The unrelenting struggle of Indigenous Australians

Gracelyn Smallwood
Gracelyn Smallwood

Gracelyn Smallwood Indigenous People of Africa and America (IPOAA)

Thank you, Brothers and Sisters. I'd like to thank The World Uranium Hearing for giving me the privilege of being able to present today. I have ten minutes to give you 200 years of colonization of Indigenous Australia. So, I commence by giving a quote from an Aboriginal woman in my country, Jackie Huggins:

"Aboriginal Australians have lived in Australia over 40,000 years. It has been a long argued view of European anthropologists and prehistorians that modern humanity migrated South to Australia. This fails to explain, however, why older forms of modern human beings have not been found outside the continent. The legends and religious beliefs of modern Aboriginal Australia have no stories of migration. There is no evidence of migration memories anywhere in our country. This is a religious position taken by Aboriginal Australians, and science has failed to refute it."

Before 1788, Aboriginal Australians enjoyed a nomadic lifestyle where men, women and children lived in harmony with each other and the environment. Mother Earth was regarded as sacred which everyone respected and did not exploit. The healthy lifestyle changed dramatically when the invaders arrived from England headed by Captain Cook. The land was claimed by them through a law that still exists today called "terra nullius", meaning "no man's land". The British government wanted to establish the penal colony because of the overcrowding in their own country. It was estimated that about one million Australian Aborigines inhabited the country with 500 different tribes in 1788. Today, in 1992, 200 years later, there are 300,000 left. Many were killed with guns, poisoned water holes and food, and many died from diseases introduced by the invaders. A document from the late 1700's states: "Some convicts were allowed to have the weekends free from the confines of their masters' properties on the condition that they brought back with them aboriginal scalps. These scalps were, in fact, pairs of ears."

The remainder of the Aborigines were placed on reserves and missions where white management had total control over their Aboriginal lifestyle. The hunted and gathered foods were replaced with high carbohydrate rations. Language and ceremonies were forbidden, as it was seen as paganistic to the invaders' superior, Christian values. The colonists brought with them their social order and notion of property, their birth rights and Christianity. With their invisible luggage they brought their racial prejudice. Aboriginal men were drastically losing their role in society by being used to slave labour. The women were used as domestics and sexual partners for the white invaders. Raping and killings continued as a sport. And I quote: "One gorges at the Sunday afternoon manhunts of sexual mutilation, of burying live Aboriginal babies up to their necks in sand and kicking their heads off after tying with a rape the severed neck of the husband around the raped spouse."

Half cast children were being born and many were sent away to welfare homes or to other reserves far away and many did not return home. The most systemic destruction occurred in 1909 when about 5,300 Aboriginal children were sent to Cootamundra Girls Training School and Kinchelle Boys Home in Kempsey, New South Wales, where they were given training as domestics and farm hands. There was an estimation that one in every six Aboriginal children were taken away from their families in that century, compared to the figure of one white out of 300 to the white community.

In the 1800's, scientists around the world -- in particular Britain and Germany -- encouraged the killing of Aboriginals for scientific research. Money was actually paid for skeletons. Thousands of graves were robbed, the British and Australian scientists ran one of the biggest graverobbing networks. Studies by an academic researcher in Oxford indicated that the graves of between 5,000 and 10,000 Aboriginals were desecrated, their bodies dismembered to support science. Recently discovered documents in Brisbane confirm that Aboriginals were killed for displays in museums. Presently, Dr. Robin Cox, head of the archeological branch of the Natural History Museum in London, has requested on television that more Aboriginal bodies be sent to his museum. Aboriginal Australians have called for his dismissal.

Legislation came in three stages for Aboriginals who were regarded not even as human beings. First, there was a series of official inquiries from 1845 to 1861 to investigate conflicts between settlers and Aboriginals. Out of this came the conclusion that it was best for both black and white, that Aboriginal people be separated from Europeans and live on small reserves, where it was assumed that they would eventually die out. The second stage was a protection act that all Aboriginal people would be under the control of the government rather than the settlers. Often, in isolated areas the person in charge was usually the local policeman. The third stage was in the late 19th century, an enactment of specific discriminative legislation. Between 1901 and 1911 all the states, including the Northern Territory with the exception of Tasmania, passed acts providing for Aboriginal welfare. This legislation was summed up by a researcher as "a system that confines the native within a legal system that has more in common with the born idiot than any other class of British subjects".

Queensland, where I was born, has many Aboriginal reserves. One which is called Palm Island is notoriously known for brutal treatment of Aboriginal people. Punishment for minor offences was shaving childrens' heads bald and making them parade in front of the community. And then the children were locked up in dormitories. The childrens' hair was their pride.

My father, a member of the Birrigubba tribe, was taken away as a child and raised on Palm Island. My grandfather was one of six brave men from Palm Island who went on a hunger-strike in 1957 for better conditions for Aboriginal people. All six men were taken in chains, with their families separated from each other and relocated to other reserves. In the 1950's and 60's, the British government tested nuclear bombs at Maralinga, Monte Bello Island and Emu Field. The fallout extended over a wide area including Queensland. At that time my father was working on the railroad in central Queensland, where there is now a high rate of leukemia in children.

In 1967, a referendum was held where 90 percent of white Australians voted that Aborigines become citizens in their own land. However, Queensland was the only state not to abolish all laws discriminating against Aboriginals. Many of the South African apartheid laws were actually modelled on the Queensland Aborigines Act.

In 1971, an Aborigine artist, Harold Thomas, designed the Aboriginal flag in the colours red, black and yellow. Black for the people, the red for the earth and the yellow for the sun, the giver of life. In the early 1970's, the Aboriginal bureaucracy was structured under the federal Labor government. Money was allocated for housing, health, schooling and various projects. This was a form of compensation to try to overcome the poverty among Aborigines. Most of the funding went to white public servants in the administration, and little reached the grassroot-levels. Many of the white public servants became experts in being Aboriginal. At this time the Girynga people of the Northern Territory were given some landrights. Since then there has been much legislation and government inquiries into landrights and heritage acts. Most Aboriginal people still have not had success in land claims. Multinational mining companies are stifling many claims. Uranium and other minerals were found where Aboriginal communities were mostly located.

In the late 1960's, I learned about the dangers of uranium mining in Mary Kathleen, a desert town in Queensland, from my father. He was the only source of information my family had. We had no access to newspapers, radio or television. He was very involved with the trades and labor movement while working with the railways. There was much opposition by railway unions against the transport and export of Mary Kathleen uranium, and in 1977, the Australian Council of Trade Unions called for a ban on the export of uranium. And like 1976, my father became aware of the secret rail shipment of uranium from Mary Kathleen on the Mount Isa railroad. Uranium demonstrators delayed the shipment for some time and publicity resulted on the dangers of uranium mining. In 1980, there was a theft of two tons of yellow cake from Mary Kathleen. It was transported out of the mine in six drums and later found in Sydney almost 5,000 kilometers away.

In the mid-1980's, my father died of stomach cancer, although he lived a very healthy lifestyle. As a midwife for the past 20 years, working in the area of public health nationally and internationally, I have witnessed an increase in sterility, cancers, miscarriages, deformities and other problems. It appears to be a general problem globally. The present situation of Aboriginal Australia is alarming. Many remote communities lack clean running water, adequate housing and proper sanitation. We represent one percent of the national population but we count for up to 70 percent of prison inmates. Infant mortality is three times higher than in the general population, and the life expectancy is 20 to 25 years less.

The unemployment rate is three to five times greater than the general population. We still have diseases like leprosy and tracoma that some Third World countries have eradicated. Alcoholism is on epidemic levels which causes family breakdowns and the loss of their cultural identity. To further this insulting situation towards Aboriginal society, we now have a black and a white bureaucracy.

The federal government gave the power to Aboriginal people to elect representatives, to advise the government on Aboriginal affairs. This advisory body called ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders Commission, is continuing to disempower Aboriginal people as far too much money is spent in the administrative arm and very little reaches the grassroots-level.

An Indian Elder said in Canada three weeks ago, and I quote: "We must educate the indigenous people as well as the white people about the dangers of the ugly nuclear industry. Some are beginning to give the O.K. to mine on Aboriginal land in order to deal with the poverty. They must be told to leave uranium in the ground." End of quote. Michael Mansell, an Australian Aboriginal activist, summed up the prospects of Aboriginal people in my country when he stated: "The most crucial prerequisite to empowering Aboriginal people is their desire and capacity to put an end to their disadvantaged situation and take control of their own lives. There is no other way." The World Uranium Hearing will hopefully unite us all to achieve this and to take back our messages to our leaders and our people to leave uranium in the ground. And in closing, not is all doom and gloom. I encourage my indigenous sisters and brothers globally to continue our struggle. We have survived and we will survive, as we were all B.C. -- before Cook, Columbus and Christ.
Gracelyn Smallwood, Australia. Master of Science (in Health), registered nurse, midwife, member of the Aboriginal Islander Tripartite Forum, co-founder of the Indi-Genous Forum. Her email address is Reprinted fro the Global African Presence

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