On the surface this might seem like a fair question, prompted by a genuine desire to see all Australians prosper together. The reason why many Indigenous people can’t simply get over the past is because the negative affects of colonisation are still having an impact on Indigenous people every day, often in drastic ways. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of this.
The statistics (see Indigenous disadvantage in Australia) are a result of the lingering injustices of colonisation - dispossession, displacement, exploitation and violence that started at first contact. This behaviour towards Indigenous people was justified by the British colonial system that didn’t understand, respect or value Indigenous Australians.
In the worst cases, people of influence refused to acknowledge Indigenous Australians as human in order to justify extraordinary acts of cruelty towards Aboriginal people. These 18th Century colonial attitudes set in motion events and policies and established systems and institutions that continue to have an impact on Indigenous people today, despite Indigenous people’s determined efforts to resist and overcome this adversity.
What’s the connection between the past and the present?
The social and economic impact of invasion and control of Indigenous people has accumulated across generations. It was amplified by policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged Indigenous people. In many instances, this has resulted in the transmission of trauma, poverty and other forms of disadvantage from generation to generation. So the disadvantage we see today is often the long term effect of lack of opportunities in previous generations, including poor nutrition and inadequate education and health care.
Terra Nullius (1770 - 1992)
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.[₃]
Terra Nullius today
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)
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.₍₄₎
Lack of treaty today
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 - 1930s)
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. ₍₈₎
Impact of the omission of resistance wars today
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”. ₍₉₎
In contrast, New Zealand's Maori people are a source of national pride, famed as warriors and formally recognised in their nation's history through the "Maori Wars”.
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. ₍₁₀₎
Massacres (1780s - 1920s)
Populations were devastated and Indigenous people were dehumanised by the colonisers in order to justify the horrific acts against them. ₍₅₎ ₍₆₎ ₍₇₎
Impact of massacres today
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 (early 1800s - present)
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.₍₁₁₎
Impact of missions and reserves today
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. ₍₁₂₎ 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.
Stolen Generations (1910-1970)
The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation. ₍₁₃₎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.₍₁₄₎
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.₍₁₅₎
Impact of the Stolen Generations today
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. ₍₁₆₎ 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. ₍₁₇₎
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. ₍₁₈₎ ₍₁₉₎
Exemption Certificates (1940s - 1960s)
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. ₍₂₀₎ 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. ₍₂₁₎
Impact of Exemption Certificates today
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. ₍₂₂₎
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 (1840s -1970s)
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.₍₂₃₎ Watch Iris’ story about Stolen Wages here.
Impact of exploited labour today
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 (1880s - 1960s)
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. ₍₂₄₎
Impact of social exclusion today
Indigenous Australians remain amongst the most socially excluded people in Australia.₍₂₅₎ 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 (1880s - present)
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.₍₂₆₎
Impact of institutionalised discrimination today
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
From the earliest days, European contact undermined Indigenous laws, society, culture and beliefs. ₍₂₇₎
Impact of undermining law, society, culture and belief systems today
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.
Indigenous people who haven’t directly experienced the events or policies of our history are often still impacted by the legacy left behind. Trauma caused by colonisation, including violence and loss of culture and land, as well as policies such as the forced removal of children, is often passed from generation to generation in families and communities, with devastating effects. It’s important to view the challenges faced by many Indigenous communities in the context of this history.
Many people may not realise just how recent much of this history is. In fact, there are people alive today who were:
- forcibly removed from their parents under government policy
- separated from their children
- banned in towns after 6:00pm
- not allowed to be in public areas without permission
- barred from schools and hospitals
- forced to work in the homes of non-Indigenous people and had their earnings permanently withheld by the government
What are we really asking when we say “can’t they just get over it?”
When Indigenous people are asked to ‘get over it’ - it’s not just the physical violence of the frontier wars or even the stolen land or children we’re asking people to move on from. It’s the current bias in our society that prevents Indigenous people from achieving the quality of life that would otherwise be possible.
This is evident in the skyrocketing incarceration rates, devastatingly high suicide rates, unacceptable mortality gap and everyday discrimination. We’re still a society where 1 in 5 people openly admit to having racist attitudes towards Indigenous people.
Moving on together
Many of us are aware that this disadvantage and discrimination exists in Australia. But not all of us understand that it’s a direct result of our nation's history of colonisation:
“Dispossession of land, population displacement, prejudice in everyday life and outright discrimination have, over the subsequent generations, resulted in Indigenous Australians being disadvantaged to the extreme and denied the chance to share in the benefits of one of the wealthiest nations in the world.” 
If we truly want to move forward together and be part of a better country, it’s essential that we openly acknowledge our history and validate the pain it’s caused. This means recognising that:
- the land we live on and prosper from was previously inhabited by Indigenous people, and their displacement wasn’t founded on mutual agreement
- the social and economic impacts of invasion, dispossession, marginalisation and control of Indigenous people have accumulated across generations
- this impact has been amplified by policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged Indigenous people
- in many instances, this has resulted in the transmission of poverty, poor health and other forms of disadvantage from generation to generation
- Indigenous people have courageously resisted and sought to overcome adversity generation after generation after generation
This mutual recognition and understanding of our shared history is a foundation from which we can hope to move forward together.
- 1. Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Key Indicators 2016, Productivity Commission for the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 4.9 Disability and chronic disease
- 1a. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015, 3303.0 - Causes of Death
- 1b. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2016, Youth detention population in Australia 2016, pg. 10
- 1c. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011, Homelessness among Indigenous Australians, Summary
- 1d. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016, 4714.0 - National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014-15
- 1e. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Life Tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2010-2012
- 2. For example, Stolen Wages. See Unfinished business: Indigenous stolen wages,7 December 2006, © Commonwealth of Australia 2006
- 3. Ross, I. 2006, Aboriginal Land Rights: A Continuing Social Justice Issue, Australian eJournal of Theology
- 4. NITV, 2016, Explainer: What is a Treaty?
- 5. University of Newcastle, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872
- 6. Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square, pg. 24 - 28
- 7. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 251
- 8. Booth, A. 2016, What are the frontier wars?
- 9. Grey, J. 2008, A Military History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, pg. 28
- 10. Stephens, A. 2014, Reconciliation means recognising the Frontier Wars (online), Australian Broadcasting Company News website
- 11-15,19 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)
- 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)
- 17. 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. 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)
- 19. Commonwealth of Australia, 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families
- 20. National Museum of Australia, Programmed to be White (online)
- 21. 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)
- 22. National Museum of Australia, Programmed to be White (online)
- 23. Commonwealth of Australia, 2007, Unfinished business: Indigenous stolen wages
- 24. Moreton-Robinson, A. 2017, Citizenship, Exclusion and the Denial of Indigenous Sovereign Rights, ABC (online)
- 25. Hunter, B. 2009, Indigenous social exclusion: Insights and challenges for the concept of social inclusion, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Family Matters (online)
- 26. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2015, Freedom from Discrimination: Report on the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act
- 27. Australian Law Reform Commission, 1986, Aboriginal Societies: The Experience of Contact, in Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws (ALRC Report 31) (online)
- 28. Beyondblue, 2014, Discrimination against Indigenous Australians: A snapshot of the views of non-Indigenous people aged 25–44 (online)
- 29. Kapuscinski, C.A. 2013, Indigenous disadvantage in an historical perspective: the evidence of the last thirty years, In: Australian Conference of Economists, Perth