I was a university student in Australia when I was first exposed to the concept of Indigenous Rights. It happened suddenly during a course entitled Australia and America which was designed primarily for American and Australian students. There was a requirement at my university to do a certain number of courses on Indigenous history. The other course I took was on Aboriginal Literature.
Through both these courses, I became aware of the many untold and unsung histories that have shaped the trajectory of both America and Australia. I learned about the Australian Assimilation Policy, which took place during the first half of the twentieth century, and lasted right up until the 1960s. The contents of the course came as a complete shock to me.
Assimilation policies were focused primarily on children, who were considered more adaptable to white society than adults. One of the main features of the assimilation policy was the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families. It was a period during which the Australian government sought to create a single and uniform white Australian culture. No government that has embarked upon this quest has ever succeeded.
And what quest am I referring to? The quest of racial purity. It is simply not possible.
Nevertheless, between 1910-1970, generations of Indigenous children were taken from their families under these state-sanctioned policies. They are now known as the Stolen Generations. These policies left a legacy of intergenerational trauma and loss.
I learned the full details of this in my university lecture theatre approximately a year after I did a big road trip through the Australian outback. It was a ten-day trip when I travelled, by land, from Melbourne to Alice Springs; spending a night here and there. It was also my first exposure to camping, visiting the sacred places in nature, as well as getting a glimpse into the original Aboriginal way of life.
Through the stories I heard, I learned that to Indigenous people, the land was a family member; and when they were apart or torn away from it, there was a palpable sense of loss. I came to understand that losing a land or being displaced from it led to yearnings, longings and lamentations. This experience is not unique to Australian Aboriginals.
At the time, the consensus was that Australian Aboriginals had resided upon the island for 60,000 years before white settlers came and destroyed their way of life.
But even among the settlers, there were different segments of the population. Those who came as convicts, those who came as free settlers, and those who came during the Gold Rush. For a long time, the idea of terra nullius, a Latin expression meaning “nobody’s land”, was used to justify claims that territory may be acquired simply by a state’s occupation of it.
It was through hearing these histories that my view of Australia changed. To many Southeast Asians, Australia is a premier choice for tertiary education. Many even end up immigrating there. But learning this history and hearing these stories left a bleak image of what had occurred in Australia and who the Australians were as a people. Many of the Australians I met tended to speak disparagingly of Indigenous communities.
On a ceremonial level, though, they were always remembered. They were addressed as The Traditional Custodians of the Land, which may well be a uniquely Australian term. It felt odd hearing it, remembering the ancestors of the land, instead of your own ancestors. It was a symbolic acknowledgment that there was someone there before we arrived.
Through the course of my five year stay in Australia, I came to know these issues and these stories; largely through what I read, what I heard and what was being showed on the news. While the popular narrative had lumped them all in one group under one category, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not one group, but comprise hundreds of groups that have their own distinct set of languages, histories and cultural traditions.
These days, Australia is a settler society. People may call it a settler society, but I have always chosen to call it an immigrant society, as I felt the term more apt for the circumstances.
When we study the historical patterns of certain ancestral, ethnic or religious groups; we note that they, as a group, have collectively created and shaped a certain period of history. Our present is not born in a vacuum. There are told and untold histories that have shaped the present.
Generally, when we talk about immigrant groups, the expectation is that they will make an effort to adapt to the local culture. They will learn the language, the culture and understand the new environment in which they find themselves. When groups decide to stay isolated, when they choose not to be a part of the broader culture, and when they decide to impose their ways on others and continue with their traditions; this will create a conflict between the local community and the immigrant group.
At a very basic level, you could say that the immigrant group doesn’t seem to have a kinship with the land or the people who reside there. They don’t feel a bond. They don’t speak the language. They don’t want to speak the language. They come from wherever they have and carry with them these ideas that they possess from the generation that left. It’s hard for immigrants to gain that acceptance.
So what seems to happen in more ‘successful’ immigrant societies is an attempt to eradicate, erase and exterminate. But saying Terra Nullius never made it so.