All About the Australian Aborigines

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The Australian aborigines are a group of indigenous people on the continent of Australia, also known as the “First Australians”, or "Bush People". Aboriginal Australians currently make up approximately 2.5% of the Australian population. Together with the Torres Straight Islanders, these two cultures make up the entirety of the Indigenous people of Australia, but while the Aboriginal people live primarily on the mainland of Australia, the Torres Straight Islanders live on the islands of the Torres Straight. The Torres Straight Islanders have cultural similarities to the islanders of Papua New Guinea that the Aboriginal Australians do not, such as a religion that is focused on worship of religious figures and objects.

The Indigenous People of Australia

It is unknown exactly how the Aboriginal people came to Australia, but many scientists theorize that they migrated in boats from southeast Asia at least 40,000 years ago. Although Australians Aboriginal people are made up of hundreds of distinct groups, they are believed to be descended from this single race of people that spread across Australia. While the Aboriginal people had different languages and customs that vary from one clan to the next, their belief in “the Dreaming” or “Dreamtime” is ubiquitous. Dreamtime stories explained the creation of the land, plants and animals by the spirits known as “the Ancestors”. It was this core belief that defined the spiritual and physical existence of the Australian aboriginal people.

The Aborigines live off the land in their territories, the boundaries of which were defined by natural geographic entities, like mountains and rivers. The aboriginal people lived in caves and bark huts, or even in the open air. They typically wore clothes only when the weather required it. Their traditional diet is often comprised of locally available meats, including marsupials, reptiles and birds. Plants, nuts, and seafood are also commonplace in the diet of the Australian Aborigines. They also ate creatures like moths and grubs, and sometimes ate their meats raw or undercooked by western standards. Depending on their territory, they were semi-nomadic or totally nomadic hunters and gatherers, ranging over their territories throughout the course of a year. The Aboriginal people live in family groups, where family relationships were extended and complex, and remarkably different from western family relationships. For example, the distinction between a "father" and "uncles" would be unclear to a westerner, because both would be known by title as simply, "father". The Aboriginal people live by family laws and practices that were set up to control family relationships, and promote harmony and respect. For example, a husband would be forbidden to speak to—or even say the name of—his mother in law, to prevent discord between mother and daughter. 

Until the colonization of Australia in the 18th century, the Aboriginal lifestyle remained virtually unchanged and untouched by modern society of that time.  In 1788, when the British landed in Australia, they brought with them their customs, foods, and diseases—most of which were introduced into the Aboriginal societies with devastating effects. The Aboriginal people were slowly displaced from the land they had occupied for many thousands of years, and their numbers diminished. Much like the struggles of the Native Americans of North America, their assimilation into the new society was long and arduous, as they fought to retain their values and customs while being forcibly exposed to new cultures. In the two hundred years that followed the arrival of the British in Australia, the Aboriginal people were given only limited rights and freedoms, much less than the general population. From the late 19th century and through the mid 20th century, Aboriginal children were systematically removed from their homes by Australian government officials, in a misguided effort to alter the gene pool and eliminate the Aboriginal culture. These children are now known as the "stolen generation". Starting in the mid-twentieth century, as the civil rights movement was underway in the United States, the Aboriginal Australians made progress in their struggle to have equal rights. In 1962, they gained the right to vote in Federal elections, and in 1967, a referendum passed mandating that the Aboriginal people had the full rights of citizenship and must be counted in the census.

Today, Aboriginal Australians still celebrate their cultural identity in music, dance, art and stories. Dreamtime stories are integral to their social structure, and from these stories they pass on their cultural obligations, laws and societal expectations. Their ultimate obligation is to their ancestral roots, the land and the rituals that perpetuate their cultural identity. The Dreamtime stories also teach them the consequences of stealing, murdering, trespassing and breaking other societal laws. They have retained many of their traditional attitudes toward kinship, and place a great importance on belonging in their social groups. Aboriginal Australians rely on the help of their families, neighbors and community groups for support in times of crisis and for their general emotional well-being. This type of support is critical to the Aboriginal lifestyle. Aboriginal Elders provide guidance for younger Aboriginal people within their communities, sharing wisdom and stories of the Dreaming. These Elders are relied upon to establish and uphold Aboriginal laws and acceptable behaviors.

Still, Aboriginal Australians face overwhelming societal problems, much like the Native Americans, of North America. Many Aboriginal Australians no longer live on their former territories, and 70% of them now live in urban settings. Family violence and sexual abuse is widespread in Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal women are 12 times more likely experience sexual assault than non-Aboriginal women. In 2008, 8% of Aboriginal people 15 years and older reported they were removed from their families by the government. This sort of displacement from family and group is often devastating. In a 2002 National Social Survey, 9% of Aboriginal people were formally charged with crimes at 15 years old or younger. Approximately 14% of Aboriginal people were unemployed, 24% had been victims of physical or threatened violence, and 41% had only completed nine years of school or less. Although Aboriginal people represent only a marginal percentage of the population, they represented a quarter of the prison population in 2009, committing offenses like violent and sexual assault, unlawful entry with intent, robbery and homicide.

The causes of these problems are numerous, and do not stem from any one source, but a concoction of afflictions. A history of poverty, racism, a breakdown of community, loss of traditional values and culture, and alcohol and drug addiction are all acknowledged problems in Aboriginal communities. Many Aboriginal Australians suffer from chronic health problems because of poor nutrition, addictions and substance abuse. The infant mortality rate for Aboriginal Australians is three times higher, while the life expectancy for Aboriginal men and women is almost twenty years shorter than life expectancy for non-indigenous people. Steps have been made, and are still underway, to fight these problems at their sources. Education and training, counseling and addiction interventions are among the services being provided by the Australian government to solve these problems. In 1992, the Australian government created the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, to report upon the issues still facing Indigenous people, and to encourage understanding in Australian society. The Commissioner also reviews legislation and policy, and seeks to provide research and advice that can enhance the effectiveness of this legislation. 

In the last 100 years, a number of Aboriginal Australians have become famous for their contributions to the arts, social justice and athletics. Examples of famous Aboriginal Australians include David Wirrpanda (football player), actor Ernie Dingo, Olympic athlete Cathy Freeman, senator to the Federal Parliament Neville Bonner, and writer Oodgeroo Noonuccal. These individuals are often cited as role-models for Aboriginal people. To have productive and positive role models in the Aboriginal community is crucial for rejuvenating the native population and encouraging them to aspire to greatness. As with many other downtrodden populations, hope is infrequent and hard to come by, through the assistance of Australian government programs and services, the Australian Aborigines have the resources to ability to better the future of their communities. The Aboriginal Australians are among the oldest living cultures in the world. Their legacy, although it is threatened, carries on in the Aboriginal communities still in existence today. Through protection and preventions, the traditions and communities will live on for the generations to come. The following resources will provide important and useful information to those looking to gain more familiarity with the Australian Aborigines and their culture.

Australian Institute of Family Studies. Family violence and sexual assault in Indigenous communities: “Walking the Talk”: All About the social issues facing Aboriginal Australians today. 

 Australian Institute of Criminology: Australian Crime, Facts & Figures 2007: Comprehensive brochure with facts and figures about Australia's prisons.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Comprehensive source of statistics regarding prisons and prisoners in Australia. 

Working With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their Communities: An organization promoting understanding of Aboriginal societies. 

Roadmap for Reconciliation: Overcoming Disadvantage: Detailed outline of the disadvantages Aboriginal Australians face, and ideas for future initiatives. The Dreaming: Detailed description of Aboriginal values and culture. 

Parilaiment of South Australia: Political movements and history regarding the advancement of Aboriginal people. 

Digital Commons: Stolen Generations and Vanishing Indians. A comparison of the plight between Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians.

All about Boomerangs A guide to the Boomerangs

Aboriginal Categories on StartLocal

Aboriginal Arts and Crafts - A browsable directory of aboriginal arts and crafts around Australia

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