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Top 3 Things To Do In Australia - Meet The Indigenous Culture, Part 2

Updated on March 25, 2010

The arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788 saw the beginning of nearly 200 years of antagonism between Europeans and Aborigines. As settlers spread out, the rules of engagement remained remarkably consistent. By clearing forests and introducing livestock, the newcomers damaged the delicate ecological balance maintained by indigenous people and depleted their supplies of food and water. In response, Aborigines, who perceived all animals, even sheep and cattle, as natural resources, began to hunt livestock.

Settlers responded violently to what they saw as theft, and massacres of Aborigines occurred all along the frontier. Only occasionally were the perpetrators brought to justice. At Myall Creek in northern New South Wales in 1838, a posse of laborers and convicts murdered 28 unarmed Aborigines. Seven of the men were subsequently caught, tried, and hanged in Sydney. But such justice was rare: the massacres in the Gippsland area of East Victoria in the 1840s, for example, were so poorly reported that the chief perpetrator, a landowner named Angus McMillan, was eventually appointed, without a hint of irony, the state's Protector of Aborigines.

By 1901, the Aboriginal population had dropped to less than a third of its 1788 level. Many of the survivors were forced into or took refuge in mission stations, where they became highly institutionalized. Around this time, in a misguided attempt to integrate Aborigines into white culture, the states began to remove Aboriginal children from their families and place them in white foster families or children's homes. This practice, which continued until the 1960s, resulted in the so-called stolen generation, an entire generation of Aborigines who were cut off from their traditional culture, their land, and its spirituality.

After falling to a historic low of around 74,000 in 1933, today's indigenous population, while still only two percent of the Australian total, exceeds 352,000. The largest concentrations, in excess of 70,000 people, live in New South Wales and Queensland, although Aborigines make up 23 percent of the Northern Territory's small population.
In the 1960s, taking their lead from the racial integration movements of North America, Aborigines started to demand equality and attempt to reclaim some of their homelands. The land rights movement reached a high point in 1992, when, as a result of a claim brought by Koiki (Eddie) Mabo and the Meriam people of Murray Island in the Torres Strait, the Australian High Court declared that indigenous people held native title to traditional lands. Thus, the legal fiction of terra nullius was finally overturned.

Despite this, state governments, pastoralists, and mining companies continue to block native title claims. Furthermore, two centuries of maltreatment and oppression have left many Aborigines disheartened. Some still have little access to adequate social services and live in squalid conditions more commonly found in developing countries.

However, the process of reconciliation and healing continues. Many government agencies, particularly at a local and state level, have apologized to the indigenous community for past wrongs. Furthermore, there is a growing awareness that Aboriginal history, rarely taught in schools in the past, is an integral and vital part of the fabric of Australian history and society. And in an act of remarkable assertiveness, many Aboriginal communities have begun to educate white Australians and overseas visitors in the country's first, and most ancient, culture.

Continued In: Top 3 Things To Do In Australia - Watch Wildlife

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