Davo answered my question with some trepidation. As a descendent of original European settlers, I thought he should know something about the topic but I had clearly made him uncomfortable. “This is a controversial and difficult subject to talk about” he said, “people have strong feelings about this topic.” Davo waited until some hikers had passed us on the trail before he began to share his views on the matter of race relations in Australia. “Despite much effort, the relationship between white Europeans and Indigenous Australians is still strained. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. The Aboriginal Australians have a huge chip on their shoulder. Even after 230 years they still carry a grudge that we (the Europeans) took away their land. Why can’t they get over it?”
His last comment struck me as absurd, so I pulled out my calculator. The Indigenous people of Australia are the oldest continuous human civilization on earth. They have occupied and lived on the Australian continent for at least 50,000 years (give or take 10,000 years); 230 years represent 0.46% of that time. Just imagine you have been married for 50 years, your partner dies and you get told by your friends after three months: “Why aren’t you finished grieving yet? Get over it!” Just as it is impossible to erase the impact 50 years have had on your life, it is unrealistic to expect that it is any easier to leave behind (without any adverse effects) 50,000 years of tradition, language, tribal community and a semi-nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle.
When the first Europeans set foot on the Australian continent many years ago, all they encountered were people so different from themselves, they considered them sub-human. Through the eyes of the first settlers, the Indigenous Australians were primitive and no match for the advanced civilizations of 18th century Europe. Initially, there was curiosity on both sides but when the settlers razed the land in preparation for grazing sheep and cattle, conflicts arose between the new arrivals and the Native population. The losses on the side of the Indigenous Australians were especially heavy. If they weren’t killed in skirmishes with the white farmers, they were wiped out by diseases brought from Europe for which the Natives had no immunity. The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of European contact was estimated to be 750,000 to 1 million. By 1933, the Native population of Australia had shrunk to 74,000.
The atrocities committed by the Europeans range from cold-blooded murder to forced integration in residential schools to removal of half-white (half-caste) children from their mothers. The latter was designed to give the children a “white upbringing” separate from the “savage” lifestyle of their parents. Survivors of this time are now considered the “Stolen Generation”.
Little did the Europeans know about the intricate and complex lives of the Indigenous people and the enormous body of knowledge that was acquired by them over millennia. To survive in as harsh an environment as the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia for example, the Aboriginal population had to learn how to find and maintain water holes, read the tracks of animals and people, prepare meals from insects, seeds and emu, build shelters suitable to their nomadic lifestyle and how to rely on each other in the tribe and on other tribes for survival. Even today we can learn from their communal lives, the tribal initiation rituals for young people, the way Natives deal with conflict and how they treat their elderly at the end of their lives. There was nothing “primitive” about the lives of the Aboriginal Australians in the desert. The qualitative “primitive” label was a matter of perspective.
The Native tribes and their intricate social structures and way of life developed in total isolation from the outside world. There was no need to wear clothes. There was no need to accumulate material goods. There was no need for profit and no need to exploit earth. While their luxuries were meager (as judged by today’s consensus opinion) the Aboriginal Australians of the 18th century saw no need for change.
Far away from the traditional trade routes, most European explorers and trade vessels left Australia alone, and when they landed at the shores of this continent during the 17th and 18th centuries, they either crashed their boats on the coral reefs or found the land to be hot, unappealing, without water and “infested” with “savages”. But contact, exploration and the establishment of settlements on the Australian continent were inevitable and had to happen sooner or later. The fact that the land was taken away from the Native population was not the cardinal sin. Colonization by European powers happened all over the world. It was the ruthlessness and ignorance with which it was done that is so appalling.
Talent in the Desert
Jimmy Pike was born in the Great Sandy Desert in 1940. He, his family and tribe lived the traditional lifestyle well into the 1950’s. They lived off the land without cultivation of agricultural crops or animal husbandry. They lived in harmony with the desert environment to the detriment of nobody and nothing. They were aware of airplanes, the incursions by the white people, the harm being done to other tribes, the destruction of the environment far away, the end of the Great War and the existence of motor vehicles. News travel fast even in the desert. They learned about the existence of “stations” – cattle and sheep ranches – where work was to be had and where life would be easier. Soon, some members of the desert tribes made the move, joined the ranches and worked for the settlers. Others followed until, eventually, the desert was empty. In his middle age, Jimmy returned to his tribe’s water holes and their camp sites in 1987. Even after over 30 years, he knew exactly where to find everything and picked up where he left off as a teenager. The heightened sense of orientation he developed as a young man kicked back into gear. Finding your bearings was a matter of survival in this harsh environment – get lost and you’ll die.
Even after all these years, the desert is still there, but it has changed. Trees have fallen and disappeared with new saplings growing nearby. Because there has been no clearing by fire, desert grasses and low bushes are dense. Now there are mining roads in the desert and signs of soil erosion everywhere. Dingo tracks are still numerous but the other animals have disappeared. Feral goats, cats and pigs have taken over much of the landscape. Afghan camels roam free in great numbers. At dusk, the birds no longer call. Finally, everybody realizes: humans habitation of the desert was essential to the well-being of the millennia-old ecosystem. With the exodus of the tribes from the desert, there was nobody left to look after the land, to say the prayers and to perform the ceremonies that ensure the continuity of living things. Eventually, Jimmy Pike moved to Broome to become a famous painter of Aboriginal art. For us, he left a legacy of beautiful paintings before dying of a heart attack in 2002.
(Pat Lowe, Jimmy Pike’s wife, describes her and Jimmy’s life in the desert in the book “You Call it Desert – We Used to Live There”, published by Magabala Books 2009.
Today, there are 649,000 (2016) Indigenous people in Australia, making up 2.8% of the total population. Life for the Aboriginal communities is tough. Poor health and education, spousal abuse, unemployment, poverty, substance abuse and crime are ongoing issues of concern. The life expectancy of Indigenous people is in the 60s for men (11 years less than non-Indigenous men) and 70s for women (10 years less than non-Indigenous women). There still is much healing that needs to take place; 230 years are obviously not enough.
Competition for Land
James Morrill was an English sailor who got shipwrecked near the Burdekin River on Australia’s east coast (south of Cairns) in 1846. He was the only survivor of his ship. After 42 days floating in the ocean on a raft, James was picked up by the Natives, nurtured back to health and adopted by the tribe. He accepted their life style, learned their dialect and became one of them for 17 years. By 1863 the settlers had encroached on the tribe’s territory and James felt the need to return to his “own people”. Upon leaving, the tribe elders, with tears in their eyes, pleaded with James to pass on a message to the newcomers: “Ask the white man to let us have some of our own ground to live on. They can have the land to the south of the Burdekin River while we keep the north shore, which is low swampy ground and no good to anybody but ourselves.” This anecdote shows the willingness of Aboriginal Australians to compromise and partner with the European settlers.
(James Morrill writes about his experiences among the Aboriginal Australians in the book “17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals”, published by David M Welch, 2006. Australian Aboriginal Culture Series No. 1.)
As of today, 18% of Australia’s landmass has been returned to the Aboriginal communities and is under Native title.
The Public Library in Perth has these words written on the wall of its entrance hall:
The City of Perth acknowledges the Wadjuk people of the Noongar Nation upon the lands of which the City of Perth and metropolitan region is built. We recognise the continuing connection to the land, waters and community of this area, and pay our respects to elders past, present and future, in the spirit of reconciliation.
Nice words, but will they be followed up with actions that will heal the broken soul of a nation?
January 26th is Australia Day in this country. As a national holiday, it marks the anniversary of Capt. Phillip’s arrival in Port Jackson, where he planted the British flag on Australia’s shore and claimed the continent for King George III. It is also the start of, what some people consider genocide of the Native population. This year (2018) is the 230th anniversary of that moment in history.
Every year the holiday celebrations are accompanied by demonstrations and tinged with resentment on part of Native activists. On the one hand, it is truly remarkable how much the European settlers have achieved in such a relatively short period of time. Australia has become a very successful, multi-cultural country offering its citizens one of the best living standards in the world. This is absolutely worthy of recognition and celebration. On the other hand, however, the grievances of the Aboriginal Australians have not been fully addressed and the wounds have not yet healed. Until that happens, and only the Native population can tell when this has happened, Australia Day will remain a bitter-sweet affair for all Australians.