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Australian Aboriginal FlagAustralian Aboriginal Culture and History

Australian Aborigines existed in almost total isolation for at least 60,000 years. They had no written history so only fragments of Dreamtime stories, cave paintings and etchings ramain to record their remarkable past. Only in the last few decades has a systemic investigation revealed the rich and complex culture that they possessed.

Image: Australian Aboriginal Flag, was first flown, as far as it can be ascertained, at the
Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliment House, Canberra, in 1972.

      • It was decided that the Embassy needed a flag and a number of designs were submitted. That of Harold Thomas, an Aranda elder from Central Australia was selected.
      • The three parts of the flag represent the people, the earth and the sun. The red land at the bottom, the yellow sun and the correct way of displaying the Aboriginal Australian flag - black on top.

It was, and still is, a culture based on strong spiritual ties which link them inexorably to the ancient land - a gift from the creator of the Dreamtime. it is believed the people are born of the spirit which inhabits the land, and on dying, return to the soil to be reborn. each person is thought to be descended from either a plant or an animal and this becomes their 'totem', with it's own taboos and rules of behaviour.

Before white settlement, most of the continent was occupied. Although their cultural and language patterns differed, the 600 or more scattered tribes existed in comparative harmony. They each occupied and hunted a recognised tract of land where sacred sites were protected, and boundaries, designed in the Dreamtime, were crossed only by invitation.

Tribal elders, because of their wisdom, upheld the laws. every occasion demanded proper behaviour and breaches of law brought severe penalties.

Their economy was based on relentless daily activities of hunting, fishing and seed gathering. Drought and famine were interprited to mean the spirits were displeased and that man must 'make amends'. All made and repaired spears, boomerangs and digging sticks which were mainly made of wood. As well Aboriginies used ground-edge tools made of stone 10,000 years before their European counterparts.

Map of the general location of larger Aboriginal groupings of people in Australia
Above Map: of the general location of larger Aboriginal groupings of
people in Australia. prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Aboriginal society was a creative one and art, music, song and dance were intergrated into both daily routine and spiritual ritual. The elders prescribed the form of ceremonial life, particularly the initiation, marriage and burial rites, in which the rest of the tribe, including songmen and artists, were totally involved. Corroborees and cave paintings reflected the powers of the Dreamtime and symbolic designs were etched into most objects, from tools to the sacred Dreamtime stone, the Tjurungo.

Sorcery was not a daily occurrence although no one doubted its power. 'Pointing the bone', the most dreaded magic used, projected the power of evil hidden in the bone into the victim's body.

As the Aborigines confronted European settlers, the whole fabric of this fragile society was shaken. Early contact was usually made on the outskirts of towns where the materialistic values of the white people clashed with the cooperative sharing of the Aborigines.

The myth that Australia was an uninhabited land when Captain James Cook discovered it gave the European settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries carte blanche to move into areas regardless of the consequences. Many Aborigines separated from their spiritual place and stable environment became dispossessed.

Aboriginal Australian Cathy Freeman Olympic Gold MedalistPictured Right: Cathy Freeman, Aboriginal Australian and Olympic Gold Medalist.

By 1850, concern was felt and segregation laws were passed to suposedly protect Aborigines from the 'poverty' to which they were now exposed. Many were confined to missions and reserves run by white officials with extensive power and control.

Some were used as cheap labour by landowners who, although benevolent, still held great power. Others dwelt in a 'twilight zone' on the fringe of white society with little hope of recognition, where health, housing and education became endemic problems.

Changes in attitudes of both black and white people came after World War II. White society began to recognise its appalling lack of understanding and Aboriginies became more aware of their national identity. In 1962 they were granted the right to vote in federal elections and were included in the census for the first time in 1967. National health services began to improve and housing and education services were made a priority.

Land rights became an issue and by 1979 Aborigines were granted title to 144 former reserves.

  • The High Court 'Mabo' judgement of 1992 ruled that Aborigines who could prove unbroken occupancy of land were able to lodge native title claims.
  • In 1996 the controversial 'Wik' decision held that the grant of a pastoral lease did not necessarily extinguish native title and that in some cases the two could coexist.
  • In 1998, the Federal Court of Australia ruled that native title could exist over costal waters, and in the 'Yorta Yorta' native claim the court ruled that, in some cases, 'the tide of history [had] washed away' entitlement.

However, the most significant milestone for Aboriginal Australians alive today came in 2007 when newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised on behalf of the nation to the 'stolen generation' of Aboriginal Australians who were forcebly removed from their Aboriginal families and placed in state run and white foster families. The word 'sorry' was sincerely offered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the nation wept.

While this was a very significant milestone, important to all Australians, it only marks a beginning to a much larger need. Today, the challenge for many Aboriginal Australians is gaining employment in the modern Australian economy, which will lead ultimately to greater access to education and health care for them and their families.

Related Reading: History of NAIDOC Week