Australian Aborigine Peoples

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Australian Aborigine Peoples









What it means to be “Australian” cannot be understood without appreciation of how race, as a marker of difference, has permeated the colonial and national psyche. In Australia, “race” once implied a difference of appearance perceived as inferior, unworthy, polluting, or threatening, but it has increasingly come to simply mean “different.” Two parallel histories interweave to ensure the hegemony of whiteness: one of the exploitation of indigenous peoples, and the other of the vulnerability of a settler colony and nation distant from its founding metropolis.


Although imaginings of Australia held throughout the world are predominantly of a “white” nation, it has been and remains one of the most multiethnic nations in the world. The appropriation of an entire continental land mass—with its hundreds of distinct peoples, languages, and cultural expressions—by the British in the late 1700s meant the colony, and later the nation, would always be multiethnic. Military force ensured the suppression of resistance from peoples indigenous to the continent. In homogenizing hundreds of thousands of people as a single “Aboriginal” Other, the diversity of cultural practice was camouflaged, as were the distinctive experiences of colonialism’s violent displacements, including the genocide of whole societies.

Different cultural traditions are subsumed under the notion of “indigenous,” including the hundreds of societies on the mainland and in Tasmania glossed as Aboriginal peoples, as well as the maritime Torres Strait Island societies that lie between Cape York and Papua New Guinea. It is impossible to do justice to cultural and historical differences here, but they should be borne in mind, for pan-continental generalizations do not serve them well. None of Australia’s indigenous peoples developed theories of human social difference based on race. They distinguished “us” from the “other” on the basis of cultural or religious difference. The “us” were linked through relations to kin and country, which established rights and legitimacy. To have neither kin nor country— which might happen to someone fleeing because of serious transgressions—left a person without rights and at the mercy of the society that took in him or her. The first infants of mixed white-indigenous ancestry (generally from white fathers and Aboriginal mothers) were often killed as evidence of abnormality, as were deformed or twinned infants. In time, these children began to be accepted by their stepfathers into the wider Aboriginal social world. It was rare for white fathers to acknowledge their children, preventing acceptance of such children in white Australia.


The British colonists brought labor to Australia in the form of convicts. They had little need of Aboriginal workers, therefore, but they did need knowledge. The Dharug people of the Sydney area were unimpressed by the new arrivals and kept their distance, so much so that Captain Arthur Phillip arranged for adult men to be kidnapped so he could learn more about them and the harsh country in which he had arrived. Although Aboriginal people found new foods and artifacts attractive, they evidenced little desire to enter into social relations with the colonists or change their own ways of life and belief. Within five years, Phillip gave up trying, commencing a century of government indifference. By the twentieth century, if Aboriginal people appeared at all in Australian history books, it was as an ethereal presence drifting into the mists of time. It was not until the 1970s that historians started to address the silence about the high price Aboriginal peoples had been paying for the building of the Australian nation.

The appropriation of land and the exploitation of women led to hostile retaliation by Aboriginal men, although this was remarkable for its targeting of the actual people who had done them harm. This was not the case for the British, however, whose responses were indiscriminate and often included women and children. The British had the firepower to subdue armed resistance, and one society after another found itself repeating the pattern of resistance, casualties, and eventual accommodation as British pastoralists took over Aboriginal lands.

Labor shortages were common in the rural sector, for heat, loneliness, and a life without luxuries were not attractive to British colonists. As hostilities ceased, Aboriginal people found opportunities to stay on their own land by developing relations with pastoralists. Those pastoralists prepared to accept an Aboriginal presence found themselves with valued workers, and these relations were often reproduced over generations. Aboriginal workers came into their own in the 1850s with the beginning of a half century of gold rushes, the announcement of which would deplete a sheep station of its non-indigenous workers in an hour. Aboriginal labor kept the vital wool industry healthy on one station after another.

The gold rushes also attracted migrants, a large number of whom were nonwhite (particularly Chinese), and this intensified concerns that nonwhite labor would erode working conditions. Racism in the workforce became entrenched and was upheld by trade unions for the next century. Aboriginal workers had better conditions in the Southeast because they were a nonthreatening, and Australian, minority. Equal wages were legislated in New South Wales in the late 1920s. The North, dependent on Aboriginal labor, was very different. Conditions ranged from tough to slave-like, and workers were kept in line by a harsh regime. Equal wages came to the Northern Territory in the mid-1960s, but not without much protest from property owners. This decade also saw mechanization replace many rural workers, including a high percentage of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal employment opportunities have been in decline ever since, statistically camouflaged by a “work for the dole” scheme (the Community Development Employment Program) that records participants as employed.

As the colonies of Australia were being established, liberal democratic and humanist ideas that stressed the equality of all people were developing in Europe. Slavery became anathema, as did repressive regimes. The appropriation of land and exploitation of labor in the colonies clearly contradicted these values, but a concurrent idea, that of progress, sustained the contradiction. “Progress” was a search for purity that encouraged an obsession with social diversity and origins. When Lewis Henry Morgan categorized human societies in 1877 as being in states of savagery, barbarism or civilization, he placed Australian Aborigines into the “middle status of savagery,” thus feeding Australia’s version of “social Darwinism.” On the basis of this retrospective confirmation of the legitimacy of British rule, Britain affirmed the rightness of its appropriation of Aboriginal lands on the grounds that savages didn’t have systems of law, governance, property, or religion. Aboriginal people were depicted as the evolutionary forebears of the civilized English, from whom one could learn one’s origins, but who were inevitably doomed by their encounter with the modern.


The racializing of Aboriginal peoples’ differences constituted them as “less than human” and thus justified excluding them from a modern state. When Australia decolonized from Britain in 1901, Federation further entrenched Aboriginal peoples as Other. Although the Australian Constitution accorded the rights of citizens to all, it explicitly restricted Aboriginal people from certain of those rights by excluding them from the Commonwealth census. The Constitution’s “race clauses” protected the colonial hegemony, for citizenship implied judicial equality and the right to vote, an alarming prospect for states with large Aboriginal populations. Aboriginal people who, according to the state in which they lived, had been able to work, vote, buy land, develop small farms and businesses, marry as they chose, and choose their own lifestyle were now denied such rights throughout Australia. Because Commonwealth legislation did not apply to them, individual states had a carte blanche to treat Aboriginal peoples as they wished. Subsequently, they became some of the most legislatively restricted people in history, ensuring their segregation from the developmental prospects of the nation.

One of best known of Australia’s racist laws is the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, known colloquially as the “White Australia policy.” It symbolizes Australia’s preoccupation with racial purity and was designed to exclude nonwhite migrants. So, while the Constitution targeted the racialized Other within, this act targeted the racialized external Other. Both reinforced a nationalist discourse about white superiority, which was now assured by institutions of the state. Even the fiercely egalitarian Australian Labor Party committed itself to cultivating an Australian ethos “based upon the maintenance of racial purity.” In the half century to follow, Australia strove to remain the most monoethnic nation in the world. Excluding indigenous peoples, less than 2 percent of the population was nonwhite by the time of World War II.


Miscegenation (both voluntary and forced) was common but not discussed, except to condemn its frequency. Manne (2006) has written of this “discomforting new racial type” emerging at the frontier, noting Western Australian Chief Protector, Henry Prinsep’s concern that half-castes were “a menace to the future moral safety of the community” and lamented that the law did not allow the removal of Aboriginal children from native camps without parental consent. Western Australian traveling protector, James Isdell, agreed, writing in 1908, “I consider it a great scandal to allow any of these half-caste girls to remain with the natives.” He thought sentimental protests detailing the “cruelty and harrowing grief of the mothers” was nonsense as he didn’t believe the Aboriginal mother felt the forcible removal of her child any more deeply than did a bitch the loss of a pup. “I would not hesitate,” he wrote, “to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic momentary grief might be. They soon forget their offspring” (cf. Manne 2006). The Chief Protector in North Queensland, Walter Roth, likewise described “half-caste waifs and strays” in 1904 as a “menace to society and a moral disgrace.” He pushed for, and received, the legislation to remove children at will (Haebich 2000, p. 215), as did all other states during that same decade.

Racializing discourses argued that the white blood in the “half-caste” meant they had capacities of value and could be civilized into menial work. Decades of legalized abductions of children, even at gunpoint, followed. Most of those taken were children sufficiently fair-skinned to be raised in institutions or foster homes and trained for domestic or farm labor. They have become known as the “stolen generations,” and there are many thousands of them throughout Australia.

It took until the 1930s for Australian governments to accept that Aboriginal peoples were not “dying out,” and that the “problem” of their presence had to be tackled. A 1937 Commonwealth-wide conference led to policies of assimilation, which were ostensibly moral and material programs of civilizing. Their rationale stemmed from the characteristic belief of liberal democracies that social engineering is a means to shape and manage the good society. But the policy was supported by little public or political will. White Australia was not prepared to assimilate the risks they had been taught to believe indigenous people posed. Aboriginal people had been labeled as biologically inferior, innately hostile and lazy, a health hazard, a moral pollutant, criminal, or simply disorderly and unsightly. Assimilation simply continued a harsh regime of segregation, with some training but more surveillance, legitimated within liberalist philosophy because it was “for their own good.” The New South Wales representative, Harkness, reported: “We have 1,000 full-bloods, and the number is diminishing, and about 10,000 half-castes, and the number is rapidly increasing.” He added, “It is awful to think that the white race in the Northern Territory is liable to be submerged, notwithstanding that on this continent 98 per cent of the population is of British nationality. It is not for this generation that we must work, it is for the next generation” (Commonwealth of Australia 1937). Assimilation was to particularly target the half-castes. The fear of submergence was real and legitimized the violent dismembering of families.

Aboriginal protest and suffering was intense but ignored. Jack Patten and Bill Ferguson, both of mixed ancestry, were campaigning for Aboriginal rights in New South Wales in the same year, 1937, and wrote a manifesto on behalf of the Aborigines Progressive Association submitted in January 1983 when Australia celebrated its sesqui-centenary. It includes the following assertions (SEE ALSO

You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation. By your cruelty and callousness towards the Aborigines you stand condemned in the eyes of the civilised world.... You hypocritically claim that you are trying to ‘protect’ us; but your modern ‘policy of protection’ (so-called) is killing us off just as surely as the pioneer policy of giving us poisoned damper and shooting us down like dingoes! … We do not wish to be “studied” as scientific or anthropological curiosities. All such efforts on our behalf are wasted. We have no desire to go back to primitive conditions of the Stone Age....

Why do you deliberately keep us backward? Is it merely to give yourselves the pleasure of feeling superior? … We ask for equal education, equal opportunity, equal wages, equal rights to possess property or to be our own masters–in two words: equal citizenship! How can you honestly refuse this? In New South Wales you give us the vote, and treat us as equals at the ballot box. Then why do you impose the other unfair restriction of rights upon us? Do you really think that the 9,884 half-castes of New South Wales are in need of your special ‘protection’? Do you really believe that these half-castes are ‘naturally backward’ and lacking in natural intelligence? If so, you are completely mistaken. When our people are backward, it is because your treatment has made them so. Give us the same chances as yourselves, and we will prove ourselves to be just as good, if not better, Australians, than you! … We ask you to be proud of the Australian Aborigines, and not to be misled any longer by the superstition that we are a naturally backward and low race. This is a scientific lie, which has helped to push our people down and down into the mire. At worst, we are no more dirty, lazy, stupid, criminal, or immoral than yourselves. Also, your slanders against our race are a moral lie, told to throw all the blame for our troubles on to us. You, who originally conquered us by guns against our spears, now rely on superiority of numbers to support your false claims of moral and intellectual superiority.

Unable to be white, those of mixed descent were not regarded as legitimately Aboriginal either. Considered neither genetically nor culturally pure, they were evidence of the moral danger these liaisons posed, and they carried white Australia’s moral outrage within their persons. “Mixed bloods” became a political problem for governments simply because they existed in a category too hard to confront. Even a person with only one Aboriginal great-grandparent in eight (officially designated an “octaroon”) was tainted by this “bit of color.” The “half-caste” or “part-Aborigine” (never part-white) often aspired to become acceptable to the Australian “us,” but these individuals were consistently denied the right to do so. Their presence confronted the nation not only with its race hypocrisy, but also with its fragile hold on race-based sovereignty.


The civil rights movement in the United States of America turned an embarrassing spotlight on Australia and propelled change. In 1967 the Australian public overwhelming voted in favor of a referendum to change the Constitution to acknowledge indigenous peoples. Some civil rights had been restored by state governments during this decade, and indigenous rights in the form of land rights were also put on the agenda. New freedoms of speech and movement opened up opportunities for political movements aimed at changing decades of deprivation. Attitudes towards Aboriginal people prior to the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s are best characterized as apathetic. Although the “race” concept was becoming associated with cultural rather than genetic difference, the same inequalities were reproduced. Lorna Lippmann, a social historian and advocate for Aboriginal rights, introduced a new dimension into debates about racism by examining its impacts on Aboriginal peoples themselves. She observed that they expected to be despised, rejected, or ignored, resulting not only in their distrust of whites but also in a low self-image, with long-term negative consequences for social, psychic, and physical well-being. Attitudes and policies started to change in favor of enabling Aboriginal people to take their place within the nation. Land rights and special programs to combat disadvantage were taken seriously by governments.

At the same time, Australia’s population was changing dramatically. The White Australia policy was abandoned to accommodate the nation’s need for labor in the post–World War II boom. Within a few decades, Australia became one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world, though this extraordinary shift was not always a smooth one. Labor and refugee migration, and the move from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana precipitated a crisis of national identity during which the distinctiveness of being Australian was often at the forefront of public discussion. In the early 1980s Australia looked forward to the 1988 bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet from Britain, but it was not clear what kind of Australia was to be celebrated. Nor was it clear how indigenous Australians would respond to this festival of invasion. A federal government campaign highlighted and celebrated Australia’s cultural diversity, and Australianness was redefined as the ability of many ethnicities to live together. Multicultural television, arts, and festivals were supported, and the education curriculum changed its emphasis on foreign languages (German and French) to “community languages,” meaning those spoken by Australians (such as Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic), and languages of trade such as Japanese. Multicultural and Aboriginal studies were introduced in schools, and overt racism became socially unacceptable. However, multiculturalism was conceptualized as an add-on rather than a threat to the hegemony of whiteness. Rather than destroy the myths of purity and whiteness, multiculturalism served to fix differences in the categorization of “Other Australians.” Aborigines were incensed at being lumped into a migrant category and fought vigorously and successfully for independent representation in government portfolios.

Unlike colonies with a majority indigenous population, Aboriginal people have rarely called for the decolonization of Australia, but in Coe v. Commonwealth (1979), a Wiradjuri man, Paul Coe, challenged the basis of the British claim to sovereignty and the legitimacy of Aboriginal dispossession. The case was dismissed on a technicality, namely that Coe had no right to represent the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Until 1994, courts continued to uphold the notion that Aboriginal peoples had possessed no property rights in 1788, thus upholding Britain’s right to declare sovereignty over the continent under the legal fiction of terra nullius (unoccupied or unowned land). In 1992 a High Court ruling in a case brought by Torres Strait Islander, Eddie Mabo, a decade earlier recognized for the first time the prior ownership of Australia by Aboriginal peoples, enabling the recognition of “native title” where these rights had not been extinguished. This led to almost hysterical debate over many months, with erroneous but influential threats that Aboriginal people could now “take over your backyard.” The federal government passed the native title act in 1994 to reassure landowners and provide a mechanism through which native title, where it did still exist, could be claimed. It was a major step in the recognition of Aboriginal rights but one vigorously contested by many Australians. In response, the act has been amended twice, reducing Aboriginal rights on each occasion.

There is currently no consensus as to whether the Mabo decision did reverse the apparently disproved notion of terra nullius. Isabel Coe, sister to Paul Coe and now with the support of the Wiradjuri people, took a further challenge to the high court in 1993 claiming there had been no act of state on the part of the crown that dispossessed Wiradjuri people of their lands. This case was also dismissed on technical grounds, with the suggestion that it be re-submitted as a native title claim.

Native title claims have been effectively limited by the racist demand that Aboriginal claimants prove their cultural traditions of land inheritance have remained in place, unchanged, over the entire period of their colonization. Now the designation of those with “a bit of color” became a new problem: Did these people have rights as “Aborigines”? When the mixed-ancestry Yorta Yorta people lost their native title case in 2002 it was on the dehumanizing grounds that any entitlement they had to claim Aboriginal traditions had been “washed away by the tide of history.” Defined as Aboriginal when exclusion suited the nation, they were denied it when that same nation saw itself as having something to lose. It is a racist legal system that can reinvent peoples’ histories at will and deny people the right to change in a society in which change is the hallmark of humanity’s success.


Two contemporary movements in the early twenty-first century threaten boundaries that have maintained Aboriginal people as Australia’s Other. One is migration into urban areas, which is collapsing two centuries of spatial segregation. The second is the recognition of the rights of those maligned as part-Aborigines to call themselves Aboriginal. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997) held an inquiry into the practices of forcibly taking thousands of Aboriginal children from their families for “a better life,” highlighting the personal and social trauma this caused, as well as the denial of cultural inheritance. Although acknowledging the pain of this history, the federal government refused the opportunity for an apology, seen by Aboriginal peoples as a fundamental requirement for reconciliation.

This inquiry did open up greater understanding within Australia to the colonial and recent histories of those of mixed blood. Many who had wanted to pass as white to avoid discrimination, or who had not known they had “Aboriginal blood,” were able to identify as Aboriginal. This would have been hard to imagine in an earlier Australia, so intense was the stigma. Now even well-known white Australians refer to their Aboriginal ancestry. However, this “whitening” of Aboriginality is cultural as well as genetic, and it is becoming an issue for “grass roots” Aboriginal people, who now have to deal with people claiming Aboriginality (sometimes through having lately discovered an Aboriginal great-great-grandparent), even though they have no cultural knowledge of what this means. Aboriginal cultural practice, focused primarily on the qualities of social relatedness, is not necessarily visually or materially different. Thus, the assumption that mixed-ancestry people are not different because they are lighter-skinned, wear clothes, or live in houses, which has been commonly but erroneously made by politicians and social workers, is now often made by newly identifying people who are eligible for influential Aboriginal-designated jobs.

A small, educated, and well-known Aboriginal elite is emerging. They do not constitute a single voice and rarely gain widespread pan-Aboriginal support but they do have positions of influence. These are people who understand themselves not as challengers to the state but as legitimate leaders of moves to modernize indigenous lives and reduce poverty and marginalization. Indigenous initiatives are still, however, tightly controlled by governments that hold the reins through funding. A nationally elected Aboriginal political voice, through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), was silenced when it was disbanded by the federal government in 2004. With no economic autonomy, political autonomy is vulnerable. Federal and state governments have been successful

in turning around movements for political autonomy by focusing on the deplorable social and health conditions that persist throughout the nation.

The act of racializing is thus being reconceptualized through the pathologizing of the marginal Other. Accusations of substance abuse, violence, hopelessness, and laziness are common—and not without cause, as conditions in Aboriginal communities are becoming worse than they have ever been. Increasingly marginalised by conditions not of their own making, they are accorded little respect by Australians being encouraged to greater individualism and consumerism as hallmarks of success. Otherness is reinforced by an apparently concerned but nevertheless pathologizing discourse that represents “rights” as unimportant, or even as being causal (as in the “failure” of self-management programs), in the face of these escalating social and health crises. The modernist discourse that stressed the inevitability of the demise of different other remains influential. It is an approach that legitimates further state intervention but does not deliver long-term economic viability.


An irony of Australian history making was the choice of January 26 as Australia Day, celebrating the landing of the First Fleet from Britain in 1788. In the 1980s Australia Day was reconceptualized in response to Aboriginal activism, bringing greater recognition of the act of injustice it also represented. By the early 1980s, Aboriginal peoples were sufficiently outspoken to fuel fears about how they would respond to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988. In the end, the largest ever pan-Aboriginal protest, when it culminated in a march through the streets of Sydney, was sufficiently peaceful, noisy and colorful that it was co-opted into the overall festivities and reported as just another event in an eventful day. In the mid-1990s federal politicians started to refocus the nation toward the commemoration of Anzac Day, thus de-emphasizing the contradictions of Australia Day and the multicultural ethos. Anzac Day recalls the first major loss of life of the Australian army at Gallipoli during World War I. It has allowed for a more conventional “blood and soil” form of nationalism, with the soil conveniently overseas in Turkey. Yet Aboriginal peoples who have served in the defense forces have struggled to gain recognition and even receive their medals.

The struggle for an inclusive Australianness that admits a painful past and ongoing diversity has led to the recent “history wars.” How Australia tells its national story is at stake. On the one hand are those who discredit reports of Aboriginal land appropriation on the basis of state-sanctioned, often genocidal, violence, while others argue that only by looking honestly at one’s history does one come to terms with the present and enable a shared future. The history wars have emerged in the context of the 9/11 catastrophe in the United States. Since then, Australian politicians have been faced with waves of refugees from the Middle East. Many have successfully played the “race card” in response, demonstrating the ease and rapidity with which a nation’s sentiments can be turned around. Support for Aboriginal people has significantly declined over the same period, as ongoing Aboriginal demands for justice are defused by the simple strategy of pathologizing. Poor housing, inadequate health care and schooling, and the lack of employment opportunities are creating an unprecedented social malaise, and it is not difficult to point to people in dire circumstances and render them a problem of their own making. The media is full of concerned stories about child sexual abuse, domestic violence, organizational failures, and corruption, with Aboriginal people angry at this homogenization and the suggestion that these are uniquely “Aboriginal problems.” The late 1990s and the early 2000s were a reminder in Australia that racializing is still an effective political tool, and one that continues to speak loudly to the hip pocket.

The fear of being subsumed by the Other (internal or external) in the Australian psyche is legitimate. As a settler nation, Australians know only too well the violence, denial, and destruction involved in the colonization process. White Australians certainly do not want to become the Other. Ideas of “race” as a means of legitimizing difference change over time, but this history is so little known that the concept is able to be naturalized, as are the injustices and inequalities that “race” theories sustain. The mystification of the origins of the race concept—as an arbitrary categorization of human beings who can be exploited and excluded—works to convince Aboriginal people that if they improve their social and material conditions, the racism will cease. But racism is not the problem, it is the strategy and the symptom. By focusing on it as a problem, one risks believing in it and denying what it serves to conceal; namely the structures of power and privilege that are the reason for selective denigration and exclusion. Race and racism will not be eliminated while they serve the interests of those in power and while those in power control history.


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