Rainbow Dreaming  

Traditional aboriginal dwelling

Traditional aboriginal dwelling in front of Parliament House, Canberra, mid- 1990
Image: © Ally de Roo

The Dispossession of Indigenous Australians

What is now referred to as Australia was once a continent upon which lived approximately 500 indigenous nations. Since colonisation by the British in the 1770’s, the number of indigenous people living on the continent has been significantly reduced. Now they represent only 2% of Australia’s population.

Colonisation by the British brought diseases and sicknesses to which the indigenous peoples had not been exposed before and their numbers were significantly reduced. At the same time and thereafter, indigenous-owned and occupied lands were stolen by force. Many indigenous people were massacred and others were driven from their land. There has never been any justification given for the theft of these lands, or any recognition that the land was stolen. However, in 1992, the High Court of Australia, for the first time recognised indigenous rights to land, based upon a continued connection to the land and upon indigenous spiritual, religious and other obligations.

These rights to land, however, could only be recognised where the Crown had not already given the land to someone else. And of course settlers, squatters and the government had already stolen most of the “rich” lands of this country. So this left only small tracts of fertile land available but considerable amounts of desert.

Since the Commonwealth government’s native Title Act of 1994 (set in place to manage indigenous land claims), only a handful of claims for land have been successful.

The majority of indigenous Australians remain dispossessed and landless. As a result of more than 200 years of colonisation, indigenous Australians are the most disadvantaged racial group on the continent. They experience high mortality rates, limited access to education, sub-standard housing, high unemployment rates, over-representation in the jails, the continued dispossession of lands...the list is endless.

The Bundjalung on the north coast of New South Wales, most of whom are landless, have been seeking a return of their lands through the Native Title process with mixed results. Much of the area they are seeking to regain is of spiritual and religious significance to them. The Bundjalung see the area as the beginning of creation, and the return of their lands is vital for the survival of the Bundjalung people and their culture.

It is time the world came to know and respect indigenous Australian culture and how they were the wise managers of the continent for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many of the environmental problems created by modern “civilisation” can be solved through the use of indigenous knowledge and techniques.

Gary Martin, lecturer, Indigenous People & the Law,
Southern Cross University, Lismore, 1997

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