History of Indigenous Australians
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The history of Aboriginal Australians is thought to have spanned 30,000 to 45,000 years, although some estimates have put the figure at up to 65,000 years before European settlement. The Aboriginal Australians lived with a strong dependence on the land, and also the water. Each group developed skills for the area in which they would live – hunting or fishing or gathering.
In the early 1900s it was commonly believed that the Indigenous population of Australia was going to become extinct. The population shrunk from 1,250,000 in 1788 to 50,000 in 1930.
The origin of Australia's indigenous people remains a matter of debate and conjecture. They are believed to be among the earliest human migrations out of Africa. Although they likely migrated to Australia through Southeast Asia they are not demonstrably related to any known Asian or Polynesian population. There is evidence of genetic and linguistic interchange between Australians in the far north and the Austronesian peoples of modern-day New Guinea and the islands, but this may be the result of recent trade and intermarriage.
It is believed that the first early human migration to Australia was achieved when this landmass formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to the island of New Guinea via a land bridge. It is also possible that people came by island hopping via an island chain between Sulawesi and New Guinea and the other reaches North Western Australia via Timor. The exact timing of the arrival of the ancestors of the Aboriginal Australians has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists. The most generally accepted date for first arrival is between 40,000–80,000 years BP. Near Penrith in New South Wales, since 1971 numerous Aboriginal stone tools have been found in Cranebrook Terraces gravel sediments having dates of 45,000 to 50,000 years BP. When these results were new they were controversial, but more recent dating of the same strata in 1987 and 2003 has corroborated these dates. A 48,000 BC date is based on a few sites in northern Australia dated using thermoluminescence. A large number of sites have been radiocarbon dated to around 38,000 BC, leading some researchers to doubt the accuracy of the thermoluminescence technique. Radiocarbon dating is limited to a maximum age of around 40,000 years. Some estimates have been given as widely as from 30,000 to 68,000 BC. Earlier dates are requiring new techniques such as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), and the evidence for an earlier date of arrival is growing. Charles Dortch has dated recent finds on Rottnest Island, Western Australia at 70,000 years BP.[needs update] The rock shelters at Malakunanja II (a shallow rock-shelter about 50 kilometres inland from the present coast) and of Nauwalabila I (70 kilometres further south) show evidence of used pieces of ochre – evidence for paint used by artists 60,000 years ago. Using OSL Rhys Jones has obtained a date for stone tools in these horizons dating from 53,000–60,000 years ago.
Thermoluminescence dating of the Jinmium site in the Northern Territory suggested a date of 116,000 plus or minus 12,000 BCE. Although this result received wide press coverage, it is not accepted by most archaeologists. Only Africa has older physical evidence of habitation by modern humans. There is also evidence of a change in fire regimes in Australia, drawn from reef deposits in Queensland, between 70 and 100,000 years ago, and the integration of human genomic evidence from various parts of the world also supports a date of before 60,000 years for the arrival of Australian Aboriginal people in the continent.
Humans reached Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago by migrating across a land bridge from the mainland that existed during the last ice age. After the seas rose about 12,000 years ago and covered the land bridge, the inhabitants there were isolated from the mainland until the arrival of European settlers.
Short statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai of the Cairns area. These rainforest people, collectively referred to as Barrineans, were once considered to be a relic of an earlier wave of Negrito migration to the Australian continent, but this theory no longer finds much favour.
Mungo Man, whose remains were discovered in 1974 near Lake Mungo in New South Wales, is the oldest human yet found in Australia. Although the exact age of Mungo Man is in dispute, the best consensus is that he is at least 40,000 years old. Stone tools also found at Lake Mungo have been estimated, based on stratigraphic association, to be about 50,000 years old. Since Lake Mungo is in south-eastern Australia, many archaeologists have concluded that humans must have arrived in north-west Australia at least several thousand years earlier.
In 2012, the results of large-scale genotyping has indicated that Aboriginal Australians, the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and the Mamanwa, an indigenous people of the southern Philippines are closely related, having diverged from a common origin approximately 36,000 years ago. The same studies show that Aboriginal genomes consist of up to 11% Indian DNA which is uniformly spread through Northern Australia, indicating a substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Northern Australia occurred around 4,230 years ago. Changes in tool technology, food processing and the dingo appear in the archaeological record around this time, suggesting there may have been migration from India.
Long prehistory in AustraliaEdit
When the north-west of Australia, which is closest to Asia, was first occupied, the region consisted of open tropical forests and woodlands. After around 10,000 years of stable climatic conditions, by which time the Aboriginal people had settled the entire continent, temperatures began cooling and winds became stronger, leading to the beginning of an ice age. By the glacial maximum, 25,000 to 15,000 years ago, the sea level had dropped to around 140 metres below its present level. Australia was connected to New Guinea and the Kimberley region of Western Australia was separated from Southeast Asia (Wallacea) by a strait only approximately 90 km wide. Rainfall was 40% to 50% lower than modern levels, depending on region, while the lower CO2 levels (half pre-industrial levels) meant that vegetation required twice as much water for photosynthesis. The Kimberley, including the adjacent exposed continental Sahul Shelf, was covered by vast grasslands dominated by flowering plants of the family Poaceae, with woodlands and semi-arid scrub covering the shelf joining New Guinea to Australia. Southeast of the Kimberley, from the Gulf of Carpentaria to northern Tasmania the land, including the western and southern margins of the now exposed continental shelves, was covered largely by extreme deserts and sand dunes. It is believed that during this period no more than 15% of Australia supported trees of any kind. While some tree cover remained in the southeast of Australia, the vegetation of the wetter coastal areas in this region was semi-arid savannah, while some tropical rainforests survived in isolated coastal areas of Queensland. Tasmania was covered primarily by cold steppe and alpine grasslands, with snow pines at lower altitudes. There is evidence that there may have been a significant reduction in Australian Aboriginal populations during this time, and there would seem to have been scattered "refugia" in which the modern vegetation types and Aboriginal populations were able to survive. Corridors between these refugia seem to be routes by which people kept in contact, and they seem to have been the basis for what are now called "Songlines" today. With the end of the ice age, strong rains returned, until around 5,500 years ago, when the wet season cycle in the north ended, bringing with it a megadrought that lasted 1,500 years. The return of reliable rains around 4,000 years BP gave Australia its current climate.
There has been a long history of contact between Papuan peoples of the Western Province, Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal people in Cape York. The introduction of the dingo, possibly as early as 3500 BC, showed that contact with South East Asian peoples continued, as the closest genetic connection to the dingo seems to be the wild dogs of Thailand. This contact was not just one-way, as the presence of kangaroo ticks on these dogs demonstrates. Dingoes began and evolved in Asia. The earliest known dingo-like fossils are from Ban Chiang in north-east Thailand (dated at 5500 years BP) and from north Vietnam (5000 years BP). According to skull morphology, these fossils occupy a place between Asian wolves (prime candidates were the pale footed (or Indian) wolf Canis lupus pallipes and the Arabian wolf Canis lupus arabs) and modern dingoes in Australia and Thailand.
Similarly, Aboriginal people also seem to have lived a long time in the same environment as the now extinct Australian megafauna, stories of which are preserved in the oral culture of many Aboriginal groups (see Waugal, Rainbow Serpent and Bunyip). Most scientists presently believe that it was the arrival of the Australian Aboriginal people on the continent and their introduction of fire-stick farming that was responsible for these extinctions. This opinion is contested by Aboriginal people themselves and others[who?], who argue that mass extinctions of Australian megafauna occurred only 20,000 years ago, with the Ice Age Maxima. Fossil research published in 2017 indicates that Aboriginal people and megafauna coexisted for "at least 17,000 years".
Following the Ice Age, Aboriginal people around the coast, from Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and the southwest of Western Australia, all tell stories of former territories that were drowned beneath the sea with the rising coastlines after the Ice Age. It was this event that isolated the Tasmanian Aboriginal people on their island, and probably led to the extinction of Aboriginal cultures on the Bass Strait Islands and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. In the interior, the end of the Ice Age may have led to the recolonisation of the desert and semi-desert areas by Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. This in part may have been responsible for the spread of languages of the Pama–Nyungan language family and secondarily responsible for the spread of male initiation rites involving circumcision.
Aboriginal Australians were limited to the range of foods occurring naturally in their area, but they knew exactly when, where and how to find everything edible. Anthropologists and nutrition experts who have studied the tribal diet in Arnhem Land found it to be well-balanced, with most of the nutrients modern dieticians recommend. But food was not obtained without effort. In some areas both men and women had to spend from half to two-thirds of each day hunting or foraging for food. Each day, the women of the horde went into successive parts of one countryside with wooden digging sticks and plaited dilly bags or wooden coolamons. They dug yams and edible roots and collected fruits, berries, seeds, vegetables and insects. They killed lizards, bandicoots and other small creatures with digging sticks. The men went hunting. Small game such as birds, possums, lizards and snakes were often taken by hand. Larger animals and birds, such as kangaroos and emus, were speared or disabled with a thrown club, boomerang, or stone. Many indigenous hunting devices were used to get within striking distance of prey. The men were excellent trackers and stalkers, approaching their prey running where there was cover, or 'freezing' and crawling when in the open. They were careful to stay downwind and sometimes covered themselves with mud to disguise their smell.
Frequently disguises were used. Mud also served as camouflage, or the hunter held a bush in front of him while stalking in the open. He glided through water with a bunch of rushes or a lily-leaf over his head until he was close enough to pull down a water-bird. He prepared 'hides' and, with bait or bird calls, lured birds to within grabbing distance. He attracted emus, which are inquisitive birds, by imitating their movements with a stick and a bunch of feathers or some other simple device. Likewise, it was common to use the pelts of animals as a disguise, and imitate them in order to get within striking range of their herd..
Fish were sometimes taken by hand by stirring up the muddy bottom of a pool until they rose to the surface, or by placing the crushed leaves of poisonous plants in the water to stupefy them. Fish spears, nets, wicker or stone traps were also used in different areas. Lines with hooks made from bone, shell, wood or spines were used along the north and east coasts. Dugong, turtle and large fish were harpooned, the harpooner launching himself bodily from the canoe to give added weight to the thrust.
Hunting was frequently organised on co-operative lines. Groups of men combined to drive animals into a line of spearsmen, a brush-fence, or large nets. Sometimes a U-shaped area was fenced and the trapped animals killed. Animals were also trapped in snares, pits, and partly enclosed water-holes. there was a fairly clear division of labour between the sexes in food-collecting, but this was not rigidly maintained. The main concern was to get food. Hunting was arduous and the men often had to walk, run, or crawl long distances. In poor country, the men often returned empty-handed, but the women had invariably collected something - perhaps only a few roots and tiny lizards - but sufficient to tide the family over. Inland, the quest for water was a life and death matter. They knew all the water holes and soaks in their area. They drained dew and obtained water from certain trees and roots. They even dug up and squeezed out frogs which store water in their bodies.
Before British arrivalEdit
At the time of first European contact, it is estimated that between 315,000 and 750,000 people lived in Australia, with upper estimates being as high as 1.25 million. A cumulative population of 1.6 billion people has been estimated to have lived in Australia over 70,000 years prior to British colonisation. The regions of heaviest indigenous population were the same temperate coastal regions that are currently the most heavily populated. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the Murray River valley in particular. However, Aboriginal Australians maintained successful communities throughout Australia, from the cold and wet highlands of Tasmania to the more arid parts of the continental interior. Technologies, diets and hunting practices varied according to the local environment.
Post-colonisation, the coastal indigenous populations were soon absorbed, depleted or forced from their lands; the traditional aspects of Aboriginal life which remained persisted most strongly in areas such as the Great Sandy Desert where European settlement has been sparse.
The mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region. While Torres Strait Island populations were agriculturalists who supplemented their diet through the acquisition of wild foods, most Aboriginal Australians were hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal Australians along the coast and rivers were also expert fishermen. Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people relied on the dingo as a companion animal, using it to assist with hunting and for warmth on cold nights.
Some writers have described some mainland indigenous food and landscape management practices as "incipient agriculture". In present-day Victoria, for example, there were two separate communities with an economy based on eel-farming in complex and extensive irrigated pond systems; one on the Murray River in the state's north, the other in the south-west near Hamilton in the territory of the Djab Wurrung, which traded with other groups from as far away as the Melbourne area (see Gunditjmara).
On mainland Australia no animal other than the dingo was domesticated, however domestic pigs were utilised by Torres Strait Islanders. The typical Aboriginal diet included a wide variety of foods, such as pig, kangaroo, emu, wombats, goanna, snakes, birds, many insects such as honey ants, Bogong moths and witchetty grubs. Many varieties of plant foods such as taro, coconuts, nuts, fruits and berries were also eaten.
A primary tool used in hunting is the spear, launched by a woomera or spear-thrower in some locales. Boomerangs were also used by some mainland indigenous peoples. The non-returnable boomerang (known more correctly as a Throwing Stick), more powerful than the returning kind, could be used to injure or even kill a kangaroo.
Permanent villages were the norm for most Torres Strait Island communities. In some areas mainland Aboriginal Australians also lived in semi-permanent villages, most usually in less arid areas where fishing could provide for a more settled existence. Most indigenous communities were semi-nomadic, moving in a regular cycle over a defined territory, following seasonal food sources and returning to the same places at the same time each year. From the examination of middens, archaeologists have shown that some localities were visited annually by indigenous communities for thousands of years. In the more arid areas Aboriginal Australians were nomadic, ranging over wide areas in search of scarce food resources.
The Aboriginal Australians lived through great climatic changes and adapted successfully to their changing physical environment. There is much ongoing debate about the degree to which they modified the environment. One controversy revolves around the role of indigenous people in the extinction of the marsupial megafauna (also see Australian megafauna). Some argue that natural climate change killed the megafauna. Others claim that, because the megafauna were large and slow, they were easy prey for human hunters. A third possibility is that human modification of the environment, particularly through the use of fire, indirectly led to their extinction.
Aboriginal Australians used fire for a variety of purposes: to encourage the growth of edible plants and fodder for prey; to reduce the risk of catastrophic bushfires; to make travel easier; to eliminate pests; for ceremonial purposes; for warfare and just to "clean up country." There is disagreement, however, about the extent to which this burning led to large-scale changes in vegetation patterns.
There is evidence of substantial change in indigenous culture over time. Rock painting at several locations in northern Australia has been shown to consist of a sequence of different styles linked to different historical periods.
Some have suggested, for instance, that the Last Glacial Maximum, of 20,000 years ago, associated with a period of continental wide aridity and the spread of sand-dunes, was also associated with a reduction in Aboriginal activity, and greater specialisation in the use of natural foodstuffs and products. The Flandrian transgression associated with sea-level rise, particularly in the north, with the loss of the Sahul, and with the flooding of Bass Strait and the subsequent isolation of Tasmania, may also have been periods of difficulty for affected groups.
Oral history demonstrates "the continuity of culture of Indigenous Australians" for at least 10,000 years. This is shown by correlation of oral history stories with verifiable incidents including known changes in sea levels and their associated large changes in location of ocean shorelines; oral records of megafauna; and comets.
Harry Lourandos has been the leading proponent of the theory that a period of hunter-gatherer intensification occurred between 3000 and 1000 BCE. Intensification involved an increase in human manipulation of the environment (for example, the construction of eel traps in Victoria), population growth, an increase in trade between groups, a more elaborate social structure, and other cultural changes. A shift in stone tool technology, involving the development of smaller and more intricate points and scrapers, occurred around this time. This was probably also associated with the introduction to the mainland of the Australian dingo.
Many indigenous communities also have a very complex kinship structure and in some places strict rules about marriage. In traditional societies, men are required to marry women of a specific moiety. The system is still alive in many Central Australian communities. To enable men and women to find suitable partners, many groups would come together for annual gatherings (commonly known as corroborees) at which goods were traded, news exchanged, and marriages arranged amid appropriate ceremonies. This practice both reinforced clan relationships and prevented inbreeding in a society based on small semi-nomadic groups.
Impact of British colonisationEdit
In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia in the name of the United Kingdom and named it New South Wales. British colonisation of Australia began in Sydney in 1788. The most immediate consequence of British settlement – within weeks of the first colonists' arrival – was a wave of European epidemic diseases such as chickenpox, smallpox, influenza and measles, which spread in advance of the frontier of settlement. The worst-hit communities were the ones with the greatest population densities, where disease could spread more readily. In the arid centre of the continent, where small communities were spread over a vast area, the population decline was less marked. Disease was the principal cause of population decline.
The second consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources. The settlers took the view that Aboriginal Australians were nomads with no concept of land ownership, who could be driven off land wanted for farming or grazing and who would be just as happy somewhere else. In fact the loss of traditional lands, food sources and water resources was often fatal, particularly to communities already weakened by disease. Additionally, Aboriginal Australians groups had a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the land, so that in being forced to move away from traditional areas, cultural and spiritual practices necessary to the cohesion and well-being of the group could not be maintained. Proximity to settlers also brought venereal disease, to which Aboriginal Australians had no tolerance and which greatly reduced Aboriginal fertility and birthrates. Settlers also brought alcohol, opium and tobacco, and substance abuse has remained a chronic problem for Aboriginal communities ever since. The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence reduced the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900. Entire communities in the moderately fertile southern part of the continent simply vanished without trace, often before European settlers arrived or recorded their existence.
The Palawah, or indigenous people of Tasmania, were particularly hard-hit. Nearly all of them, apparently numbering somewhere between 2,000 and 15,000 when white settlement began, were dead by the 1870s. It is widely claimed that this was the result of a genocidal policy, in the form of the "Black War". Other historians dispute this. Geoffrey Blainey wrote that, in Tasmania, by 1830: "Disease had killed most of them but warfare and private violence had also been devastating." Josephine Flood wrote: "The catastrophic death rate was due to new diseases, particularly pulmonary and sexually transmitted ones." Historian Keith Windschuttle also disagrees that violence was the principal cause. He argues that there are plausible recorded accounts of approximately 120 Aboriginal Tasmanians killed in 1803–47, that there were an unknown number of unrecorded killings and that many of these were killed in 'self-defence' by settlers. Windschuttle argues some accounts of killings are implausible for a variety of reasons such as incidents involving improbably large death tolls given the muzzle-loading, single-shot muskets in use and that the low number of plausible recorded killings is one indicator of a relatively low level of conflict. Another scholar, H. A. Willis, has subsequently disputed Windschuttle's figures and has documented 188 Palawah killed by settlers in 1803–34 alone, with possibly another 145 killed during the same period. Such counts do not consider undocumented violence and must be regarded as minimum estimates. It is also claimed, but untrue, that the last Aboriginal Tasmanian was Truganini, who died in 1876. This belief stems from a distinction between "full bloods" and "half castes" that is now generally regarded as racist. Palawah people survived, in missions set up on the islands of Bass Strait.
On the mainland, prolonged conflict followed the frontier of European settlement. In 1834, John Dunmore Lang wrote: "There is black blood at this moment on the hands of individuals of good repute in the colony of New South Wales of which all the waters of New Holland would be insufficient to wash out the indelible stains." In 1838, twenty eight Aboriginal people were killed at the Myall Creek massacre; seven of the convict settlers responsible, six white men and one African man, were tried, convicted and hung for the murders. Many Aboriginal communities resisted the settlers, such as the Noongar of south-western Australia, led by Yagan, who was killed in 1833. The Kalkadoon of Queensland also resisted the settlers, and there was a massacre of over 200 people on their land at Battle Mountain in 1884. There was a massacre at Coniston in the Northern Territory in 1928. Poisoning of food and water has been recorded on several different occasions. The number of violent deaths at the hands of white people is still the subject of debate, with a figure of around 10,000 - 20,000 deaths being advanced by historians such as Henry Reynolds. However the methodology behind figures such as this one has been criticised due to the fact that only white deaths were documented in frontier conflicts, forcing historians to estimate a country-wide white-black death ratio in violent confrontations and infer from this the number of Aboriginal deaths. Nevertheless, deadly infectious diseases like smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis were always major causes of Aboriginal deaths. Smallpox alone killed more than 50% of the Aboriginal population. Reynolds, and other historians, estimate that up to 3,000 white people were killed by Aboriginal Australians in the frontier violence. By the 1870s all the fertile areas of Australia had been appropriated, and Aboriginal communities reduced to impoverished remnants living either on the fringes of European communities or on lands considered unsuitable for settlement.
Some initial contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans was peaceful, starting with the Guugu Yimithirr people who met James Cook near Cooktown in 1770. Bennelong served as interlocutor between the Eora people of Sydney and the British colony, and was the first Aboriginal Australian to travel to England, staying there between 1792 and 1795. Aboriginal people were known to help European explorers, such as John King, who lived with a tribe for two and a half months after the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition of 1861. Also living with Indigenous people was William Buckley, an escaped convict, who was with the Wautharong people near Melbourne for thirty-two years, before being found in 1835. Many Indigenous people adapted to European culture, working as stock hands or labourers. The first Australian cricket team, which toured England in 1868, was principally made up of Indigenous players.
As the European pastoral industries developed, several economic changes came about. The appropriation of prime land and the spread of European livestock over vast areas made a traditional Indigenous lifestyle less viable, but also provided a ready alternative supply of fresh meat for those prepared to incur the settlers' anger by hunting livestock. The impact of disease and the settlers' industries had a profound impact on the Indigenous Australians' way of life. With the exception of a few in the remote interior, all surviving Indigenous communities gradually became dependent on the settler population for their livelihood. In south-eastern Australia, during the 1850s, large numbers of white pastoral workers deserted employment on stations for the Australian goldrushes. Indigenous women, men and children became a significant source of labour. Most Indigenous labour was unpaid, instead Indigenous workers received rations in the form of food, clothing and other basic necessities. In the later 19th century, settlers made their way north and into the interior, appropriating small but vital parts of the land for their own exclusive use (waterholes and soaks in particular), and introducing sheep, rabbits and cattle, all three of which ate out previously fertile areas and degraded the ability of the land to carry the native animals that were vital to Indigenous economies. Indigenous hunters would often spear sheep and cattle, incurring the wrath of graziers, after they replaced the native animals as a food source. As large sheep and cattle stations came to dominate northern Australia, Indigenous workers were quickly recruited. Several other outback industries, notably pearling, also employed Aboriginal workers.
In many areas Christian missions provided food and clothing for Indigenous communities and also opened schools and orphanages for Indigenous children. In some places colonial governments provided some resources.
In spite of the impact of disease, violence and the spread of foreign settlement and custom, some Indigenous communities in remote desert and tropical rainforest areas survived according to traditional means until well into the 20th century. In 1914 around 800 Aboriginal people answered the call to arms, despite restrictions on Indigenous Australians serving in the military. As the war continued, these restrictions were relaxed as more recruits were needed. Many enlisted by claiming they were Māori or Indian.
By the 1920s, the Indigenous population had declined to between 50,000 and 90,000, and the belief that the Indigenous Australians would soon die out was widely held, even among Australians sympathetic to their situation. But by about 1930, those Indigenous Australians who had survived had acquired better resistance to imported diseases, and birthrates began to rise again as communities were able to adapt to changed circumstances. From the 1940s, the availability of penicillin to treat imported diseases also had a marked effect on reversing the population decline.
In the Northern Territory, significant frontier conflict continued. Both isolated Europeans and visiting Asian fishermen were killed by hunter gatherers until the start of World War II in 1939. It is known that some European settlers in the centre and north of the country shot Indigenous people during this period. One particular series of killings became known as the Caledon Bay crisis, and became a watershed in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In the early 20th century, anthropologists' influence dominated society's view of aboriginals in Australia. They were viewed as a different race that was not as evolved as Europeans. Starting in the 1880 and continuing into the 20th century, debate continued on where between ape and man could the aboriginal be situated in evolutionary terms. In the mid-1920s, there was a shift in focus away from physical anthropological issues of race and towards a cultural anthropological concerns established by field-work. New studies described aboriginals' social organisation, religious belief and practice. Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, the father of modern social anthropology, published his Social Organization of Australian Tribes in 1931.
By the end of World War II, many Indigenous men had served in the military and were paid an equitable salary. However, Aboriginal workers remained unfree labourers, paid only small amounts of cash in addition to rations, and had their movements severely restricted by regulations and/or police action. On 4 February 1939, Jack Patten led a strike at Cummeragunja Mission in New South Wales. The people of Cummeragunja were protesting their harsh treatment under what was a draconian system. A once successful farming enterprise was taken from their control, and residents were forced to subsist on meager rations. Approximately 200 people left their homes, taking part in the Cummeragunja walk-off, and the majority crossed the border into Victoria, never to return home.
On 1 May 1946, Aboriginal station workers in the Pilbara region of Western Australia initiated the 1946 Pilbara strike and never returned to work. Mass layoffs across northern Australia followed the Federal Pastoral Industry Award of 1968, which required the payment of a minimum wage to Aboriginal station workers, as they were not paid by the Pastoralist discretion, many however were not and those who were had their money held by the government. Many of the workers and their families became refugees or fringe dwellers, living in camps on the outskirts of towns and cities.
In 1984, a group of Pintupi people who were living a traditional hunter-gatherer desert-dwelling life were tracked down in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia and brought into a settlement. They are believed to have been the last uncontacted tribe in Australia.
In 1949, the right to vote in federal elections was extended to Indigenous Australians who had served in the armed forces, or were enrolled to vote in state elections. At that time, those Indigenous Australians who lived in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were still ineligible to vote in state elections, consequently they did not have the right to vote in federal elections.
All Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in Australia by the Menzies government in 1962. The first federal election in which all Aboriginal Australians could vote was held in November 1963. The right to vote in state elections was granted in Western Australia in 1962 and Queensland was the last state to do so in 1965.
The 1967 referendum, passed with a 90% majority, allowed indigenous Australians to be included in the Commonwealth's right to make special laws for specific races, and to be included in counts to determine electoral representation. This has been the largest affirmative vote in the history of Australia's referendums.
In 1971, Yolngu people at Yirrkala sought an injunction against Nabalco to cease mining on their traditional land. In the resulting historic and controversial Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia had been terra nullius before European settlement, and that no concept of Native title existed in Australian law. Although the Yolngu people were defeated in this action, the effect was to highlight the absurdity of the law, which led first to the Woodward Commission, and then to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
In 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra, in response to the sentiment among Indigenous Australians that they were "strangers in their own country". A Tent Embassy still exists on the same site.
In 1975, the Whitlam government drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which aimed to restore traditional lands to indigenous people. After the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor-General, a reduced-scope version of the Act (known as the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976) was introduced by the coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser. While its application was limited to the Northern Territory, it did grant "inalienable" freehold title to some traditional lands.
A 1987 federal government report described the history of the "Aboriginal Homelands Movement" or "Return to Country movement" as "a concerted attempt by Aboriginal people in the 'remote' areas of Australia to leave government settlements, reserves, missions and non-Aboriginal townships and to re-occupy their traditional country."
In 1992, the Australian High Court handed down its decision in the Mabo Case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid. This decision legally recognised certain land claims of Indigenous Australians in Australia prior to British Settlement. Legislation was subsequently enacted and later amended to recognise Native Title claims over land in Australia.
In 1998, as the result of an inquiry into the forced removal of Indigenous children (see Stolen generation) from their families, a National Sorry Day was instituted, to acknowledge the wrong that had been done to Indigenous families. Many politicians, from both sides of the house, participated, with the notable exception of the Prime Minister, John Howard.
In 1999 a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution to include a preamble that, amongst other topics, recognised the occupation of Australia by Indigenous Australians prior to British Settlement. This referendum was defeated, though the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the preamble was not a major issue in the referendum discussion, and the preamble question attracted minor attention compared to the question of becoming a republic.
In 2004, the Australian Government abolished The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which had been Australia's top Indigenous organisation. The Commonwealth cited corruption and, in particular, made allegations concerning the misuse of public funds by ATSIC's chairman, Geoff Clark, as the principal reason. Indigenous specific programmes have been mainstreamed, that is, reintegrated and transferred to departments and agencies serving the general population. The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination was established within the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and now with the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs to coordinate a "whole of government" effort.
In June 2005, Richard Frankland, founder of the 'Your Voice' political party, in an open letter to Prime Minister John Howard, advocated that the eighteenth-century conflicts between Aboriginal and colonial Australians "be recognised as wars and be given the same attention as the other wars receive within the Australian War Memorial". In its editorial on 20 June 2005, Melbourne newspaper, The Age, said that "Frankland has raised an important question," and asked whether moving "work commemorating Aborigines who lost their lives defending their land ... to the War Memorial [would] change the way we regard Aboriginal history."
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