Sydney Basin country traditionally belongs to people of several nations or language groups, including Guringai, Darug, and Dharawal (alternate spellings are Kuring-gai, Dharug and Tharawal). The lands of the Darkinjung and Gandangara converge with the Sydney Basin to the northwest and southwest respectively. The clans of Sydney’s Northern shore and beaches including the Carigal, Cammeraigal, Gayimai and Cannalgal are understood by many to belong to the Guringai language group, whose country extends from the Lane Cove River to the Pacific coast, and from the north shore of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) to the Tuggerah Lake area.
The arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 to what we now call Sydney Harbour devastated the local Aboriginal people, who battled disease, pollution and a calculated scheme of dislocation. Despite years of resistance, and survival of many descendants, most of the traditional custodian of the Sydney Basin at that time were killed and their societies ripped apart. Despite this descendent of the traditional custodian the Guringai people live in the areas of greater Northern Sydney today.
Two books published in recent years by Aboriginal authors, The Tale of a Whale by Emma Lee and Repossession of Our Spirit by Dennis Foley, add new perspectives to the early European historical accounts of the Aboriginal people of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Another excellent resource is Sydney’s Aboriginal Past by Val Attenbrow.
These books and others are referenced in the Resources section of this website.
According to the 1996 Census, 1707 residents in the Northern Sydney Region identified themselves as being Indigenous Australian (1403 Aboriginal and 304 Torres Strait Islander). Of these, 702 lived in the Manly Warringah Pittwater area. These residents originate from many different clan and language groups around the country and have moved to the area mainly for family and employment reasons. Although they are not traditional owners of the land, most would relate closely to the Aboriginal culture and heritage of the area.
649,171 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, 2.8% of the total population 2016
The 2021 Census will mark 50 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples being included in the official estimates of the Australian population, following the amendments to the Constitution Act after the 1967 referendum. Since the 1971 Census, there has been a clear upward trend in the number of people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. The 2016 count of 649,171 represented an increase of 18% from the 2011 Census.
The following is extracted from ANTaR’s Indigenous Health Rights Action Kit (2004), which is based on research by the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the United Nations Human Development Report, as well as other sources (see reference below).
Long-term global research by the United Nations World Health Organisation shows that living circumstances and quality of life are the fundamentals of health and life expectancy for all people, regardless of their culture or location. The UN research found that the likelihood of serious ill health and short life escalates in direct relation to social and economic disadvantage. Disadvantages include few assets, low income, little education, insecure employment, poor housing, and parenting under difficult conditions. Also people who feel excluded from mainstream society are likely to have poorer health.
The poor health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come from these same social and economic disadvantages. Factors such as high imprisonment rates, poor economic status, low employment and education have their roots in the history of dispossession, child removal practices, and other past government policies. Such underlying causes continue to influence current rates of illness, poor mental health, life expectancy, as well as a range of other social problems within Indigenous communities.
Social and economic factors affecting the lives of Indigenous Australians are varied. For example, Indigenous unemployment is on the rise, with an expected increase from 39% to 47% by 2006 (note that unemployment of all Australians is currently 6%, the lowest since the 1960s). More than half of Indigenous people in rural areas earn their income through the CDEP (work for the dole) scheme, and the median income for Indigenous people is 40% lower than for the total population. Fewer than 36% of Indigenous children finish high school, compared with 73% of the overall Australian population. Although comprising just over 2% of the population, Indigenous Australians account for 19% of adult prisoners and 41% of juveniles in detention. Only 30% of Indigenous Australians own their own homes, compared with about 70% for the mainstream population. Many Aboriginal communities lack basic services and essential sanitation infrastructure: 21 communities lack water, 80 lack electricity, and 91 lack sewerage systems.
Such social and economic disadvantage directly translates into poor community health. One of the most powerful indicators of the disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians is their rate of illness and short life expectancy. Indigenous Australians consistently suffer poor outcomes against all national health indicators, which not only affects individual lives, but entire communities. Moreover, the situation for Indigenous Australians is getting worse not better.
Australians in general enjoy the second highest life expectancy among OECD countries. However, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is 20 years. This gap increased over the period 1997-2001. (By comparison, in the USA and New Zealand, the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is 5-7 years.) In Australia, about 45% of deaths among Indigenous males and 34% of deaths among Indigenous females occur before the age of 45, compared with 10% and 6% for non-Indigenous Australian males and females respectively. Most Indigenous males (76%) and Indigenous females (65%) die before the age of 65. The reverse is true for other Australians, where most live beyond the age of 65 (73% males; 84% females). Aboriginal Australians have shorter life expectancies than people in Nigeria, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Vietnam.
The median age of death is 53 years for Indigenous Australians, with no improvement since 1990. For other Australians, this is 77 years, which is a rise of 3 years since 1990. By comparison, the median age of death for Indigenous people in New Zealand is 59, Canada is 65, USA is 63; all three countries improved over the last 25 years.
Infant Health & Mortality
Indigenous Australian babies are twice as likely to have low birth weight, a statistic that has improved little since 1991. Only 7% of children in remote communities have normal ear health, with no infections or hearing loss. Indigenous Australian infant mortality rates are 2.5 times that of other Australian infants. Seven percent of Indigenous deaths are of infants less than one-year-old, whereas less than 1% of non-Indigenous infants die before the age of one. Infant mortality rates for Indigenous Australians are almost twice as high as those of the NZ and USA Indigenous populations.
Preventable Conditions & Chronic Disease
Indigenous Australians are twice as likely to be hospitalised than other Australians. They also suffer from heart disease at a rate that is three times higher than the general Australian population. Respiratory and kidney diseases occur in the Indigenous population at rate that is 9-11 times higher than in the general population. Death from diabetes happens 8 times more frequently than in the general Australian population. Death from respiratory conditions is 4 times higher and death from circulatory conditions is 3 times higher.
It is estimated that to make any improvements in these statistics, a 59% increase in doctors is required, and a 25% increase in nurses. This will obviously require a significant boost in the Government’s commitment to health funding and adequate service delivery. It is estimated that the level of health spending is 22% higher for Indigenous people but the needs of this population are 200% greater than the general population.
These statistics show the extent of action required to address these complex issues. ANTaR’s national campaign on Indigenous Health Rights is a response to calls from Indigenous Australians for urgent action to stem the current crisis in Indigenous health.
Gary Highland, National Director, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), gave a talk about ANTaR’s health campaign at our March 2007 information night, to see a copy of his talk please click here.
Based on information provided by Healing Hands: Indigenous Health Rights Action Kit, Rozelle, ANTaR, 2004. To learn more, see ANTaR at www.antar.org.au and FACE the Facts published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) at http://www.humanrights.gov.au/. See also the links in the Health section of our Resources page.
Along the east coast of Australia there is archaeological evidence for Aboriginal occupation extending back beyond 60,000 years. One of the richest provinces in Australia, the Sydney Basin is home to thousands of Aboriginal archaeological sites. This cultural legacy is incomparable and some have said this immense outdoor rock art gallery is worthy of World Heritage status. Though the specific stories associated with these sites are now not generally known, there remain thousands of identified sites in the region, as well as sites in areas yet uncatalogued.
Among other forms, Aboriginal sites include rock engravings and paintings, shelters and occupation sites, axe grinding grooves and seed grinding patches, stone or ochre quarries, shell middens, fish traps, stone arrangements, carved or scarred trees, as well as bora (ceremonial) grounds and burial sites. Large proportions of these are located on the Northern Beaches Peninsula, and abound even in populated areas. These sites are heritage places of national significance and help us learn about the traditional owners of this region. They undoubtedly deserve respect and protection.
Aboriginal sites are protected under both federal and state legislation. The two laws that provide the primary context for Aboriginal Heritage Management in New South Wales are the National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) and the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act). The NPW Act provides statutory protection for all Aboriginal relics and places, while the EP&A Act establishes the framework for Aboriginal heritage values to be formally assessed in land use planning and development consent processes.
In our local area, David Watts is Manager of the Aboriginal Heritage Office (AHO) that serves The Northern Beaches, Willoughby, North Sydney, Ku-ring-gai, Strathfield and Lane Cove Councils. The AHO catalogues the Aboriginal sites in these Council areas, creates a management plan for their protection, and helps the Councils bring their policies and procedures relating to development and bush care into alignment with the legal protection accorded Aboriginal heritage. Part of this work is also to conduct education programs relating to the Aboriginal heritage of the area for Council staff, school and community groups, and to work with developers and utility companies whose activities invariably impacts on sites. Programs have also been established for residents and the wider community about how to recognise and respect sites.
Sites are fragile and vulnerable to damage, weather, and inadvertent (or sometimes deliberate) vandalism. It is a legal offence to knowingly damage, deface or destroy an Aboriginal site, artefact or place. When visiting sites, leave stone and shell artefacts in place, and take care to walk around engravings rather than over them. Scratching engravings or marking the outline with sand contributes to erosion, as does walking on engravings wearing shoes. To see engravings at their best, view them when the sun is low or after a rain.
We are all responsible for the protection of these irreplaceable Aboriginal sites. They deepen our history and heritage and give us all the opportunity to appreciate the richness and complexity of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
If you have concerns or questions about an Aboriginal site in the Sydney area, contact the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, or the NSW Heritage Office. For information or specific queries relating to sites in The Northern Beaches, Willoughby, Lane Cove, North Sydney, Ku-ring-gai and Strathfield Council areas, contact David Watts at the Aboriginal Heritage Office. firstname.lastname@example.org
Native Title is the name given by Australian law to Indigenous peoples’ traditional rights to their lands and waters. Those rights can range from a relationship similar to full ownership through to the right to go onto the land for ceremonies or to hunt, fish, or gather food and bush medicines. To have their native title rights recognised, the Indigenous group has to prove they still have connection with their country according to their own traditional laws.
The first Australian recognition of native title came in the Mabo Case of 1992 where the High Court recognised the native title rights of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. This decision rejected the doctrine of terra nullius a Latin term meaning land of no one which had formed the legal basis for British occupation of the continent in 1788. The idea of terra nullius had been used by Britain and other colonial powers to deny the existence of Indigenous law and land ownership, and negated the obligation to secure treaties with the traditional owners. The idea that Australia did not belong to anyone at the time of European settlement had always been absurd, but the High Court’s recognition of native title was a watershed in that it invalidated the fundamental premise of Australian colonisation that of peaceful settlement of an empty continent.
When the High Court said that Australian law recognises native title, it meant that the law recognises the ongoing existence of these customs and traditions through which Indigenous people have a connection to their land. Native title is therefore not a new form of title created by the High Court, but rather a legal recognition of those rights that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always had.
In 1993 the Native Title Act was passed to recognise and protect surviving native title rights throughout Australia and set up a process for settling claims and conflicts about native title. The Act confirmed that native title had been extinguished on all freehold land, as well as the majority of leasehold land. It established the Native Title Tribunal to mediate claims, provided for negotiation of land use, and set out the priority between native title and other land titles.
The Wik people of Cape York tested a grey area of the Native Title Act in regard to whether pastoral leases granted by the Queensland government constituted a valid extinguishment of their native title rights. Not equivalent to freehold land, pastoral leases are generally issued to allow grazing of livestock on Crown land. In its 1996 decision on this case, the High Court said that native title can only be extinguished by a law or an act of the government which shows a clear and plain intention to extinguish native title. This meant that native title rights were not precluded in these cases, and that while pastoral leases were secure, leaseholders did not have a right to exclusive possession of the land. In practice, Aboriginal people could, for example, conduct traditional ceremonies, or camp and fish on the land, as long as this did not interfere with pastoral business. Each case was to be negotiated to ensure that the rights of each party could co-exist.
The Wik decision was attacked by many conservative interests across the country and generated an enormous amount of discussion about the implications for Aboriginal people and leaseholders. The Wik case became a major focal point for the new Howard government’s efforts to erode the rights gained through Mabo. In 1998 the government amended the Native Title Act to wind back the rights of native title holders and claimants. The amendments weakened their rights to negotiate, confirmed and validated the extinguishment of native title on a range of leases and other land tenures, limited native title holders right of access to pastoral leases, and made it more difficult to register native title applications. Indigenous land use agreements were introduced as an alternative to settling claims through formal determination procedures.
Australian law now gives all other land titles priority over native title. It should be noted that the United Nations International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has found that some of the amendments to the Native Title Act are racially discriminatory, since they wholly prefer the rights of non-Indigenous title holders.
Main Source: Face the Facts: Some Questions and Answers about Refugees, Migrants and Indigenous People, Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2001 and 2003. For more information, see www.humanrights.gov.au, or contact ANTaR www.antar.org.au
Land rights are not the same thing as native title.
As outlined in Question 4 above, native title is about recognising Indigenous peoples’ continuing connection to their land and waters in accordance with their own traditional laws and customs. Native Title is not a grant created through legislation but exists alongside Australian common law. As such, native title pre-exists the Crown and survives colonisation where Indigenous people have maintained a continuous connection with their country and where their native title has not been extinguished by an act of government (such as the granting of freehold title).
Land rights are those granted by the government and are based on the assumption that the Crown holds legitimate title to land, which it then passes on to another party. Land rights are granted at the state or territory level, and are comparable to freehold and leasehold titles that also flow from the Crown. For example, a land rights grant may cover Crown land or national park, traditional land, or an Aboriginal reserve, mission or cemetery.
In New South Wales, Aboriginal land rights are governed under the Land Rights Act 1983. The Act was created to compensate the Aboriginal people of NSW for past dispossession of their lands. The destruction and fragmentation of Aboriginal society in NSW had been so severe that the normal definition of traditional lands could not apply. While the law fell short of recognising the continued existence of traditional Aboriginal rights to land and resources, it nonetheless confirmed that as a result of government decisions, the amount of land set aside for Aboriginal people had been increasingly diminished without compensation. The legislation therefore created a three-tiered system of Aboriginal Land Councils state, regional and local that could claim Crown lands from the NSW State Government in accordance with the Act. The intention was to address dispossession through land-based compensation, which would subsequently create a sustainable economic base for Aboriginal people in the State.
What started out as an exciting opportunity for Aboriginal communities to become self-determining has become a complicated practice. While the 1983 Land Rights Act provides a legal right to claim land, the translation of that right into actual Aboriginal land ownership is an ongoing struggle. A resistant attitude from government with regard to individual land claims has meant that a lot of money is spent on litigation, rather than on creating a sustainable future for Aboriginal people in New South Wales.
For more information on the history of land rights in NSW, see Parbury, Nigel, Survival: a History of Aboriginal Life in New South Wales, Sydney, NSW Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, 1986. See also the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.
It is important to remember that issues of land do not have relevance only for regional areas or far off parts of Australia. Right here on the Northern Beaches and in greater Sydney, issues of land are acutely relevant, both to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Even with the dispossession of the Guringai people, there are still a small number of descendants of the traditional custodians living on The Northern Beaches. There are numbers of Aboriginal people who do live locally. The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (MLALC), the custodial body for the Sydney Basin, owns land claimed under the Land Rights Act 1983 (see Question 5). Indeed, the Land Council is the single largest landowner in The Northern Beaches Council area and pays a sizeable share of rates. It has been important, therefore, for local government on the Peninsula to work in cooperation with the Land Council on issues pertaining to land in the area.
A crucial area requiring cooperation is the care of Aboriginal sites in the Peninsula area and the education of the community with regard to their significance and fragility (see Question 2, above). The ongoing struggle to preserve the lands surrounding the Quarantine Station at North Head, for example, is due in part to the need to protect significant Aboriginal sites there. In addition, repatriating Aboriginal Ancestral Remains for appropriate reburial is a process that has required at times the support of local government.
Another example of successful cooperation is the unique partnership between the MLALC, Warringah Council (now The Northern Beaches Council) and the Brookvale Valley Community Group called the Tripartite Agreement. The 1998 agreement, believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, involves the joint management of a 10ha site at the head of Brookvale Valley owned by MLALC. Under the joint management plan, the bushland site has undergone a major clean-up and bush regeneration program, which has protected key wildlife habitats and significant Aboriginal sites, while retaining public access for recreation. The management plan, funded by proceeds of the sale of seven lots at the far corner of the site, has allowed the vast majority of the site to remain bushland.
In his speech at the Tripartite Agreement signing ceremony, (then Warringah Mayor) Sam Danieli stressed that the agreement was an example of what could be achieved through commitment to reconciliation. He reminded those present that it was important for the people of Warringah to be a part of a scheme that will be used as a model in other communities in Australia. Jenny Munro, MLALC Chairperson at the time, emphasised that settler Australians have nothing to fear from the land claim process. She commented that the reality of sharing space, when undertaken in the spirit of cooperation and equality, makes everyone a winner. “We’ve achieved something today which people have spoken about for a long time”, she said. “We sat at the table and realised it’s not that hard to do. It is a lesson for all of us”.
Issues of land, therefore, are not merely a concern out there, but have significant meaning here on the Northern Beaches.
For more information on this issue, contact the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council or Northern Beaches Councils.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in Australia from the early nineteenth century onwards. While the circumstances of these separations varied, Indigenous children in most states could be legally removed by governments without parental consent or the need to prove neglect before a court. This represents one of the most widespread and damaging assaults on Indigenous Australians, and the children affected have become known as the Stolen Generations.
Indigenous children represented a potential source of labour to squatters and pastoralists and a target for the evangelising efforts of the churches. As the Indigenous population increased in the late nineteenth century, government policy began to promote the removal of Indigenous children of mixed descent to ensure that this population would merge over time with the non-Indigenous population. These children were liable to be removed for training in institutions as domestics or farm labourers, to be reared as if they were white in orphanages and children’s homes or to be fostered or adopted by non-Indigenous families. The application of assimilationist welfare policies by states and territories during the 1940s to the 1960s saw even greater numbers of Indigenous children removed from their families on pretexts such as alleged neglect, poor school attendance, and for medical treatment.
Removals on the basis of race continued into the 1970s. While forced removals affected every region of Australia, its intensity varied according the period, the available resources and the visibility of children of mixed descent. The legacy of forcible separation remains in the lives of Indigenous individuals and communities today.
In its 1997 report, Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission estimated that between one third and one tenth of all Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and communities during the period 1910 to 1970. It also found that most Indigenous families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children. The full scale of removals is still not known because many records have been lost.
In 1980 an organisation called Link-Up was established to enable Aboriginal people who had been fostered, adopted or raised in institutions to regain contact with their communities and to forge family links. Most children who were separated grew up knowing very little of their Aboriginal families, culture, heritage or identity. The issues involved in assisting people to find their way home are overwhelming, and the contribution Link-Up has made to the lives of so many members of the Stolen Generations cannot be over-estimated.
Based on information gleaned from Face the Facts: Some Questions and Answers about Refugees, Migrants and Indigenous People, Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2001 and 2003, as well as Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, (Commissioner: Ronald Wilson), Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997. For more information, see Resources section, including web links and film / print references.
One of the many recommendations of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report was that there be an apology to Indigenous people from the institutions involved in establishing and implementing the laws and policies that sanctioned forced removals of children. These institutions include state and national parliaments, police forces, religious organisations, and other non-government agencies. The recommendation was made in recognition of the fact that saying sorry is an act of compassion, understanding and healing. Acknowledgement and apology are essential first steps to reparation and reconciliation.
All state parliaments, the national senate, as well as numerous church organisations and law enforcement bodies have officially expressed sorrow to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the policies of forced removal and for their ongoing effects. Only the federal government still refuses to fully acknowledge its role in the suffering brought about by its past practices and refused to provide the National Inquiry with information about federal laws and policies associated with child removal. Remaining intractable with regard to a national apology, Prime Minister John Howard has refused to make a distinction between personal guilt for these practices and national shame about them. He has even questioned the very existence of the Stolen Generations in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Australians have not waited for their leader, however, and widely supported the 26 May 1998 National Sorry Day organised to commemorate the history and effects of forcible removals. The day was meant to assist the healing process for members of the Stolen Generations and provide an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on this part of their history.
The Journey of Healing was launched by members of the Stolen Generation from across the country in response to the National Sorry Day and is marked each year on the 26 May anniversary. The Journey of Healing offers every Australian the opportunity to help heal the wounds in their community and better understand the disruption, fear and anguish which pervaded the Aboriginal population due to the removal practices. Each year on the Northern Beaches, a Journey of Healing commemoration is organised by the Aboriginal Support Group-Manly Warringah Pittwater, along with many others in the area and hundreds of others across the country.
For more information on National Sorry Day and the Journey of Healing, https://healingfoundation.org.au/
as well as the Resources section Stolen Generations of this website.
National Aboriginal & Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week has a long history within the Indigenous community. It is of great importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a time to respect and revere some of the heroes involved in past struggles and to celebrate cultural survival. Generally observed in all capital cities and in many regional areas during the first full week of July, NAIDOC celebrations involve a week of community-based activities flag-raising ceremonies, concerts, religious services, art exhibitions, and sporting events organised by Indigenous people and supporters to increase awareness and understanding of their rich heritage.
NAIDOC Week was first commemorated on the Northern Beaches in 1992. Manly Council resolved that recognition should be given to NAIDOC Week and formed a planning committee comprised of councillors and a range of people from the community, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Members of the ASG were included and continue to be represented on this body.
The them, Manly Council’s support of NAIDOC Week led the way for all of the then three Peninsula Councils (Pittwater, Warringah, Manly) to get involved in subsequent years. In 1993, the Aboriginal flag flew all along the Northern Beaches during NAIDOC Week and each year since then, many community events have been organised to mark this special week. Local government symbolically raising the flag, celebrating Indigenous culture, and acknowledging Aboriginal concerns are all positive and concrete steps toward community acceptance and recognition of Aboriginal people and their important contribution to Australian identity.
For information on NAIDOC Week celebrations on the Northern Beaches contact The Northern Beaches Council or check out the Calendar section of this website.
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) is a national network of organisations and individuals working in support of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. During the tide of public concern over the Howard governments initiative to amend the Native Title Act, ANTaR was formed in 1997 as a broad coalition of individuals and community groups including human rights and legal groups, ecumenical groups, trade unions, as well as social justice, arts, educational and women’s organisations. ANTaR’s primary goals were to support the National Indigenous Working Group (NIWG), influence the federal governments proposed changes to the Native Title Act, and promote public education regarding the specifics of land rights and reconciliation. Although based in Sydney initially, ANTaR has since grown into a national organisation.
One of ANTaR’s most innovative projects was the Sea of Hands, which has been very effective in gaining public attention and support for social justice and reconciliation. The Sea of Hands comprise flat plastic hands bearing the names of more than 300,000 citizens who have signed their support for Indigenous Native Title Rights and Reconciliation. Made from the colours of the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Australian flags – red, yellow, black, blue, green and white – the hands are mounted on metal stems that are then fixed in the ground in a variety of patterns. Taking a different design wherever it has been planted across Australia, the Sea of Hands is Australia’s largest living artwork and an important public education project. The moveable sea and smaller puddles of hands have travelled the country displaying the conviction of many Australians.
A number of ASG members went with the Sea of Hands on its journey across Australia in 1998 and we were all thrilled to see the Sea planted on Manly Beach during NAIDOC Week 1999. Local Koori artists were consulted on the design for Manly, which was an adaptation of the symbolic serpent design created on the beach at Broome from the west coast to the east! Patrick Dodson, who had travelled from Broome to speak at several big events in Sydney during NAIDOC Week, also visited the Sea of Hands on Manly Beach. The event was named Community Event of the Year by Manly Council and the award was presented to ANTaR on 26 January 2000. This was the second year running that an event focused on Indigenous issues had received this award (the ASG had received it the previous year).
For information about the Sea of Hands or other ANTaR initiatives, check out www.antar.org.au.
Reconciliation is about understanding how history has shaped the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and developing more harmonious and cooperative relations for the future. This includes addressing longstanding inequities and disadvantages experienced by Indigenous people, promoting respect for Indigenous cultures, and giving greater recognition to Indigenous aspirations. Reconciliation is important not only to Indigenous people but also to Australia’s future as a cohesive nation.
The process of reconciliation formally began in 1991 as the result of the recommendations of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The federal parliament unanimously supported reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and the establishment of an independent body called the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Comprising 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members, the Council’s task was to consult the community on ways to improve relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, public education, and developing strategies to encourage cooperation. The Council’s stated goal was to work toward a “united Australia which respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and provides justice and equity for all”.
The Council was given a 10-year life-span, which ended in December 2000. The Council’s final report, Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenge, recommended comprehensive action to address the unfinished business of reconciliation. This included calls for a formal agreement or treaty as well as the establishment of a foundation to continue the Council’s work. This foundation, Reconciliation Australia, was established in December 2000 and continues to provide national leadership on the issues associated with reconciliation.
In our local community, with its small Indigenous population, it is essential that the valuing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and culture be a part of everyday life to prevent the isolation and invisibility of Indigenous people, culture, history and heritage.
Main Source: Face the Facts: Some Questions and Answers about Refugees, Migrants and Indigenous People, Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2001 and 2003. For more information, visit http://www.reconciliationaustralia.org and http://www.nswrecon.com/
Founded in 2000, the Reconciliation Network: Northern Sydney Region (RNNSR) comprises representatives of Northern Sydney Reconciliation organisations including LRGs, plus Indigenous Services & Networks and Local Governments & Community Support Groups. RNNSR provides a forum for members and guests to meet together to discuss and act on matters related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, to social justice and the truth-telling of Australian history. RNNSR appreciates the partnership and support of all nine Northern Sydney Local Councils and for their hosting on a rotational basis, of our five annual meetings.
‘A united Australia which respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equity for all.’
Local Government on the Northern Beaches has made important progress on reconciliation. (Each of the past Councils (Manly, Warringah and Pittwater) had a sound Reconciliation statement, each acknowledged country at public events, and each flew the Aboriginal flag as a sign of respect toward the traditional custodians of the land.
In conjunction with other North Shore Councils, the then Manly, Warringah and Pittwater Councils supported the then Northern Sydney Aboriginal Social Plan and the employment of an Aboriginal Project Officer to coordinate its implementation. Susan Moylan Coombs was the then Officer. Also in partnership with other North Shore Councils, Warringah and Manly employed an Aboriginal Heritage Manager to look after the management of Aboriginal sites in their areas, as well as working closely with the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (MLALC) on a number of land management and heritage issues in the area (see Questions 2 & 6, above).
Local government has supported the celebration of NAIDOC and Reconciliation Weeks since the early 1990s, and have helped cultivate development of the Guringai Festival, held between 26 May and mid-July every year. In the Manly and Warringah area there are have plaques acknowledging the Guringai traditional custodian’s of this land, and all the then three Councils supported the Aboriginal history project that resulted in publication of Emma Lee’s The Tale of a Whale: Significant Aboriginal Landscapes of the Northern Beaches.
The then Manly, Warringah and Pittwater Councils supported reconciliation in both substantive and symbolic ways, and their participation at a local level has been crucial in raising the profile of Aboriginal issues on the Peninsula.
For a summary of the specific reconciliation initiatives of our Northern Beaches Councils, see Aboriginal Support Group – Manly Warringah Pittwater, A Story to Tell…On a Road Toward Reconciliation: 1979-2000: An Account of the First Twenty-One Years of Life and Work of the Aboriginal Support Group – Manly Warringah Pittwater, Narrabeen, ASG-MWP, 2002 can be obtained at the ASG meetings.
Treaties with Indigenous people were a common part of the European colonisation process. The British concluded treaties in New Zealand and with many First Nation groups in Canada and the United States. Treaties recognised sovereignty, prior rights, and sought to clarify fundamental issues in relationships between the colonised and colonisers. During the whole process of colonisation, neither Britain nor colonial authorities ever concluded a formal treaty or agreement with the traditional owners of Australia. Indeed, Australia is the only Commonwealth country that never signed an official treaty with Indigenous people. When Britain assumed sovereignty under the presumption of terra nullius (land of no one) all Indigenous rights were denied. This legal fiction only ended in 1992 with the Mabo decision (see Question 4, above), and few Indigenous people benefit from the amended Native Title Act.
In 1979 the Aboriginal Treaty Committee (ATC), under the chairmanship of Dr H.C. Nugget Coombs, came together with the aim of educating the public about the true history of Australia and to pressure the government to negotiate a treaty with Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal Support Group – Manly Warringah Pittwater (ASG) began as a group of people focussed on learning more about the concept of a treaty.
The agenda has been very full since that time, focusing on a range of Aboriginal social and economic justice issues, including land rights, disproportionate incarceration rates and deaths in custody, health and education, reconciliation. But specific calls for a treaty have surfaced again in recent years with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s call for a formal agreement or treaty as part of the unfinished business of reconciliation.
Many Aboriginal people are not convinced that their groups would benefit from a treaty process, making consultation and dialogue as always essential. The discussion was in its early days, but many people believe that a treaty or series of treaties would benefit the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.
Join and support your local reconciliation group (see www.reconciliationnsw.org.au for local group details in NSW) or volunteer at Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) www.antar.org.au
- Listen, listen, listen. Never speak for Aboriginal people.
- Become informed and promote cultural and factual awareness.
- Persistently challenge racist and ignorant comments.
- Join a Study Circle or an Aboriginal Studies course at your local community college.
- Participate in Journey of Healing or Sea of Hands events.
- Support Aboriginal Colleges, Theatres, Dance Groups, Authors, and Artists (for example, Tranby College, Bangarra Dance Theatre, music groups, art and cultural exhibitions).
- Acknowledge Country at the commencement of public meetings and events.
- Be proactive when required: write / email / call your government representatives, press or radio station.
Visit www.reconciliationaustralia.org for information and tools to help you take action.
Become involved Join Us!
The Aboriginal flag is divided horizontally into equal halves of black (top) and red (bottom), with a yellow circle in the centre. The black symbolises Aboriginal people and the yellow represents the sun, the constant renewer of life. Red depicts the earth and also represents ochre, which is used by Aboriginal people in ceremonies. Designed by Harold Thomas, the flag was first flown at Victoria Square in Adelaide on National Aborigines’ Day on 12 July 1971. It was used later at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 as a symbol of unity and solidarity. Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia.
The Torres Strait Islander flag stands for the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders. Designed by the late Bernard Namok, it features three horizontal coloured stripes, with green at the top and bottom and blue in between, divided by thin black lines. A white dhari (traditional TSI headdress) sits in the centre, with a five-pointed white star underneath it. The colour green is for the land, and the dhari is a symbol of all Torres Strait Islanders. The black represents the people and the blue is for the sea. The five-pointed star represents the island groups. Used in navigation, the star is also an important symbol for the seafaring Torres Strait Islander people. The colour white of the star represents peace.
Based on material kindly provided by Office of Public Affairs, ATSIC.
The term ‘Indigenous Australians’ refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the original people of mainland Australia and the islands of the Torres Strait north of Queensland. In 2005 the Indigenous Australian population was estimated to be 492,700 people, which comprises 2.4% of the total Australian population.
The Indigenous Australian population is relatively young, with a median age of 21 years, compared to 36 years for the non-Indigenous population. In 2001, 30% of the Indigenous population lived in major cities, 43% in regional areas and 26% in remote areas. The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales (29% of the Indigenous population) and Queensland (27%), Western Australia (14%) and the Northern Territory (12%). In most states and territories Indigenous people comprise less than 4% of the total population but they include about 30% of the Northern Territory population.
Until the early 1970s, an Aboriginal person was defined by legislation that varied from state to state. Definitions were based on a supposedly biological understanding of ‘race’, and depended on the ‘percentage’ of Aboriginal ‘blood’ a person possessed. At one time there were sixty-seven separate definitions of ‘Aboriginal’ used by various governments in Australia.
This race-based definition was abandoned in the early 1970s when the Federal Government adopted a new definition that relied on social rather than a ‘racial’ identity. The current definition of an Aboriginal person is someone who:
1) Is of Aboriginal descent;
2) Identifies as an Aboriginal person; and
3) Is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.
Each requirement needs to be satisfied. Colour of skin, physical appearance, and lifestyle are no longer relevant.
Indigenous Australians are multicultural – they are not a single group, with one language, culture or set of beliefs. With over 350 Indigenous nations across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have different stories about their past and ideas of their future, as well as representing a mixture of contemporary and traditional ways and practices. It is important to remember that many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people prefer their own specific language names to identify themselves, rather than the more general term ‘Indigenous’. For example, a person might identify herself as being part of the Cadigal clan of the Eora people, or refer to herself as Koori, a collective term used for Aboriginal people of New South Wales and Victoria.
Based on information in Horton, David, ed., The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society and Culture, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994 (see ‘Aboriginal’, volume 1, page 3). Statistics sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Publication 4704.0 The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 29 August 2005.
In 1987, Australia’s Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to investigate the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had died in custody since 1980. The inquiry was established in large part due to the public education and lobbying efforts of the National Committee to Defend Black Rights, the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, family members of people who had died in custody, and many civil rights supporters across the country.
The final report of the Royal Commission was released in May 1991 and contained 339 recommendations to deal with the serious over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police and prison custody. In addition to looking into the investigation, arrest and sentencing practices within the criminal justice system, the Commission also considered the broader factors underlying the high rates of incarceration, such as cultural, political, legal and social issues, as well as higher levels of unemployment and ongoing disadvantage.
The report confirmed that the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detention was 27 times higher for police custody and 15 times higher for prison custody than for the general population. It was found that Indigenous people were more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for minor offences such as offensive behaviour or language. They were less likely to have legal representation or receive bail, and more likely to receive a jail sentence rather than probation or community service. The socioeconomic status of Indigenous people also affected their ability to afford fines, often leading to fine default and re-arrest.
The Royal Commission Report argued “the most significant contributing factor was the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally.” The focus of the Commission’s recommendations was the elimination of discrimination and disadvantage and the facilitation of empowerment and self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Consequently, the Final Report made many recommendations designed to drastically reduce the incidence of incarceration, including the use of imprisonment as a last resort.
Sadly, great strides toward resolving these problems have not been made since the release of the Report in 1991. While some efforts have been made to implement a few of the recommendations over the last Twenty-One years, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Islander people has actually risen since that time.
Although comprising just over 2% of the population, Indigenous Australians account for 19% of adult prisoners and 41% of juveniles in detention. Indigenous men are 15% more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous men in Australia. This figure is 20% for Indigenous women, a number that increased four-fold in the years between 1991 and 2001. Indigenous youth aged 10 to 17 are in juvenile detention at a rate 17 times higher than non-Indigenous juveniles. Mandatory sentencing laws mean that even children can be jailed for the most minor property offences.
Deaths in Custody
With so many Indigenous people imprisoned, deaths in custody rates have risen by 150% since the Royal Commission’s Report. In the 1980s, 12.1% of prison deaths were Indigenous, whereas in the 1990s Indigenous people accounted for 17.2% of prison deaths. While Indigenous people are now less likely to die in police custody than 20 years ago, they are more likely to die in prison. Between 1980-1989, 67 Indigenous people died in police custody, while in the decade 1989-1999, 21 Indigenous people died in police custody, and 93 in prison.
Why, after 339 recommendations delivered by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, are incarceration and death rates still on the rise? Ray Jackson, a long-time activist in this arena, has expressed doubt that there is political will to end the rising toll, saying, “All they are going to do is build more jails and the magistrates will fill them up. The police will … continue to pick up people for the flimsiest of reasons, against their own recommendations that they should use arrest as a last resort. This will lead to more Aboriginal people incarcerated and more dying in custody.” (Debra Jopson, “A Sorry Business”, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 1999, p. 15.)
For up to date statistics see FACE the Facts published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) at http://www.humanrights.gov.au/. An excellent summary of the process and aftermath of the Royal Commission can be found in Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance: From Pemulwuy to Mabo, edited by Paul W. Newbury, (new ed.), Surry Hills, Action for World Development, 1999. Better yet, read the full report of the Royal Commission at www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/index.html and check out the other links in the Human Rights & Legal section of our Resources page.
Respect and acknowledgement are common conventions in Australian public life. As a sign of respect to the traditional custodians of this land, more and more speakers at public events are opening their addresses with an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’.
An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ simply recognises the particular Aboriginal country on which a meeting takes place and shows consideration to the traditional custodians of that country. An Acknowledgement of Country can be offered by anyone to show respect for a specific place and its caretakers.
A ‘Welcome to Country’ can take the form of a speech or a dance but can only be performed by an Aboriginal Elder of that country. More often given at major events and meetings, the greeting welcomes people to visit and meet on the traditional area. If an Elder or appropriate member of the Aboriginal community is not available to give a ‘Welcome to Country’, it is appropriate to offer ‘Acknowledgement’ instead.
This practice has its roots in long-established Aboriginal meeting protocols, where the traditional owners welcomed visitors to a particular area, who in turn acknowledged hospitality. Both greetings represent the proper form of address and acknowledgement and show respect for Aboriginal people as Australia’s first peoples.
Hailed as an important milestone in Reconciliation, this practice is now common at state and federal functions, and in New South Wales is performed at school and TAFE functions also. The Northern Beaches Councils offer ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ at the opening of council meetings and events.
The ASG has also produced a bookmark outlining the protocol for Acknowledging Country on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Please click here for details. Find out more by visiting the Protocol section of our Resources page.
Aboriginal Support Group – Manly Warringah Pittwater, A Story to Tell…On a Road Toward Reconciliation: 1979-2000: An Account of the First Twenty-One Years of Life and Work of the Aboriginal Support Group – Manly Warringah Pittwater, Narrabeen, ASG-MWP, 2002.
As a Matter of Fact: Answering the Myths and Misconceptions About Indigenous Australians, Canberra, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998.
Background Briefing Information Kit, Sydney, NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 2003.
Face the Facts: Some Questions and Answers about Refugees, Migrants and Indigenous People, Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2001 and 2003. Updated web content can at http://www.humanrights.gov.au