Stories of our past reveal how the lingering injustices of colonisation continue to affect First Nations people in Australia, despite determined efforts to resist and overcome this adversity. The cumulative impacts of invasion – dispossession, displacement and violence that started at first contact, and subsequent policies of control and oppression – have systematically disadvantaged First Nations people, and are still experienced by many people today.  
 
Explore our comprehensive resources to find out more, from broad overviews to in-depth explorations of specific historical eras and firsthand stories from people living with the fallout from this (often very recent) history.  

Immerse yourself in stories and articles to understand the connection between our nation’s past and present.

What’s the connection between the past and the present?
Turn-phone-to-reveal-timeline
1770
1800
1900
2000
TODAY

Terra Nullius (1770 - 1992)

THE PAST

The premise of British colonisation was terra nullius, a legal term which claimed the land (Australia) belonged to no one. This blatantly denied the existence of Indigenous Australians as human beings. [1]

THE PRESENT

Terra nullius essentially asserted that Indigenous people were non-human. This premise formed the basis of the relationship between Indigenous people and the nation state from its very inception. This problematic relationship has never been fully resolved, even in light of the Mabo decision and resulting Native Title.

Invasion without treaty (1788 - Present)

THE PAST

Colonial powers never entered into negotiations with Indigenous people about the taking of their lands. The lack of treaty or acknowledgement of invasion is one of the key topics in discussions about Constitutional Recognition in 2017. [2]

THE PRESENT

The lack of treaty in Australia goes to the very heart of the wound in our nation. Many Indigenous people continue to feel the pain of occupation, dispossession and lack of recognition. The absence of a treaty suggests an ongoing denial of the existence, prior occupation and dispossession of Indigenous people in Australia. It also highlights a lack of engagement and relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Resistance wars (1788 - 1930)

THE PAST

Thousands of Indigenous people fought colonisers for their homelands, families and way of life. However, these battles have been omitted from Australia’s war commemoration history. [6]

THE PRESENT

The omission of resistance wars from history has left most Australians without knowledge of their own history. It represents Indigenous people as passive - implying Indigenous people didn’t fight for their country and reinforcing derogatory stereotyping of Indigenous people as lazy and incompetent. Through the denial of resistance wars, Aboriginal Australians haven’t even been "conceded the dignity due to worthy opponents”. [7]

The denial of the resistance wars in Australia continues to affect both Indigenous Australians’ perception of themselves and the distorted perception many Australians have of our history as a peaceful settlement to be celebrated. [8]

Massacres (1780 - 1920)

THE PAST

Populations were devastated and Indigenous people were dehumanised by the colonisers in order to justify the horrific acts against them. [3] [4] [5]

THE PRESENT

The devastation of culture, families and people groups as a result of massacres is still felt today. In many cases, these events resulted in loss of cultural knowledge as entire generations or family groups were murdered. This in turn led to a crisis of identity and belonging for many Indigenous people which continues to impact people in the present.

The truth about massacres has been left out of our national history and many Australians are shocked when they come to realise what really happened in towns and places where they now live. The lack of acknowledgement of these events invalidates the experiences and suffering of many Indigenous people and is an ongoing source of pain.

Missions and reserves (1800 - Present)

THE PAST

Legislation and state policies served to exclude Indigenous people from participation as citizens through their removal from their homes to reserves, missions and cattle stations where their everyday lives were lived under regimes of surveillance control and lack of liberty as equal citizens. [9]

THE PRESENT

Today many Indigenous people still experience the effects of the missions and reserves. Some are living with the trauma of growing up in these often abusive environments. [10] Others have been displaced from land and family as a result of the reserve system. Other impacts include intergenerational transmission of poverty as a long term result of poor nutrition, inadequate education and health care, few assets or a lack of opportunities for previous generations living on missions and reserves.

 

The Stolen Generations (1910 - 1970)

THE PAST

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation. [11] The generations of children removed became known as the Stolen Generations.

Assimilation was based on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority, which proposed that Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, or, where possible, should be assimilated into the white community. [12]

Children taken from their parents were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. Some children were adopted by white families, and many were placed in institutions where abuse and neglect were common. [13]

THE PRESENT

The policies of child removal left a legacy of trauma and loss that continues to affect Indigenous communities, families and individuals. Research shows that people who experience trauma are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours, develop life-style diseases and enter and remain in the criminal justice system. [14] In fact, the high rates of poor physical health, mental health problems, addiction, incarceration, domestic violence, self harm and suicide in Indigenous communities are directly linked to experiences of trauma. [15]

The removal of several generations of children also severely disrupted Indigenous culture, and consequently much cultural knowledge was unable to be passed on.

Many members of the Stolen Generations never experienced living in a healthy family situation, and never learned parenting skills. In some instances, this has resulted in generations of children raised in state care. [16] [17]

Exemption Certificates (1940 - 1960)

THE PAST


From the 1940s, in most parts of Australia, the state governments issued thousands of exemption certificates. They gave their Indigenous recipients citizenship rights that they otherwise didn’t possess, yet which were enjoyed by the non-Indigenous majority of Australian society. They included ‘privileges’ such as being allowed to vote, attend school, enter hotels and be exempted from the restrictions of state Aboriginal protection laws. [18] However, applicants had to agree to abandon association with the Indigenous community, give up their Indigenous culture including connections with Country and end contact with their Indigenous kinship, except for their closest family.

Exemption certificates forced many Indigenous people to sacrifice their Indigenous identity in order to obtain a very basic level of freedom enjoyed by other Australian citizens. People with exemption certificates weren’t allowed to enter or stay on Aboriginal reserves and stations, even if they were visiting relatives. This interfered with Indigenous family life. The need to show certificates to police officers in order to be permitted to exist in public spaces was also a source of humiliation and shame. [19]

THE PRESENT

Exemption certificates contributed to the sense of being a second-rate member of society, as well as the degradation of cultural knowledge. In some cases, this has contributed to a lack of self-esteem and a weakening of Indigenous identity that continues to impact generations of Indigenous Australians today. [20]

Exemption certificates were related to various policies that regulated and controlled Indigenous people and denied Indigenous Australians full rights and freedoms. These policies have contributed to a legacy of mistrust of authorities in many Indigenous families and communities today.

Exploited labour (1840 - 1970)

THE PAST

Many Indigenous people were exploited for their labour on missions, reserves, cattle stations and as domestic helpers in non-Indigenous homes. Many Indigenous Australians have never been paid wages earned over decades of hard labour. [21] Watch Iris’ story about Stolen Wages here.

THE PRESENT

The non-payment of wages earned has contributed to the transmission of disadvantage across generations and mistrust of authority amongst many Indigenous people.

Social exclusion (1880 - 1960)

THE PAST

Since the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century, Indigenous people have been marginalised in all aspects of life.

Being denied participation in the mainstream social system meant being denied the rights and privileges of that system. Up until the 1960’s, Indigenous people were denied access to certain public spaces and were excluded from the national census. Over generations, people were also denied access to healthcare, education and employment on the basis of their race. [22]

THE PRESENT

Indigenous Australians remain amongst the most socially excluded people in Australia. [23] Evidence of Indigenous social exclusion includes current high rates of poverty, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, poor health and lack of education outcomes.

Past experience of systemic discrimination and prejudice has also resulted in widespread mistrust, anger and resentment towards authorities amongst Indigenous people.

Institutionalised discrimination (1880 - Present)

THE PAST

Institutional discrimination happens when a society’s institutions discriminate against a group of people, often through unequal bias or exclusion. This clearly occurred at the beginning of colonisation when Indigenous people were “legally” dispossessed and exploited. However, the formal structures and institutions of the time set up a legacy of discrimination against Indigenous people. For example, our education, legal and political systems are based on non-Indigenous ways of knowing and operating (individualism, capitalism, private property, the nuclear family etc.) which often fail to acknowledge Indigenous value systems.

There are many examples of how systems established under colonialism continue to marginalise Indigenous people. For instance, until recently, land law in Australia was founded on the legal fiction of terra nullius (that Australia was land belonging to no-one at the time of British arrival). In 2017, the Constitution, our nation’s founding document, contains race powers (power to discriminate based on race) and fails to acknowledge the prior occupation and dispossession of Indigenous people. [24]

THE PRESENT

The ongoing impact of policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged Indigenous people is reflected today in statistics relating to incarceration rates, health, education and politics. While some improvements have been made (such as the 1967 Referendum and recognition of Native Title) these structures haven’t changed enough to balance or reverse the socio-economic impact of colonisation and past government policies and practices on Indigenous Australians.

Undermining law, society, culture and belief systems (1770 - Present)

THE PAST

From the earliest days, European contact undermined Indigenous laws, society, culture and beliefs. [25]

THE PRESENT

Despite Indigenous people’s efforts to maintain and revive culture in the face of colonisation, there’s no denying that colonisation has deeply impacted Indigenous cultures, societies and languages across Australia. This has had a strong impact on people’s sense of identity and belonging - which bring meaning to a person’s existence. Cultural disconnection and the weakening of identity is the underlying cause of many of the struggles Indigenous people are dealing with today.


Australians Together Learning Framework

The Framework is designed to shape a new narrative for all Australians, and aligns with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures cross-curriculum priority and AITSL Standard 2.4. Explore and discover the Framework below:

The-wound The-wound
The Wound
Why do many First Nations people in Australia experience…

Why do many First Nations people in Australia experience disadvantage and injustice? 

Discover our curated collection of stories, articles and statistics that expose the injustices at the heart of our nation.

Something’s not right

Who are Indigenous Australians?

First Nations disadvantage in Australia

Intergenerational trauma

The lack of treaty

The Intervention

Bob's story

Losing home - Iris' story

Miliwanga's story

Ruth's story

Why-me Why-me
Why Me?
Examines why this is relevant to every Australian. Browse…

Examines why this is relevant to every Australian.

Browse articles and stories that explore the ways we’re all connected, and what this means for us as Australians, collectively and individually.

What does this have to do with me?

Australia Day: answers to tricky questions

 Busting the myth of peaceful settlement

What's the fuss about Jan 26?

Mabo and Native Title

Our-cultures Our-cultures
Our Cultures
Why is culture so important? Dive into stories and…

Why is culture so important?

Dive into stories and articles that explore the significance of culture and its role in building a better future together.

Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country

Why are culture and identity important?

The importance of land

First Nations kinship

Bob's story

My-response My-response
My Response
How can I respond respectfully and meaningfully? Find…

How can I respond respectfully and meaningfully?

Find inspiration in stories and articles that show even little steps can lead to big change when we do things together.

What can i do?

Fiona's story

Mark's story

Listen to stories from First Nations people

Doug's story
Ruth's story
Bob's story
Iris' story
Miliwanga's story
References

1. Ross, I. 2006, Aboriginal Land Rights: A Continuing Social Justice Issue, Australian eJournal of Theology

2. NITV, 2016, Explainer: What is a Treaty?

3. University of Newcastle, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872

4. Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square, pg. 24 - 28

5. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 251

6. Booth, A. 2016, What are the frontier wars?

7. Grey, J. 2008, A Military History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, pg. 28

8. Stephens, A. 2014, Reconciliation means recognising the Frontier Wars (online), Australian Broadcasting Company News website

9-13, 17. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (online)

14-16. Atkinson, J. Nelson, J and Atkinson, C. 2010, “Trauma, Transgenerational Transfer and Effects on Community Wellbeing”, in Purdie, N. Dudgeon, P. and Walker, R. (eds.), Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice (online)

18. National Museum of Australia, Programmed to be White (online)

19. Wickes, J. 2010, A Study of the ‘lived experience’ of Citizenship amongst Exempted Aboriginal People in regional Queensland, with a focus on the South Burnett region, (online)

20. National Museum of Australia, Programmed to be White (online)

21. Commonwealth of Australia, 2007, Unfinished business: Indigenous stolen wages

22. Moreton-Robinson, A. 2017, Citizenship, Exclusion and the Denial of Indigenous Sovereign Rights, ABC (online)

23. Hunter, B. 2009, Indigenous social exclusion: Insights and challenges for the concept of social inclusion, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Family Matters (online)

24. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2015, Freedom from Discrimination: Report on the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act

25. Australian Law Reform Commission, 1986, Aboriginal Societies: The Experience of Contact, in Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws (ALRC Report 31) (online)