborigines as racially inferior to them and had assumed that they would slowly die out. This was challenged by the number of mixed-race children that were produced and led to concerns that these children were being brought up in conditions which the Europeans felt whites shouldn't be raised in.

In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, government, charitable and church groups moved many mixed-race children into orphanages and in some cases helped adopt them into white families. It was felt that part-white children could be integrated into white society. Some Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal parents gave up their children voluntarily and some children were taken by force. About 15% of children are thought to have been removed from their parents at this time.

Many white children were also removed from their mothers - particularly from single mothers who it was felt would be unable to raise their children.

As a result of the Stolen Generation, some Aboriginal groups believed that their culture was irretrievably lost, and the best way forward was to integrate into the mainstream population. Unfortunately they were not culturally well-equipped to handle it. Modern first-world culture is very different to tribal culture where economies are based on production, not relationships. They are based on ownership, not community. And they are based on long term sacrifice and planning, not reaction.

Other Aboriginal groups thought that the future should be to retreat from the white way of life and go back to tribal environments isolated from the rest of society. However, the attractions of Western technology, culture and drugs were more attractive to many Aborigines, so a curative approach didn't work.

The numerous government reserves were established under the Aboriginals Protection and the majority of Aboriginal people became wards of the State and had to have work permits to work outside the reserves. Their income was managed by the State. Mixing of the races was controlled and Aboriginal women or men who wished to marry required the permission of the Chief Protector. The Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act replaced the former Act in 1939, the Chief Protector becoming the Director of the Department of Native Affairs.

The next policy era, during the 1950s, was assimilation which is based on a philosophy of making society and different cultural groups the ‘same’ as the dominant group, in this case Anglo-Saxon heritage. The core aim of assimilation is to have the same language, the same religious beliefs etcetera - it was not intended to integrate Aboriginal people nor for them to maintain their own distinct cultures, beliefs and values.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Act 1965 replaced the Aborigines Preservation and Protection Act 1939 and the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs (DAIA) was established. It was intended to work itself out of a job with ‘reserves’ being temporary training camps which would serve as springboards for Aboriginal people to be assimilated into the wider community.

It was planned to abolish the reserves eventually. They would become like any other township in Queensland. In 1971, the first formal recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are actually quite distinct and separate was reflected by the passing of the Queensland Aborigines Act 1971 and Queensland Torres Strait Islanders Act 1971 which replaced earlier legislation. Only minimal changes were made to these Acts in 1974, 1975 and 1979 despite human rights infringements and the passage of the federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

In 1978 the word ‘assimilation’ was dropped in favour of ‘integration’ which was based on a philosophy that it’s O.K. to be ‘different’ and it was a pre-cursor for the acceptance of multiculturalism.

The Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 and Community Services (Torres Strait Islanders) Act 1984 were the next legislative change for Aboriginal peoples giving local government status to former reserves which had received deeds of grant in trust in 1982 under the Land Act (Aboriginal and Islander Land Grants) Amendment Act 1982.

This Act enabled, for the first time, Aboriginal people to have some title to land and a degree of self-management. It is during the 1970s and 1980s that the philosophy of ‘self management and self determination’ became a political and economic goal for Aboriginal people to pursue.

Finally, throughout this contact history, it is very important to emphasis the involvement of both Aboriginal men and women in the defence of Australia. Nationally, it is common knowledge within Aboriginal communities of the significant contribution Aboriginal people have made to all campaigns, that is, from World War One (1914-1918) to Vietnam (1959-1975)and including more recent international conflicts such as the Gulf Wars.

Aboriginal contributions include virtually all levels of the military including commissioned and non-commissioned ranks. There have been Aboriginal pilots; POWs; Red Cross nurses/aides; etc. Many are recipients of a range of military honours and medals. Many died overseas in combat or from combat related injuries after arrival back in Australia.

It should be noted that whilst Aboriginals were fighting for Australia, the pay they were receiving wasn’t necessarily getting to their families but was passed to controlling officers who distributed it as they saw fit – as a result, a lot of the earnings never made it to the families and were never accounted for.

However, the knowledge of these war time contributions are slowly being acknowledged by the wider community. The Australian War Memorial has a historical photographic collection and display of Aboriginal service men and women.