By Olivia Holmes
Next year will mark 55 years since Indigenous Australians were included in the census.
Yes, it’s great that for over half a century, First Nations peoples have been included, but at the same time, half a century. Australia has been colonised for 233 years, yet only in 54 years, Indigenous Australians have been counted as people.
The same people are regarded as the oldest living culture globally, the earliest scientific evidence dating back over 60,000 years, knocking out Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, Celts, everyone.
Even if you aren’t Indigenous, you must understand how embarrassing this is. I’m not an Indigenous Australian, and I would never claim or intend to represent that point of view; it’s simply not my own. My point of view, however, is based on human respect and civil rights.
As someone very passionate about the rights and respect of others, I can’t begin to describe the sickness in my stomach that I feel knowing this fact. So, indulge me for a moment while I go through time to fully demonstrate, yes, how far we’ve come, yet how much we still must go.
It was 29th April 1788 when Captain James Cook declared Australia as “terra nullius,” even though it was declared empty and unclaimed is disrespectful in itself, but what followed is harrowing.
In the ten years that followed, it is estimated that the Indigenous population was reduced by 90% (Harris, J, 2003) after introducing new diseases such as smallpox, settler acquisitions of Indigenous lands, and conflict with the colonisers.
This expansion and violence resulted in tension and competition over land and resources, with numerous historical documents recording the brutal hunting and murdering of Indigenous people, in the forms of mass murder, as well as accounts of colonists offering Indigenous people food laced with arsenic and other poisons (Reynolds, H, 2008). A testimony from a settler reporting how “In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs… We have made them outcasts on their land, and are rapidly consigning them to entire annihilation” (Edward Wilson, Argus, 17th March 1856)
It is estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people were killed as a direct result of colonial violence from Australia’s early history (Reynolds, H, 2008)
Moving on from this, I’d like to bring you 172 years forward into the ’60s. The Aboriginal rights and equality movement peaked in the 1960s.
The momentum of the previous attempt has usually failed due to factors such as the World Wars, a lack of publicity and public interest, and the Federal Government’s unwillingness to approach the issue properly.
However, movements overseas, such as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, led by King Jr, significantly motivated Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to no longer tolerate the inequality, injustice, discrimination and the imposed societal place Aboriginal Australians were kept in.
Indigenous Australians receiving citizenship were a significant symbolic victory and an amazing step forward for Australia to progress. While this does not absolve all injustices, the meaning of this referendum lies within the celebration and recognition of individuals that contributed to the fight for rights. It pays homage to these people, and although their desires may have been left unfulfilled, they could raise the status of Indigenous Australians in history while maintaining their heritage and culture.
Now, let’s look at today.
We still have a very long way to go.
While we, unfortunately, cannot fix past mistakes, we must fix what we can now for the future.
Thirty years on from the 1991 Royal Commissions into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, there is still a massive disparity between the treatments of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians in detention centres, and it’s frankly sickening and worrying.
An Indigenous man in Casuarina Prison died on 3rd April after being transferred into the hospital, the fifth Indigenous death in custody in just one month. The Guardian reports that there have been more than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths since the 1991 Royal Commission. Some deaths are preventable from suicide, violence, or lack of prison support.
In 1991, Aboriginal people made up 14% of those in custody. Thirty years on, it has doubled to 29% of the adult prison population, but only 3% of the national population.
This is caused by multiple issues such as racism, the harrowing gap in employment, age expectancy, education, and so many more. As this gap remains so vast, so does this disparity.
So, why do I mention all this? These harrowing, depressing stories and saddening statistics.
Not because I want to make people sad. I want to make them aware. While 27th May is significant, it is mainly symbolic. It didn’t fix all of the issues, but it’s a good launching point.
Now, especially during a global pandemic when these factors only make it worse, it is not the time to be complacent. I implore all of you to educate yourself. I did not cover everything, and I am a secondary source. Listen to those affected online, podcast, people you know, in interviews; there’s no harm in learning. And, fight alongside, especially if you’re Non-Indigenous, like me. I’ve attached some petitions at the end. Sign them. Fight for these rights with more than just sharing an Instagram post on your story.
Activism can be intimidating, I know, but it’s an excellent place to start.
2022 will be the 55th year since Indigenous Australians have been included in the census.
What will you have done by then?