The Aboriginal “stolen generations”

When Captain James Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770, determined to claim the land for the British Empire, at least 300,000 Aborigines were living on the continent. Despite varying estimates of how long Aboriginal people have inhabited Australia (some believe it is since the beginning of time), there is scientific evidence that people were walking the continent at least 60,000 years ago.

By the time the Europeans arrived, there were at least 600 different tribal communities, each linked to their ancestral land by “sacred sites” (certain features of the land, such as hills or rock formations). They were hunter-gatherers, spending about 20 hours a week harvesting the resources of the land, the rivers, and the ocean. The rest of their time was taken up by the complex social and belief practices of their culture, as well as such life practicalities as making utensils and weapons.

The basis of Aboriginal spirituality rests in the Dreamtime stories, which recount how ancient spirits created the universe—earth, stars, moon, sun, water, animals, and humans. Much Aboriginal art is related to their land and the sacred sites that are home to the Dreamtime spirits. Some Aboriginal groups believe these spirits came in giant human form, while others believed they were animals or huge snakes. According to Aboriginal custom, individuals can draw on the power of the Dreamtime spirits by reenacting various stories and practicing certain ceremonies.

When the British came, bringing their unfamiliar diseases along with them, entire coastal communities were virtually wiped out by smallpox. Even as late as the 1950s, large numbers of Aborigines in remote regions of South Australia and the Northern Territory succumbed to deadly outbreaks of influenza and measles.

Although relationships between the settlers and Aborigines were initially peaceful, conflicts over land and food led to skirmishes in which Aborigines were massacred and settlers and convicts attacked. Within a few years, some 10,000 Aborigines and 1,000 Europeans had been killed in Queensland alone, while in Tasmania a campaign to rid the island entirely of local Aborigines was ultimately successful, with the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine dying in 1876. By the start of the 20th century, the Aboriginal people were considered a dying race. Most of those who remained lived in government-owned reserves or church-controlled missions.

Massacres of Aborigines continued to go largely or wholly unpunished into the 1920s, by which time it was official government policy to remove light-skinned Aboriginal children from their families. Many children of these “stolen generations” were brought up in white foster homes or church mission stations and never reunited with their biological families. Many children with living parents were told that their parents were dead. This continued into the 1970s.

Today, there are some 517,000 people who claim Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent living in Australia, or 2.5 percent of the population. Some 32 percent of these live in the major cities, while 25 percent live in remote or very remote areas. In general, a great divide still exists between them and the rest of the population. Aboriginal life expectancy is 20 years lower than that of other Australians, with overall death rates between two and four times higher. Aborigines make up the highest percentage of the country’s prison population, and reports continue to emerge about Aborigines dying while incarcerated.

It was not until 1962 that Aboriginal people were given the right to hold citizenship or vote in Australia and only in 1992 that the High Court of Australia expunged the concept of terra nullius and acknowledged the pre-existing rights of indigenous Australians. Aboriginal people are still not recognized in the Australian Constitution.

The first act to be carried on by the Labor Government following electoral victory in the general election held at the end of 2007 was to officially apologize to the “stolen generations.” National Sorry Day is held on May 26 each year, when Australians of all backgrounds march in parades and hold other events around the country to honor the Stolen Generations. It is followed by National Reconciliation Week (May 27–June 3).

A Moment in Time

In 1964, a group of 20 nomadic women and children became the last Aboriginal people to make “first contact” with Europeans. They were living in the Great Sandy Desert, south of Broome, in Western Australia. When they first saw two officers from the Weapons Research Establishment, who were checking land destined for a series of rocket tests, the Aborigines presumed the white-skinned creatures were ghosts.

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