aboriginal dwelling in front of Parliament House, Canberra, mid- 1990
Image: © Ally de Roo
Dispossession of Indigenous Australians
What is now referred to as Australia was once a continent upon which
lived approximately 500 indigenous nations. Since colonisation by the
British in the 1770’s, the number of indigenous people living
on the continent has been significantly reduced. Now they represent
only 2% of Australia’s population.
Colonisation by the British brought diseases and sicknesses to which
the indigenous peoples had not been exposed before and their numbers
were significantly reduced. At the same time and thereafter, indigenous-owned
and occupied lands were stolen by force. Many indigenous people were
massacred and others were driven from their land. There has never been
any justification given for the theft of these lands, or any recognition
that the land was stolen. However, in 1992, the High Court of Australia,
for the first time recognised indigenous rights to land, based upon
a continued connection to the land and upon indigenous spiritual, religious
and other obligations.
These rights to land, however, could only be recognised where the Crown
had not already given the land to someone else. And of course settlers,
squatters and the government had already stolen most of the “rich”
lands of this country. So this left only small tracts of fertile land
available but considerable amounts of desert.
Since the Commonwealth government’s native Title Act of 1994 (set
in place to manage indigenous land claims), only a handful of claims
for land have been successful.
The majority of indigenous Australians remain dispossessed and landless.
As a result of more than 200 years of colonisation, indigenous Australians
are the most disadvantaged racial group on the continent. They experience
high mortality rates, limited access to education, sub-standard housing,
high unemployment rates, over-representation in the jails, the continued
dispossession of lands...the list is endless.
The Bundjalung on the north coast of New South Wales, most of whom are
landless, have been seeking a return of their lands through the Native
Title process with mixed results. Much of the area they are seeking
to regain is of spiritual and religious significance to them. The Bundjalung
see the area as the beginning of creation, and the return of their lands
is vital for the survival of the Bundjalung people and their culture.
It is time the world came to know and respect indigenous Australian
culture and how they were the wise managers of the continent for thousands
of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many of the environmental
problems created by modern “civilisation” can be solved
through the use of indigenous knowledge and techniques.
Martin, lecturer, Indigenous People & the Law,
Southern Cross University, Lismore, 1997