A Minority Group

According to the 1996 Census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia number around 352 970, about 2% of the total Australian population. In 1976, when they were first included in the national census, 115 953 persons identified themselves as of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. In 1981 there were about 159 897, and this figure has gradually increased over time.

Despite thousands of years of living in Australia, over the last two hundred years Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have remained a minority. This is due in no small measure to the prejudice and discrimination of the European settlers. Government policies such as extermination and assimilation have either destroyed the living Aborigines or bred out the Aboriginal blood.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770. The British had instructed Cook "You are . . . with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Gt. Britain or: if you find the Country uninhabited take possession for his Maj by setting up Proper Marks & Inscriptions, as first discoverers and Possessors." However, the European law of "terra nullius" decreed that the natives only owned the land if they farmed land and had buildings on it. This meant Captain Cook had the right to take possession of the land and authority over the "inferior" natives.

Bowes was one of the many early settlers who prejudged the Aborigines. In 1778 he wrote that Aborigines were a ". . . stupid and indolent (lazy) a set of people . . . they seem altogether a most stupid, insensible set of beings." Others called them savages, while Governor Phillip treated them almost like pests: "(The Aborigines) certainly are not pleased with our remaining among them, as they see we deprive them of fish . . . but if they set fire to the corn, necessity will oblige me to drive them to greater distance." A squatter's view of the Aborigines in 1843 was as follows:
"The worthless, idle aborigine has been driven back from the land that he knew not how to make use of, and valued not, to make room for a more noble race of beings, who are capable of estimating the value of this fine country. Is it not right that it should be so?"
Around 1830, many European settlers sought to exterminate the Aborigines. In Tasmania in 1827, after more than sixty Aborigines were killed in a fight with the Europeans, Governor Arthur decided to move all Aborigines from settled areas. He announced martial law the following year, with a reward given for every Aborigine that was brought in alive. During this time the whites killed two-thirds of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania. The few hundred that survived were shifted around until finally settling at Oyster Bay, near Hobart. However, by 1876 they were all dead.

Another instance of genocide, now known as the Myall Creek Massacre, occurred in June 1838. A large group of Aboriginal men, women and children were killed in cold blood by a group of farmers. They were found not guilty of killing 11 of the men. Later they were convicted for the murder of one of the children, though public opinion was against punishing them.

In 1883 the Aborigines Protection Board was set up to replace the earlier government policy of extermination. In a parliamentary report its aim was given as:
  1. to civilise, Christianise and above all train Aborigines on stations established for the purpose
  2. ;
  3. to remove as many children as possible from their 'bad' environment and parental 'influence' to training homes and thence to 'situations' (work) with white families.
Reserves and stations were set up throughout New South Wales on which Aboriginal people were forced to live. A single white manager had total control over most aspects of the Aborigines lives in his station. They could refuse to hand out food rations to families, carry out inspections of houses, take control of people's money, and remove children from their families and have them sent away. Meanwhile Aborigines were given European names and clothes and were not permitted to make contact with "Part-Aboriginal" people. The government expected the "Aboriginal problem" would be "solved" when the Aboriginal race died out.

White Supervisors oversaw nearly every aspect of Aboriginal life in the 1930s. To shop in town a superintendent would write out a permit for how many hours they were going shopping. The children in the dormitories were only allowed to see their families for a couple of hours on a Sunday, as long as they had a permit. If an Aboriginal parent asked the matron if the children could go out he or she would be given a permit with a set number of hours. If the family was not back on time a tracker would collect them and they would not be allowed out again. Aboriginal children were not permitted to play in the white people's area, and when purchasing meat Aborigines were given whatever the butcher wanted to give them for their ration. This treatment continued right through to the 1950s.

Around 1938 the policy of assimilation was introduced. This method of solving the "Aboriginal problem" involved turning Aborigines into whites by making them part of the white culture. The best way of achieving this was to separate young Aboriginal children from their parents before they learned about the Aboriginal ways of life. Often these children were used as a form of cheap labour and were taught the ways of the white people. In 1940 the assimilation policy became official in New South Wales. Aborigines had to give up their Aboriginality and carry a certificate with them to prove they had done this in order to become Australian citizens. When few Aborigines applied for this certificate, they were forcibly moved to the towns or cities.

As recently as the late 1960s Aborigines have been segregated. They were often not allowed to use the same facilities as whites or as much as whites. The following account is from Nigel Parbury's book Survival — a history of Aboriginal life in NSW.
At Moree Aboriginals were not allowed to go inside the council chambers or even use the toilets, and some hotels did not serve Aboriginals . . . But the main discrimination was at the swimming pool. Aboriginal adults were never allowed in and Aboriginal children were only allowed in with school groups on Wednesdays. When school hours finished, the whistle blew. Aboriginal children had to leave the water and only white children were allowed to stay.
Today the law still does not treat Aborigines as equal. A report by the Australian Council of Churches entitled "Racism in Australia in the 80s" stated: "They are more likely to be arrested for a mirror offence, more likely to be jailed than fined and if fined, the level of fine is more likely to be higher." A sample of trials in 1980 showed that 99% of proven Aboriginal criminals had a conviction recorded, compared to 92% for the rest of the general population. Today, there is a higher rate proportion of Aboriginals in gaols than the rest of the country. Until such figures as these can be balanced, none can honestly say that discrimination is absent in Australia.

Impact of the Prejudice and Discrimination

As a result of centuries of prejudice and discrimination, is a mental scar on a great number of Aborigines. As part of the protection and assimilation policies, around 5625 children were separated from their Aboriginal parents. A general feeling of confusion and loss resulted in both parents and children. Pat Dodson, an Australian Aboriginal, wrote that such policies ". . . left us either marginalised or totally frustrated and angry with white society . . . It's also produced a strong survival instinct among Aboriginal people."

Some Aborigines have developed prejudice against all whites because of the way many whites have treated them. A man named Parbury made clear how he and many other Aborigines felt about their treatment. In his book Survival. A History of Aboriginal Life in New South Wales, Parbury wrote:
This festival of 150 years' so called 'progress' in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country . . . You came here only recently, and you took away our land from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to tell how cruel and bad white Australians have been . . . We do not want charity nor protection, but justice, citizenship rights and freedom from the Protection Act.
Various government policies denied Aborigines a stable upbringing, causing many to lose their sense of identity. Where traditional ways of thinking and living have not been lost, morals and values have been clouded. The "stolen generation" of children has meant that much of the Aboriginal culture, language and history have been lost. Nevertheless, not all Aborigines resisted assimilation. Often, Aborigines tried their best to assimilate, usually so they could keep their children. Others developed a resentment of authority and turned to crime. The latter response is so common that Aborigines are 25 times more likely to be incarcerted than non-Aboriginal people.

Lately, the large number of Aboriginal deaths in police custody has a lot to do with dispossession, institutionalisation and poor treatment. One man, Malcolm Charles Smith speared his eye with an artist's paint brush in Long Bay Gaol and died of head wounds, having lived most of his life in government-run institutions. Royal Commissioner Hal Wootten, QC, led an investigation into the Aboriginal deaths and concluded: "The horror of a regime that took Aboriginal children and prepared them harshly for a life as the lowest level of worker in a prejudiced white community, is still a living legacy among many Aboriginals today. (Smith's) life (was) destroyed . . . by the regular operation of the system of self-righteous, heartless and racist destruction of Aboriginal families that went on under the name of protection or welfare."

Overcoming the Prejudice and Discrimination

Governor Gipps was among the first non-Aboriginal people to stand up publicly for Aborigines, despite strong opposition. In 1838 he ordered a full investigation into the aforementioned Myall Creek Massacre, and saw to it that eleven men were tried. When they were found innocent for the murder of one man, he re-arrested them on the charge of murdering one of the children. On 19 December 1838 Governor Gipps wrote:
. . . I had despatched a party of Mounted Police in search of some white men, who were supposed to have put to death in cold blood not less than twenty-two helpless and unoffending Blacks; it is now my painful duty to inform your Lordship that seven of the perpetrators of this atrocious deed, having been convicted on the clearest evidence, suffered yesterday morning the extreme penalty which the law awards for the crime of murder . . ."
Unfortunately, Gipps actions were not much of a deterrence to many Europeans, massacres continued by other means, like the poisoning of flour or sugar.

Around the 1920s Aboriginal activists and sympathisers began to appear. In 1924 the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association began in Sydney, and in 1932, a group known as William Cooper's Australian Aborigines League made a petition to send to the King. This petition asked for an Aboriginal representative in parliament and better conditions for Aborigines, but the Federal government did not allow the petition to be sent. On Australia Day 1938, Cooper joined with William Ferguson and John Patten and formally asked the Prime Minister for equal rights for Aboriginal people. When denied, the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aborigines League declared Australia Day 1938 a day of Mourning for all the Aboriginal people who had died or suffered.

A.P. Elkin and David Thompson were anthropologists who wanted to learn from Aboriginal culture. The former was a clergyman from Sydney University who was of the belief that Aboriginal culture was valuable and that Australian society could learn from the Aborigines. Elkin was a major influence to the government when the protection policy was changed in the 1930s. The Commonwealth government sent Thompson, from Melbourne University to make contact with the Arnhem Land Aborigines. He lived with them from 1935 until 1937, learning about their language and culture. Through cooperation, the Aborigines chose to form a military guerrilla force to fight the expected Japanese invasion. Both Elkin and Thompson respected the Aboriginal way of life and sought not to change it.

Faith Bandler is an Aboriginal rights campaigner who came to prominence when she co-founded the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship in 1956, which lobbied for a federal referendum to remove legal discrimination against Aborigines. Bandler's work culminated in the passing of the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal citizenship through a 92 per cent majority. This result gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate on Aboriginal matters and to have Aborigines included in the national census. Recently, Bandler has concentrated on working for rights for her own people, Australians of South Sea Islander descent.

Two Aboriginal student activists who were very popular were Charles Nelson Perkins and Chicka Dixon. In 1965, they set off with other students from Sydney University in a bus for northwestern New South Wales with the aim of publicising discrimination in New South Wales country towns. One result of the freedom riders' protests was that Aboriginal people were allowed to swim at public pools at all times. These "rides" also picketed clubs, cafes and other public places in New South Wales that practised discrimination against Aborigines. The actions of the freedom riders also brought the injustice of the Aboriginal position to public attention in the lead up to the 1967 Aboriginal referendum. They also contributed to the abolishment of the Welfare Board in 1969.

Australia Day of 1972 marked the formation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the centre of claims for land rights, compensation, justice and a greater degree of self-management. It came into being when four Aborigines, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Gary Williams, set up a tent on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra. By setting up an Aboriginal Embassy the leaders were pointing out that they felt like foriegners in Australia. The tent signified present-day Aboriginal living conditions. Television news showed Aboriginal people defending themselves from the police, who pulled down the tents and arrested the people. Masses of Aboriginal people continued to set up tents, forcing the Federal government to take notice. Government policy became self-determination, giving Aboriginal people the right to manage their affairs themselves and to have a greater say in decisions about their future. Twelve years later, on 1 August, Commonwealth and State anti-discrimination legislation became operative.

Eddie Mabo, of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, declared in 1982 that the Meriam people had lived in permanenet communities with their own social and political organisation before contact with the Europeans. He and four other Meriam people went to the High Court of Australia with the claim that Murray Island (Mer) and surrounding islands and reefs were the exclusive property of the Meriam people, who had continuously inhabited the area. The claim of terra nullius, or land belonging to no-one, was not valid in this situation, and was upheld by the High Court on 3 June 1992 by a majority of six to one.

The High Court judgement contained statements to the effect that, as the terra nullius law that allowed Britain to claim Australia was unjust and did not respect all Australians as equal, it could not be upheld or perpetuated. They also recognised that Aboriginal people had, according to their own laws and customs, enjoyed rights to their land for thousands of years. As the British colony grew, they dispossessed more and more Aboriginal land, a fact that nevertheless underwrote the development of Australia into a nation. Part of the Commonwealth Government's response to that historical High Court decision was the Native Title Act 1993.

In view of the fact that much of the Aboriginal culture and history have been forgotten since the European settlement, there are now schools and curriculum that seek to change this. The stereotype of Aboriginal people that was present in school textbooks has been removed, and Aboriginal children are being taught to have pride in their heritage. Entire topic areas in some school subjects are devoted to understanding the Aboriginal experience and the prejudice and discrimination associated with it.

On 14 October 1996, opposition leader Kim Beazley appealed to Prime Minister John Howard to support a motion reaffirming multiculturalism and Aboriginal reconciliation. Sixteen days later the Federal Government and the Opposition both endorsed a bipartisan motion denouncing racial intolerance, reaffirming the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights regardless of race, colour, creed or origin, and reaffirming the reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A classic example of noding your homework. I have misplaced the bibliography (about 10 books) but I'll include them in the write up as soon as I find them.

Let us consider the aboriginal's point of view in Australia: most people living in that country are unlikely to have fully understood the term "heirship" as it pertains to descendants of those native inhabitants who have been systematically and quite cynically displaced, murdered, and had their land stolen by foreign newcomers.

When outsiders come into a country and seize the land upon which the original and existing inhabitants dwell, they have effectively robbed them, and their down through the ages, right to inherit, not only the land, but to continue their millenary and complex cultural ways and approach to life, as well as robbing them of their inalienable natural rights to their history.

Some Australians feel and argue that the fairest long-term plan for the Australian Aborigines must be their total and radical integration into Anglo-Australian society as "equal" citizens.

However, most indigenous societies have no interest whatsoever in integrating with a way of life and mindset which is fundamentally alien to them. The now numerically dominant culture calls this "assimilation". There are truer and more honest words which describe this better, even though they may seem radical.

The fairest long term plan would have been for the European settlement to have asked permission to integrate into the Aboriginal culture and live peacefully side by side, adhering to the native laws, not surely the other way round.

The Australian Aborigines are the oldest continuous population outside Africa: they are the people who have longest occupied their traditional territory. Hence, modern Aborigines are the direct descendants of the explorers who arrived 50,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, this represents 2000 to 3000 generations. Thousands of generations in which an entire and complex culture has developed, which has adapted in an optimal way to the territories, fauna and vegetation. In a world that so often misuses "green" issues for short-term political convenience, should the carefully balanced native ways which embody true husbandry of resources not have their say in any intelligent and sincere political debate?

Had the original Australians not been forced to live on reservations or in missions, had they not been undereducated, forced to work for rations, and generally treated like dogs they would not be reliant upon the government dole today. Alcohol has also been a scourge in the deepest social way possible, and for this the newcomers must shoulder the full responsibility.

Perhaps those who feel the Aboriginees are taking unfair advantage of the handout system should read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines to get an idea of who these ancient people were and what they have lost, before expressing an opinion on what would be an equitable fate for this unique race. Perhaps the person who takes that trouble to inform themselves about what richness of culture can bring to everyone involved would radically rethink their position. A fair and sincere person can surely only come to one conclusion about where the balance of fairness and unfairness really lies.

In the fifteen years or so since the first explosion of e2 writeups, the average Australian has undergone a shift in their understanding of and attitude towards Australia’s indigenous people. I am not indigenous, and I am certainly not an expert, so what I would like to share is not privileged knowledge but simply the perspective of a white person in 2017 trying to better understand Aboriginal Australia.

Acknowledgement of Country

One of the most obvious changes since the turn of the century has been the widespread adoption of a courtesy known as acknowledgement of, or welcome to, country. At any meeting, gathering or opening, it is now common practise. An acknowledgement of country is what a non-indigenous person, such as myself, would use. I’ll do one now, for this writeup, to show you an example:

‘I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I am writing from, the Ngunnawal people. I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of Canberra and this region. I would also like to welcome Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who read this.’

A Welcome to Country is done by an indigenous person, ideally an elder, from the local area. Traditionally, when visiting the territory of another group, a person would request permission to visit or travel through, and permission would be given in a formal way by the local people according to the context.

A Welcome to Country might be as simple as the acknowledgement I made above. It might be a more formal speech including some of the history of the local people, perhaps making a connection to the purpose of the event. Or it might include some traditional ceremonial process.

At its core, a Welcome to Country is a form of border control. You are being given permission to enter somebody’s home, the rules of the area are explained, and the terms of your visit agreed to. Unlike being checked at the Customs desk, however, a Welcome to Country will generally have a lot more heart involved. You are not just being let in the door so you can fix the plumbing. You are being invited to join the family, be offered the hospitality of the area, and take your part in caring for the land and the people around you.


When we say ‘land’ or ‘country’ in this context, we are not talking about Australia as a whole, but the local area we are in. Australia’s indigenous population was divided into a huge number of distinct groups. They were bigger than simply a ‘tribe’, because there might be hundreds of tribes belonging to a particular group. They are sometimes called ‘nations’ but a ‘nation’ is a specific term for a political and geographical entity, so I’m not happy using that either. ‘Country’ is a great choice of word, because in Australia a person’s identity was and is very much connected to the local area. Rather than owning land, indigenous people across the country had an understanding of themselves as ‘custodians’, being responsible for the care and management of the land, protecting it from harm, and in some ways belonging to it. This is not unique to indigenous Australians: anybody who loves their home, who feels deeply moved when gazing on the local mountain range or river, who feels deeply connected to the ground under their feet, understands this love of country. This is the love that Indigenous Australians have formalised as part of their many and varied cultures.

Civilisation Means Cities

One of the enduring concepts of the West is that of Civilisation. This word, which carries ideas of order, structure, intellect, sophistication and progress, is etymologically and ideologically connected to City. From the ancient world to today, the West has associated the establishment of towns as a sign of progress and order. Ancient Roman writers, medieval chroniclers, Victorian statesmen, have all been incapable of seeing ‘civilisation’ without ‘cities’.

One of the enduring myths about Australia’s indigenous peoples is that they were nomadic hunter gatherers, with none of the ‘cities’ that ‘civilisation’ requires.

There are a couple of huge problems with this. The first is the obvious one: people without cities have societies that are as sophisticated, intellectual, ordered and progressive as anyone else. Their societies are structured differently, the knowledge of their people is recorded and transmitted differently, and the sophistication of their society has had just as long to develop as any other.

The other problem is this: Australia did have both agriculture and settled societies. White people destroyed most of it, and neglected to mention it to other white people, so most of us are only learning about it recently. I stress that I am not an expert. Fifteen years ago when I read Orpheum’s wu I would not have known any differently myself.

First, agriculture. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel explains far better than me how the plants and animals available in an area will determine the degree to which agriculture is practised. He sets out tables, for example, that list the species of large seeded grasses (you know – wheat, oats, barley, etc.) that are suitable for large scale agriculture, and where they originated. Not one species is native to Australia. He sets out tables showing the domesticated animals that are useful for work like riding, carrying heavy loads, or pulling ploughs. How many species does Australia have? None. So of course Australians didn’t develop the sort of farming as practiced in the Fertile Crescent, which had multiple species of large seeded grass, plus a couple of good pack animals.

Australians did practise their own agriculture, though. For example, in the temperate climates of south eastern Australia, there are huge fish traps and weirs built and maintained over millennia, for farming fish. These areas also have farming of food crops, usually root vegetables. I recently learned that large areas in Western Australia had huge farms of a perennial root vegetable crop. Plenty of other places in Australia had similar farms or aquaculture.

In the wider sense, we (the non-indigenous people) are gradually coming to understand that indigenous people managed the whole of this continent as a giant estate with no fences. Indigenous people have had literally millennia to develop and refine their land management and food production methods, and they played a long game. It has long been known that they used fire as a form of land management, burning off small areas at a time. Early white settlers sometimes thought this was a short-sighted and primitive method of ‘hunting’ where the ‘primitive’ people would simply set fire to an area then wait for animals to run towards them to be killed and eaten. Uh – no. Regular controlled burns allowed indigenous people to do a lot of things. Like regulate the fire risk in the hottest, driest continent on earth. Like encourage regrowth of particular plant species in a particular way (Australia has a lot of plant species that actually require a good fire to germinate, for example).

White people, for a long time, also had the idea that Aboriginal hunters simply wandered around the bush looking for animals and birds to hunt, hoping something would pop up from behind a tree I suppose. Also no. For example, indigenous people created clear ‘paths’ through areas of managed bushland that were ideal for grazers such as kangaroos and wallabies to use (and incidentally made good fire breaks). It’s probably better to think of indigenous hunters as being closer to herders with very free range flocks. It’s pretty hard to build a fence to keep a roo enclosed, so rather than try, indigenous people developed ways to encourage mobs to graze in certain places, and then ways to make ‘hunting’ easy and controlled.

One of the really remarkable things about these methods is that when you look at the cleared areas, people who know about how trees grow will tell you that these places will have been managed and cleared for, at a minimum, five or six centuries, with regular work – on a decade-to-decade basis – performed consistently through that time.

Managing food production on a massive scale in time and space means that western ideas of agriculture are too simplistic to cover it. The ‘tribal’ nature of indigenous societies also led to radically different ways of producing and managing food supplies. Nearby where I live are some hills that are the breeding grounds of the bogong moth, a large and fat-bodied species that taste pretty good barbecued. People travelled from near and far, from several different cultural groups, to partake of annual feasting in the area. This was not only a great excuse for a party, but an opportunity for a bunch of other important things that need to happen when people get together. You might discuss trade agreements, review laws, exchange news and ideas, deal with problems that have popped up, catch up with your rellies and sort out some marriages. For most indigenous Australians – and the non-indigenous ones, come to think of it! – the idea that there are people in Europe who spend their whole lives not travelling beyond the next village is just crazy. Here, we cover huge distances to see family, go to a party, or just to get to know some more of the country.

But don’t get the idea that indigenous people were just wandering aimlessly from one food source to the next, either. When you are living in a country that has limited options for large scale food production, you need to manage your resources carefully and deliberately. In some places, that meant being constantly on the move, not only to avoid exhausting the local resources, but to do the kind of land management described above: clearing land, maintaining plantations, choosing the best time of year for ‘hunting’ those free range herds.

In other parts of the country, people led a much more settled lifestyle. In south eastern Australia there were what we would call villages, where people lived year round in the same place. These are people who didn’t have to cover such large areas to manage their food production, like the people who lived near the fish farms. They needed to be onsite to manage and maintain the complex aquaculture systems they developed over thousands of years. The ‘custodianship’ culture, as well as the available resources, meant that these people weren’t building streets and shops, and frankly in a country with such great weather it’s nice to be outside, but they were building places to live and raise a family.

Non-Literate is not Illiterate

Western culture has developed with books. For the past couple of centuries in particular, we expect everyone to learn to read and write, and we expect all our knowledge to be written down. We have forgotten a lot about how different societies are when stuff isn’t written down.

I’ve been reading (ha) a bit about this lately, especially in Lynne Kelly’s amazing new book The Memory Code.

When a literate society comes up with a new law, they write it down. It doesn’t have to be remembered, or even memorable. It is enough remember which Act, and maybe which Section, you need to refer to. If you need the exact wording, you read it. When I worked in Workers Compensation, for example, I remembered that section 9 addressed where a compensable injury took place, but I didn’t remember wording. It was too boring:

9. (1) A worker who has received an injury (and, in the case of the death of the worker, his or her dependants) shall receive compensation from the worker's employer in accordance with this Act.

When it is suggested that a non-literate society, that is one without books or writing, would have their laws memorised, anybody familiar with this western method of writing boring acts would rightly think this sounds crazy.

A westerner familiar with the works of Tolstoy will also be suspicious of the idea that a whole society simply memorises their great stories, songs, poems, epics, sagas, dramas, comedies and tragedies. You can’t memorise Tolstoy. It’s hard enough to memorise one play by Shakespeare!

But non-literate societies don’t construct their ‘literature’ in the way that ‘literate’ societies do. I find it helpful to think of a group of rappers performing and improvising live: they don’t memorise and perform exactly the same way every time, but neither do they actually just make it all up on the spot. A rapper will have memorised certain elements: maybe a particular pair of words that rhyme, a few verses you can use as a sort of chorus, some ‘standardised’ phrases that help you quickly describe an idea or person or place.

Or think of a great storyteller you know, someone who is great at telling anecdotes. They might tell the same story regularly, about the time they were in the wrong train station in Paris and had to run to a different station to catch a train. Elements of the story will stay the same but the emphasis will change for the audience. One time, the focus might be on how they swore like a shearer, in English, in a carriage full of what turned out to be very impressed English footballers. Another time, the focus might be on how capable the children were in a crisis, running across town without complaining at the heavy luggage they were carrying. Or there might be a message about how the best adventures happen when you are backpacking, rather than on a tour.

The laws and knowledge of a non-literate society are usually constructed more like stories that have embedded information about multiple different topics all at once, and can sometimes only be understood when you have a particular context.

One idea I found really radical and new (to me) when I read The Memory Code was the idea of restricted knowledge. I instinctively felt, as you probably do, that if you need people to memorise something, you need to spread it widely so that as many people as possible are remembering it. But what happens when a story is spread widely? It changes! Just look at internet memes that transform almost overnight through an organic sort of process as people adapt and change them. The most important information, the stuff your society really relies on, needs to be kept safe from uncontrolled changes. So actually, you want to make sure that before people learn this knowledge, they understand how important it is to protect it.

Suddenly it makes sense why most Aboriginal groups have some kind of restricted knowledge, why they will not share all their laws and customs with people outside their group, or even with people inside their group who have not met certain requirements to be trusted with the knowledge. There is so much that I would love to know that indigenous people are not prepared to share, and sometimes it is written off as ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ when really, it’s a lot more than that.

I find it really frustrating, personally, that there is so much I am not permitted to know. I’m fascinated by names, for example. I am the sort of person who will read books about the origins of different names. But very little about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names and naming conventions is public knowledge. Names are one of the aspects of their cultures that are protected and restricted. What they can and do share only makes it more fascinating, and therefore more frustrating! For example, many indigenous groups will not use a person’s name after they die. When someone is just a local person, with a family and friends, that may not be too difficult. You would not always refer, yourself, to somebody by name. It’s not hard to simply say, ‘your grandma’ or ‘my old neighbour’ or whatever. But in the modern world, and as more indigenous people become public figures, some flexibility is required by everyone to be sensitive and respectful, but also be able to be part of the public life of our country. For example, a few years ago an indigenous singer, very famous in Australia as an activist and musician, died. His family asked that he now be referred to not by his first name, but his surname as “Mr Yunupingu”. This allowed the country to be respectful, but still able to talk about a person whose life and work continue to be important – not to mention making it possible for radio announcers to tell us who is singing that song they just played!

Names are so important. Another custom, in some indigenous cultures, is that a person’s name is not even shared with everyone even in their small family-based tribe or clan. In some places, for example, a woman’s name must not be shared with men, and vice versa. A nickname might be used, or simply descriptions – again, ‘your grandma’, ‘Bob’s niece’, ‘my friend the singer’. For this reason, very few indigenous names are included in name dictionaries or considered appropriate for general use. A few names become ‘public property’ because a person is particularly famous, but that is rare. It is more common for non-indigenous Australians wanting to have an indigenous name for their child to use a place name or a general vocabulary word.

A Nation for a Continent, and a Continent for a Nation

Possibly because Australia is one huge continent and one huge nation, we forget that the indigenous people in Australia were not one homogenous mass, but hundreds of distinct groups, with their own customs, languages, climates, cultures, laws, and so on. Superimposing a map of Australia over a map of Europe shows you why: if the far west of Australia is shown over Ireland, the far east is in Turkey, the north in Finland and Sweden, and Tasmania is in Egypt. When I learn some words in the Ngunnawal language, they might be understood by the neighbouring Wiradjuri people, just like a person from Spain might understand some French. But I wouldn’t expect people in Finland to understand Spanish.

So although I have put all these ideas and stories together under one heading, please bear in mind that ‘Indigenous Australians’ are as diverse and different as ‘Europeans’.

Prepare to be Assimilated

Around the world westerners have spent the past few centuries trying to ‘civilise’ and ‘assimilate’ and ‘westernise’ and ‘christianise’ everyone else, and so it is in Australia. Even when the white west started to realise that they should stop being racist, indigenous Australians continue to be treated differently. Australia is one of the most privileged countries in the world. We have a whole continent of our own, our standard of living is fantastic, and we have a pretty good social safety net that covers education, health care, welfare, workers’ rights, and so on. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shorter lives, lower education, greater poverty and unemployment, and suffer diseases that have been eradicated in every other part of the developed world. Indigenous people are grossly overrepresented in our prisons. Someone like me – a white, educated, middle class city dweller – is probably horrified by this, and would desperately like to fix it. But someone like me also doesn’t understand how we’ve ended up here, or how to help.

In the past few years I have been lucky enough to get to know some more indigenous people as friends and colleagues, and I have learnt a lot; I wouldn’t say I know very much, but I have a better class of ignorance.

I learned, for example, that there are places where people still believe that illness is caused by evil spirits, perhaps through bad luck or because of your transgressions. So it is incredibly hard to educate people about preventing and treating illnesses in these places.

I learned that in some remote Aboriginal communities, people expect to be treated badly. When I worked for the electricity company, I was shocked when some remote elders contacted me to say thanks for getting their powerlines fixed the same day they reported it. Most infrastructure took weeks or months, they said.

I learned about some of the everyday racism experienced by my friends. One friend is my age, our kids are in the same class. Her family is so similar to mine: we enjoy the same activities, have similar education and career choices, do the same things at Christmas, make similar parenting choices. Except that she is brown, and Aboriginal. One time her Dad drove her to hospital when she was in labor. He went to park the car, and when he came back the nursing staff discussed, in front of my friend, whether they should call security because a black man was ringing the doorbell. A midwife lectured her on how she had to look after her baby, not expect help, when her tailbone was fractured and she couldn’t stand up. People she meets after speaking on the phone tell her she ‘doesn’t sound black’.

And there are the stolen generations. These are people who were removed from perfectly good families to be raised either in white families or white institutions. It happened all over the world, and right up until pretty recently. I have another friend, the same age as my parents, who was removed from her family and brought up in an institution. This isn’t the past, it’s real people who are living all over Australia today, continuing to struggle with the problems this has created for themselves and their communities. How could they trust the government or authorities? How do they reconcile their different upbringing in different cultures? How can they ensure this doesn’t happen again.

One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve experienced was my son’s friend, aged 6, learning about the stolen generations and being terrified that somebody would come and take her away from her loving family. My son has never worried about that, but for his friend it is all too real a possibility.

My Island Home

I have mentioned Torres Strait Islanders a few times. In the far north of Australia, between the northern tip of Queensland and the island that is shared by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, is the Torres Strait. There are lots of islands dotted about here, and the people of the area had a very different culture to most of mainland Australia, much more connected with the Pacific Islands. It has become customary in recent years to acknowledge that the people of the Torres Strait are separate, but also Australian. They have their own flag, and their own very different customs.

The Future

I am a white person with very little knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. My understanding of my own privilege and ignorance has changed over the years, and I trust that will continue. I try, in the best way I know how, to not be racist, offensive, or insensitive. I try, in the best way I know how, to learn what I can and to support positive change in our country. Sometimes I get it wrong. Hopefully I get it right more often as I learn.

My personal experience with indigenous people, individually and collectively, is overwhelmingly positive. I am excited that my son has an indigenous elder at his school who teaches the kids through art and language about the oldest civilisation in the world, and helps them learn the respect for country that characterises indigenous cultures right across Australia.

We have a long way to go to give indigenous people the same standard of living and the same opportunities as everyone else. I believe we will only do that by having all Australians better understand and proudly share the oldest human cultures in the world.

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