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What do the major impacts on Aboriginal people today tell us about the history of Australia?

What do major issues that impact on Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian society tell us about our history?

It is difficult to isolate any of these issues. Each issue weaves into another: identity; health; housing; education; self-determination; recognition of sovereignty; gender issues; custodial issues and racism can all be connected. For example, discussions on identity can be traced to forced removal (through pastoral expansion or the policy of assimilation) which in turn can be traced to racism. Discussions on health lead to housing, which can also be traced to racism. Black deaths in custody is one of the major concerns in custodial issues, again, racism is a key element. Land rights are an issue linked to self-determination and recognition of sovereignty. Denial of these is also racist.

It is evident that the first European colonisers in Australia declared their belief in white supremacy, and this declaration is unchanged by the majority of white Australians today (1). Over the last two hundred years this attitude has been lodged into our history.

To many Aborigines their identity has been shrouded due to the forced removal from their lands, or the forced removal from their families. This alienation from the land disrupted ceremonial life and eroded Aboriginal identity.

Children were removed from their families as governments pursued a policy of assimilation, cast in the hope that Aboriginal children would assimilate into European culture. However, these children – now as adults – remain unsure about their own identity though wanting to return to their Aboriginal families.

Aboriginal people suffer from many disadvantages in our society, and the most damning indicator of the disadvantages is their rate of illness and shorter life expectancy. Statistics provide the evidence: The mortality rate of Aboriginal babies is three times that of other Australian babies; Aboriginal mothers are up to five times more likely to die during childbirth; and life expectancy is up to 12 years less than other Australians.

Poor health correlates with poor housing, and the living conditions of many Aborigines reflects their status in Australian society and their low income potential (2). Their resultant segregation provides limited access to facilities such as sewerage, rubbish removal, or clean water. The health and housing conditions of Aborigines are a result of their marginalisation in society.

Elements of racism are also accountable for the low education standards attained by Aboriginal people (3). Statistically, it could be argued that Aborigines do not consider education to be important (4). The statistics summarise that their achievements in literacy and numeracy are substantially below average levels, as is their participation rates in compulsory schooling. The argument for the racist element, however, is stronger. It is questionable whether the education system is catering for the needs of Aboriginal people. The education system inhibits Aboriginal learning styles with Aboriginal values being replaced with our own values, and our way of understanding and doing things. This in itself assumes that our culture is superior and Aboriginal children are conditioned into accepting the culture of the dominant white society.

The rights to maintain self-determination have been denied to the Aboriginal people since white colonisation; itself an act of discrimination that places Aborigines in a subordinate position in Australia today (5). The denial of self-determination, which is a denial of a people to identify with their own history and the perpetuation of their culture bears a strong connection to the reasons behind a lack of identity.

The attitudes of discrimination rife in Australian society have left their scars on the matriarchs of the Aboriginal people: Women are also victims of chauvinism as well as being placed in the lowest status positions (6). This contributes to a lack of awareness of how dispossession, racist practices, incarceration and violence have fragmented their position in society (7).

The statistics on custodial issues reveal further imbalances: Young indigenous people are eighteen times more likely to be held in detention than other Australian youths (8). The imprisonment rate of Aborigines is the highest in the world, leading to a conclusion that Indigenous people face discrimination within the legal system.

More telling however, is that over-representation is shadowed by a more disturbing statistic in the issue: Aborigines are dying in custody.  No suitable reason can be found to explain the deaths. It is at the grass roots level that prevention should be focused. In the 1980s, 67% of Aborigines taken into custody were jailed as a result of alcohol-related detentions (9). The Commissioner of the inquiry into Black Deaths in Custody reported the abolition of the offence of drunkenness should reduce our prison populations without threat to public safety. This advice has been all but ignored.

But the issue still needs further examination. Forty three per cent of Aborigines who died in custody had, as children, been forcibly removed from their families under the policy of assimilation, and only 1% had finished their formal schooling (10). It is relevant to ask: Is Australia’s past treatment of Aborigines central to their current rates of arrest and imprisonment? (11)

All Aboriginal people suffer in every aspect of their lives from racism. The denial of self-determination is racist (12). Racism is evident in the education system, the legal system and the political structures of Australian society (13). It exists at the legislative and bureaucratic levels and weaves down into public opinion. Aboriginal people have had to contend with the European attitude of white supremacy. The issues I have discussed are all bound together with racism (14).

These major issues indicate that a history of racist views and policies began in Australia in 1788 and still manifests society today. History books account of the struggles of Europeans to claim this continent as their own, whereas a curtain of silence has shielded generations of students from recognising how European expansion swept away the land rights of the original inhabitants.

In the advancing colonisation the Aboriginal people were conveniently treated as part of the country’s past. ‘History,’ proclaimed an old uni lecturer of mine, ‘treated Aboriginal people as little more than impediments standing briefly in the way of inevitable white progress across the nation’ (15).

So I ask, dear readers, what do major issues that impact on Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian society tell us about our history?

References

(1) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(2) Tarrago, I. (1992), ‘Aboriginal families’ in National family summit report, Batchler-Wheeler Associates for Capital Reporting, Parliament House, Canberra, pp 63-71.

(3) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(4) Tarrago, I. (1992), ‘Aboriginal families’ in National family summit report, Batchler-Wheeler Associates for Capital Reporting, Parliament House, Canberra, pp 63-71.

(5) Bird, G; Martin, G; and Nielsen, J.(1996), editors Majah: indigenous peoples and the law, The Federation Press, NSW.

(6) O’Shane, P. (1993), ‘Aboriginal women and the women’s movement’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(7) Miller, L. (1993), ‘The women’s movement and Aboriginal women’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(8) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(9) Lippmann, L. (1994), Generations of resistance, 3rd edition, Longman Australia, Melbourne.

(10) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(11) O’Shane, P. (1993), ‘Aboriginal women and the women’s movement’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(12) Bird, G; Martin, G; and Nielsen, J.(1996), editors Majah: indigenous peoples and the law, The Federation Press, NSW.

(13) O’Shane, P. (1993), ‘Aboriginal women and the women’s movement’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(14) McGrath, A. (1993), Women and state, LaTrobe University Press, Bundoora.

(15) Edwards, W.H. (1988), An introduction to Aboriginal societies, Social Science Press, Wentworth Falls, NSW.

 

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11 comments

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  1. Vikingduk

    That we are a rotten pack of bastards? That we do not, or, perhaps, never have had the ability to think for ourselves? That we have never wondered why we accept a person’s skin colour determines how they are treated? That, ultimately, we are all one and given our inability to accept the science of climate change, we will all rise or fall together irregardless of skin colour or religion. Ultimately, we rob ourselves of the ability to learn and to respect a culture that knows this land far better than we whites ever will. A lose lose situation of our own making. A continuing example of a corrupt, decadent construct of what constitutes society.

  2. Andrew Smith

    WASP exceptionalism looking down on all others especially Aboriginal, is the ongoing legacy that has been used to promote the top end of town, at least in their own minds (while persuading others), to dismiss the relevance or any respect for other cultures.

    This was exemplified by the need to assimilate and/or dilute Aboriginal blood and culture (and disappear any remnants or memory), also applied to convicts, Irish, Jews, Catholics, Pacific Islanders, southern European, then Asian, Maori, African immigrant heritage, ‘multiculturalism’, Australia’s own back yard and future interests.

    We still have political, corporate, media and social elites passively and/or aggressively promoting the same while not reflecting Australia, marching in lock stop (or ‘goose step’) with the crazy parts of the ‘Anglosphere’ exemplified by the US, Trump with radical right libertarian ideology and the UK with Brexit, monarchy and nostalgia for the British empire; the existential fear of mostly white men sliding into irrelevance as the developing and browner world catches up, fast.

  3. wam

    Good mourning, Michael,
    The first thought was they tell us the Aborigines are still living it and we haven’t seen their history yet.
    The afl commentators, Newman, shean and Scott have apologized to Nicky not for what the said but because it may be construed as a racist comment.The fact that the even thought it after 27 years shows they still don’t understand the unconscious racism towards the Australian Aborigine. I doubt if those three understood the meaning of the boos nor Adam’s documentary.
    History through education ignores Aboriginal input, hides Aboriginal achievements, belittles Aboriginal languages, belief systems, societies, science and education. The media does it all in spades and, in addition, fuels racism by blatant imputations and outright lies.
    BML and independent media plus social media could stimulate a recognition of the depth of systemic racism and an admission of the extent of personal racism in politicians, public servants and journalists. A racism that prevents the recognition of Aborigines as individuals not the destructive collective ‘they.!

  4. Michael Taylor

    Hi wam. I received that letter. 👍

  5. Jack Cade

    Michael

    Wam’s spelling is occasionally wayward. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the meaning is clear. But I thought him wishing you good mourning meant you’d had a bereavement. When I read on it just made me smile.
    Sometimes misspellings and mispronunciation can be gold, but consequent puns are wasted on some people. A lady I worked with said her her brother had a ‘prostrate’ problem and I said he wouldn’t take it lying down. She said ‘No, it hurts him to sit, too.’
    I felt like a cruel smartarse, which I suppose I was.
    Another lady friend thought LOL in emails meant ‘Lots of love.’, and was mortified when she found out what it meant after she’d written to a acquaintance whose husband had recently passed away, finishing off with LOL..
    No offence, Wam. Your hearts in the right place! Isn’t it sad about the Crows?

  6. wam

    Dear jack,
    ‘Mourning’ because of an Arsie lion spraying all over Australia’s most beautiful team. It is time to give that ugly away strip to vinnies.
    whew I thought maybe it went back to Albury???
    ps fingers xed for edenmonaro and a boost to albo’s ego. Remember the cigar smoking dog is NOT your colleague fritzmonkey is a prime idiot.

  7. Jack Cade

    Wan

    My apologies!! So it was deliberate!!
    Being a smartarse is a burden…and me, an ace punster, missed the pun and deserve to be humiliated.
    Brisbane were good, and Port were not.
    But…
    When the TV commentators say how poor the umpiring was – ‘poor’ is giving them the benefit of the doubt – and keep saying it throughout the game – you know that the dice is loaded.

  8. wam

    true jack and we are often robbed by the frees in timing and position against us when we are running and for them in their 50m but sat was a clutch error in the first quarter we should have been far enough ahead to ignore the 10 minute hiatus.
    ps
    I suggested a blogger was wrong about the lock down of the melb flats and such dissent got me de-sented. Ouch after much positive support tis like the attitude to Aborigines do 100 good deeds but one perceived error and the clp boys and girls squeal
    ‘see I told you they are no good”.

  9. B Sullivan

    “Ultimately, we rob ourselves of the ability to learn and to respect a culture that knows this land far better than we whites ever will.”

    Vikingduk, skin colour does not determine the capacity to know. And where is the evidence that an indigenous culture knows this land better than non-indigenous, cosmopolitan science that is accessible to everyone regardless of where they come from?

  10. leefe

    B Sullivan,

    Skin colour does not, but culture does. Willingness to open one’s mind and to listen do.
    As for indigenous versus non-indigenous science, the latter is increasingly saying that there are important, relevant knowledge and techniques in the former, particularly with regard to land management.

  11. New England Cocky

    Watched Frank Hardy’s wonderful documentary of the Wave Hill Walk-off on SBS TV last night. Recommended viewing that demonstrates the salvery and racism imposed on Aboriginal people by the 1906 HCA decision by Isaacs CJ, a Jewish lawyer from Beechworth Victoria and staunch advocate for eugenics.

    The historic irony is not lost. The policies of government sponsored genocide were in place until 1975.

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