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Aboriginal Australians: a tale of the forgotten people

“I could only work in the kitchens, me and my Aboriginal friends. I would’ve liked to have been a waitress but we weren’t allowed out in the dining room… You couldn’t get the job you wanted, you had to just be behind the scenes. Then when you go into the shops, you could be standing next to in line to be served, they’d look all over you, they’d serve all around you, they wouldn’t serve you, Beulah Pickwick, a native Australian shares her personal story in an interview to From Little Things Big Things Grow exhibition website.

The black child had to wait outside the shop or in some dark corner to buy a single loaf of bread. And sometimes for hours until the White Australians were served. They were always the first and treated the best because they were “white” and she was “black”.

A society dense with social and cultural discrimination in Australia was not a place for any Aboriginals or to be alone on the street.

Doctors did not bother to treat and schools were separate if any for these Aboriginals.

This suppression was not only cultural and social but of dreams and ambitions, creativity and imagination. Thus the whole life was sucked out from these natives after the colonisation.

European colonisation in Australia

European colonisation resulted in a catastrophic impact on Aboriginal communities and cultures. Aboriginal people faced a series of injustices, including mass killings or displacement from their homelands and relocated on missions and reserves in the name of protection.

Cultural or religious rituals were banned and gradually lost. For these Aboriginal, colonisation was far from pleasant. Massacre, violence, disease and incomparable loss were all they got.

“We would walk down this side, then come around to the back of the theatre. We weren’t allowed in the front door,” author Troy Pickwick (a research associate at The University of Queensland Canberra, Australia) writes for National Museum Australia and narrates Martin, one of the Australian Aboriginal who also recalls that Aboriginals had segregated wooden benches or stairs for seating in the cinemas while the White enjoyed the plush chairs in his childhood.

Those hard benches were dug out from the basement of the cinema after 40 years. Now they rest in National Museum in Canberra, displayed in “From Little Things, Big Things Grow” section in 2009 where they tell the story of not just the seating segregation but deep-rooted racial discrimination that corrupted the society of Australia till recent recognition of those natives.

Unwanted and waste in their own land

This suppression of native tribes of Australia who once roamed the land independently were now “unwanted and waste” in their own lands.

According to Amnesty International: “The land that Indigenous Peoples live on is home to over 80% of our planet’s biodiversity and rich in natural resources, such as oil, gas, timber and minerals. However, these lands are routinely appropriated, sold, leased or simply plundered and polluted by governments and private companies.”

They are uprooted from their lands and are forced to live in poverty without their property, animals and homes.

Stolen Generations:

Amnesty International reports that “Aboriginal children in Australia were also forced to assimilate into white culture and were placed in institutions where they suffered abuse and neglect. These children are known as the “Stolen Generations”.”

The exact number of children who were affected by this cruel government policy is unknown but there are few living families that stayed unaffected. The removal of children from the family and displacing them in institutions resulted in breaking family and cultural ties. Generations of indigenous people lost their homes and true identity while unable to adopt another.

Many suffered from lifelong traumas.

Between 1997 and 1999 all Australian parliaments officially apologised to the Stolen Generations, their families and communities for the forcible removal. Bianca Nogrady, Freelance science journalist, author, and broadcaster, writes in one of her article (Trauma of Australia’s Indigenous ‘Stolen Generations’ is still affecting children today) “Indigenous children in Australia who live in families that experienced forced separations in much of the twentieth century are more likely …to have poor health and negative school experiences, according to a landmark government report…”

On February 13, 2008, the then Australian Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to the Stolen Generations.

Bringing Them Home report was issued containing 54 Recommendations on how to compensate the wrongs done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by the race-based laws and policies in Australia.

Aboriginals: keepers of the oldest continuous culture

Tammy Solonec, Amnesty Australia’s Indigenous Rights Manager, wrote (Why saying ‘Aborigine’ isn’t OK: 8 facts about Indigenous people in Australia, 2015) “They are the proud keepers of arguably the oldest continuous culture on the planet. Their heritage spans many different communities, each with its own unique mixture of cultures, customs and languages. Before the European invasion in 1788, there were more than 250 Indigenous nations, each with several clans”

Australian Aboriginals have one of the world’s ancient cultures.

“…DNA study powerfully confirms that Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest living populations in the world,” agrees evolutionary biologist Professor Darren Curnoe of UNSW.” As stated in an article, “DNA confirms Aboriginal culture one of Earth’s oldest” in Australian Geographic.

“The first Aboriginal genome sequence confirms Australia’s native people left Africa 75,000 years ago… confirming they may have the oldest continuous culture on the planet.”

 These semi-nomadic people were expert hunters and farmers before the arrival of Europeans. They were great storytellers, passing on their legends, beliefs and traditions through songs, stories and dance to the next generation.

Religious beliefs and rituals are pivotal to Aboriginal life from the ground, cave, and bark painting, healing to the celebration of events.

Aboriginal Legends hold secrets of Science:

Myles Gough, Editor and features writer at RunCreature, penned in his article “Aboriginal legends reveal ancient secrets to science” for BBC a strange discovery by scientists.

“The Luritja people, native to the remote deserts of central Australia, once told stories about a fire devil coming down from the Sun, crashing into Earth and killing everything in the vicinity.

The legend describes the landing of a meteor in Australia’s Central Desert about 4,700 years ago, says University of New South Wales (UNSW) astrophysicist Duane Hamacher, who runs an Indigenous astronomy program at UNSW”.

There is another legend about a giant wave crashing down on land killing thousands except those on the mountain tops.

Scientist “took core samples from locations between 500 metres and 1 kilometre inland, and at each spot, they found a layer of ocean sediment, about 2 metres down, indicating that a tsunami likely washed over the area hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years ago… Indigenous knowledge has a lot to offer the scientific community. But there is a problem – Indigenous languages are dying off at an alarming rate, making it increasingly difficult for scientists and other experts to benefit from such knowledge.

More than 100 languages have already become extinct since white settlement.”

A ban on Australia’s indigenous languages

Laura Rademaker, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Centre for Indigenous History, writes in her article (The great Australian silencing: The elimination of Aboriginal languages and the legacy of colonisation) “the state of Australia’s Indigenous languages is not good.

Of the 250 or so languages spoken here when colonisation began, less than half are still spoken. Only 13 could be considered “strong” ― that is, they are still being spoken by children.”

The natives hold a unique perception of language. For them, land and language are knitted together. “Gula Lalara, the “professor” of Groote Eylandt explained: These words of ours are from the old days before we were born.

The words come from our ceremonies to teach us about places and relationships. By recognising the language of the country, therefore, one also recognises the speakers of the language as owning and belonging to the land.”

An Australian linguist and expert on endangered languages Nick Evans (Head of the Department of Linguistics and Distinguished Professor in the School of Culture, History and Language at the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU) highlighted the idea behind the promotion of English as “everything wise and important can be, and has been, said in English.”

This implies the concept that the English language, ideas and society is better than the rest in the world. And this thought silenced thousands of language during the English colonisation around the globe. Australian Aboriginal languages are no exception to this fate.

These natives were discouraged to speak their language by imposing different bans.

Sometimes parents also did not encourage their children to practice their mother tongue as it may hold them back. Then the Stolen generations were forced to learn English.

Identity dilemma of modern Aboriginals

Elliana Lawford, a TV, radio, and online reporter for ABC News in Darwin wrote about the current identity dilemma faced by Aboriginal in Darwin, Australia. (Aboriginal people feel pressured to lose values, culture to be successful, study says). “More than 500 Aboriginal people living in Darwin, ranging from long-grassers to university students, took part in the three-year study. The report’s figures showed more than 50% of respondents felt Aboriginal people were not wanted in Darwin. Over 90% said Aboriginal people were talked to like they did not matter and were judged by stereotypes. And only 16 per cent thought non-indigenous Australians tried to understand Aboriginal culture.”

The situation has not changed much in modern Australia. Many participants in the study showed their trouble among the advanced White community of the country.

Going out in shopping malls or restaurants is still not a comfortable experience to many Aboriginals, even in this time. Elliana Lawford highlighted the concerns of some in the article: “I use public transport, and I see bus drivers going past because there are blackfella’s standing at the bus stop and they just drive straight past,” Larrakia and West Arnhem woman Kathy Williams Browne said.”

Uncertain future

What is lost is lost forever. No apology can reverse the time, grief and loss of these innocent communities.

When shall the situation really change? Would Aboriginals ever find the same respect in society as White Australians?

Although many Aboriginals and white Australians are voicing the concerns of the indigenous communities of Australia, however, reliable solution and compensations to their loss cannot be hoped for in the near future as lengthy political debates and law are not ensuring a promising scene insight.