The Question of Australia's Aborigines

40 Years After The Australian Referendum

According to anthropologists, the Aborigines have inhabited Australia for between 40,000 and 60,000 years. Yet today it is common to hear white Australians refer to themselves as having descended from the “first settlers.” Unfortunately, the indigenous population of Australia has been abused, neglected, terrorized, and denied basic human rights since the days these “first settlers” arrived. It was only in a 1967 referendum, when 90% of the nation voted to make all Aborigines citizens of Australia and give them the right to vote, that this began to slowly change.

I learned all this at the Sydney Writer’s Festival where, on the 40th anniversary of the referendum, a panel of Aboriginal writers, statesmen, and community leaders reflected upon the things that have changed and the things that have not changed since the legislation was passed into law. One woman recalled the eve of the referendum as her family tried to grasp the fact that they were now full citizens of the country that their ancestors had inhabited for eons. They were awed and elated until the next morning, when her mother walked into the grocery store and, as usual, was followed around by clerks to ensure she stole nothing and made to exit through the rear door, as the front door was for whites only. Their night of elation quickly turned to sorrow as they realized that, although the law had changed, people’s attitudes hadn’t, and in reality nothing had really changed at all.

Others spoke of times when Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their homes, put into government schools, forced to learn English and punished for speaking their native language. To keep them from running away they were told that their parents were dead, or that their parents didn’t want them. Now, 40 years later, some things have changed. Children are no longer taken from their parents and there is a prideful resurgence in the Aboriginal culture, with more than 200 native festivals conducted around the country each year. There is a beginning awareness that the best path is one of celebrating the diversity of the various cultures rather that pursuing a path of assimilation.

I was struck by the historical similarities between the Australian Aboriginal situation and that of both the African-American and American Indian populations in the U.S. and spoke about this issue with one of the panelists, Aden Ridgeway. An ex-Senator in the Australian Federal Parliament (the second ever Aboriginal member of Parliament), Aden spoke eloquently about the Aboriginal issue, documenting his experiences with racial discrimination over the years. I questioned whether, in his opinion, the situation would continue to improve as the older generation died off and he told me that, sadly, there is a strong resurgence amongst the younger generation in the doctrine of ethnic cleansing – not only toward the Aborigines but also directed toward other ethnic groups in the country. But Ridgeway and others equally as dedicated continue working toward equality, not only for Aborigines but also for indigenous people the world over, who all suffer the same indignities, fears, and human rights abuses. Most recently Ridgeway traveled to the United Nations, where he is helping to draft a declaration on a Bill of Rights for indigenous people all over the world.

I copied down the following quotes from the panel discussion – I think they are profound and worthy of serious reflection:

Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

If you get to know your whiteness you might not be afraid of the otherness.”

When you label me you limit me.”

And finally, Ridgway proposed a test to determine how far we have come in the battle to eradicate racism. He asked, “Can you look in the mirror and say ‘I am an Aborigine’ and feel comfortable with that statement?” In the end, we all come from a single source, we are not separate, we are all one. I pray that we will find a way to embrace that oneness.

One Comment on “40 Years After The Australian Referendum

  1. The term “ethnic cleansing” sends chills through my bones — in this day and age of the internet, we should be closer to each other — not more separate. I too pray that we will find a way to embrace that oneness. Take care and be well. Karen

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