Aboriginal Australians

Alternative names: Aboriginals (official), Korris, Munis, Noongars, various tribal and clan names
Location: throughout Australia
Population: 250,000-300,000
% of population: 1.5%
Religion: indigenous beliefs, Christianity
Language: various indigenous languages, English

The Aborigines are the indigenous inhabitants of Australia. Although it is difficult to estimate their numbers accurately there are probably between 250,000 and 300,000, most of whom live in the rural areas, many in and around the fringes of country towns. In the north and west of Australia many have been able to retain their languages and aspects of their traditional lifestyles although this is generally not true of those in the east and the large cities. The Torres Strait Islanders who live in the islands to the north of Queensland are related to the Papuan peoples of Papua New Guinea and comprise about 10% of the total indigenous population of Australia.

Aboriginal beliefs and way of life

Knowledge of Aboriginal myths and customs comes for the most part from tribal people living in the north and western desert areas where traditional social structures remained largely intact until well into the twentieth century, but their experiences may not reflect accurately those of other Aboriginal peoples. Aborigines entered Australia between 40,000 and 125,000 years ago and gradually came to settle the whole continent. Most were hunter-gatherers, although the remains of sophisticated artificial drainage systems in the state of Victoria suggest that some led a more sedentary lifestyle. At least 500 languages belonging to 31 language groups were spoken. One language group, Pama-Nyungan, was used over about 80% of the continent while the remaining 20% of languages were concentrated in the north-west and on the island of Tasmania.

Aborigines in the north migrated with the monsoons between the plains and the high ground whereas the movements of those in the southern coastal areas were dictated more by the movements of the fish on which they largely depended. Authority was vested in the older men of the group whilst the young men hunted and fished and women managed the family, cooked and gathered edible plants. Aboriginal life was dominated by an awareness of the Dreamtime, a period when beings with super-human powers formed the continent and became the Aboriginal ancestors, controlling the land and human destiny. Aborigines were acutely aware of their oneness with natural forces. They believed in a spirit which exists for all time and which assumes one human form after another. Their way of life seems to have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.

European colonization

This way of life was effectively brought to an end by the beginnings of permanent European settlement on January 26,1788, when the British landed on the east coast of Australia at the site of what was to become the city of Sydney. As the white settlers advanced inland European diseases such as smallpox, colds and measles decimated the Aboriginal population, and one smallpox epidemic in 1789 killed almost half of the Aborigines living between Botany Bay and Broken Bay. Despite a proclamation by King George III that the Aborigines should be treated with kindness and respect it was impossible for the settlers to avoid appropriating Aboriginal land and food, and the scarcity of women settlers meant that Aboriginal women were frequently the victims of rape. Neither at this time or later were treaties or acknowledgements of Aboriginal ownership made between whites and Aborigines.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most of the coastal and eastern Australian tribes were destroyed in violent confrontations with white settlers. In Tasmania almost the entire Aboriginal population was systematically killed. In 1926 tribal Aborigines were killed in retaliation for cattle spearing in the Kimberleys, and there were many other such cases. The Aboriginal population decreased from an estimated one million in 1788 to about 30,000 in the 1930s, although the part-Aboriginal population increased to about 40,000. After this period the decline in population levelled off. The Aborigines inhabiting the north and west sometimes worked on the cattle stations since white labour was scarce and expensive; in return for labour at near slave-rates Aborigines were permitted to visit their sacred places at certain times of year and could continue their customs and ceremonies.


The poverty of the Aborigines living in urban areas became more noticeable and something of an embarrassment to the government and gradually support grew for the establishment of Aboriginal reserves in remote areas and for welfare services. Various organizations and individuals were instrumental in bettering the position of Aborigines and by the 1940s Aborigines themselves were forming associations such as the Aborigines Progressive Association which campaigned vigorously to improve their status. The employment of over 1,000 Aborigines by the army in northern Australia during World War II also had an impact on perceptions of Aboriginal status since Aborigines were paid wages and shared equal accommodation and canteen facilities with whites. They still had no legal or political status, however, neither did they figure in census surveys. Government response was to settle for a policy aimed at eliminating any sense of separate Aboriginal identity, and in 1951 “assimilation” was adopted as the main strategy of the Commonwealth and State governments which were responsible for Aboriginal affairs. In 1959 a federation of Aborigines and white sympathizers was formed under the name of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).

The “assimilation” policy which had seemed acceptable in the 1940s and ’50s came under increasing criticism during the 1960s as it had been decided upon with no thought for Aboriginal wishes regarding the preservation of their culture and languages. The various states controlled their own Aboriginal policies, with the exception of the Northern Territory which was under Commonwealth control, and thus policy varied markedly from state to state which made a uniform approach to Aboriginal issues difficult. In 1967 it was decided as a result of a national referendum that the Commonwealth

government should have the power to legislate for all Aborigines and Aborigines were at last counted in population censuses. Although individual states retained the right to legislate and implement their own laws, Commonwealth law could in theory now override state laws.

Land rights

During the 1960s many of the laws which discriminated against Aborigines were repealed. Aborigines gained entitlement to state benefits and the right to vote; however the living conditions, health, life expectancy and education of Aborigines remained markedly lower than that of other Australians. There were several widely publicized cases of gross exploitation of black labourers which revealed that large successful companies were employing Aborigines for near slave-rates and housing them in extremely poor living conditions. In one famous case in 1966 Aboriginal stockmen of the Gurindji tribe went on strike to protest against their exploitation by the multinational Vestey empire. Although the company would not act to improve conditions for Aborigines, the strike action did focus white Australian attention on the plight of the black workforce. It also marked the beginning of the land rights movement, as Gurindji demands increased to embrace not just improved wages and living conditions but self-determination and land rights. An unsuccessful action brought against the Nabalco mining company by Aborigines in the Northern Territory in 1968 convinced activists of both races that the law would have to change before Aborigines could gain access to land rights. Public attention was once more brought to the question of racial injustice with the demonstrations against the Springbok tour of 1971, and the victory of the Labor party at the 1972 elections promised further action to better the status of the Aborigines, with government concentrating on the Federal sphere and on attempts to legislate land rights.

The most significant step forward came with the Aboriginal Land Rights Bill of 1976 which handed over former reserve land in the Northern Territory to be held in trust by three Aboriginal Land Councils. Although there are deficiencies in the Act (especially concerning mineral rights) and there has been considerable opposition from elements of the white population, it has provided a basis for the long-term security and economic development of the Aboriginal community. To date about 30% of the land in the Northern Territory has passed into Aboriginal hands. Some states such as South Australia also enacted progressive legislation and 10% of the state, largely desert, has now passed in perpetuity to the Pitjantjatjura people, although many other Aboriginal communities still have to achieve land rights. But most states have been reluctant to act on behalf of Aboriginal land rights and there has been a well organized and funded campaign against the granting of such rights by mining interests. The Hawke Labor government, elected in 1983, was committed to national land rights legislation and enacted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Act in 1984, but disagreements over the form and content of policy led to the collapse of the national model, which embittered many Aborigines.

In the state of Queensland the position of Aborigines has been consistently bad and Aborigines continued to suffer discrimination under the conservative National Party-Liberal coalition, especially after the extensive mineral finds on reserve land. Some communities have been forcibly evicted and two reserves abolished in the course of working these mines, thus destroying the social and economic basis of their traditional lifestyle. The Queensland Aboriginal and Islanders Act of 1971 prevented Aborigines from living or visiting reserves of their choice and forced them into work at lower than minimum wages. Although this act was later repealed, its legacies remain, and some Aboriginal communities are governed by discriminatory local government laws. There is no land rights policy in Queensland, despite the fact that it has the largest Aboriginal population in Australia.

Social and economic developments

In almost every index of social wellbeing Aborigines score lower than other Australians. Their life expectancy is 20 years lower, infant mortality rates are four times higher and in the north and north-west trachoma and leprosy have been rife, although health programmes are now beginning to make some impact in this area. Aboriginal housing conditions are poor and this in turn has affected Aboriginal access to education and employment. There have been some improvements in these areas during the 1980s, both because of government programmes and Aboriginal self-help groups; the impact is greatest when there is maximum government commitment and Aboriginal participation. The 1972 Labor government which established a Department of Aboriginal Affairs and increased spending was a watershed; after its defeat in 1975 there were cutbacks in spending. In 1988 it was announced that the Department would be replaced by a new structure, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission, which would allow for greater indigenous participation in policy-making.

The high rates of Aboriginal arrests and imprisonment, and especially of Aboriginal deaths in police custody, have been a major issue. In 1988 Aborigines accounted for 15% of the prison population and 21% of deaths in custody. The Muirhead Royal Commission set up in 1987 investigated over 100 Aboriginal deaths in custody occurring since 1980. Most of those who died were young men arrested on trivial offences such as drunkenness. The interim report issued at the end of 1988 stated that the deaths were caused by “appalling neglect”, and urged reforms to the prison, legal and medical services.

The period has also been marked by an upsurge of Aboriginal interest in Aboriginal language and tradition. Aborigines have produced their own magazines and newsletters; there is now Aboriginal broadcasting and television, and an Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre. The Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service (NAILS) and Aboriginal Health Services have continued to operate and expand despite financial restraints. There have been several attempts to found a national Aboriginal organization whether by governments or by Aborigines; these have not always been successful partly because of differing political priorities and partly for financial and organizational reasons. Perhaps the most impressive movement has been the formation of the Land Councils, organized in the Federation of Land Councils, and ranging from the large and collectively wealthy Councils of the Northern Territory to the unfinanced and unrecognized organizations in some states. Aboriginal organizations have participated in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and in other international fora.

1988 was the bicentennial year of white settlement in Australia. On January 26, 1988, 30,000 Aborigines marched through the streets of Sydney in protest at the invasion of their land and ill-treatment of their people. Although awareness by Australians of the Aboriginal situation has greatly improved in the past 20 years the issue of land and mineral rights remains a major problem and there will have to be further legal and political initiatives if the status and well-being of Aborigines is to be raised further. The negotiation of a Treaty between Aborigines and the Australian government — as promised by Prime Minister Hawke — is seen as a vitally important symbolic and practical acknowledgment of the Aboriginal position as the owners of the land.

(See also Maori of New Zealand)