The Continuing Plight of Australia's Indigenous Peoples

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

The Continuing Plight of Australia's Indigenous Peoples


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE most bewildering aspect of Australia's social and economic life is the continuing plight of the country's Aborigines-or as the preference goes--Indigenous Peoples. How is it possible for one of the world's richest countries to have such obscene pockets of sickness, poverty and suffering? The life expectancy of an Indigenous male is about 18 years less than the average European male, while the life expectancy of an Indigenous female is about 20 years less than the average European. Ironically, Indigenous Peoples living in, say, Sydney are within walking distance of some of the southern hemisphere's best medical facilities and yet they have life expectancy just marginally better than the average African's. The Canberra-based Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is the best source of these statistics. (1)

This article will explore some of the most controversial aspects of Indigenous policy. It begins with the historical context--the Indigenous Peoples are the world's oldest continuous civilization. It then looks at the continuing significance of the late eighteenth century settlers' claim that the land was empty ('terra nullius'). It concludes with a case study of the Myall Creek massacre exactly 170 years ago and the long reach of history.

The British colonizers arrived in the Sydney area in 1778 with instructions to do a deal with the local kings and queens. That was the way that the British preferred to colonize: a series of treaties with local leaders that enabled the British to get control of the resources and have some political control, while leaving the local leaders in place to run the day to day activities. It had worked in North America and India and it would shortly work in New Zealand and across Africa.

But Australia was the world's oldest republic. There were no kings or queens with whom to make a deal. The people had tribal leaders (both men and women) but no sense of kingdom. The British were even more perplexed with the attitude towards land and property. The Indigenous Peoples have lived on the continent for thousands of years. The actual number of years is still the subject of research but they certainly constitute the world's oldest continuous civilization.

Australia is the world's 'oldest' continent. As Jared Diamond [2] has explained, Australia is geologically very stable and so rarely has earthquakes and no volcanoes. These disturbances elsewhere bring new nutrients to the surface and so replenish the topsoil. Australia therefore has a very old, fragile soil. The early settlers were amazed at how well the trees grew--the Tasmanian blue gum is one of the world's tallest trees--and so assumed that if the trees were cut down the soil underneath would be good for farming. In fact the trees grow well despite the soil and not because of it (and they grow even taller nowadays when planted in good soil in overseas plantations).

The Indigenous Peoples had survived through living a hunter-gatherer society. Each tribe had its own territory (and specific language) but there was no private ownership of plots of land. The land and its wildlife supplied the immediate needs and so it was possible to spend a great deal of time on spiritual, intellectual and artistic activities. Australia has the world's second oldest musical instrument in the didgeridoo (the human voice is the world's oldest musical instrument). It also has the world's oldest rock art.

The British thought that they had arrived in a largely barren land. But they did not know where to look. An Indigenous person can 'see' sources of water, for example. The early British explorers carried rowing boats with them across Australia. The rivers flowed inland and so they assumed that there must be a vast inland sea. In fact the rivers flow underground and form the world's largest artesian basin. Indigenous Peoples knew where to find the water, while some of the explorers perished.

Because each tribe had to move periodically to avoid over-using and depleting the land and its wildlife, the people had no need for grand buildings.

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