This week it is reconciliation week in Australia.  Reconciliation is not an outcome or a goal as much as a relationship and an ongoing journey between First Nations Australians and Settler Australians. The conversation is ongoing, as is the fight for Indigenous rights, health and wellbeing, however, this post is aimed at surfacing some of the myths that exist about First Nations Australians. Because few settler Australians have a relationship with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, myths have become one of the main ways of ‘knowing’ about First Nations Australians.

Myths are powerful. They influence the way we think about things of which we might not have direct experience. The most difficult relationship is not between black and white people but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Many Australians do not know how to relate to First Nations Australians. They relate to stories told by former colonists.

Settler Australians need to bust these powerful and often destructive myths by setting the record straight about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Australian was Terra Nullius

I learnt about Terra Nullius in Primary school. That terra nullius is a Latin term meaning “land belonging to no one”. British colonisation and subsequent Australian land laws were established on the claim that Australia was terra nullius, justifying acquisition by British occupation without treaty or payment. This effectively denied Indigenous people’s prior occupation of and connection to the land.

I learnt that in 1770 Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay – what I now know is the home of the Eora people, and claimed possession of the East Coast of Australia for Britain under the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’

According to the international law of Europe in the late 18th century, there were only three ways that Britain could take possession of another country:

  • If the country was uninhabited, Britain could claim and settle that country. In this case, it could claim ownership of the land.
  • If the country was already inhabited, Britain could ask for permission from the indigenous people to use some of their land. In this case, Britain could purchase land for its own use but it could not steal the land of the indigenous people.
  • If the country was inhabited, Britain could take over the country by invasion and conquest- in other words, defeat that country in war. However, even after winning a war, Britain would have to respect the rights of indigenous people.

Britain did not follow any of these rules in Australia. Since there were already people living in Australia, Britain could not take possession by “settling” this country. However from the time of Captain Cook’s arrival the British Government acted as if Australia were uninhabited. So, instead of admitting that it was invading land that belonged to Aboriginal people, Britain acted as it were settling an empty land. This is what is meant by the myth of terra nullius.

The myth of terra nullius NSW Board of Studies, 1995

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t just live in the bush

While the Northern Territory has Australia’s highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (25.5 per cent of the NT population), New South Wales is home to the highest number, with more than 216,000 people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. (2016 Census)

It is important to know that a person does not stop being Aboriginal because they have a western lifestyle; the two cultures do not cancel each other out.

The legal definition provided by the Federal Court declares a person is Indigenous when they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, that person identifies with the culture and is accepted as such by the community in which they live, whether that community is in Yuendumu, Redfern or Perth, they are no ‘more or less’ Indigenous because of where they live.

One of the biggest myths about Aboriginality is that if you have fair skin you can’t be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

You’ve got to be black to be ‘a real’ Aboriginal – or that Aboriginality is attributed to the degree of ancestry, such as ‘she is 1/8th Aboriginal’.

These perceptions are highly offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and are products of colonial thinking. Ideas of genetics and culture are often mistakenly collapsed together so that if someone’s skin is lighter, they are thought to have lost that equivalent of Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal Tasmanians are alive and well

The myth of Aboriginal extinction in Tasmania is grounded in the story of Truganini, the woman from Bruny Island, who died in 1876 after being the sole returnee from the Flinders Island mission where Tasmanian Aboriginals were sent for resettlement.

Mick Dodson* explains the misconception that ‘having declared the very last Aboriginal person dead, her descendants could not, by definition, be Aboriginal.’

Indigenous Tasmanians are in a constant struggle to remind the larger population of their existence, history and culture. While both the forcible and passive removal of Aboriginals from Tasmania resulted in a severe fracturing of traditions and languages, Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to survive and practice cultural traditions. While their legacy is inextricably linked with those of European sealers and settlers, Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage is to this day a living culture. 

Violence/abuse against women and children is not part of traditional Indigenous culture

Sexual assault, particularly child sexual assault, forms no part of Indigenous culture and a multitude of authoritative national reports have shown this to be a myth.

While there used to be systems of punishment for people who contravened community regulations, including physical punishment, violence and sexual abuse against women and children has never formed part of traditional cultural practices and it is considered abhorrent by First Nations Australian men and women of all generations.

The colonial experience has left a legacy of sexual abuse in many Indigenous communities: as long ago as 1898, Northern Territory Judge Charles Dashwood urged for laws to prevent European settler’s kidnapping Aboriginal children ‘for the purpose of having carnal knowledge or intercourse’ on stations far away from their homelands.The recent report on abuse in the Northern Territory by Pat Anderson and Rex Wilde states: ‘sexual abuse of children is not restricted to those of Aboriginal descent, nor committed only by those of Aboriginal descent. The phenomenon knows no racial, age or gender borders. It is a national and international problem.’

Native Title can’t take away people’s property

In 1992, when the High Court handed down its decision in Mabo, for the first time, Australian law recognised Indigenous people’s connection with and rights over land.

This is known legally as native title. The decision overturned the concept of terra nullius which asserted that before European settlement, the land of Australia belonged to no-one.

Following the Mabo verdict, there was a barrage of misinformation spread by opponents of the decision declaring that ‘Australians were going to lose their backyards’. Sadly, despite Native Title decisions since 1992 proving otherwise, this myth lingers today.

Native title has no bearing on existing property rights because claimants can only assert their title over publicly owned land, called Crown land. Any house (including its backyard) is considered private property and therefore extinguishes native title.

Australia has always been a multicultural continent.

Before the arrival of Europeans, there were around 270 different language groups and many different cultural ways. Just as Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas have always been made up of many cultures, so too has Australia.

Many Australians seem to think that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples surrendered their country without a fight.

In fact there were significant wars and battles between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people. This part of history is known as the Frontier Wars.

The Frontier Wars included ‘massacres’ that were in retaliation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resistance (such as the Pinjarra Massacre), successful raids by Aboriginal and Torres Strait people on white settlers (such as the Faithfull Massacre) and ongoing local wars, such as the Yolngu wars and the Bunuba resistance.

The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who died in these conflicts are often disputed, but the fact that the conflicts took place is not disputed. Although there wasn’t a declared, large scale ‘war’, there was significant resistance.

Often, organising this resistance was hard. Massacres like Bathurst, Pinjarra and Flying Foam were designed to decimate resistance by killing men, women and children in dramatic and over-whelming reprisal for signs of resistance. In the Kimberley, some pastoralists created a workforce for themselves by killing men of the land, and capturing their women and children who were forced into compliance. (Other pastoralists negotiated respectfully with land owners to engage them as a workforce on their own land).

The Indigenous resistance is often forgotten. We don’t read of its heroes or its victims in our history books, or see memorials to them on our streets.

*Professor Mick Dodson AM is a member of the Yawuru peoples – the traditional owners of land and waters in the Broome area of the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia. He is Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at The Australian National University and Professor of law at the ANU College of Law. Professor Dodson is also currently a Director of Dodson, Bauman & Associates Pty Ltd – Legal & Anthropological Consultants. He is formerly the Director of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales, Kensington. Mick Dodson was Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission. He served as Commissioner from April 1993 to January 1998.

This blog post is dedicated to my Son Tomasi Tikiger, a Goreng Goreng man from Central Queensland.

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