Indigenous Australians are not one group of people, there is not one language or one religious belief. Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders throughout Australia have different thoughts, ideas and beliefs. They belong to living cultures that have survived longer than any other on earth. Today their cultures are a mixture of contemporary and traditional thoughts, ways and practices.

Indigenous Australia

The Australian Aboriginal flag

The Indigenous people of Australia have the oldest living cultural history in the world, going back at least 50,000 to 65,000 years, with some of the longest surviving artistic, musical, and spiritual traditions known on Earth. Prior to 1788, when the first Europeans began populating the continent, there were approximately 700 languages and 750,000 Indigenous people living in Australia. Today, there are approximately 410,000 Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, comprising about 2% of the overall Australian population. Fewer than 200 of the original languages remain in use, and all but twenty are considered endangered. As language embodies cultural, traditional, and ecological knowledge unique to its speakers, the loss of language also embodies the loss of unique place-based knowledge in communities throughout Australia.

The Torres Strait Islanders flag

Aboriginal Australians have a long history of and connection to caring for the land, and are the keepers of a wealth of invaluable traditional knowledge related not only to the natural environment, but also to the arts, to culture, and to history in Australia. Since the arrival of the first Europeans, Aboriginal communities have faced displacement from their traditional lands and the twentieth century has seen protracted legal battles to re-secure rights to these lands. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 established a procedure that transferred almost 50 percent of land in the Northern Territory to collective Indigenous ownership. The Earthducation team will visit one of these areas now under traditional ownership, Elcho Island in Arnehm Land.

For Indigenous Australians the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship has been deeply misunderstood over the past 200 years or so. This relationship is central to all issues that are important to Indigenous people today.

Indigenous Australia

Map of Arnehm Land. © Tourism NT

Arnhem Land has been occupied by Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years. It is perhaps best known for its isolation, the art of its people, and the strong continuing traditions of its Indigenous inhabitants. Northeast Arnhem Land, which is where Elcho Island is situated, is home to the Yolngu people, one of the largest Indigenous groups in Australia.

Arnehm Land also includes Kakadu National Park, Australia’s largest national park and a biodiverse treasure that covers 7,600 square miles, about half the size of Switzerland. Kakadu is one of only a few places in the world listed by World Heritage for both its cultural and natural attributes. It is jointly managed by its Aboriginal Traditional Owners and the national park system.

Indigenous peoples are custodians of some of the most biologically diverse territories in the world. They are also responsible for a great deal of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity, and their traditional knowledge has been and continues to be an invaluable resource that benefits all of mankind.

Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, UN

(from the foreword to the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 2009)

Girrigun Aboriginal Corporation Logo © Girrigun Aboriginal Corporation

In Queensland, the team will meet with Phil Rist, the Executive Officer of the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation. The Girringun Aboriginal Corporation represents the interests of traditional owners from nine tribal groups: Bandjin, Djiru, Girramay, Gugu Badhun, Gulnay, Jirrbal, Nywaigi, Warrgamay, and Warungnu. Phil is a Nywaigi Traditional Owner who for over 20 years has raised awareness of traditional knowledge in the southern Wet Tropics. He is one of the founding members of the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation and works to help Traditional Owners coordinate management of their land and sea country. Phil was instrumental in the signing of the Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement and in setting up the Cardwell Indigenous Ranger Unit.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a multi-layered process. At its core, it is about addressing the divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – divisions that have been caused by a lack of respect, knowledge and understanding. Reconciliation is about recognising the truth of Australia’s history, and moving forward together with a commitment to social justice, and building relationships based on mutual understanding, respect and trust.

New South Wales Reconciliation Council

The below text is drawn from the Australian Government website at australia.gov.au.

The reconciliation movement is said to have begun with the 1967 referendum in which 90 percent of Australians voted to remove clauses in the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Indigenous Australians.

As a result of the referendum, Aboriginal people were to be counted in the census. The referendum established citizenship status and confirmed voting rights for all Indigenous Australians. The right to vote for Aboriginal people was legislated for by the Commonwealth in 1962 and by all States by 1965 when Queensland, as the last state, provided for Indigenous enfranchisement.

As a consequence of the referendum result, Aboriginal affairs was seen as a joint Commonwealth-State responsibility and an Office of Aboriginal Affairs was established by the then Prime Minister, Harold Holt. This later became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. It was almost ten years later before the power given to the Commonwealth by the 1967 referendum was actually used by the Commonwealth Government under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to make laws for the benefit of Aboriginal people.

National Reconciliation Week was first celebrated in 1996. National Reconciliation Week aims to give people across Australia the opportunity to focus on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is a time to “reflect on achievements so far and on what must still be done to achieve reconciliation” (Reconciliation Australia).

Each year, National Reconciliation Week has a different theme. Some past themes have been Communities working Together (1998), Walking Together (1999), Sharing our future: The next steps (2000), Reconciliation: Keeping the Flame Alive (2001), and Reconciliation: It’s Not Hard to Understand (2003). The theme for 2011 was Let’s talk recognition!

National Reconciliation Week falls between 27 May and 3 June, two significant dates in the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: the anniversary of the 1967 referendum and Mabo Day, and the anniversary of the 1992 High Court judgment in the Mabo case.

Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations

The below text is drawn from the Australian Government website at australia.gov.au.

The first National Sorry Day was held May 26, 1998, one year after the tabling of the report Bringing Them Home. The report was the result of an inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

The Bringing Them Home report acknowledged that “Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia” by governments and missionaries. Their motives were to “inculcate European values and work habits in children, who would then be employed in service to the colonial settlers” (Ramsland 1986 quoted by Mason 1993, p.31).

In 1814 Governor Macquarie funded the first school for Aboriginal children. Its novelty was an initial attraction for Indigenous families but within a few years it evoked a hostile response when it became apparent that its purpose was to distance the children from their families and communities. By the late 1800s there were systematic removal practices being implemented through a range of assimilation and “protection policies.”

The public and political debate about the removal of children has been marked by intense political activity since the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1992 Prime Minister Keating acknowledged in a speech at Redfern that “we took the children from their mothers.” In 1994 legal action was commenced in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The children who were removed came to be known as the Stolen Generations.

A formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples was made by the Australian government on February 13, 2008. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tabled a motion in parliament, apologizing to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly the Stolen Generations and their families and communities, for laws and policies which had “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.” The apology included a proposal for a policy commission to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in “life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.”