Australia’s original inhabitants, Aborigines are a minority of 386,000 mostly impoverished people in a population of 19 million. After 212 years of white settlement, Aborigines are the least-employed, least-educated, least-healthy and most-jailed segment of Australian society. The first people to emigrate to Australia were the Aborigines , who migrated from Southeast Asia over 40,000 years ago. Generally, Aborigines were a nomadic group that survived by hunting and gathering. By the time of the first stable and permanent European settlement in Australia (1788), the Aboriginal people had developed a specific and strong culture.
This culture vastly differed from that of the Australians. This diversity of culture is important to fully understand the conflicts that exist in the country today. It illustrates why the situations of diversity and ethnic conflict are problems for the contemporary children of the country. During the 18th and 19th centuries there was a huge decline in the Aboriginal population due to disease, social and cultural disruptions, and brutal mistreatment. Out of all of these factors, disease took the most lives. Aborigine people did not have the antibodies to protect them against the “European” diseases.
Disease control is still an immense problem today, particularly among children and childhood diseases which should be preventable. Since healthcare is still not equal, the Aborigine and rural populations die much more often from disease. Approximately 94 percent of Australians originally came from Europe. Although the majority of the immigrants were either English or Irish, over 18 percent of the population is comprised of Europeans from other backgrounds. There were large waves of immigration from the Middle East and Asia after WWII Most Aboriginal families face health problems due to a lack of health care.
They are at disadvantage in health standards, life expectancy, and infant mortality. Health risks and lack of proper health care place Aboriginal children at extreme risk for many diseases. In 1996, eighty percent of the children affected with pneumonia were Aborigine (Antonios 1997). Four times as many Aborigines have diabetes as compared to statistics of non-indigenous Australians. Maltrunition is also common among Aborigines. The government supports Aboriginal medical services in all states since such poor health standards exist in the culture. Nonindigenous health is also a relevant issue in Australia.
Living Conditions Another factor affecting Aboriginal children are poor living conditions. Thirteen percent of these families do not have running water and thirty four percent of Aboriginal communities water supply is below the standard set by the government (Antonios 1997; Human Rights Commision 1997). On average, Aboriginal people have twice as many people dwelling and almost three times the number of people per room as other Australians (Brown 1980). A child living in these conditions grows up in less than adequate, overcrowded housing, where family pressures are great.
Physical Neither the state and its policies, nor the non-Aboriginal community, provide a positive environment for Aboriginal children (Brown 1980). Conflict with White institutional authority and police authority is a part of Aboriginal life. Attitudes toward police are less positive among Aboriginal children (Rigby & Black 1993). However, Aboriginal children attending rural schools expressed more positive attitudes toward parents and other forms of authority. Education With the poverty and the absence of bare necessities that Aboriginal children face daily, it is no surprise that educational standards are extremely low.
Thirty three percent of Aboriginal children complete schooling compared to the national average of seventy seven percent (Antonios 1997; Australian Bureau of Statistics). As a result of little or no education, thirty eight percent of indigenous people are unemployed and their income in sixty eight percent of the total population (Antonios 1997; Socialist Party of Australia 1995). The lack of opportunity for many Aboriginal children in the job market may lead to a life of crime. Because it has special meaning for them, each tribe connects very personally with the land they are born, live, and die on.
The entire continent of Australia used to be entirely occupied by the Aboriginal people, until the European settlers started arriving. some work is being done in restoring the land to the Aborigines. However, it is a slow battle, Land ownership to the white majority is akin to land usage, so they want to see proof that the Aborigines really need specifically the land they are ancestrally tied to. If they are not farming or mining it in some way, a common claim is that then they should be satisfied with the little parcels of land they were given by the government. “That land’s who we are!
We are that country! Without that country we’re nobody, we’re nothin’. And it can’t be just any land, you know? It has to be that land! ” They are actively involved in the land, and engage it in stories, dances and ceremonies on a constant basis. Instead of having a one-sided relationship, they interact with the land, to them it physically represents their ancestors. For the Aboriginal people, the land is not simply a resource that exists to be parceled up into neatly bordered sections. It is their past as well as future, and written in the hills and waterholes is their entire spiritual scripture.
By walking around their country, the features of the landscape call up the Dreamtime songs that explain how they were first created. And by singing the songs, they are in essence recreating the formation of the land. So, it’s a constant cycle of renewal rather than a linear progression. Instead of worshiping some event or person who lived in the past and is long gone, they are constantly in touch with their ancestors through the land itself. According to Aboriginal stories and songs, the entire earth was formed during an era long ago, which was known as the Dreamtime.
Before this occurred, the surface of the earth was a barren waste, with only pitted depressions that would eventually become the sites of waterholes. Underneath the crust dwelt the sun and the moons and the stars, as well as the ancestors for all the plants and animals. On the First Day, the sun was born, and shone his warmth down on the earth’s surface. One by one, the Ancestors were awakened, and arose from the soil. As they stepped onto the surface of the land, the first words they uttered were “I am… ” and they named themselves.
During the Dreamtime as the Ancestors traveled across the land, with each footstep they named the terrain and the life that populated the landscape, calling every feature into being. They sung as they walked, weaving all the names into verses, in effect singing the Earth into existence, and leaving the songlines laid out behind them. The Ancestors weren’t limited to just strolling around the country though; they also performed ceremonies along the way. Occasionally they would run into other ancestors and they would fight, trade knowledge, or make love.
Different tribes have different ways to account for conception, but it all follows the same basic pattern. According to one tribe, they would shake their bodies, and the down with which they were covered would fall off, impregnating the surroundings. These particles, guruwari, give life to all living things. For instance, the guruwari of the ancestral kangaroos is what gives life to present day kangaroos, so that in a sense, the Dreamtime exists within them, through these particles. The same is true for the aboriginal people; it is the guruwari that enters a woman’s womb, giving life to the as-yet unconcieved person within her.
This is what determines what dreaming ancestor will become that person’s totem spirit. These animals are symbols of the Dreaming. The Aboriginals are related to the animals because they have the same spirit fathers, but they don’t worship them. To them, whatever animal they are related to becomes cherished more than it is worshipped, so, for instance, they will refrain from eating the meat of that particular animal, because it would be akin to eating their own brother. However, they don’t expect all the members of their tribe to follow suit, because each person has their own ancestors that they are bound to.
By knowing their own Dreaming, they know where they fit into the land, because each animal or plant plays a specific role in the survival of the land as a whole. By taking away their land, the whitefellas are in effect removing them from their Dreaming, which is their identity. When a pregnant woman trod on one of the Ancestor’s footprints, the music would fly up into her womb, and spirit conception would occur. The mother would know exactly when conception occurred when she would felt the newly created life within her stir.
At the point when she first feels this quickening, she would make haste to carefully mark the spot, and then go to tell the elders of the tribe. The elders would convene on the spot of the conception and figure out which Ancestor it was that had passed this way. They determine this by analyzing the nearby land formations and deciding which songline passed over this spot. The as-yet unborn Aborigine was given, as his birth-right, a number of stanzas from his Ancestor’s songline that correspond with that area, and a significant landmark as his “conception site. (Chatwin, 60)
Thus, even from the moment of conception, the Aboriginal people are irrevocably tied to their lands. This is one of the major differences between their culture and our own. For the Aboriginals however, the land itself is what is central to their philosophy, not some mysterious deity in the sky. Without the land, they have nothing; their religious life is nothing without the country to support it, it is the country. For Christians, the concept of religion invokes thoughts of The Father, Son and Holy Ghost, all-powerful almighty beings that exist in the sphere of the Heavens.
Occasionally, there is earthly contact, but those instances are few and far between, which is what makes them miracles. In contrast, for the Aborigines, the Earth itself is the sacred sphere, so there is the clear physical difference: they are immersed in what they consider sacred, whereas we are far removed from it. Sacred space is central to the issue at hand, because although the land is what is being contested, there is an underlying battle over who’s view of the sacred is “better. ” The Aboriginal people know what they believe constitutes sacred space, and the white people have their own, very different ideas.
The root cause of the differences lies in how they define the sacred. To a Christian, a place becomes sacred when God is or was present in it. A familiar example of this is the passage in the Bible that describes when Moses encounters the burning bush, where the Lord warns him “Come no closer; take the shoes off your feet; the place where you are standing is holy ground. ” Many of the holy sites for western religions are areas that have been visited by the presence of God at one point. In ancient times, altars or stone pillars denoted places that had been graced by the Lord.
It wasn’t that they were ignoring the beauty of the natural world around them, or recognizing that it also was the work of God’s hand, it’s just that to them these alters were especially sacred places, because that was where God had appeared to man. In these areas the pious felt much more connected to their spiritual world, so in a sense, the holy locations acted as a medium for them to get in touch with the spiritual side of an otherwise mundane life. These sacred places act as focal points for worship in the natural sphere, which might have otherwise appeared dauntingly large.
Instead of having to acknowledge all of God’s work every time they worshipped they could simply concentrate on the aspect that directly connects to them as humans. (Placeways, pp68-85) To the Aboriginal Peoples however, it is not so easily defined. Because of the Songlines crisscrossing the continent, they view every part of the country as sacred. It’s not actually too different from the Christian belief as far as sacred spaces are defined, once again it comes down to the presence of a spiritual being that makes it sacred.
So it can’t be said that all of the earth is sacred to them, because even though they recognize that the rest of the planet is a part of nature as a whole and shouldn’t be taken for granted, their ancestors weren’t involved in the creation of it. To them the continent of Australia, and surrounding islands, is their whole world. Every part of it was lovingly called forth by their ancestors, who they themselves were sired by through spirit conception. Consequently, they feel that intense connection to the spiritual that is found in a Christian’s cathedral everywhere that they travel along their ancestor’s Songline.
Even though each Aboriginal may not feel as graced by the spiritual in every single place in the country, as a people, together every place is sacred to them. What all this leads up to is the conflict of the white settlers considering sacred spaces from the perspective that they are isolated, defined areas. Of course, for the Aboriginals, it is not nearly so easy to quantify singular locations on the landscape as sacred, because to them everything is equally sacred. This creates more problems when the white government wants to know exactly where their sacred locations are.
One of the steps that has been taken by the government is they try to restrict construction and mining and other land degradations to non-sacred areas. It was a thoughtful gesture on their part, but it makes it difficult for the Aboriginals who then have to choose which areas are more sacred than others. How can they go about denoting separated, isolated locations to be sacred when their entire religion is based on the flowing continuity of the Songlines that are interconnected in myriad ways throughout the country.
An argument might be that if the Aboriginals see the whole country as sacred, then why should they differentiate as to where they are placed. This is one of the reasons that the whites don’t see very clearly why it’s a problem for the Aboriginal people to be places on reservations, after all, chances are it is a sacred place. This is just a problem in understanding another culture, because although most areas do have dreamlines passing through them, each tribe has it’s own area with the dreamlines that the members of that tribe are born to.
So by relocating them to a reservation they are condemned to try and perform their rituals and retain their faith without the benefit of their sacred space. It would be akin to taking a group of Catholics and demanding that from now on they worship in a Buddhist temple; they would be somewhat at a loss, because it isn’t at all sacred to them, although it most definitely is to the Buddhists. Another facet of the difficulties in understanding each other comes from the inherent dissimilarities between the Aborigine’s and the white’s religions. The Christian religion celebrates an event that happened 2000 years ago.
To them, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was the most important thing that ever happened. Consequently, the focus of the religion lies in reenacting the past. But the Aboriginal religion celebrates what’s happening in the “here and now. ” The whites are more concerned about actions or dialogues that occurred in the past, or thinking about something that might happen in the future, but the Aboriginals are more focused on the present. One might make the point that they spend a lot of time concerning themselves with the past because of their Dreamtime, but that isn’t really the case.
To them, the Dreamtime is now, not back in the past. It’s all around them; it never stopped. (Dreamkeepers) A Christian might strive his entire life to act in a manner that is “good” and “just” as is defined by the Church, so that upon death he may enter Heaven and possibly finally be with his God. An Aboriginal on the other hand, lives on the Earth, in the constant presence of his ancestors and when he dies returns to it, so that never is he away from that which is sacred to him. This is one of the key differences that make is so difficult for the two cultures to understand each other.
To the Christians, religion is a linear progression that started centuries ago and ultimately leads up to the afterlife. But to an aboriginal, there is more of a cyclical pattern where everything ultimately comes back to the land. Every step he takes brings to mind some Dreamtime story that explains how a section of land was created, and is reaffirmed by the contours of the land. By singing his particular stanzas of the songline he was born to, he comes in contact with his ancestor and together they join in the process of recreating.
Both the Aboriginal religion and Christianity employ rituals or ceremonies in the process of worship, but with very different intentions. In Christianity, the major holidays celebrate a day or event that happened once, long long ago. Most of the ceremonies are similar in nature, such as communion, which reenacts the Last Supper of Christ, and is done in remembrance of Jesus. The Aboriginal ceremonies are centered more in the present and focus on rebirth and upkeep of the land. Rather then just remembering the ghosts of their ancestors, they believe that they are still with them, keeping the land healthy.
Since they have no “heaven,” one might think that there is no incentive then for the Aborigines to act in accordance with what is deemed right by their tribes, but that is not the case. They believe that the Earth will retaliate against those who mistreat it. In addition their Dreaming songs are multipurpose. They serve to mark the path that their Dreamtime Ancestor followed as he sang the world into being, but they are also lessons and morals. By recounting a particular story of the Dreamtime, the elders can instruct in ways of behavior.
A youngfella who is listening to the story may recognize that it was directed at him, and he is being given a chance to rectify either the situation he’s entangled in, or modify his behavior, before more drastic action must be taken. David Attenborough makes an interesting analogy, in his book, Journeys to the past, about one time when he witnessed some men of the Walbiri tribe painting on a sacred rock. After they had finished, they crushed some ochre on a flat rock and proceeded to smear it over the holy stones and also their bodies all the while chanting to themselves.
He likened them to “priests telling their rosaries, handling the relics of the eternal. ” This was to them the same as being in communion with their gods, and making what was in the past alive once more. Another analogy is that their walkabouts are like pilgrimages. Just as people of many varying religions nowadays make pilgrimages to the sites that are more sacred to their religion, the Aboriginals occasionally go on a ‘walkabout’ about the countryside. It’s not a wandering pointless stroll though; they are following specifically the Dreamline that applies to whatever Dreaming they were born with.
As they walk they sing the Dreaming song to themselves, and each new verse corresponds with a feature of the landscape they are passing. The walking and singing are perfectly timed so that one corresponds immediately to what is happening in the other. So, as an Aboriginal man comes into sight of a certain mountain or valley that is significant in his Dreaming, that feature is being named in him song. This is how they sing the land into existence every time they walk the songlines, by exactly recreating what their Ancestor did before them at the beginning, and continues to do every time they sing.
Sometimes, a ritual is performed as a clan, to re-affirm unity with the ancestor spirit. This also builds brotherhood among all the men who are of that ancestor’s dreaming. Although the Dreamtime was in the past, it is also coexistent with the present. The men, through performing the rituals, can become one with their dreamings. In this way, it’s almost like they are experiencing eternity, because the ceremonies allow the ancestor to live on through the years. Some of the aboriginal rock paintings, specifically of the Rainbow Snake, have been carbon-dated back to 9,000 BC or earlier.
According to Josephine Flood, in her Archaeology of the Dreamtime, this makes them the “longest continuing religious belief documented in the world. ” To the aboriginal people who painted them, and continue to touchup or repaint fading paintings, the Wandjina, or Cloud -Beings, are more than just pictures on a rock face. To them, they pictures are really the living images of the Wandjina themselves, embedded forever on the rock surfaces. They believe that by singing the Dreaming songs as they walk the songlines they will re-enact the forming of the Earth in tandem with their Ancestor.
Rather that having the Ancestor as being a removed figure, he is very close to the Aboriginal person who is singing his song, just in a slightly different plane. “Reality and Dreamtime were interchangeable, and you could travel back and forth between them as easily as walking between two rooms. ” (DK 76) The singing of the land is necessary, because in Aboriginal belief, a land that is unsung will die. This obligation to the land is part of what gives them their identity. If the songs are forgotten, the land itself will whither away; they need the continual cycles of renewal to maintain the upkeep of the land.
In exchange for the constant renewal of the land, they are given all that they need to survive and flourish off of. This is another example of how they interact on a continual basis, it’s not like the creation of the Earth was a one-time only, done deal, it needs constant input from the Aboriginals, or else the cycle is broken. To let a land go unsung or a dream go unwalked is considered one of their worst crimes. Another horrible action is when a section of a Dreaming song is sung out of order. This is tantamount to creating a rift in the natural order of things, to unmake that which has already been created, and can be punishable by death.
However, it can be very difficult to keep all the land continually engaged in song, just because often there is now no one from whichever certain tribe is needed to sing the songs. Many tribes were removed from their ancestral lands and shifted to holding areas or reservations. There, Aborigines from all over were forced to live on lands that quite often had no significance to them. They could certainly recognize the inherent worth of the land, because after all, someone’s Dreamline had to pass through there. The problem was that it wasn’t theirs.
As one fed-up refugee of a camp said, “My father was a Bunaba man, … My mother was Miriwoong…. I’m from both peoples. But neither of those peoples belong here! And the people who did belong here were mostly scattered someplace else. So, you see, we’re really displaced peoples in our own country! ” (Reg Birch, Dreamkeepers, p. 113) The issues with land rights got started when Captain Cook arrived in eastern Australia and claimed it in the name of the King as terra nullius – land belonging to no one. The result of this was that that Aboriginal nations were not recognized as sovereign states.
Thusly, in 1788, the Crown became the original possessor and sovereign of the land, as opposed to conquering landowners. The rationale was, it isn’t land stealing if the land belonged to no one. Thusly, every acre of Aboriginal land became officially Crown land. When Governor Phillip raised the flag in 1788 the Aboriginal people became British subjects, but arguably the land had been Crown land from April 29, 1770. The white people who first started flocking to the Australian deserts were for the most part drawn by the lure of gold.
Around the 1800’s there was a gold rush around Hall’s Creek, which brought the first settlers. They were followed by the cattlemen, who divided up the landscape into million acre cattle stations. In the process, the aborigines were displaced from their ancestral lands. Others were killed accidentally by the diseases the settlers brought with them. Many ended up working on the cattle stations or remote camps, or in missionaries. Others became “fringe-dwellers,” living on the edges of the white settlements. In the 1970’s, the Australian government stepped in to regulate worker’s wages.
Their intentions were good enough; they wanted to make sure that the Aboriginal workers were getting paid the same amount as white workers. However, this inadvertently led to alcoholism problems among the Aboriginal workers. Up until this point, the Aboriginals were making enough to live off of, and they would work during the day, then drink in the evening. It wasn’t a real problem until they were given citizenship rights, because then wages were regulated, and while this seemed like a good idea from the far away cities like Sydney; in reality it wasn’t doing them a favor at all.
The Aboriginals who were working on the stations got thrown off, because the station owners figured that if they had to pay them as must as white people, they might as well just hire white people. So, the Aborigines were set adrift with their families with no income except for the pension checks. Consequently, they received a small stipend of money and did no work at all, which led to drinking becoming more common. And now alcoholism is more of a problem that it was before the government stepped in. (The Songlines) There are some aborigines, known as the Law Men, who are in charge of self-policing the Aboriginal people.
They take responsibility for keeping some old traditions alive such as the initiation of young men. They would come to villages and take the young men into the bush, often against their will, and perform the manhood ceremonies such as circumcision or scarification on them. They are both feared and respected amongst the Aboriginals. They are known for being very harsh if they should discover women out on the track when they were passing through, often beating them severely. However, they also help keep the young Aboriginals in line, by administering traditional punishments such as spearings to the offending youngsters.
This seems quite often to be more effective than the white man’s laws and punishments, such as jail time which doesn’t seem to matter much one way or another. As one of the Law Men said, in reference to the function they provide, “The old Law, it’s never goin’ die! ” (DK 69) The Law Men also serve a useful purpose as far as land rights are concerned. The mining companies, in some cases, would come to a respected Aboriginal Law Man to inquire about hills or formations they wanted to sample for resources. They wanted to find out where Dreaming sites are, so that they could avoid offending people around them.
It was then the Law Men’s task to locate any and all Dreamings that may lie in that particular area, and then determine how important of a site it was to that Dreaming. This proved helpful, because oftentimes, the Aboriginals wouldn’t mind if mining went on in areas that weren’t as sacred, and so the mining company was saved the hassle of extended land rights battles. This is particularly promising when compared to incidents of the recent past, such as, in one instance of many, when the area of Lake Argyle was mined for diamonds. A story has it that in the 70’s a prospector uncovered an Aboriginal skeleton, buried with a diamond in one eye.
So, that was how they knew there were diamonds in the area, and they proceeded to rip apart the entire mountain in the process. What they weren’t aware of, or just plain didn’t care about, was that that mountain was a sacred place, because it is a crossover of two of the most important Dreamings, the Rainbow Snake Dreaming, and the Barramundi Dreaming. As one of the Aboriginals from Waringarri said, “They not only steal the land, then they destroy it… just for pieces o’ glass! ” (Dreamkeepers, 55) Unlike the white men, the aborigines do not attempt to conquer the land, by taming it and harnessing the animals.
Instead, they take enough only to keep themselves alive and the land provides all that they need. In exchange, they revere and care for it. In recent years land use agreements in the Cape York, Kimberley, Katherine and Pilbara regions, as well as mining agreements such as that with Century Zinc, have delivered surprisingly amicable results, and have succeeded because all stakeholders have been involved in the planning and implementation. This consultation process consisting of the full involvement of and negotiation with Aboriginal people demonstrates a recognition of and respect for Aboriginal culture.
A key turning event in the land rights battle was the 1992 High Court of Australia decision that overturned the premise of terra nullius. This was crucial, because up until this point the Aboriginal people had no legal recourse to regain their lands – in the eyes of the law, the land had never been theirs. With the Mabo case, as the ruling is known, the Aboriginals gained a foothold from which to claim that their ancestral lands had been stolen from them. With this ruling they actually were given a slim shot at regaining some last territory. There are also two major Acts that are highly relevant to the land rights battle.
One is the Native Title act of 1993, which recognizes native title, but there are certain restrictions that apply. For instance, the natives have to be able to demonstrate continued connection with their land in order for their claim to be processed. In short, history of the ‘stolen generations’ makes it extremely difficult for Aboriginal people to show a continued connection to the land as laid out in the Native Title Act legislation. This lost generation refers to all of the Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their homes to be placed in white person’s homes instead. This went on from early 1900’s up until mid-seventies.
The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act has a similar purpose as the Native Title Act, however it takes into account displacement of the Aboriginals. In this regard the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act can be seen to better accommodate the history of Aboriginal people in NSW. What the Aboriginals are struggling for is legal as well as moral acknowledgement of their prior ownership of the land, as well as the rights and obligations that this would grant them. Land rights are religious and spiritual, not political. The land is a spiritual thing, not political, not economic. Without it, they have no religion, and no spiritual life as a people.
They like to differentiate between claims to the land and rights to the land. ‘Claims’ is the way the government likes to phrase it, but they don’t see themselves as claiming it. It’s theirs by history and blood, so they see no need to claim it. All that they really want it to go back and live in peace where they can have control over their ancestral land, and live in what they call the “proper” relationship to the earth. “You may be chased off the land and murdered, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still the rightful owners of the land, that particular piece of land” (Dreamkeepers, p. 12) Aboriginal land ownership was not based upon land titles but rather on knowledge of each clan’s country, food sources, management techniques, special features and sacred places. Land title in the western tradition is a culturally based construct – as is Aboriginal land ownership. The ability of each culture to recognize each other’s legal systems is at the heart of land rights issues. At this point, progress is being made, especially through the ruling that pastoral leases and Native Title can co-exist.
This is what may eventually prove to be the idea solution in the modern world, because it allows both sides of the conflict to use the land as they need. The white farmers can continue to use the land that they have as pasture space, so long as the Aboriginals whose ancestral land the plot is can freely come and go on the property to visit their sacred sites. These are two vastly different uses of the land, one spiritual and one practical, so they really shouldn’t overlap or cause discord. As long as the farmers understand the Aboriginal people’s needs an