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Date: Sat, 4 Nov 2000 18:31:26 -0500
From: Le Monde Diplomatique <dispatch@monde-diplomatique.fr>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Australia's Forgotten Dreamtime
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Arborigines fight for their culture and rights: Australia's forgotton dreamtime

By Michele Decoust, Le Monde Diplomatique,
4 November 2000

An Australian athlete and Aborigine, Cathy Freeman, lit the flame for the Olympic Games held in Sydney from 15 September to 1 October. Another Aborigine, the dancer Djakapurra, was the star of the opening ceremony. Yet in the history of Australia, revisited for the occasion, there was hardly a mention of the massacre of the native population that colonisation brought, of the brutal assimilation policies that followed, or the fate of the Aborigines in today's society.

26 May 1998. A hundred or so Aborigines are gathered in front of Parliament House in Darwin, administrative capital of Northern Territory. It is National Sorry Day, celebrated throughout Australia in memory of the Stolen Generation.

For more than a century and right up to the late 1960s, on government orders, Aboriginal children with white blood in their veins were snatched from their mothers and placed in orphanages, mission stations or with foster families who were supposed to make good little Australians out of them. The slogan in those days was keep Australia white. And after the genocide by the early settlers and the semi-slavery of the reserves, all that remained in order to have done with these sub-humans and make them forget where they came from and who they were, was to assimilate them by force right from the cradle.

The Commonwealth conference in 1937 on the native problem did not mince words: The destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption. It restated its views in 1951: The aim is assimilation...until the Aborigines live like any white Australian. The police and Protectors were given authority to raid communities and remove all children with a light skin. Desperate Aborigine mothers blackened their children's faces with charcoal, or sent them to hide out in the bush.

The Chief Protectors appointed by each state became the legal guardians of the half-caste children until the age of 18. Some of their reports speak louder than words: I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring (Inspector James Idell, in 1905) (1); Children are removed from the evil influence of the Aboriginal camp, with its lack of moral training and its risk of serious organic infectious disease. (Chief Protector Cook, 1911) (2).

In front of Darwin's Parliament House, a procession lines up. Everyone has come solemnly to sign the register that lists the names of all the kidnapped children. One old woman sobs. A loudspeaker calls for a minute's silence to mourn the dead of the Stolen Generation. Then they wait, all eyes turned to the magnificent doorway of Parliament House. But no white comes out - not a single MP, not a single minister. They have all gone away.

Sadness gives way to anger. I'm sick to the stomach, explodes Marjorie, a fine-looking woman with eyes ablaze. She was born of Afghan and Aborigine parents, from whom she was snatched at her home in Philip Creek, way out in the bush, along with 15 other children aged from one to five. She was three years old. It was 1952, and Australia was proud of its young democracy.

When are these people going to see that we're human beings just like them, and that the worst suffering you can inflict on a mother is to take her child away from her? asks Marjorie. She has tracked down the children she was with at the orphanage. They have organised a grand picnic a step or two away from Dixon House, where they lived until their adolescence. They were my only family. We'd been told our mothers had abandoned us, that our parents were poverty- stricken and illiterate, and unable to look after us. We weren't aware of being Aborigines - we didn't even realise we weren't white and that our skins were coloured, it was the neighbours who told me! At the orphanage they wiped out our memories; when I thought about being little, there was suddenly a great big hole, and I felt I'd been emptied out.

It was not until the 1990s that the story of the Stolen Generation came out into the open. Paul Keating's Labour government launched a major enquiry, with the uncompromising title Bringing them home. This began in 1994 with the Going Home Conference, which brought together in Darwin 600 Aborigines who had been taken from their families. The National Report came out in 1997: it revealed that between 1885 and 1967, 30% to 50% of Aboriginal children - meaning from 70,000 to 100,000 of them - had been taken away from their mothers and put in institutions.

The statements from witnesses were heart-rending and shook the country to the core. Especially since this time, going beyond the question of race, it was the human rights of the mothers that had been trampled on. Link Up, the association for Aborigines of the Stolen Generation that helps its members piece together their family tree and trace their family and place of origin, says: We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not erase the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to erase us as Aboriginals.

Yet for all the force of the inquiry, what the Aborigines want most is an official asking for forgiveness, to restore the history of their people, recognise their identity, and give them back their dignity. But in 1996 Paul Keating, ahead of his time and country (he called for a republic and was in favour of ties with Asia more than with Europe), was replaced by John Howard and a very conservative cabinet, which drew its strength from the rural population, traditionalists of every stamp and a vociferous middle class.

There was no longer any question of saying sorry, or of setting up a special tribunal to oversee reparations. Of the sums that had already been paid out, two-thirds had gone straight into the pockets of white bureaucrats and lawyers conducting endless - and fruitless - lawsuits. The Federal Court has this August turned down an appeal from two Stolen Generation victims. The judge could see no point in taking any account of 60 witness statements, 3,000 documents or the immense trauma suffered by the two plaintiffs: their abduction was not, he said, against the laws in force at the time.

Despite repeated criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Commission of his policy towards the Aborigines, John Howard - speaking through his Aboriginal affairs minister - had the cheek to declare this April that no more than 10% of Aboriginal children had been separated by force - and some of those for good reasons. So this was not a generation, but just a few dozen families, to be dealt with case by case. This time, the denial of justice was simply too gross, and a big march in Sydney was organised for 27 May, the day after Sorry Day. For two hours a vast crowd of 200,000 blacks and whites, marching hand-in-hand, invaded the city's famous Harbour Bridge. There was general and total amazement; no-one had dared hope for such a turn-out.

Yet despite injunctions from Aboriginal leaders and athletes threatening to make use of the Olympics to assert their rights before the whole world, the government remains unmoved. And the real debate and real issues are elsewhere. They go right down to the historical roots of this continent, and down into the shadowy recesses of the Australian psyche.

For most Australians, the Aborigines are still not human beings, but a kind of sub-race close to the animal kingdom. We're dealing with the most visceral, the most primitive racism on the whole planet! As soon as they got here, the Whites hunted us with rifles, just like rabbits. Then, they went on constantly working to wipe out our culture, our languages and our people. They've so much hatred in them that today, even though there are no more than 300,000 of us, we're their favourite source of complaint, the thorn in their flesh, as if we were counted in millions! This heartfelt comment comes from Marcia Langton, professor of anthropology at Darwin university and the Aborigines' long- time spokesperson at the UN. She says you can't talk about reconciliation like in Ireland, or even negotiations like in South Africa. Out of 19 million Australians, a million at most feel any concern about our history, and face up to the ethical problems. The recent history of colonisation still weighs heavily on relations between the two communities. Punctuated with massacres, followed by herding into reserves, officially for the purposes of integration but unofficially to achieve a slow genocide, it has left livid wounds. When Labour leader Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972, however, hope was born. Responding to the call from the Aborigines for their tribal territories to be restored, he started his term of office with the symbolic giving of a handful of red earth to an Aborigine leader. In a landmark speech he said All of us, Australians, are diminished when we refuse the Aborigines their rightful place in this nation. He made the handing- back of land official, in an irreversible movement that restored to the native people of Northern Territory up to two-thirds of their lands. At local level, Aboriginal Land Councils were organised. They managed the communities' territorial claims, defended their rights, and negotiated operating rights and royalties with the mining companies.

During the 1980s successive governments were to recognise the Aborigines as a people having a specific culture and values, and their fundamental right to keep their racial identity and traditional way of life, or to adopt a totally or partially European way of life. But the real challenge to the very foundations of the Australian nation came from the High Court in June 1992. This literally rewrote history by handing down a sensational judgment enshrining the Mabo Act, which gave back to Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait islander, the territory of his ancestors. This was the first recognition of Native Title, the tribal right of ownership. To win his case, Mabo had had to prove that the lands he was claiming had always been lived on by his forbears.

This decision, confirmed by a federal act and extended to the whole of the country (it applies to only 10% of Aborigines, but thousands of square kilometres of land) cancels out two centuries of British jurisprudence, as well as beliefs that are deeply implanted in the Australian sub- conscious. Up to 1992 Australia's official doctrine had always been that of Terra Nullius - empty land. Put bluntly, this meant that the first settlers seized land for themselves (without having to sign any kind of treaty), as if the Aborigines were not human beings and they were setting foot on a totally uninhabited continent.

For all the progress made in the past 20 years, the statistics are damning. An Aborigine's life expectancy is 20 years less than that of a white, infant mortality is four times higher, unemployment three times higher, average income less than a half, imprisonment and suicide rates five times higher. Not counting the slow suicide of a whole people through alcoholism, and of its youth through petrol sniffing. It is as if, in spite of all the measures that have been taken, integration into white society is still impossible.

These are two cultures, two civilisations, that are too different and with almost diametrically opposed value systems, that have had barely two centuries to come to terms with each other. Koula Roussos, a Greek-Australian, is a lawyer for the Aborigines who has specialised in the Stolen Generation. Some Aboriginal tribes in Arnhem Land, or from the Central Desert like the Pintubi, met their first white man barely 50 years ago, she explains. They shifted from one moment to the next from prehistory and being hunter- gatherers to the 20th century with its Toyotas and super- markets. It was as violent as a nuclear explosion. When I travel to their communities and see them living in the open, abandoning the houses that have been built for them, while every white Australian's ultimate dream is to have his own house and little patch of garden, I tell myself that the gulf is unbridgeable. I myself, as a lawyer, have the devil's own job to make them understand what our law is; because even if most of them no longer live according to the tribal laws of the Dreamtime (3), they're still imbued with its values, and with a quite different notion of justice.

And that, as a background, is what affects all levels of negotiation between the two communities. The two are never on the same wavelength, in a dialogue between a white world that is competitive and materialistic, geared to progress, control and conquest, and a more spiritual black world where the mission of man, with ties to every form of life, is to celebrate the earth and the heroes of Dreamtime who shaped it, by observing all the rituals that allow life to regenerate and perpetuate itself.

What in fact is our identity based on?, asks film-maker and musician Wayne Barker, at Broome in Western Australia. Today's Aborigines have inherited a civilisation that is 40,000 years old, but they can make it evolve with them. Before, we perpetuated our culture by oral transmission; now, we use radio, television and films. Even initiation ceremonies are adopted to living in a town; they no longer last for months, and they take into account the tempo of modern work. But as long as we have to do everything by white people's law and justify ourselves to them, it won't work. How can anyone assess creation myths, and tales, and sacred rites, and the sacred belonging to a land, our Aboriginality, by using blood sample analysis, and signatures, and property laws, and barbed-wire fences that divide and separate?


(1) Taken from the Australian government report Bringing them home, Canberra, 1997.

(2) Ibid.

(3) For the Aborigines, the Earth carries the footprints of the heroes of the Dreamtime, who shaped it as they walked and brought all living creatures into being. These heroes still act on the forces of the universe - the fertility of nature, the fecundity of women, the rain and the winds - and they still guide men while they sleep.