Our Shared History

While Australia is recognised to have been formally colonised by the British in 1788, the Indigenous peoples of the land had been visited by a number of other nations before that date, for example the French, Dutch, and Spanish. There had also been contact between various Indonesian groups with northern mainland and island communities over several centuries.

As colonisation developed, two distinct Indigenous groups were included within the Australian nation state: the Aboriginal people of mainland and also some island communities, and the Torres Strait Islander people whose traditional lands are the Islands that lie between Queensland and Papua New Guinea. See Who are Australia’s Indigenous Peoples?

The languages, cultures and histories of Australia’s two Indigenous groups are very different; they have two distinct national flags. There are currently more than 500,000 Indigenous people living in Australia, 2.5% of the total Australian population. See Indigenous Languages in Australia

What has distinguished colonisation in Australia from colonisation in New Zealand, America and Canada is the lack of any treaty in Australia between those who colonised and the nation’s Indigenous people. This lack of legal or constitutional recognition of Indigenous people and their rights continues to cause tensions between National governments and Indigenous people. In more recent years Indigenous people have managed to secure some title to ancestral lands (Mabo High Court decision), but these have only been secured through long, costly and protracted legal pursuits. See What is Native Title?

Today, the Indigenous people of Australia live in towns, remote communities and large urban centres. Some are of dark skin, others are not. Some claim mixed descent, some do not. Indigenous identity is not defined by ‘colour’ but by a historical identity as being Indigenous and also belonging to an Indigenous community.

For several decades in the 20th century there was a government policy that separated Indigenous children who were of mixed descent from their families. This group is now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’. See Who are the Stolen Generations? and What is Sorry Day?

Many Indigenous people place high value on their traditional land, family and the Dreamtime. While many were separated from their traditional lands through the process of colonisation, the lands of their ancestors continue to offer important spiritual and emotional ties. While the word ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’ is a poor translation into English of different Indigenous words and meanings, it refers to that cosmic world that existed before human beings came to live on the earth. It includes the stories and actions of the ancestral beings that shaped the land into what it now is. For many, the Dreamtime continues to have an active, living and continuing relationship with today’s life, law and community values. See Indigenous Families & Kinship and What is the Dreamtime?

A large number of Indigenous people have been influenced by Christianity. While not all Indigenous people would claim to be Christian, and some would hold strong feelings about the harmful effects of missionary activity on their people and culture, many show respect for those who follow the Christian way of life. See Indigenous People & Christianity and National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council

For more than ten years the theme of Reconciliation has been promoted as an urgent social justice need between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Australia. It includes the challenge to decrease the wide gap in life expectancy between Indigenous people and others in Australia, and the serious health, employment, housing, education and social justice issues which continue to negatively affect most Indigenous people.

At the heart of Reconciliation lies the importance of respect by non-Indigenous people for Indigenous people. Forming relationships, listening to the stories and histories of different groups and seeking to understand and respect Indigenous values are all important components of this national journey to Reconciliation. See What is the Reconciliation Movement?