REMEMBERING THE PAST TO SHARE A FUTURE - Recognition, Reflection and Reconciliation of Australias Indigenous History

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Recognition, Reflection and Reconciliation of Australia’s Indigenous History

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’


Australian society portrays itself as a shining light in the western world that embraces the principles of individual freedom, equality and justice, through the rule of law and democratic state.   But examination of this nation’s Indigenous history reflects two very conflicting stories of adherence to these principles.   Now termed the ‘history wars’, the debate has become a political tool to avoid acceptance of the wrongs of the past.   The euro-centric view presents an almost utopian recollection of history detached from the bloody realities of the past and enshrined in the image of the ANZAC.   The alternative, termed the ‘dark-armband’ view of history, describes the reality; inclusive of the harm, injustice, violence, abduction and dispossession inflicted on Indigenous people since the ‘invasion’. 

This paper will examine the role of history in recognition of Indigenous rights and how the barriers of the past, and present, can be overcome to ensure past crimes are not repeated.


2.1        The Myth of Terra Nullius.

Prior to ‘colonisation’ Indigenous Australians had developed a highly stable society that had existed for tens of thousands of years with many different groups embracing established laws, religion, custom, trade and history.   All of these qualities were intertwined and taught to future generations through words, music, art and dance.   Whilst they may not have conformed to the sovereign models of contemporary Europe, they were none the less a group of nations, sovereign in their own right.

2.2        The Myth of ‘Peaceful Settlement and Acceptance’.

In 1788 an armed military force arrived to claim sovereignty over all land in the name of the English Crown, there was no choice for the million or so Indigenous peoples; invasion had arrived to Australia.   It was not remote from the Nazi invasion of Europe, in which individual nations, ill structured, coordinated and unprepared to defend against a technologically superior invasion force that suppressed resistance with violence.   In declaring the land to be without people or terra nullius, the establishment of English sovereignty and law was complete; albeit on racially prejudiced grounds.   Indigenous peoples were declared subjects of the crown, under

the illusion of ‘settlement’, with any resistance dealt with as criminal acts.    The bloodbath that followed saw the Indigenous population decimated by acts of violence, murder, massacres, rape, disease and dispossession resulting in the extermination of approximately 97% of its original population by 1891.   Many of these crimes were at the hands of pastoralists, miners and ‘settlers’ eager to take possession of vast tracts of land, but equally they were at the hands of soldiers and police operating under laws passed by the various governments.    The reality of Australian history is one of invasion and conquest, not peaceful settlement. 

2.3        The Myth of a ‘Helping Hand and Rescue’. 

Largely, in response to humanitarian criticism, governments enacted racist laws to effect control over Aboriginal lives and regulate their right to freedom, employment, wages, marriage, family and children.   Children were stolen from their families, overseen and enforced by government ‘protectors’ and police who effected control with intolerance and prejudice, rounding up people like cattle and forcing them into reserves or missions.   Approximately 30% of Indigenous children were taken from their families to be imprisoned in boarding schools or forced into household duties, in conditions akin to slavery.   The children were ‘re-educated’ into Christian ways,  

ensuring the removal of the last shreds of cultural heritage and identity; the Stolen Generation became reality. 

Cultural heritage was not just denied to children.   Museums, universities and other institutions maintained strict control over cultural artefacts to the exclusion of Indigenous peoples.   The lack of recognition and respect for Indigenous cultural rights over ancestral remains and artefacts persisted into the 1980’s until legislation was passed by parliament.   

The crimes and grievous acts committed against Aboriginal peoples are well established.   How then has the law responded to protect against such crimes again?


3.1        Statutory Rights

The history of statutes provides a written record of rights denial for Indigenous peoples,  including voting, forced removal of children, denial of citizenship status and more recently, government intervention into Aboriginal communities.

In recent years some laws have been enacted to help protect Indigenous rights.   The 1967 Referendum provided constitutional recognition to Indigenous Australians as citizens and directly resulted in Indigenous affairs being brought into the

Commonwealth political arena.   This directly led to federal laws against racial discrimination and for the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage and artefacts.   Laws recognising native title (NT) were also introduced, but were very limited in their application.   The longevity of laws can be highly dependent upon political agendas, as was highlighted during the Howard and ‘history wars’ era, which saw the introduction of racist legislation accompanied by public statements of the government’s unchallenged constitutional authority to do so.   

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3.2        Common Law – Land Rights.

In 1971 the Gove Land Rights case dispelled many of the historical myths through formal recognition of Indigenous culture, law, social structure, connectivity with the land and the strength of oral history as evidence.    It was a turning point in Australian history and ultimately led to the findings of the Mabo case.

The 1992 Mabo case destroyed the long standing myths of terra nullius and the acquisition of land ownership through sovereign possession.    It provided formal recognition that NT continued to exist unless extinguished by conscious acts of parliament, and could only be extinguished in ...

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