As Australia celebrates National Reconciliation Week, Sarah takes a brief look at Indigenous Australian history, and importance of celebrating Indigenous culture and its place in modern Australia.
The first Australians
When British explorer Captain Cook landed in Australia in 1770 there were approximately 750,000 Indigenous people living on the continent. These peoples were divided into about 600 tribes which contained varying cultural traditions, customs and hundreds of different languages. The differences in culture and customs largely depended on where these Aboriginal tribes were located, for example the Eora people who lived in what is now Sydney had very different hunting practices, artistic traditions and living arrangements which were influenced by their proximity to the ocean. The Wiradjuri peoples of central New South Wales on the other hand, had to live in a hot and dry environment and had very different diet.
Although relatively few in population (compared to the populations of ‘Old World’ Europe) these peoples had a rich culture that had thrived on the Australian continent for many thousands of years. The oldest Aboriginal remains in Australia, since dubbed the ‘Mungo Man’, have been dated to approximately 40,000 years ago, however many scientists believe that the arrival of the ancestors of Indigenous people arrived in Australia about 125,000 years ago.
When the first Europeans settled in Australia in the late eighteenth century, relations between them and Aboriginal populations were relatively peaceful. Although these new people has settled on Indigenous lands, the Eora people at this time conscientiously avoided contact with the newcomers, so much so that in 1789 Governor Arthur Phillip resorted to kidnapping a local Aboriginal leader, Woollarawarre Bennelong, so that he could carry out King George III’s orders to establish relationships with the Indigenous populations.
However as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, and as more and more Europeans migrated to the country, native lands were taken over for settlement, sheep and cattle grazing. As a result many Indigenous peoples were violently displaced and placed onto reserves, or forced to adopt European customs, dress and life. Not only did Europeans displace Indigenous tribes, they also brought with them diseases such as Measles, Smallpox and Tuberculosis to which Indigenous Australians had no immunity. As with the native populations of the Americas hundreds of years beforehand, these introduced diseases devastated Indigenous populations, especially those such as the Eora people who lived in close contact with European-Australians – it is believed as many as 70 per cent of the Eora people died of these introduced diseases in the nineteenth century.
One of the most traumatic events in Indigenous history and one which sadly was quite recent, was an event that is now known as ‘The Stolen Generation’. The Stolen Generations were mixed race children of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander decent who were forcibly removed from their families by Australian Federal and State agencies during the years 1909-1969. There were many different rationales behind these policies, some believed that the Aboriginal race would eventually “die out” and as a result these children should be raised with European-Australian customs, others cited child protection as the reason. In total approximately 20-25,000 children were removed during these years, many of which never saw their families ever again. in 2008, a national apology was issued by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to members of the Stolen Generation on behalf of the Federal Government.
As society began to change during the social movements of the 1960s such as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, Feminism and anti-war protests, so too did the social conditions of Indigenous Australians. This decade saw a growing collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians who both fought for the recognition of Indigenous rights in relation to land and citizenship.
The first major breakthrough for Indigenous peoples came in 1949 when they were granted Australian citizenship along with all other Australians – no longer were the inhabitants of Australia, native and non-native, ‘British Subjects’. Another breakthrough came in 1962 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended and gave all Indigenous Australians the right to vote in Federal Elections. Queensland was the last state to eventually give Aboriginal people the right to vote in state elections in 1965.
One of the most celebrated changes however came in 1967 when a referendum was held to remove two discriminatory clauses from the Australian constitution: “The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws“, and “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.”
One of the most controversial moments in Indigenous civil rights history was the Mabo case of 1982, when Eddie Mabo, an Australian Torres Straight Islander, took his land rights case to the Australian high court and won. This ruling was a landmark in Australian social and legal history as it overturned the legal doctrine of Australia as terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”), and officially recognised Native Title (ie. Native ownership or claims to land) in Australia for the first time.
The importance of Reconciliation Week
National Reconciliation Week (NRW) was established in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia with the aim to celebrate indigenous culture and history whilst fostering better relations and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Australia. The event is held between 27 May – 3rd June every year. These dates represent two major milestones in Australian Indigenous history – the 1967 referendum and the Mabo victory.
According to reconciliation Australia, NRW is “a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements and to explore how each of us can join the national reconciliation effort.”
Each year the week has a different theme, with this years theme being ‘Let’s talk reconciliation’ . Not only does this theme recognise the contributions, cultures and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but it focuses on how Australians can better recognise each other – or in other words work together to build a better Australia.
How to Celebrate Reconciliation week
It can be as simple as displaying a NRW Poster or playing Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander music in your workplace, school or University. As part of the week many schools hold Indigenous themed activities and celebrations to educate younger children.
However if you’re no longer at school or university don’t despair! There are other ways that you can celebrate National Reconciliation Week.
There are lots of events being held throughout Australia to celebrate NRW. These include:
- The Guringai Festival – held throughout various locations in Sydney this festival celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Sydney. This year’s theme is ‘Live Life Loudly’.
- Sea of Hands – Show your support for Reconciliation in Australia by placing a hand in Australia’s largest public artwork ‘The Sea of Hands’ at the university of Sydney.
- Cairns City Lions hosting Walk for Reconcilliation – Held at Fogarty Park, Cairns Esplanade this walk hopes to show support for and raise awareness of reconciliation.
- Significance of Keating’s Redfern Speech To Reconciliation 20 Years On – Hear Professor Mick Dodson deliver a keynote address reflecting on the impact of the Redfern speech 20 years on and his own efforts to improve the lives of Aboriginal people and promote reconciliation.
For more information about events in your state or how you can get involve please visit the official National Reconciliation Week Website.