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Clouds of Colonialism

Illustration by Emmie Wu

Settler colonialism is an ever-evolving form of violence. In Australia, it began with the theft of Indigenous land, the enslavement and murder of Indigenous Australians, and the mass dispersal of deadly disease—forcing Indigenous populations deeper and deeper into the shadow of Australian colonial conquest. With time, this violence took a new shape with the continuous denial of Indigenous Australians’ equal status as citizens and the forced assimilation of their children into settler society. The impact of this brutal history is evident today in the disproportionately high rates of suicide, domestic violence, and incarceration, as well as a life expectancy eight years lower than the national average. While recently enacted statutory protections are a sign of progress, they are ultimately band-aids on bullet wounds—and by voting down a referendum to constitutionally recognize Indigenous Australians’ existence and agency, the Australian people have only shot another hole in the hope for Indigenous Australian liberation.

The proposed amendment, voted on in an October 2023 nationwide referendum, would have officially recognized the persistence and power of Indigenous Australians. It would have also created an Indigenous advisory board, First Nation’s Voice to Parliament, that would work with the Australian Parliament on legislation related to Indigenous Australian issues. The failed proposal developed from the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, a call to action drafted at a constitutional convention of Indigenous Australian representatives to discuss paths towards empowerment. While Australian Senator Lidia Thorpe and some Indigenous Australian leaders opposed the amendment for placating calls for more extensive reform, they remain a minority—according to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, 83 percent of Indigenous Australians support the Voice. 

The major opposition to the proposal came from conservative parties that feared the Voice would become a “third wing of Parliament,” direct excessive funding towards Indigenous communities, and potentially embolden Indigenous Australians to declare independence. Essentially, their concerns boil down to a fear of Indigenous agency. Given that settler colonial societies like Australia obtained and continue to maintain power from the subjugation of Indigenous communities and the exploitation of their land, ending that violence threatens their power. The outcome of the referendum suggests that a majority of Australians sympathize with these conservative fears, as the proposal was rejected by 60 percent of voters.

There is some evidence of Australians’ support for indigenous empowerment. In 1993, after much deliberation, the Australian Parliament passed the Native Title Act, which recognized that Indigenous Australian land claims survived colonization and are legitimate. Although the act faced strong opposition, the High Court affirmed its validity in the years following its implementation, and in recent years has continued to rule in favor of Indigenous groups suing to protect their land. In 2016, a federal court granted local Indigenous groups $2.3 million in compensation for government infringement upon native titles with highway development. When the case was appealed to the High Court, it maintained the groups’ right to collect damages, setting a multi-million dollar precedent. Just three weeks before the October referendum, the High Court ruled to stop an offshore drilling operation due to the risk it posed to nearby whale populations that hold an important role in Indigenous Australian cultures.

If these legislators and judges continue to recognize and uphold Indigenous rights statutorily, even at the potential expense of billions of dollars to the national economy, why do so many other Australians oppose constitutional recognition? The answer may lie in a lack of communal empathy and education on Indigenous Australian history.

On this front, Australia may have something to learn from New Zealand, whose Indigenous Maori community has fared better than Indigenous groups in Australia and the Americas. The Maori have always represented a much larger percentage of the national population compared to other settler nations. There is some power in numbers: Treaties dating back to 1840 protect Maori culture in New Zealand. Indigenous activists also worked with activist groups throughout the mid-20th century to codify certain legal protections for Maori people much earlier than in other nations. Recently, Maori groups called attention to a lack of “common understanding about New Zealand’s history” among citizens and the government. To remedy the issue, New Zealand created special Maori seats in Parliament, similar to the proposed Voice to Parliament in Australia. 

The existence of settler colonial societies in and of themselves will always prevent true empowerment of Indigenous communities. But, there are degrees to this harm, as well as to the efficacy of solutions to it.

Centuries of settlers divided Australia into tracts of private property and banned Indigenous people from trespassing. As a result, Indigenous Australians are still more likely than their European-descended counterparts to live in rural areas, making them less visible to the vast majority of Australia’s population, who live in coastal cities. Even within urban areas, their presence is still minimal compared to the millions of non-Indigenous residents; Indigenous people only represent 3.8 percent of Australia’s population. These demographic hurdles have compounded upon the historic exclusion of Indigenous people from settler Australian society and restricted the ability to build community (and empathy).

In the absence of natural, community-formed empathy, Australia has also failed to instill learned empathy via a proper understanding of Indigenous Australian history and settler colonialism. Centuries of Indigenous exclusion from historiography were known as the Great Australian Silence and only began to fade in the 1970s as people finally started to discuss Indigenous Australia. While secondary school history classes cover topics such as ancient history, colonization, and Indigenous resistance, these curricula often do not tell the full story. For example, textbooks finally describe how the Australian Gold Rush displaced Indigenous communities, but they still exclude Indigenous responses to that dispossession. And, in other areas like art history or 21st-century Australia, Indigenous people are given cursory references in textbooks while white people dominate each and every chapter. 

Since Indigenous resistance continues today, students should know about indigenous life prior to colonization and amid persistent settler colonialism. A portrayal of Indigenous history as exclusively defined by violent subjugation is an injustice to the ways Indigenous people have survived—and thrived—before and during Australian settlement. The nuances of the sustained violence that continues in the present era and the long history of Indigenous Australians both need to be better taught to students.

There remain massive educational discrepancies between individual classrooms, as teachers without robust training end up with various degrees of knowledge and comfortability instructing, especially on Indigenous history. Australia’s education system is highly privatized, so hiring standards, curriculum content and rigor, and administrative oversight differ between institutions. In fact, UNICEF ranks Australia’s education system in the bottom third among highly developed nations. 

So how can we better empower Indigenous communities in Australia? It begins with building empathy. The Indigenous Australian people, cultures, and traditions that survive today need to be brought out of the shadows and celebrated in the settler society that is currently steeped in European cultures. An overhaul of the education system needs to transparently cover the precolonial history of Indigenous Australians, the true violence these communities have faced, and their resistance. Ending the Great Silence is an ongoing effort. Without a class dedicated to Indigenous history, some stories will be left out—and those that do get taught may only be partial accounts, poorly contextualized, and their importance downplayed.

Proper understanding of Indigenous Australian struggles and agency should not be relegated to highly inaccessible legal spaces like the High Court; it should be a part of the Australian shared history. Only then will Indigenous Australians, and their past, truly be brought out of the shadows of settler colonialism and included within the notion of what it means to be Australian.