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  • (Amy Chie-Yu Wang)
Australia’s First Peoples are the world’s oldest living civilization dating back some 50,000 years according to a recent genetic study by an international team of academics. Yet, many Australians know little about the history of our First Peoples.
Amy Chien-Yu Wang

23 Nov 2016 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 2 Feb 2017 - 9:16 AM

The 2014 Australian Reconciliation Barometer shows only 30 per cent of Australians consider themselves knowledgeable of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories.

Indigenous Australians are people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, together they form three per cent of the national population, based on the 2011 Census.

The 1788 European settlement resulted in a series of discriminatory policies against the traditional owners of the land with devastating effects on their civil rights and the survival of traditions, culture and languages.

It hurts whenever Gooreng Gooreng Elder Richard Johnson remembers the painful past his ancestors experienced during colonisation.

Johnson’s tribe was nearly wiped out when European settlers first set foot on their traditional country in central South Queensland. His grandfather was the last family member alive of that generation.

“One of the chase perpetrated upon our people where they were hunted down over to a place called ‘Moogool’ which was a mountain they hid themselves on. And he was placed in the undergrowth by his uncle Gimimi. He told grandfather Nyulang he should wait in the grass in this hollow log. They came back and collected him after dark. So we were fortunate. We wouldn't be here today if that didn't happen. He may have been killed, taken away or put in institution with other children and raised as a European so our history would’ve been a whole lot different.”

Nyulang’s survival enabled the continuation of the family bloodline.

Like the majority of Australia’s First Peoples, Gooreng Gooreng Elder Richard Johnson’s family lived through generations of oppressive policies.

Laws applying the policy of ‘protection’ were introduced by the six states between 1867 to 1911 - laws aimed at isolating and segregating full-blood Aborigines and assimilating half-caste children.

Known as the ‘Stolen Generations’, part-Aboriginal children were separated from their families and sent to institutions or foster homes to become ‘Europeanised’.

The states had the power to decide where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived and who they married. The speaking of Indigenous languages were also largely restricted and banned up until the 1970s.

Prior to European settlement, there were around 250 languages spoken by the First Nations people.

A recent Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report by the Productivity Commission finds that by 2012, only 120 Indigenous languages survive in some form, many of which are endangered, and merely 13 to 18 of those languages are still in active use.

“They restricted our use of our languages, the speaking of language between individuals and in families, people weren’t allowed to speak their language for fear of being removed so the speaking of language and the communication between one another became suppressed to the point that it was only done out of sight and out of ear shot of people who may not have shared our culture or needs and requirements.”  

Desmond Purcell is a land and sea ranger of Taribelang ancestry in the Bundaberg region. He says the destruction of Indigenous languages is something the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still coming to terms with.

“Language is a big thing for any culture. You know to have that language, that's what kinda separates you. You've got that different lingo, talk. For people to come and take that off you, that's a sense of identity that’s lost and to try and rebuild that and getting that back, that's a big step in building and having that reconciliation. Cos no one can just say sorry and think it’s all gonna be rainbows and butterflies, it doesn't work like that. We've got to find ourselves as well and move on.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had no right to vote or receive social security benefits such as the pensions and maternity allowances until the late sixties.

1962 was the first time when all Indigenous Peoples were given equal right to vote in federal elections. Many, however, were unaware of the change as Indigenous Australians were not compelled to vote until 1984.

Several states handled Aboriginal affairs by departments that also managed flora, fauna and wildlife.

The exclusion from the Census count meant that Indigenous Australians considered themselves as part of the ‘flora and fauna’.

It wasn't until a national referendum in 1967 with over 90 per cent of the population voting ‘yes’ that the First Nations people officially became a part of the national population.

Richard Johnson was 16 when that happened.

“We were recognised as citizens and given the right to vote even though prior to that some of our people were allowed to vote, there was no official recognition or instruction from government about Aboriginal people being recognised in the Census. So we jumped from being part of flora and fauna into being real people. I prefer to stay as flora and fauna it makes me indigenous to the country to the land upon I walk and live and raise my family.”  

The 1967 referendum was the turning point when official discrimination towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ended.

Two years later, all states abolished the legislation that allowed the removal of Aboriginal children under the policy of ‘protection’.

In 2008, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a formal apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’.

For Richard Johnson, it was the earlier 1992 ‘Redfern Park’ address by another Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating that he remembers vividly till this day.

“We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders, we took the children from their mothers.”

Paul Keating was the first Australian Prime Minister to publicly address the injustice inflicted upon Indigenous Australians by early European settlers.

The official reconciliation process reached another milestone in 2000 when a quarter of a million people marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation.

“I remember it was a very emotional time for a lot of people. The fact there was a march on Sydney Harbour Bridge. I think those particular incidences for me derived a lot more feelings of times are changing. Sadly the changes that we’ve seen have been too rare.”

Established in 2001, Reconciliation Australia is the leading organisation in facilitating reconciliation between the First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians.

Its CEO Justin Mohamed says the ripples from events like the Sydney Harbour Bridge march is significant.

In the past decade alone, close to 800 organisations, businesses, community groups have implemented their own reconciliation action plans to right the wrongs of the past.

“There has been 25 years of this formal approach of reconciliation. The People have grown up with the bridge walks, the apology speech which was more recently by the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. When they are in positions of authority and leadership, the world’s changed about what can that company or organisation put back into the social environment or people that are disadvantaged so there is a natural sort of calling for these corporate bodies to be more socially conscious with aboriginal people.”

Desmond Purcell says frequent negative media coverage of the First Nations people have damaged the confidence of many.

“Because you've been told so much that you can’t do nothing. You've been knocked down and knocked down and knocked down. A lot of people just finally give up. We can’t do that. It can’t be a part of our mentality to give up. It’s gotta be a part of our mentality to press on and to be counted.”

The interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is minimal.

The State of Reconciliation in Australia report shows only 30 percent of the general community socialise with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Purcell says more contact can help break down barriers.

“Get out and meet a couple. Ask about our culture and don't be scared or standoffish. You know, like every race, you might run into a few bad ones but majority of us are good. Yeah get out there and try and immerse yourself in the culture and please don't try and impose other traditions upon us. You know we’ve got our own and we're not trying to impose anything on you’s either but get out there and get to know us a bit better.”

Reconciliation Australia CEO Justin Mohamed says research finds that over 80 per cent of Australians are interested to learn more about the history that they were not taught at school.

He believes a deeper understanding of the past and more engagement with Indigenous Australians can change the disadvantaged social position within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Mohamed says real equality cannot be achieved without the formal recognition of First Nations people in the Australian Constitution.

“It’s about acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were the first people in this country. It just sets the record right for any future developments. From there we can start addressing issues that are at hand but also importantly plan for the future.”

For more information on the past, present and future challenges of our First Peoples, you can read this extensive report The State of Reconciliation in Australia.

First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.


Settlement Guide: 7 things you should know about Australia’s First Peoples
Indigenous Australians are people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and together they form three per cent of the national population. They are Australia’s First People, and yet most of us say we know very little about them.