It is predicted that there were around 300,000 Aboriginal people living in Australia when the British arrived in 1788. The Indigenous Australia’s lived in small family groups and lived a semi-nomadic life, moving with the changes in the seasons. At certain times large groups would meet for social, ceremonial and trade purposes, it is estimated that there could be up to 500 people at one time.
Land was very important to the Indigenous people. Boundaries were fixed according to the Dreamtime creation stories with each individual connected spiritually to a certain territory. Land was not owned, a person belonged to the land. Aboriginal people see the land as richly symbolic and spiritual rather than a physical landscape.
When Australia was being colonised in the early 1800s Europeans took what land they wanted by clearing it of Aboriginal people in order for development. This then lead to war between the Europeans and the Aboriginal people. Poisoned flour was distributed to Aboriginal people, introducing diseases that they didn’t have immunity to wiping out entire tribes. With the advantage of guns, horses and organised military forces, the Europeans won the war for the land.
In the beginning of the 1900s it is predicted that the Aboriginal population had dropped to 75,000. Some were able to adapt to colonisation by making new independent lives during this time of great change, others were seen as a hopeless remnant of what was left of their culture and merely surviving.
At this time different legislations were introduced in order to control and restrict the Aboriginal population. The most prominent being the WA Aborigines Act of 1905 that allowed children to be removed from their homes and families in order to give them the ‘opportunity for a better life,’ away from the influences of the Aboriginal environment. This forcible removal of children and its effects are a huge part of the Indigenous Australian story.
Aboriginal people were believed to be less than human and were forbidden to enter cities without permission. This intervention into the lives of Aboriginal people affected everyone and no one was untouched by the legislation. It wasn’t until 1967 when the legislation was changed but by then the damage had been done.
In 1967 Australian Aboriginals were granted full citizenship rights but problems still continued for Aboriginal people such as racism and disadvantage. The Gurindji people’s walk-off from Wave Hill cattle station also marked turning point in the fight for land rights. Indigenous activists gained national attention as they made historical achievements in the struggle for Aboriginal rights. This included the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside the Parliament buildings in Canberra and the creation of the Aboriginal flag.
In 2007 a formal government apology was made to the Aboriginal people of Australia by the newly appointed Prime Minster Kevin Rudd on 13th February 2007. Among other things Rudd wanted to work towards closing the gap between life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
Since 1788 Indigenous people of Australia have experienced displacement and been the targets of genocidal practices, continued to live in a racist world that devalues Indigenous culture and people. Now, there is a reconnection and reclaiming of culture and creative expression. Australian Indigenous people have a history up to 120,000 years, that is unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
If you have enjoyed this read more about the local Aboriginals of Uluru, the Anangu.