Assimilation policy had a devastating impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Australia and continues to contribute to the many complex political issues affecting Aboriginal communities today.
As the latest Closing the Gap campaign reports show, there remains a huge contrast between the life opportunities, health outcomes and access to education between First Nations people and non-Indigenous communities, all linking back to the inequality, racism and treatment of Aboriginal people following colonisation.
When we consider subjects such as why Aboriginal life expectancy is so low, it is essential that we recognise how disadvantage and marginalisation play a part rather than assuming that assimilation policy is a thing of the past and does not continue to have ramifications.
A Brief History of Australia’s Assimilation Policy
While some historians debate exact figures, it is estimated that in 1788, when the first British fleet of ships arrived along the shoreline, close to what is now known as Sydney, around 750,000 Indigenous people lived in communities and groups across Australia.
Colonisers forcibly dispossessed First Nations people of their land, using a self-declared legal rule called ‘terra nullius,’ which enabled them to claim ownership. Since characterised as a legal fiction, terra nullius stated that land did not belong to anybody.
The reality is that land was taken from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many of whom regard the land as an integral part of their cultural and spiritual beliefs. Before colonisation, Indigenous people had well-established systems whereby groups and clans were custodians of the land and had infrastructure such as rules around water usage.
While many Aboriginal people fiercely resisted the invasion of their rights, this often resulted in horrific massacres during a dark period of history called the ‘Frontier Wars,’ in which overwhelming forces used unethical and brutal practices to deter people from resisting or fighting back.
Familial Impacts of Assimilation Policy
The governmental policy was in force between 1910 and as recently as 1973 when Indigenous children were removed from their families. Many were placed into children’s homes run by the state or given to non-Indigenous homes.
Today, those children, many of whom were never reunited and are still looking for their families, are often referred to respectfully as the ‘Stolen Generations.’ Cycles of abuse existed for decades, where Aboriginal children were routinely exposed to abuse, neglect, and other harms, and were forced to change their names and prohibited from speaking their languages or practising their cultures.
At the time, the Australian government stated that the policy was for the benefit of First Nations people and that it was working towards assimilating all Indigenous people into Western society. Their approach attempted to erase Aboriginal people, their beliefs, ways of life, languages, and cultures from existence.
Protection policies meant that many Indigenous people were relocated and sent to live on reservations, with rules such as being forbidden from being in a town after 6:00 PM, being excluded from hospitals and schools, and having their rights stripped from them. The fact that Aboriginal people were left off the Australian census until 1967 is a reflection on society at the time, and when this changed, it was around the same time that agricultural and livestock workers, called ‘stockmen,’ were allowed to be paid wages for their labour for the very first time.
Assimilation Policy and Intergenerational Trauma
The events of the past resonate today, and by understanding the impacts of assimilation policy on First Nations people and how this still creates inequalities and disadvantages, we can begin to work towards reconciliation. Wounds caused by harrowing actions such as removing children from their families, reinforced with violence and cruelty, remain, causing spiritual, emotional, and physical damage to communities.
Intergenerational trauma is passed down from generation to generation and often occurs because there is no opportunity to heal, address past harms and find ways to recover. Examples of mistreatment, such as socially sanctioned racism and discrimination, cannot simply be forgotten, and many people continue to grieve over lost land, loved ones and culture.
Recognising that this trauma exists is the first step to supporting today’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the grandchildren of Stolen Generations children. Historical and intergenerational trauma is complex and distressing, and shining a light on it and listening to experiences and long-held pain may, in time, assist with that recovery process.