The Aborigines came over the sea from Indonesia; however, long boat voyages were nearly impossible. Instead, they took advantage of lower sea levels and migrated short distances between islands. These "boats" could have been little more than well-made rafts. The people weren't completely isolated, as they had contact with sailers from the north for thousands of years.
Before British settlement of Australia, the distribution of the Aboriginal population was much the same as the modern population distribution, but at a much lower level. Today, the fertile regions with a temperate climate are dominated by the white Australian community. In most southern and eastern areas, Aborigines have either assimilated, died out, or been pushed out. Only in the central and northern parts of the country are there significant communities of Aborigines living on and in control of their traditional lands.
Most traditional Aborigines were nomadic over the range of their clan, however there are also several archaeological sites of permanent settlements in Victoria. Many of the modern Aboriginal communities in outback Australia are on the sites of Christian missions set up in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Aborigines had no written language before contact with Europeans, but have a rich oral history. Their traditional creation stories are based on "The Dreamtime".
Since the 1980s indigenous Australians have been differentiated as “Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders” and more recently the acknowledgment of local tribal groups and languages has become normal. It has become customary for important public meetings and gatherings to begin by acknowledging “the customary owners of this land, the NAME people” where the local tribal name is given.
From the late 1800s through to the mid-1900s, many Aboriginal children were taken from their homes and placed in foster care arrangements, typically on Christian missions or state Government homes. In the early 1990s Australians came to see this as being racist.
A prevailing view held that there was a hierarchy of human races. This notion supposed that Northern Europeans were superior in civilisation and that Aborigines were inferior. According to this view, the increasing numbers of mixed-descent children in Australia, labelled as 'half-castes' (or alternatively 'crossbreeds', 'quadroons' and 'octoroons'), were seen by many to be a threat to racial purity. Many believe that in the first half of the twentieth century, this led to policies and legislation that resulted in the removal of children from their parents. The stated aim was to culturally assimilate mixed-descent people into contemporary Australian society. These children came to be called the Stolen Generation.
A Royal Commission was instituted by the Government of Australia under the auspices of the (Australian) Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, headed by Sir Ronald Wilson, a former Judge of the High Court of Australia and former President of the liberal Uniting Church in Australia. The commission took public testimony from around Australia, including visits to tribal lands, and its 1997 report ’’Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families’’ has been seen to have re-shaped Australia's internal race relations. The report suggested that considerable human rights abuses occurred as a result of the policies that led to the Stolen Generation, although responses of respective state and federal governments to the report's findings and recommendations have varied.
However, some people, including conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, challenge the existence of the Stolen Generation. Bolt demanded that Robert Manne, an outspoken advocate of the existence of the Stolen Generation, produce the names of ten children taken from their parents simply because they were Aboriginal or part Aboriginal. When Manne did produce a list, Bolt showed that the children were actually taken for the sake of their welfare. Bolt has further condemned the Stolen Generation concept for actually causing harm to Aboriginal children. He says that welfare officials are now too scared of being branded racist to take children who are in danger.
On 13 February 2008 the Australian Government formally apologized to the Aboriginal People, and specifically to the Stolen Generation, for the actions of previous governments. The text of the apology, read by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, follows:
Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
Aborigines in the media
Various Australian films have significantly changed perceptions of Aborigines.
- Jedda (1955) by the Australian filmmaker Charles Chauvel. The film is most notable for being the first to star two Aboriginal actors (Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth) in the leading roles, and also to be the first Australian film shot in color.
- Storm Boy (1976) which tells of the interaction between an Anglo boy and a local Aborigine.
- Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) is an Australian film based on the book Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara. It concerns the author's mother, and two other young mixed-race Aboriginal girls, who ran away from a residential school that is located in Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth, Western Australia, in which they were placed in 1931, in order to return to their Aboriginal families. The film follows the girls as they trek/walk for nine weeks along 2,400 km (1,500 miles) of the Australian rabbit-proof fence to return to their community at Jigalong.
- Ten Canoes (2006) by Rolf de Heer. The film is narrated in English by David Gulpilil; all protagonists speak in indigenous languages, with English subtitles.
David Gulpilil is recognized as a very important Australian Aboriginal actor, whose work has changed perceptions of Aborigines. His films have been:
- Walkabout (1971)
- Storm Boy (1976)
- The Last Wave (1977)
- The Right Stuff (1983)
- Crocodile Dundee (1986)
- Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
- The Tracker (2002)
- The Proposition (2005)
- Ten Canoes (2006)
- Bringing them home: The 'Stolen Children' report (1997), Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
- Bolt, Andrew, Stolen generations: My Melbourne Writers’ Festival speech, 5 September 2006.
- Bolt, Andrew, Fisking Manne’s column, 9 December 2006 (reply to The Cruelty of Denial)
- Bolt, Andrew, Another stolen life, 19 September 2006 (Bolt claims as a case of an aboriginal child in danger and not removed by authorities because of concerns over racism)
- Bolt, Andrew, Truth is what was stolen, Herald Sun, 8 February 2008.
- Manne, Robert, Stolen Generations Debate, with Andrew Bolt, 3 September 2006.
- Manne, Robert, The Cruelty of Denial, The Age, 9 December 2006.