Australian Aborigines: Their arduous path to modern Australian society

Term Paper, 2009

14 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1. Introduction

2. Traditional Aboriginal Culture
2.1 Religion and Spirituality
2.2 Dreamtime
2.3 The Aboriginal family
2.4 Family life today

3. Aboriginal mistreatment by the Australian government
3.1 Stolen Generation
3.1.1 Procedure and Aims
3.1.2 Consequences for aboriginal community
3.2 Land Rights Movement
3.2.1 Process
3.2.2 Situation today
3.3 Policy of Assimilation
3.3.1 Conception
3.3.2 Controversial aspect

4. Aborigine’s Situation in modern Australian society
4.1 Problems
4.1.1 Alcohol
4.1.2 Criminality
4.2 Reconciliation movement
4.2.1 History
4.2.2 Importance
4.3 Aboriginal life today
4.3.1 Tourism as one source of income
4.3.2 Contemporary living conditions

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

Australian Aborigines

Their arduous path to modern Australian society

When the Europeans first came to Australia at the end of the eighteenth century, they had the order to take possession of land. By dispossessing the Aborigines of the land, the Europeans started establishing their first colonies, which marked the beginning of Aboriginal dispossession and repression. From this point on, the Aborigines had to suffer many setbacks worsening their social situation for decades. In recent years, increasing public attention was attracted to their eventful past as Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Aborigines and the Stolen Generation for their “profound grief, suffering, and loss” (Head and Riminton) in 2008. Therewith, the Australian government acknowledged its mistreatment of the indigenous Australian people for many years and promised to support the Aborigines, which are even today the most deprived group in Australia. In the following, I am going to describe the arduous path of the Australian Aborigines to modern Australian society by presenting parts of their traditional culture, elaborating on their long lasting mistreatment by the Australian government, and finally analyzing their present situation in modern Australian society.

Australia’s Aboriginal culture is counted among the eldest cultures, with the “longest continuing religion in the world” (“The Dreamtime”). As for Aborigines mythic belief is always present in everyday life, the cultural significance of religion becomes apparent (Yengoyan 839). Similar to other religions, Australian Aborigines worship a number of deities while each of them has multiple roles and the deities believed in vary from group to group (“The Dreamtime”). According to the Aborigines, these deities or creations of them can be found in certain features of the landscape as products of the creation period or Dreamtime (“The Dreamtime”), to which I will come back later. Aboriginal traditional religion is characterized by rituals, for example funeral ceremonies, and many different forms of religious and spiritual ways of expression, such as body painting, personal ornamentation, dances, and songs

(“The Dreamtime”). In 2001, the census resulted that only 0.03 percent of the respondent were still practicing traditional Aboriginal religions and the census of 1996 reported 72 percent of Aborigines practicing Christianity (“Religion in Australia”). Therefore, it remains to be seen if the interest in traditional Aboriginal religion tends to rise in the future or whether more and more Aborigines start practicing other religions.

As previously mentioned, the basis of the traditional Aboriginal religion is provided by the belief in the so-called Dreamtime. According to Aboriginal belief, spirit ancestors shaped the world and all its physical features in the Dreamtime (Coombs 221). These ancestors are believed to have created the land and everything around it, such as the Aborigines themselves, during their journeys on the so-called “lines” (Coombs 194/221). Furthermore, they are said to have set up the rules and laws for living together and having introduced the Aborigines to special ceremonies helping them to maintain their communal life (Coombs 194). According to the Aboriginal belief, some parts of the landscape, such as rocks, were inhabited by an ancestor’s spirit what made them sacred places with a special meaning to those familiar with the myths (“The Dreamtime”). The stories of this time, called “Dreamings”, are handed down in songs and dances which are still present in today’s Aboriginal culture (“The Dreamtime and The Dreaming”). Another way of describing and interpreting these Dreamings can be found in contemporary Aboriginal art as well as modern literature (“The Dreamtime and The Dreaming”), whereby the significance of this mythology for Aborigines becomes clear as it is still present in their culture today. Hence, the Dreamtime represents the “time of creation” (“The Dreamtime and The Dreaming”) for the Australian Aborigines and plays therefore an important role in their culture, as their whole philosophy of life is based on this period.

Similar to other indigenous peoples around the world, family and communal life is of high importance in traditional Aboriginal culture. The traditional Aboriginal family was composed of clans and consequently consisted of many members. Before the arrival of the Europeans, there were hardly social problems among Aboriginal families and the clans were well organized (Walker). By assigning certain tasks to certain family members, they could share their responsibilities, such as hunting, cooking or teaching (Walker). The latter was mainly taken over by the elders of the families, as they possessed the most knowledge and so played an important role in the whole community (Walker). Apart from the elders, which were treated with great respect by the other clan members, the grandmothers hold a special place in the family. Additional to their parents, grandmothers were important role models for the children of these big families, since they helped their grandchild if they had problems with their parents or even partly the education if their parents did not have enough time (Walker).

Comparing these essential features to the Aboriginal family life in modern Australian society, many differences become apparent. After the settlement of the Europeans, the family situation among the communities changed. One reason for that was that the settlers did not want Aboriginal communities to exist further one. So, they partly denied Aborigines to run their traditional family life and even forbade in many cases marriages among the Aborigines (Walker). Therewith, they tried to reduce the share of Aborigines among the population that was later on climaxed in taking away aboriginal children from their families, to which I will come back later. Nowadays, Aboriginal families have to cope with quite different problems that are endangering their family ties, such as alcohol or unemployment. As large parts of the aboriginal community suffer from unemployment due to missing education, they start consuming alcohol and get into a vicious circle of unemployment and alcoholism (Walker). Being frustrated of their situation, especially the younger generation gets into criminality and finally gets imprisoned, as topical about 14 per cent of all Australian prison inmates are Aboriginal People (“Aboriginal People”). After all, it can be said that the maintenance of traditional Aboriginal family life has been threatened by different factors since the beginning of European colonization. For that reason, it can be hoped that the promised measures fighting against the social evils in Aboriginal communities presented by Kevin Rudd in his speech to the Aborigines, such as providing better education for them, will be successful.

Looking back on Australian Aboriginal history, it is striking that their path up to the present day was larded by long lasting mistreatment by the Australian government. Probably one of the darkest chapters in this history is represented by the Stolen Generation. When Prime Minister Rudd read his apology to the Aborigines and the Stolen Generation in Canberra in the name of the Australian government, he asked the Aborigine’s forgiveness for this long lasting and serious mistreatment. The 1997 released report Bringing them Home by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission about the Stolen Generation even called this procedure “a form of genocide” (Ellinghaus 59). In a period lasting almost from the beginning of European settlement up to the 1970s, about 50 000 children were compulsory taken away from their communities by the government, churches, as well as private persons (Kleinert 702). Regarded as adopted children, they were brought to private homes or institutions to be educated and assimilated into the “white Australia[n]” (Ellinghaus 68) society. For this kind of assimilation, radical measures were used, such as forbidding the children to see their parents again or even prohibiting them to speak in their native language (“The Stolen Generations”). Another background for stealing these children from their parents was getting them married to white Australians and therewith opposing the aboriginal spread in Australia (Ellinghaus). As large numbers of the stolen children did not return to their families (Kleinert 702), the government’s aims and plans of distancing these children from their traditional communities were successful.


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Australian Aborigines: Their arduous path to modern Australian society
University of Leipzig  (Philologische Fakultät)
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Franziska Schüppel (Author), 2009, Australian Aborigines: Their arduous path to modern Australian society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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