War in the Middle East has often been referred to as Australia’s longest war. But is this genuinely the truth? My whole life I have been exposed to people from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations who have used those same words to describe the effects of colonisation. As a child in school one teacher after another refused to acknowledge a war had ever been fought upon these shores. I was always that kid who pointed out their error because Japan bombed Darwin. Then I would ask about the stories I had heard from my own family and clans. A part of Australian history that was referred to by my Elders as the killing times. During what is now described as the Frontier Wars, where some reports estimate 90% of the Indigenous population was lost.
Australia’s founding is filled with stories of mass murder; a fact many choose to ignore or outright deny. But the accounting from one nation to the next are too numerous and alike to refuse their truths. Evidence has been found of similar tactics employed in the United States of America and Canada, including instances where blankets infected with small pox were used as biological weapons. Sadly, the acts of genocide did not end with mere physical deaths. Between 1910 until well into the 1970s the Stolen Generations occurred. Children of mixed European and Indigenous descent were removed from their clans: The fifth definition of an act of genocide as described by the United Nations in the Genocide Convention in 1948. “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed at a rate of 15.6% according to a report released by the Child protection Australia 2018–19. SNAICC released a statement “As at February 2020, there are 17,979 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in out-of-home care (an increase of 39% from last year’s Review on Government Services report)” – leaving many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders stating the Stolen Generations never ended.
Highly overlooked in the act of genocide is the wording of the second item on the list of five genocidal actions: “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” Mental harm is the area I focus on in the clause more often than not. This could arguably be said to still be committed every time someone dies in custody or due to poverty. Every year on Invasion Day or when our eyes look upon the flag with the Union Jack. In many eyes, a tool used to dispossess, slaughter and enslave our ancestors. What ancient eyes would have regarded as fabric upon a stick planted into our Great Mother, suddenly meant a faraway man owned what we have belonged to for centuries longer than their crown had ever existed.
Australia voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and we have done nothing whatsoever regarding implementing the systems we agreed to. Establishing a baseline standard for Indigenous Rights within Australia has resulted in black voices becoming invisible inside the colonial system: Something we have been protesting about for generations. Closing the Gap has highlighted how the systems we exist within do not meet nor understand our needs. The health disparities experienced inside this country were seen to increase on many fronts, including life expectancy rates. Australia is the only developed society with epidemic levels of trachoma, while we get the tick of approval for being a first world country. Before we continue pointing at other nations to condemn them for acts of genocide, we should look in the mirror at ourselves first.
The fact is First Nations People have never ceded sovereignty, means Australia is fundamentally a non-consenting democracy! As written by Kevin Gilbert in Aboriginal Sovereignty “Our land has been invaded by a foreign power that broke international law and its own Imperial Directive: ‘You are, with the consent of the natives, to take possession i.e. a Treaty. Instead, in 1770, Captain Cook declared the legal lie that our land was terra nullius, a wasteland and unoccupied.” During a TEDxTalk Bruce Pascoe discusses records where James Cook had referred to the First Nations as “Indians”. People the English had signed treaties with almost two-years before the Endeavour’s arrival. Yet still Australia is the sole country in the Commonwealth to have no treaties signed with the Indigenous peoples. Prior to colonisation there were more than 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations. That’s more than twice the number of countries officially recognised by the UN. Through the eyes of many Aboriginal people, these sovereigns are all being oppressed by the one named Australia. Sovereignty refused by the Australian Governments since their conception upon these shores. Driven by many of the values of the population who claim the title ‘The Lucky Country’. Opinions founded in the White Australia Policy, arguably one of the most racist pieces of legislation enacted upon these shores.
Racism has a systemic rooting within Australian society. It is a driving factor behind every issue faced by all nations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples today. Sadly, we are one of the few first world countries who do not track racially driven profiling within our society. Many would agree it is easier to deny that which you do not note. I like a statement Claire C Coleman has been known to say, “the denial of racism is racism”. Moreover, ascertaining what is considered racism cannot easily be determined by someone outside a race: Facts confirmed by people like Jane Elliot and Robin DiAngelo. Information many Aussies refuse to acknowledge while they continue to deny systematic racism exists within Australian society. Some Australians are quite fond of denying the levels of disadvantage seen have been a result of the historical impacts of colonisation. All too many times individuals reach for lines such as “intergenerational trauma does not exist” to “They should stop breaking laws” or “if they want better, they have to do better themselves”.
Comments such as these neglect to capture the underlying issues faced by most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, starting with how investments into these regions outside of the mining industry has been lacking to say the least. Wealth has a generational aspect, children who inherit assets from their parents are in a better position financially than those who do not have this head start. People who are able to gain a higher education early in life have a larger monetary reach than those who do not, as do their children. Australian policies have guaranteed the Indigenous people were refused any more than a fourth-grade education. Were denied rights such as legally owning property, and much of the income made by those of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders was stolen by the governments and often funnelled into paying for the Stolen Generations.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were denied the plots of land provided to veterans upon their return from service. Many families who were bestowed these assets would have gone on to greatly profit from them. The families belonging to the First Nations did not. Generations of savings made off the cheap lands and resources sold off to the Colonial Settlers, denied to the Original Inhabitants made one side of the country extremely wealthy while the other was forced into generations of poverty. Having a connection to my Traditional Countries I have seen the levels of poverty that exist within Australia. My eyes have looked upon 4 people sleeping on a single mattress, with other mattresses filled with just as many bodies in every corner of the 4-bedroom home. I have met children who were near blind due to the trachoma infections in their eyes. Children whose limbs are so sore they cannot move because they are suffering Acute Rheumatic Fever. Diseases that are preventable and treatable yet are epidemics in this first world country. The same systematic racism leading to us being pushed to the outskirts still exists in the Australian society as it always has. The Lucky Country has refused to address the truths of the past, meaning the questions have gone nowhere. Neither have the issues or the line in the red dirt drawn when a flag was plunged into the soil.
These days the levels of education still do not meet most standards of the colonial system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children attend school at a lower rate than other populations. Many factors contribute to these low numbers; from accessibility, health, family and cultural reasons through to understanding how the system works. All resulting from the levels of poverty seen for generations.
Sadly, the constant inadequate focus on education has created intergenerational consequences. I have met individuals who have never been introduced to the concept of a mop and broom and have used a hose inside their house. People who have never used an oven so have filled the grill with firewood when it broke down. These actions are not due to a lack of care, but inadequate education. On the other hand, education regarding what is important to the First Nations culturally has been overlooked as less important that the culture applicable to the colonial side. The oldest living cultures in the world are ignored, while Aussies look to civilisations with awe and wonder; barely a fraction of the age of what is right here under our own feet.
Beneath our red sands are thousands of generations of history waiting to be rediscovered. Many nations have indicated they would welcome research into themselves. Re-learn what they have forgotten and share what they have remembered. Numerous violent ends were met by those who held the knowledge of our ways. Many have lost most of what was once a network of amazing civilisations. Much of the knowledge is tucked away within the minds of those we are losing at the moment. A saying often repeated in Africa always comes to mind when we lose our elderly; “When an Elder dies a library is burned”. Mourning the loss of life is merely one aspect when our Elders are dying. The culture and language forgotten with them is of great worth for our peoples too.
Again, I am drawn to the wording in the second clause in the definition of genocide. Causing mental harm. Losing an entire “library of knowledge” for a people is harmful. Not merely culturally but emotionally and spiritually too.
I’m not fond of ‘whataboutism’ or playing ‘What if scenarios’. But I will here: If Australia lost a section of the public market (say the NBN or AustPost) to some hacking team and the authorities were unable to resolve it, Australians would voice their annoyance loudly. Real life scenario: Google misleads customers about the data they are using and are fined. Australians are annoyed and voice their concerns appropriately.
Real life scenario: Indigenous People were invaded and thanks to the use of keywords such as ‘Terra Nullius’ and ‘Settled Colony’, determined themselves legally entitled to the inhabited lands. But the fact is those settlers did not follow their own laws nor international law. Everything since their arrival is technically an illegal occupation, being the reason the Australian Governments have never sat down to honestly work on treaties. As Pat Dodson said in Episode 3 on SBS’s The Point 2021 series. “I just don’t see the current government going anywhere near the type of reforms that are necessary. They’re too frightened of the word treaty. Because they think that’s going to upset sovereignty of some type. It’s not going upset sovereignty. It’s going to deal with the question of sovereignty as it interfaces with the modern nation of Australia.”
Whilst in high school a teacher discussed what wilful blindness was as a criminal offence. Legally speaking, it means sticking your head in the sand. Individuals are lawfully responsible regardless. I put to Australians; they are behaving in this manner on a national level. Ignoring and denying the truths of the history is wilful blindness. There is a violent history, filled with dispossession, slavery, and slaughters. The history causes pain in today’s society as do the levels of poverty and other injustices faced by the First Nations. If we are going to have a law such as this, then best it’s abided by. Wouldn’t want Australia as an entire country to be classed as criminals.
Luckily most First Nations people don’t want a great deal of change in the country. Unless you are against everyone having access to the basic human rights seen across these lands than you’ll find we are pretty similar. There’s a language barrier, yes. We also apply different values to the term known as kinship, reaching into the population further. Extending to the plants, animals, and lands around us too. Our peoples have stories stretching back to when megafauna was alive and countries such as Papua New Guinea were breaking off from these great lands. But otherwise, we have very much in common. Music is a must in our lifestyles as are the family BBQs Aussies love, though ours are slightly different in style. We love our brothers and sisters and have a similar reverence for our Elders we have seen in our fellow Australians. There are not many differences these days in the values for where we want Australia to be when measured against other citizens.
It’s high time Aussies came to sit upon the red dirt they claimed ownership over. Start discussions with the original sovereigns belonging to the Oldest Living Cultures. Finally, make peace after Australia’s 233-year war of invasion. Sign treaties, enact the Uluru Statement and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, instead of ruling from inside the ‘Canberra Bubble’. Legally speaking, perpetrators of crimes are responsible for making recompense to their victims. Until Colonial Australia takes this most important step towards healing the centuries of genocide, the line in our red dirt will continue to exist: Meaning countries will continue to point their fingers at Australia for human rights violations, like the 30 UN Members who pointed at Australia in Feb 2021.
A few facts about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People today:
- Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody the rates of incarceration have doubled.
- On the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission 474 more people had died in custody. If one person a month were to die, it would take 39.5 years to reach the same number of deaths.
- 156 of 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed from their family each year.
- First Nations People are eight times more likely to take their own lives than other Australians.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die (on average) 10 years younger than other Australians. Remote areas of Arnhem Land this figure doubles to 20-years.
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