From Dispossession to Self-Determination in the Australian Outback
In September/October, 1999, David Werner had a chance to visit parts of Australia he had not seen before. He had been invited to Darwin in the Northern Territory to speak at the annual meeting of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA). But while “down under,” he also visited aboriginal settlements in and around Alice Springs in the central desert.
Here David discusses the staggering inequality that exists between the White majority and the indigenous minority—the Aboriginal tribes people—and its impact on health.
Australia appears to have changed in profound ways since the 1950s when I studied biology at the small, rural University of New England in northern New South Wales. Now, 45 years later, as our Quantas aircraft—color-fully painted with Aboriginal designs— approached Sydney airport, I was astounded when a promotional video lauded Sydney as “the most multiracial, multi-cultural city in the world!” When I was last there over 4 decades ago, the dominant mind-set tilted more toward white supremacy than ethnic diversity. The nation’s “White Australia Policy” was still entrenched. Immigration of non-Caucasian (non-white) people was fiercely discouraged and the native people—or Aboriginies—were still denied citizenship, were not counted on the national census, and were mainly confined to reservations on the most inhospitable land. Not until a 1967 Referendum were the Aboriginal people granted citizenship and the right to vote.
Today many white Australians feel ashamed of the historic mistreatment of the Aboriginal tribes-people (which was fully as barbaric as the white man’s treatment of the “Indians” in North America). Apologies have been drafted. Efforts are being made to compensate (to a limited extent) for the monumental expropriations and abuses. Yet few deny that in Australia oppressive inequalities and racism still persist.
Before the arrival of British colonists in 1788, the Aboriginal people had lived in harmony with the land for over 40,000 years. They had managed to survive and live successfully in one of the driest, most challenging, and most delicately balanced environments on the planet.
They acquired a deep knowledge of the native plants and animals and the hidden sources of water, nutrients and medicinal plants, with which they were able to evolve and sustain a culture drastically different from (and outside the comprehension of) Western “civilization.” With the colonization of Australia, its native peoples were driven from their ancestral lands. Those not slaughtered outright were pushed onto barren deserts and reservations. Vast areas of the continent were stocked with cattle and sheep, and overrun by rabbits.
Overgrazing and deforestation have now so depleted native vegetation in some areas that, due to reduced transpiration from plants, the shallow, rainfed water table is rising. This has increased the saltiness of surface soil so much that agricultural flatlands are fast devolving into lifeless wastelands. Meanwhile, the source of fresh water for most of the continent is a vast 150-meter deep artesian basin; non-renewable groundwater which is 20,000 years old. This large but limited supply of fresh water is currently being extracted so fast to supply and feed Australia’s agribusinesses and urban industries, lawns and golf courses, that the water level of the deep aquifer is falling by 1 meter every year.
Across the Australian continent, natural balances are being dangerously upset and disastrous long-term consequences are predicted. Yet the white man’s imbalanced civilization plunders on, devouring the future. Rather than learning about balance and frugality from the indigenous peoples, the conquering race has displaced and disintegrated them. The Aboriginal peoples are struggling against great odds to keep alive the remnants and dreams of their long-surviving culture.
But spiro spero: where there is breath there is hope. As I soon had a chance to observe, there are many valiant attempts by Aboriginal people to assert their rights and preserve their ethnic identity. Especially in the Northern Territory (where 22% of the population is aboriginal as distinct from 2% in the nation as a whole), a wide range of “community controlled” health and development initiatives have been launched. Aboriginal activists seek greater self direction and autonomy for their people. But the situation is complex, the obstacles overwhelming.
Disabled People and Programs in Australia, Compared to Mexico
On my first day in Alice Springs I gave a talk on PROJIMO (Program of Rehabilitation Organized by Disabled Youth of Western Mexico) to a group of rehabilitation field workers. I showed slides of disabled villagers making wheelchairs and assistive devices. After my presentation, the listeners told me that our experience in Mexico, while inspiring, could not be duplicated in out-back Australia. They could not conceive that poor disabled Australians, Black or White, would “take their destinies into their own hands,” or create their own workshops to make wheelchairs and assistive devices, as they do in Mexico. Why should they?
“You see,” said an occupational therapist who travels out to remote communities, “Disabled people in communities here expect that everything will—or should—be given to them by the State. Therefore they have no incentive to do or make things for themselves, as do disabled folks in Mexico.”
In Australia, I learned, not only are rehabilitation services and assistive devices free, but every disabled person is entitled to a government pension, and so is the family member who cares for him. “So there is little motivation to become self-reliant.” I was told. “This makes rehabilitation very difficult.”
“But aren’t there ways that some disabled persons take part in the family and community life?” I asked.
It seems that, at least in the out-back, some disabled persons do help mind young children. A few produce arts and crafts (some of them marvelous!) for tourists. But most, I was told, bide their time just sitting or lying around. A lot of potential—and with it, richness of life— remains unrealized.
In some more traditional rural communities, extended families tend to be kind to old and disabled persons and to include them in the life of the family. But as traditions are weakened and families become more dysfunctional, disabled and old persons are often left alone and neglected during much of the day.
“Community-based Rehabilitation,” Australia style, is very different than in Mexico and elsewhere. A better term might be “Community Outreach.” Rehab Centers in Alice Springs and Darwin send occupational or physical therapy workers to remote communities to assist disabled persons.
Sometimes they teach rudimentary skills to local persons, who are then paid to provide basic assistance in homes. But the therapists told me they often don’t accomplish much because they are required to visit such a large number of distant communities. They travel to some communities only once or twice a year. As a result, disabled persons in remote communities rarely receive the rehabilitation or opportunities they are entitled to.
An encouraging sign is that the therapists spoke with are determined to spend more time training local persons than delivering services.
After meeting with these therapists, I reflected on the contrast between the possibilities of disabled persons in Mexico and Australia. Australia is a rich country with a national health plan designed to provide free health care and rehabilitation services to all. Mexico is a poor country (with pockets of great wealth) where government provides discouragingly little assistance. Yet in some ways disabled persons in Mexico may be in a better position! It struck me that in Australia, passive dependency-creating assistance is a disincentive to independent living. Many disabled Australians miss out on the grand adventure of figuring out a way forward for themselves and in solidarity with their peers.
I am a great believer in the right of all people to have publicly supported basic health and rehabilitation services. Those who are more fortunate should be taxed proportionately to make sure everyone’s needs are met. That is a function of democratic government of any humane society. But public assistance needs to be provided in ways that enable, not disable.
An Example of CBR, Australia Style
One of the pioneers of Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) in Central Australia is Robyn Glynn. Together with Christine, a highly motivated young disabled Aboriginal woman, Robyn has traveled to Bangladesh, Canada, and elsewhere to learn how CBR works in diverse settings. Robyn and Christine realize that the problematics of CBR in Australia are different from those in Third World countries; in ways they are easier and in ways more difficult due to the dynamics of assistance and dependency in an affluent welfare state.
An added challenge in Australia is that many remote communities consist of just a few distant huts. In each settlement, there may be no more than one or two disabled persons. Trying to set up a community-based rehab program is often not practical.
Robyn and Christina told me about a paraplegic (spinal cord injured) adolescent who they had found in a distant Aboriginal community. The boy was depressed, neglected, and had lost all hope for the future. The rehab team made several expeditions to the community to hire and train local persons as “rehabilitation helpers” for the 16 year old. They taught one person to give him the necessary physical exercises. They paid another to give the boy private home schooling to continue his formal education. Their goal was that he learn skills for economic self-reliance (in contrast to most non-disabled people in his community, who depend on the state for their subsistence). For similar reasons, they also hired a local artist to teach the boy to paint traditional designs for the tourist market. Reportedly, the boy is making good progress
However, the price of all this community assistance for one boy was far beyond what is possible for CBR programs in most countries, where low-cost solutions are the key to success. Through government funds, the boy’s 3 community rehabilitation helpers are each paid around Australian $17.00 (about US$ 12) per hour. No one is willing to provide assistance for less.
Even in a rich country like Australia, it is doubtful if such a costly, completely individualized approach could ever be applied on a scale to reach the great number of rural disabled persons whose needs remain unmet.
But the search for solutions continues. And Robyn’s effort to include Aboriginal disabled persons as equals in that search increases the probability of finding an appropriate course of action within Australia’s paradoxical physical and social environment.
During my stay in Alice Springs, I became aware that the dysfunction and loss of incentive of disabled people were characteristic of much of the Aboriginal population. The overpowering colonialism of the past has given way to the racist paternalism of the present. Whole communities are ocially disabled. The vast majority of Aboriginal people are unemployed or underemployed, and subsist on government “dole.” Their living conditions range from substandard to deplorable.
The patterns of ill-health are characteristic of a culture stripped of its freedom and sense of purpose, resulting in dysfunction and squalor.
Most Aboriginal people still live in small, remote “communities” that were formerly “stations” or “reserves” (reservations). Some have migrated to the towns and cities where they live in segregated camps under apartheid conditions. In the Northern Territory 25% of Aboriginal people are classified as “homeless.” Another 20% live in “humpies” (tiny makeshift stick or tin shacks). The government, with the assistance of “community-controlled” organizations, provides many families with basic housing complete with water supply, electricity, a stove, an air-cooler, and a bathroom. However, the meager welfare payments, about 1/9 the average earnings of white folks, are often insufficient to cover basic needs for nutritious food and health-related expenses. As stoves and air coolers bite the dust, living conditions degenerate. Families get by on prepackaged junk food. They appease their poorly nourished children with lollies, chips and Coca Cola, thus draining their limited budget even more. Alcohol, kava, and tobacco also cut deeply into the food budget. Money often runs out before the next welfare check comes in, so families spend several days each month without eating. This is harder on the thin children than on the overweight adults.
The patterns of ill-health are characteristic of a culture stripped of its freedom and sense of purpose, resulting in dysfunction and squalor. Acute infectious diseases of poverty and malnutrition in children are coupled with the chronic degenerative diseases of adults that result from imbalanced over-consumption.
Children, who tend to be skin-and-bones, suffer from high rates of diseases such as skin, respiratory, and ear infections. As a result of repeated skin infections, scabies, and strep throat, the incidence of rheumatic fever is one of the highest in the world. As a result of repeated ear infections, one study in Central Australia showed that up to 80% of Aboriginal children suffer from deafness severe enough to impede learning in school. This may partly explain the very high drop-out rate. Another reason for drop-out is the daily separation of the children from their families that comes with schooling. In virtually every family activity—including some meetings I especially enjoyed attending—children are intimately included.
While many children are undernourished adults tend to be obese due to a high intake of fatty junk foods and alcohol. Consequently the extraordinarily high death rate of middle-aged adults is mainly due to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and renal failure. Diabetes is one of the most common illnesses of adults. In turn, the combination of diabetes, alcoholism, and rheumatic fever has lead to an extraordinarily high incidence of kidney disease and renal failure. The incidence of both diabetes and renal failure is up to 17 times higher in Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal.
The high cost of renal dialysis is covered by Medicare, but is available only in city hospitals. For Aboriginals from the out-back, treatment usually begins late and is of questionable benefit. Typically, a middle-aged or older adult with advanced renal disease is taken far away from the family and hospitalized for dialysis. Within 2 or 3 months he or she dies, as much from loneliness and depression as from kidney failure. The failure is systemic. One strong demand of Aboriginal organizations is for home-based dialysis.
But to halt the epidemic of renal failure and other “diseases of despair,” the root causes of unemployment, poverty, racism, and loss of purpose must be addressed.
Today Aboriginals have the worst health statistics of any “Fourth World” group (tribal people living in an affluent country). Although the pattern and underlying causes of illness and death are similar for all Fourth World groups, the health of the Australian Aboriginals is far worse and life expectancy lower than that of US or Canadian “Indians” or of the Maoris in New Zealand.
Life expectancy for Aboriginals is 20 years lower than for white Australians. Mortality of children under 5 (at 24 per 1000) is nearly 3 times the rate for white children. Although child mortality has dropped substantially in the last decade, health activist David Legge warns that:
Some caution is warranted in interpreting declining death rates among children as evidence of improving health. There remain unacceptably high levels of disease and disability among children which are in many cases reflected in adult rather than child death rates.
Indeed, while child mortality rates have gradually declined, death rates of young and middleaged adults have been increasing, and are now among the highest in the world. Legge notes that many of the ills that cause premature death in adults stem from diets, habits, and exposure to infection experienced in early life.
Homicide and suicide are major causes of adult death, as are other alcohol-related causes. More men than women commit suicide. Yet more women die from homicide, due mainly to wife-beating by husbands when drunk. Homicide is the first cause of death in women under 50 years old.
While alcohol is heavily consumed by many adults and adolescents (in both White and Black communities), sniffing of petrol (gasoline) and glue is a common pastime of children. Many begin as young as 7 or 8 years old, some as young as 4. Petrol sniffing by children is more frequent when parents drink so much that they neglect their children or spend food money on “grog” (alcohol). Petrol sniffing mutes the children’s hunger. And since it takes away their appetite, they become further malnourished. Parents coax them to eat by offering them junk food and soft drinks.
Colonialism, Racism, and Dispossession: the Root Causes
“Victim blaming” is common when Australians view the current patterns of unemployment, unhealthy diet, substance misuse, and domestic violence of Aboriginal families. However, Legge and Bartlett caution their countrymen to take a historical view when considering the persistence of Aboriginal poor health. They see 2 main dynamics underlying the contemporary Aboriginal health disadvantage:
the long term and continuing effects of the processes of colonialism;
contemporary failures in policy, research, and administration.
Perhaps the largest component of preventable ill-health among Aboriginal people is comprised by the health conditions which reflect the anger and despair of people whose lives and family cultures have been deeply influenced by state abductions, police violence, authoritarian and institutionalized settlements, school failure and now by the failure to deliver upon the promises of reform. Health conditions which might be thus classified as diseases of anger and despair include, at least some
proportion of the violence and injury, alcohol and drug damage and nutrition-related diseases which contribute so substantially to the excess morbidity and mortality.
Echoing David Legge, in looking at the huge problem of substance
misuse, Fran Baum, President of the Public Health Association of
The most important question is not what harmful substances they use or how much, but rather WHY."
To answer this, she says we must look at the whole history of colonization, past and present, especially at the white man’s robbery of the Aboriginal land, which both spiritually and physically gave them life and meaning. “Land and Spirit” are a single, sacred concept in Aboriginal tradition. Loss of one foreshadows loss of the other.
From Genocide to Forced Assimilation to Paternalistic Aid
In their colonization of Australia, the “conquistadores” have gone through a series of assaults on the indigenous peoples:
GENOCIDE: mass slaughter, which decimated the mainland population and completely exterminated the tribes in Tasmania;
ASSIMILATION: systematic eradication of the Aboriginal cultures, mainly by taking away their children and schooling them to white man’s ways and values; and
by PATERNALISTIC AID: providing them with meager pensions, assistance, and alcohol in such a way as to create degrading dependency, with loss of both selfesteem and any personal responsibility for health and well-being.
The ‘Stolen Generation’ of Aboriginal Children
While the period of Genocide as part of the great land take-over is a well recognized dark side of Australia’s history, the more recent period of Assimilation has only been publicly discussed and confronted in the last few years. Referred to as the “Stolen Generation,” from the early 1900s to the 1970s thousands of Aboriginal children were separated from their families. The kidnappings were conducted by church-people, social reformers and other do gooders to “save” Aboriginal children from their parents, whom they thought backward and unfit.
Since the Aboriginal tribes were considered losers in the struggle for “survival of the fittest,” selected children were rescued “to smooth the pillow of a dying race.” They hand-picked those children who were the brightest and lightest. (Many Aboriginal children are actually blond during their early years.) These children were forcefully taken from their homes or abducted from school rooms, and placed in distant orphanages and “homes.” Although the intention was to give these displaced children greater opportunities and a chance to assimilate into white man’s society, continuing racism and segregation impeded assimilation. While some of the uprooted children did succeed and a few have become lawyers, development workers, and activists who today are fighting for their people’s rights, they were the exceptions. Studies have shown that most of these children suffered immeasurably. Many were mistreated, abused, or subsisted as indentured servants. Many had mental breakdowns or, as adolescents or adults committed suicide, or became derelicts and delinquents. In some states one in three of these children ended up in prison.
Separation for many was a death sentence. In any culture, separating a child from her mother is crushing for both. In Aboriginal society family bonds and kinship or “skin ties” are exceptionally strong. Even temporary separation can be devastating, and partly explains the very high Aboriginal death rate in prison, mostly from suicide. One strong argument for community based rehabilitation is that after a disabling injury or illness, most Aboriginal persons are unwilling to stay in urban hospitals long enough for rehabilitation, because they are so desperate to get back to their families.
The number of children abducted during the Stolen Generation is staggering. According to some reports, almost every Aboriginal family had at least one child taken away. The continuing grief, or “Sorrow Story,” remains an open wound on the Aboriginal psyche.
In some ways the situation of Aborigines has improved in recent decades. In 1967 they were given citizenship and voting rights. In 1992 the Mabo Agreement recognized that the Aboriginals were the original and rightful owners of Australian lands. They were permitted to apply for claims to “crown land” still unclaimed by Whites. Some Aborigines have returned to these homelands (having had to prove it is where their ancestors once lived). But most of the land still available for resettling is barren and has little potential.
Segregation and Apartheid
So the so-called “Aboriginal problem”—which for Aboriginal folk is the “White Problem”—persists. Segregation and apartheid, though unofficial, remain conspicuous. In Alice Springs there are 20 Aboriginal “camps,“or enclosures where different tribal groups live completely fenced off from the affluent white majority. I visited several of these camps.
Two “illegal” camps (squatter settlements) consist of tiny tin shacks or “humpies” where extended families crowd, with Jerry rigged water and no electricity. Most of the camps, however, are official and have limited public support. A non-government “community controlled” organization called Tangentyere, with the help of hard won government funds, has provided simple housing complete with water, electricity, flush toilets, and stoves. But despite these amenities, the overall camp mood is depressing. For many occupants life seems suspended, empty of action or purpose. The unemployment rate in the camps, I was told, is around 90%. People live on pensions, of which, in many families, a substantial part goes for alcohol. Some community councils (controlled by resident Aboriginals) have passed rules declaring their camps “dry.” Possession, sale, or consumption of alcohol on the grounds is prohibited. Nevertheless, especially on pay-day, many residents go out and get drunk. Incidentally, even the bars in Alice Springs are segregated. One of the two bars for Aboriginals is named “The Animal Bar.” But insults are so common that few react.
Of the 10% of the people who are employed in the camps, nearly all are on the CDEP (Community Development Employment Program). They work 3 1⁄2 to 4 hours a day and are paid roughly the same amount as are those receiving unemployment benefits. When I asked a White development worker why anyone would work when they can get the same money for doing nothing, the answer was “Self esteem.” Self esteem?
Growing Poverty and Unemployment in Australia: a Nation Divided
In Australia, much of the population, Black and White, is distressed by the dark underbelly of racism and extreme inequity. Among the industrialized countries, in terms of equity, the UN anks Australia at the bottom of the list (17th place).
At the PHAA conference I attended in Darwin, Michael Raper, President of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), spoke on “Ourselves—A Nation Divided.” He pointed out that until recently the Government had been relatively progressive. It had approved policies intended to meet the basic needs for health care, food, housing, etc. of all people. But lately Australia has experienced the same world wide reductionist shift to the Right that is taking place as part of globalization. Taxes of the rich are cut as those of the poor increase. Public service budgets are being slashed. Medicare is under attack. All this is widening the gap between rich and poor, and driving more people below the poverty line (8.2% in 1973; 11.5% in 1996.) While 45% of children live in families where both parents work, 20% live in households where no one has a full time job.
Such economic restructuring has had a negative impact on many country towns where industries have closed their doors, community services have been reduced, youth leave because there is no work and those who are left wonder what will happen to them in the future. A recent study shows that although the country has sufficient wealth to meet all people’s basic needs, there “are overwhelming inequalities in the health of Australians by all measures of socioeconomic status.”
Toward Self-Determination—But How?
Those analyzing the persistent health disadvantage of Aboriginal people agree that root causes include dispossession, dependency, and despondency of a people who see no way forward. Aboriginal organizations, NGOs, and government programs stress the need for self determination. The path toward healthier, more fulfilling lives of Aboriginal peoples must cross the stepping stones of revalidation and preservation of ethnic identity.
But there are no clear or easy solutions. The dependency trap in which so many people are caught—where they subsist on pensions and enter a vicious cycle of despondency, poor diet, and substance misuse—is hard to escape. For most there is no way to go back to living off the land. Traditional subsistence through hunting and gathering is no longer viable. For thousands of years the Aboriginal peoples were an integral part of a sustainable ecosystem. But today much of the sustaining force of the land has been desecrated by over-grazing and deforestation. Kangaroos and wallabies, the staple traditiona diet, today are hunted with ranchagons and rifles. Surviving wild game has grown wary. A family trying to subsist on hunting and gathering would not have money for firearms and vehicles.
It is hard to see how Aboriginal families can become self-sufficient without giving up their traditional culture and buying into the white man’s competitive, grasping and ecologically unsustainable way of life. With the persisting racism and hostility, attempts at assimilation have predictable tragic results.
Radical change is essential for a harmonious and sustainable future. But first and foremost, change is needed in the consciousness and values of the Whites.
Beyond the Dependency Trap
A well known Aboriginal activist, Noel Pearson, has recently caused a storm of debate among progressives, Black and White, by declaring that Aboriginal people can only achieve self-determination if they cease to depend so heavily on welfare. He argues that so-called “community control” of government-funded assistance programs is not enough. (In many community controlled programs the all Aboriginal council uses government funds to hire White persons to do the most important jobs.) As long as people are on the “dole” for their livelihood, says Pearson, they will never gain the self-esteem of independent living.
Politically, the dependency debate is highly charged. No one denies that having to rely on the “master race” for hand-outs of one’s daily bread (unhealthy white bread, at that) is disempowering: a kind of economic slavery. It undermines dignity and leads to the vicious cycle of substance misuse, dietary neglect, and psychosocial dysfunction. Yet among social activists, to raise the issue of self-sufficiency (getting out from under dependency on welfare) has become suspect. It plays into the hands of the reductionist government, which eulogizes “self-reliance” to justify cutacks of welfare benefits. Even the rallying cry of “Self Determination!” will soon be co-opted as moral ground for “getting tough with free-loaders.”
Still, however, “Self Determination” in the liberating sense of “Taking our lives and livelihoods into our own hands” remains the stated goal of many Aboriginal-run organizations. But everyone knows that to achieve self determination or self reliance in a way that sustains the tribal traditions and eco-cultural integrity will not be easy. The Spirit of the indigenous people is in the Land. Every charter or declaration they draft places Land and Spirit at the center of their demands.
But their primordial Land and Spirit has been so wasted by the Whites that even if vast tracts were returned to them, on the remaining waste land it would be very hard for a traditional society to be healthy and self-sufficient without substantial assistance.
There are those who argue that to approach equal opportunities, not only must more and better land be returned to the Aboriginal peoples, but also concessions such as mining and timbering rights, now held by Anglo Saxon (and Arab) corporations.
Others argue that, in terms of aboriginal values and eco-economics, such steps would be self- defeating. For traditional hunters-and-gatherers to earn their livelihoods by exploiting and depleting the natural resources as does the white man, thereby abandoning their age-old art of living in sustainable harmony with nature, would come closer to the deadly policy of assimilation than to ethnic liberation. It would amount to “ethnic genocide” (or “ethnic suicide” if elected voluntarily).
The Way Forward
There are no easy answers. The problem that Aboriginal peoples currently confront in the face of the White Man’s unsustainable development model based on unregulated growth regardless of its human and environmental costs, is a microcosm of the global crisis humanity and the planet face today.
But in spite of enormous obstacles, some positive things are happening.
More Aboriginal people are taking the lead in a process of historical and contemporary analysis of the events and inequities that determine their current realities. Some communities are reawakening to the values of their traditional ways of life: the eternal importance of Land and Spirit, of kinship groups, of inclusion of children in the daily lives and activities of adults, of reverent and sustainable co-existence with nature, of intimate knowledge of the land, the plants, the animals, the waters, and the stars, with all their intricate, interwoven life, beauty, and sacred powers of healing, of an ethic which places more value on sharin and divining than on private ownership and commandments carved in stone; the celebration of openness and space rather than boundaries and walls.
It is likewise encouraging that a growing number of white folks in Australia are awakening to the fact that the land’s original people—for all their passive resistance—have a resilience and wisdom, survival skills and sustainability, and a holistic culture of living as one with the earth, which the white man has tragically lost (or is perhaps still too immature to acquire). Out of this growing awareness of a common destiny, lie the seeds of hope and survival for the Aboriginal culture—and in the long run, for humanity.
Steps Toward Reconciliation
As more and more white folks in Australia examine the dark side of their colonial history, they are beginning to discover that we all have much to learn from Aboriginal culture and traditions. As the sad saga of the Stolen Generation comes to light, the Australian government is being urged to make an official apology to the indigenous people who are left. Up to now, Prime Minister Howard has refused, but the pressure to officially ask forgiveness and make amends continues.
Among the Aboriginal peoples has emerged a growing movement calling for fuller respect, equality and opportunities. Out of a search for good will on both sides, Aboriginal leaders and forward-thinking Whites have drafted a Declaration of Reconciliation. It is now being circulated for country-wide feedback, with hopes that it will be nationally approved by the year 2000. The draft has a tone of optimism and mutual appreciation of difference. It comes like a breath of fresh air in a murky land.
May this seedling of good will grow and transform into practical and equitable actions. If life on our shrinking planet is to survive, it is the Western World with all its transient colonial conquests, that must learn to be sustainably self reliant—and must change. Only then will reconciliation be vital and lasting.
DECLARATION FOR RECONCILIATION by Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Alice Springs
Circulated for discussion by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Alice Springs. To be launched nationally in May, 2000
Speaking with one voice, we the people of Australia, of many origins as we are, make a commitment to go on together recognizing the gift of one another’s presence.
We value the unique status of the Aboriginal peoples as the original owners and custodians of traditional lands & waters.
We respect and recognize the customary [aboriginal] laws, beliefs and traditions.
And through the land and its first peoples, we may taste this spirituality and rejoice in its grandeur.
We acknowledge this land was colonized without the consent of the original inhabitants.
Our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of its past so that we can move on together at peace with ourselves. And so we take this step: as one part of the nation expresses its sorrow
and profoundly regrets the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apology and forgives.
Our new journey then begins. We must learn our shared history, walk together and grow together to enrich our understanding.
We desire a future where all Australians enjoy equal rights and share opportunities and responsibilities according to their aspirations.
And so, we pledge ourselves to stop injustice, address disadvantage, and respect the right of Aboriginal peoples to determine their own destinies.
Therefore we stand proud as a united Australia that respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal heritage, and provides justice and equity for all.