When Australia comes to our mind we often dream about tranquil, serene beauty of nature surrounded by great ocean Pacific, pristine sandy beaches, enchanting great barrier reef, famous Sydney opera house and Harbor bridge and of course Kangaroo, Koala. But in this modern technological arena, we are still ignorant about the existence of traditional owners of Australia and their rich varied cultural heritage. They are the people whose land tells the story of Australia and their history.
Australia is known for multiculturalism and coming from India which itself is so diverse in culture, I took a little time to assimilate. Exploring and learning about different culture and tradition are always of my interest area. Last year just after our marriage, I and my husband went to cairns where tropical rainforest and great barrier reef are located, it was the very first time I encountered with Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people while traveling to Daintree rainforest. Still my thrust for cultural knowledge gaining is not completed. Fortunately joining the study of community services work here has unfolded my inquisitiveness and broaden my knowledge and outlook.
Australia is the young continent, it has a known history of only 200 years but surprisingly Indigenous Australian i.e. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been living in Australia over 50,000 years. It is believed that Australian Aboriginal groups are the descendants of modern human who migrated from Africa to Asia then Australia.
Officially British Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, comprising of 11 ships and around 1300 convicts landed in Botany Bay in January 1788 an intention to establish a penal colony. Aboriginal land was taken over by British colonists and believed that the land belonged to nobody (“tera Nullius”).This colonization resulted to a tragic decline in the aboriginal population and adverse effect to their culture and the land. Sadly Australia has no treaty with the Indigenous people, unlike other countries.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are distinctive, complex and diverse and believed to be the oldest living culture in the world. Torres Strait Islanders are the people of Torres Strait Island which lie between cape York and Papua New Guinea, is legally part of Queensland state in Australia. Traditionally they are a Melanesian origin. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have 250 different nations which they also call as a country. There were about 600 clan groups when European arrived and each had distinctive cultures and beliefs. Their territories ranged from lush green areas to harsh desert surroundings. Some of the aboriginal groups are Noongar, Wiradjuri, Awakal, Eora, Yolngu, Tiwi etc. They mainly live in the north, central outback, tropical rainforest, western regions of Australia. Their main livelihood was trapping and hunting animals. But for different regions they relied on the different resource for livelihood. They were depending upon nature for their survival. The establishment of British colonies disrupted their culture, customs and lives and they became marginalized.
Prior to the invasion, there were 250 indigenous languages and their languages are also made up of different dialects. They have a spiritual and cultural connection to the land which is significant in their life. The connection to the land is passed through stories, art, song, and dance. It also depicts their beliefs, rituals, custom and influences cultural practices. They believe that connection to country comes through the family. Their connection with nature and country emphasise the strong bond between spiritual being associated with the land. Aboriginal spirituality is a feeling of oneness of belonging. In several language group, Baime was the creator god and sky fathers. It was believed that he gave the people their laws of life, songs, traditions and customs. National parks contain sites of significance for them as dreaming stories are associated with it. Dreaming stories and sacred sites are central to their culture which shares a connection to the ancestor spirits. Most well-known sacred site in Australia is Uluru located in the centre of Australia, southwest of Alice Spring.
The lore or law for Aboriginal people is again beliefs, rules, and customs and is linked to kinship, reciprocity. In the kingship system, everybody shares a specific relationship to each other as well as a specific relationship to land based on their kin. Their lore or laws are to be meant for nature to protect environment and animals. It has transmitted through families and is regarded as scared. Ceremonial performances bring all aspect of their art, song, dance, body decoration, sculpture, and painting. Song and dance still occupy an important part of aboriginal life and custom which are passed down from generation to generation. Their richness and diversity of culture reflect through their magnificent paintings and artwork. Their ‘dot’ paintings, didgeridoo instrument, boomerang etc. have been widely popularized around the globe.
In spite of having such rich cultural heritage, the situation of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are critical. Before colonization, their population was estimated around 300,000 to 1 million. In 2011 census, Indigenous population is only 2.5% of total population of Australia. Very sadly, before 1967, they were considered to be animals under the flora and fauna act. It was after that they got the first class citizen status. In 1910 to 1970’s children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s descent were forcibly taken away from their homes without their parents’ consent by Australian Federal govt. & state govt. agencies, church mission. They are known as “The Stolen Generation”. The prime motive behind this was the breeding out indigenous blood which was similar to genocide. In 1937, assimilation policies were initiated by the Commonwealth Government but again aim was to disappear the Aboriginal problem so that they would lose their identity in the wider society. Separation of parents at a very young age had caused immediate effects on the mental and physical wellbeing of the children those were removed. The tragic and horrified experiences across several generations have resulted indelible trauma, depression and other mental health problems for Aboriginal people. They are now encompassed by poverty, unemployment, poor health, poor housing, lack of education, poor hygiene and living. All of these factors leads to high mortality and engage in drug and alcoholism in the early age. During the process of colonization, they tried every bit to assimilate in the broader society but the result is that they have become stigmatized and excludes from socio-economic and political power.
In spite of being traditional land owners, still fighting for recognition and survival is indeed sad. Though some of the policies such self-determination policy, land rights, native title, equal pay etc. have been introduced to make them officially recognized. The practice of acknowledging or being welcomed to the country at official events are mandatory in Australia. It is a part of their culture to welcome visitors to their traditional land. This acknowledgment of Country is a way of showing awareness, respect for the traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander owners of the land on which a meeting or event is being held and also of recognizing continuing connection to their country. This acknowledgment of country first I observed in our Rongali Bihu celebration in Sydney Assamese Association.
It is really a matter of pride to know and associated with these oldest surviving cultural groups in the world. Hoping they would integrate into the broader society to keep alive their culture, removing all prejudices and stereotypes from everyone’s mindset and flourishing compassionate and empathetic attitudes towards them.