The indigenous people of Australia – more commonly known as Aboriginals – likely came to this continent on a land bridge from New Guinea somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago – though some estimates place that figure closer to 70,000 years ago. For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal culture flourished on the continent without any contact from the outside world, but things changed in 1788 with the arrival of the first Europeans. Many of the effects of European settlement on the Aboriginals parallel the very same things I learned about Native Americans in school growing up in the United States. The Aboriginals, much like the Native Americans, suffered widely from European diseases to which they had no immunity. This lead to sharp population declines. Moreover, they were forced from their lands and had to compete with better armed and more technologically sophisticated European settlers for valuable resources.
I admit that I knew very little about Aboriginal history before moving to Australia. What little I did know came from two sources. The first was a movie called Rabbit Proof Fence which I saw back in 2002. The film is based around two Aboriginal children who are forcibly removed from their homes by whites and then escape to make their way back to their native home by following one of the many long rabbit-proof fences which stretched across Australia. This movie depicted what we now refer to as the Stolen Generations – groups of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their homes as White Australia thought it would be advantageous for them to be away from their birth parents and native cultures. There’s obviously much more to it than that as many Australians will tell you, but for the sake of this being way too long, I’ll leave it at that. My second source of information about Aboriginals prior to moving here was from Bill Bryson – my favourite travel author who taught me much about what to expect when I arrived. In his book about Australia, Bill Bryson tells the story of some Australians who he met on a long train ride across the continent. And while the details of his conversation with them are fuzzy (and I can’t be bothered to grab the book off my shelf and thumb through the pages to find the reference), the general gist was these Australians said to him that schoolteachers in Aboriginal communities have to feed the students because Aboriginal parents take their government checks, line up at the liquor store right when it opens in the morning, and blow all of their money on booze with no money or resources left to care for their children. I thought this seemed harsh, but I really didn’t know the situation.
And then I arrived in Australia and the situation before me didn’t seem too far off. I lived on the border of Surry Hills and Redfern for my first 14 months in Sydney. Redfern is known as a dodgy neighbourhood mainly due to the Aboriginal housing projects that exist there (and thus high crime rates). I wouldn’t see Aboriginal people too often, but when I did, they generally appeared in one of three scenarios: (1) begging for money on Crown Street – though I must admit that they were a bit friendlier than normal homeless begging for money, possibly because they were almost always women (2) walking drunk around Redfern (Aboriginals, not me) – which I experienced on two random occasions including once when I was heckled a bit (maybe heckled but not completely sure as words were slurred and I couldn’t quite get what they were saying, but I assume it was heckling from the tone) and (3) a very angry Aboriginal man knocking over signs and potted plants at the local shopping centre. Needless to say, I was beginning to see what those Australians who spoke to Bill Bryson were seeing. I one day saw an Aboriginal man on a public bus months after my arrival. He was wearing a business suit and I was completely shocked by it. I was as equally surprised when I saw a clean-cut and well-dressed Aboriginal family at Myer, our big department store, sometime later. So, I thought, which way is it?
My online research and TV viewings confirmed that reality was (sadly) probably more toward Mr. Bryson’s book than I had wanted to believe – at least for the largest chunk of Aboriginals. Life expectancy is over 10 years lower than for non-indigenous populations, and Aboriginals are likely to have more health problems. Poverty is a major issue (household incomes are 40% lower than their non-Aboriginal counterparts here) and some statistics show crime and incarceration rates as greater by a factor of 10 or more. Aboriginals have lower educational outcomes, minimal political representation at the federal level (only two Aboriginals have ever served in the Senate and the first ever Aboriginal was just elected to the House of Representatives), higher tobacco use rates, and a much larger problem with alcoholism. That last one – the alcohol – is a major stereotype of Aboriginals in Australia, much as was suggested in the book.
In my experience here, Australians tend to be a bit more overtly racist and xenophobic than Americans – maybe because Australia has a much shorter history of diversity than America does (I’m not a sociologist, so don’t shoot me if you disagree) – but everyone seems to put on their Politically Correct Hats when it comes to Aboriginal issues despite what people may say behind closed doors. In 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered the Redfern Address – an acknowledgement of the injustices committed against Aboriginal people by those of European-descent over the short history of the country – and in 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd went a step further and issued a public apology to the members of the Stolen Generations. The Aboriginal flag (as pictured at the bottom) was adopted in 1971 and is commonly flown next to the Australian flag on most buildings.
So why am I blogging about this topic now? Aboriginal people make up less than 2.5% of the population of Australia, but nearly a third of the population of the Northern Territory. And before I went to Alice Springs, I received many warnings. Indeed, crime rates are high in Alice Springs – mainly due to the Aboriginal population – and Aboriginals, as I was told on several occasions, are pretty much free to go anywhere on anyone’s land (even private land) due to Native Title Acts. So, if an Aboriginal person wants to swim in your hotel’s pool, they can. If they want to sit on your hotel patio, they can.
The taxi driver from Alice Springs Airport to our hotel advised us to take a taxi anywhere we went even though our hotel was a mere 700 meters from the centre of town – no matter day or night. Hotel reception said we’d be fine walking to town during the day as long as we remained aware of our surroundings. Scary. And as soon as we walked out of our hotel, a little Aboriginal boy – maybe 4 or 5 years old – all by himself – walked right by us and just wiped his hand across my friend’s jacket – as if it was his own. That would have been unacceptable anywhere else in the world. But not here. Indigenous people lined the main street of Alice Springs – just sitting around doing nothing –and when we went to check out the river, there were a quite a few people sitting in there too (as I mentioned in my last post, the river was completely dry). Everywhere we went in Alice Springs, there seemed to be Aboriginal people just chillin’ – and when we arrived at the Ayers Rock resort a few days later, there were natives running around there too. I say “running” because we saw quite a few unsupervised Aboriginal children just running and playing around the resort facilities and around the rock itself.
And just like in Greece and India, there was a serious lack of deodorant going on.
We didn’t see a line of Aboriginals waiting outside the liquor store in Alice Springs (as more than one person told me I would see), but I don’t think I actually saw a liquor store and I’m very glad that stereotype didn’t have the opportunity to materialize. On a similar note, three days later when we were at the Ayers Rock Resort, we were told that we had to present our room keys or our resort resident permit in order to purchase anything from the bar. There are only three groups of people out at the Ayers Rock Resort which lies in the middle of absolutely nowhere: (1) tourists (2) “residents” who are the resort workers and (3) Aboriginals. So the laws were obviously designed with one specific group of people in mind.
There is a massive push to improve the lives of Aboriginals, but there also comes with it much criticism that Aboriginals aren’t doing enough for themselves. This I can see to an extent. I watched a long news report last week which featured a prominent Aboriginal professor who said that the current means of assisting weren’t working and that we needed to create newer, modern, more inventive, and creative ways to help the Aboriginal people realize their true potential – like through reality TV shows designed specifically for Aboriginals that would inspire them to do more with the resources they have (i.e. a renovation show which features ways Aboriginals can easily and cost effectively improve their homes). This was met with praise by both Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians. It was also met with harsh criticism and resentment by both Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians. One or two of the Aboriginals interviewed in the report depicted this professor – this Aboriginal professor – as a traitor.
From what I’ve seen and read, it appears Aboriginals harbor resentment against non-Aboriginal settlers or culture as evidenced by the “Invasion Day” protests every year on Australia Day. Aboriginals are proud to be Aboriginal. Other Australians are proud to be Australian. But will Aboriginals ever really be proud to be Australian? Do Aboriginals even consider themselves to be Australian? Probably not. I think there’s a sporting chance that peace in the Middle East will be found before the aforementioned Aboriginal problems are solved.
So what’s my conclusion to all of this? Well, I don’t really have one yet. I’m still new here so it really isn’t my place to judge. How to best address the problems that Aboriginals face is… certainly not for me to determine. (Wait, for once I don’t have an opinion on something? Who knew?) In lieu of some insightful recap, I’ll leave you with the educational tidbits from the previous paragraphs as well as this picture I snapped in Alice Springs:
Maybe one day that sign will read “Proud to be Aboriginal AND Australian”.