Forging an Aboriginal Identity in 21st Century Australia
I will begin this essay with a question posed by Bill Bryson in his traveling companion to Australia Down Under: “… ask yourself (…) when was the last time in any context concerning (…) the rise of civilizations that you saw even a passing mention of the role of Aborigines?” Most non-Australians and possibly even most born and bred Australians would probably not award this kind of achievement to these “the planet’s invisible people” (p. 265)1. Although the rise of civilization has yet to be accredited to Aborigines, these peoples have come a long way in contemporary Australian society. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have been the source of much debate about nation, politics, morals, and tolerance in the 21st century and the recent apology given to them by the Prime Minister has sparked additional interest in reconciliation.
This essay will explore the status of Aborigines in contemporary Australian society and their importance in the forging of a common Australian identity. I will draw in Sally Morgan’s novel My Place to further demonstrate my points and to bring in an Aboriginal voice.
This essay explores the issues that surround Indigenous Australians in contemporary society and the controversies between Aboriginals and white Australians by drawing in newspaper articles from the Australian.
I will present a short overview of Aboriginal history in Australia with special emphasis on the representation of Aborigines in recently revised history. I will also touch on the importance of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples and attempt a glance at the future of Aborigines in Australian society.
In a 2006 census, the number of Australians identifying themselves as being of Aboriginal descent had gone markedly up within a ten year period. Since the birth rate of Aborigines does not seem to have increased, this must be awarded to a dramatic change in Australian society; a change in the perception of what it takes to qualify as Aboriginal but also in the general attitude towards Aborigines. Up until the 1960s and 70s, claiming Aboriginality condemned you to a life of reduced civil rights and constant government surveillance. This made many deny any Aboriginal heritage. In her novel My Place from 1987, Sally Morgan describes the persistence with which her mother and grandmother tried to hide their Aboriginality from both Morgan herself and the community:
“‘The kids at school want to know what country we come from.
They reckon we’re not Aussies. Are we Aussies, Mum?’ (…)
‘Tell them you’re Indian.’ I got really excited then. ‘Are we really? Indian!’(…)
‘Now, no more questions. You just tell them you’re Indian.’” (p. 38)2
Morgan’s mother, Gladys, did not admit to the family’s “black past” until 1972 when Morgan was 21 years old. In her memoirs, Morgan deals with the repercussions of this denial: “How could I tell her it was me, and her and Nan. The sum total of all the things I didn’t understand about them or myself. The feeling that a very vital part of me was missing and that I’d never belong anywhere. Never resolve anything.” (p. 106)3 Most members of the Stolen Generation and their descendents will be familiar with this void and uncertainty that Morgan describes. Removing people from their natural community and subsequently placing them in the artificial and protected environment on the missions resulted for many in a fragmented life. As David Carter explains, Aborigines sometimes adopted the white man’s perception of them: “Distinct indigenous identities were defined through kin, community, language and place. One of the common effects of colonial dispossession was to destroy the practices and communities upon which these identifications depended.” (p. 66)4 Adding to the loss of an Aboriginal identity was the fact that many Aborigines such as Morgan’s mother and grandmother were eager to appear white in the eyes of others to avoid negative attention. Today, it seems, it is more acceptable if not popular to be able to boast Aboriginal ancestry. I will elaborate on this further on in my essay.
Although she is deemed one of Australia’s most prominent Indigenous writers, Sally Morgan did not become aware of her Aboriginal origins until the age of 15. In contemporary Australia, however, the 29 percent increase of people now claiming Aboriginality suggests that the sentiment is now entirely different and that “…the possibility of Aboriginal ancestry is an attractive notion.”5 The Indigenous population has grown at an exceptional rate since 1996 and by 2006 and has now been restored to its former glory of approximately 500,000. They are, however, still a minority as they make up less than 2.5 percent of the population.
The Australian Aboriginal population is a diverse entity which contains approximately 400 communities who master 250 spoken languages, although many have died out by the 21st century. They are descendents of the first people on earth and it is estimated that they came to the Australian continent around year 50,000 BC when Australia was still attached to Asia. There is some uncertainty when it comes to estimating the number of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders at the time of British arrival in 1788, but it is estimated that the numbers range from 318,000 to 750,000. By the turn of the 20th century, however, only 67,000 remained, and the decline is significant regardless of the initial figure. The coming of the European settlers was a hard blow to the Aboriginal population and many died from foreign diseases, during frontier warfare, and settler violence. They were seen as a dying race who stood before their only and final chance to partake in civilization and adopt Christianity, but they were too ignorant to see what was being offered to them. Geoffrey Blainey’s interpretation of the past suggests that the European settlers had to choose between perishing at the hands of savages and fighting for survival in the new continent: “At present there is a tendency, maybe a welcome tendency, not to look too closely at traditional Aboriginal society. (…) …it is unwise and unfair if the temporary drawing of the blinds over that society is accompanied by crude propaganda directed at the equally vulnerable European society which pushed aside the Aborigines.” (p. 13)6 Yet the vulnerability of the settlers’ guns compared to the spears of the Indigenous population is questionable and I will come back to this later in my essay.
When the British settlers led by Captain Cook landed in Australia, what they saw was virgin territory, a terra nullius. The inhabitants they found there were thought to be the missing link between man and ape and represented a way of life from which Europeans had advanced centuries before. These Indigenous peoples did not reside in one particular area and seemingly possessed no laws or government and this, by European standards, denoted that the land was officially unclaimed. The Aborigines whom the British first encountered were hunters and gatherers, but they also cultivated and transformed their lands by systematically lighting bush fires. They were capable of communicating with other tribes and many were thus multilingual. Inhabitants of the tropical climate areas of Australia lived as nomads and would disperse over vast distances, while the groups settled in coastal areas lived in more permanent settlements. The latter communities were the first to encounter the European settlers who also found the coastal areas to be more lucrative than ‘the dead heart’ and the original inhabitants were thus pushed further inland.
Traditional ownership of land was not recognized until 1992 when Eddie Mabo took the State of Queensland to court once again claiming that he and his people had native title rights to the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. The High Court of Australia ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and rejected the declaration of terra nullius and thereby made it official that Australia was not unoccupied at the time of European settlement. From 1993 onwards, native title legally exists where Indigenous people can prove a continuous association with traditional land in all parts of Australia owned by the government. The ruling caused many Aborigines to make claims to their traditional lands and some even made demands for excessively large areas of land. According to David Carter, the Mabo case was “a historic turning-point for the nation, ‘coming clean’, a crucial platform for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.” (p. 416)7 But, as he goes on to say, the ruling also gave rise to intense debate about the legitimacy of the claims that all Aborigine people could make to lands they had some traditional connection to. Some felt that the Aborigines were given special treatment and “there was an immediate backlash, with alarmist claims that suburban backyards would be claimed by Aborigines.” (p. 415)8 The legislation was worded so that native title generally does not take precedence to the propriety rights of non-Indigenous Australians, who have, after all, been in the country for more than 200 years.
Today, research has determined that even the earliest Aborigines lived in a complex and efficient society, but in 1788 they were characterized as belonging to ‘the childhood of man’. They were savage, primitive, and ancient – everything the European settlers defined themselves against. According to Bain Attwood this “was common to the way in which Europe imagined itself as modern by inventing a primitive other. It made itself thus through the making of this other.” (p. 15)9 Within this imagined community that is national identity, the settlers created norms that excluded anyone who did not belong to the same race, religion, or class. “The invention of national identity is never innocent. The imperative to produce an ‘inclusive’ image of unity based on shared qualities depends, paradoxically, upon the linked process of exclusion and subordination.” (p. 13)10 What Anthony Moran describes is the way in which Australian national identity has worked for decades, with the Indigenous population as the odd man out or ‘the Other’.
This ‘exclusion and subordination’ which Moran explains here was part of the reasoning behind the removal of Aboriginal children in the 19th and 20th centuries, although child protection was also used as a motive. The desire to maintain racial purity among descendents of European settlers and hereby removing the ‘Aboriginal problem’ which was threatening the nation was, nevertheless, the main objective behind the establishment of missions and reserves for Aborigines. In the early decades of the 19th century, the state and territory governments began setting up church missions. Each state had its own legislation on forcible child removal, but generally the Protection Officers did not need the courts’ permission to take a child from its parents. The reserves were believed to serve the purpose of protecting the Aborigines from the white man’s world. More than anything, however, they isolated the Aborigines and thus enabled the governments to exercise their control over them. David Carter explains that “institutions produced low self-esteem, loss of autonomy, and an absence of parenting models that would affect subsequent generations. These effects were intensified by the institutions’ denigration of Aboriginal culture and identity.” (p. 420) Before placing Aborigines in the missions, it was common to give them a British sounding name. Morgan recounts how her grandmother, Talahue, gets the ‘whitefella name’ Daisy Corunna. Being deprived of their tribal names will have been significant for the development of an Aboriginal identity. This was another means of oppressing any Indigenous heritage.
The Bringing Them Home Report was released in 1997 and revealed the systematic removal of children from their parents because of their aboriginality. It was believed that if Indigenous children were not raised according to Aboriginal traditions, they could be easily assimilated into white society. The objective was that “‘Aborigines’ would remain, but Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal identity were to be left behind as Aborigines came to share a modern national identity with all other Australians.” (p. 422)11 ‘Half-castes’ were believed to possess more of the qualities of white people and were therefore easier ‘civilized’ and assimilated into white society. When they had become white enough, they could be released from the missions and function as white citizens. However, “the policy of ‘breeding out the colour’ assumed what was then an unlikely prospect, that whites would accept mixed descend Aborigines as partners – indeed inter-racial marriages were largely discouraged by administrators.” (p. 421)12
1 Bill Bryson: Down Under (2000)
2 Sally Morgan: My Place (2007)
3 Sally Morgan: My Place (2007)
4 David Carter: Dispossession, Dreams, and Diversity – Issues in Australian Studies (2006)
6 Geoffrey Blainey: In Our Time
7 David Carter: Dispossession, Dreams, and Diversity – Issues in Australian Studies (2006)
8 David Carter: Dispossession, Dreams, and Diversity – Issues in Australian Studies (2006)
9 Bain Attwood: Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History (2005)
10 Anthony Moran: The Psychodynamics of Australian Settler-Nationalism: Assimilating or Reconciling With the Aborigines?
11 David Carter: Dispossession, Dreams, and Diversity – Issues in Australian Studies (2006)
12 David Carter: Dispossession, Dreams, and Diversity – Issues in Australian Studies (2006)