Because few Australians have a relationship with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, myths have become one of the main ways of ‘knowing’ about First Australians.
This chapter will consider and challenge many myths that have shaped broader Australia’s perceptions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“Myths are powerful. They influence the way we think about things of which we might not have direct experience. The most difficult relationship is not between black and white people but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Most Australians do not know how to relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists.
Individual Australians need to bust these powerful and often destructive myths by setting the record straight about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fellow citizens… Whether it’s a conversation with your colleagues or chatting at a dinner party, here are some facts to help you set the record straight.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t just live in the bush
The highest proportion of Indigenous Australians live in Sydney.
In 2006, 31% of Indigenous people in Australia lived in major cities; 22% lived in inner regional Australia; 23% in outer regional Australia; 8% in remote Australia and 16% in very remote Australia
Not as many Indigenous people live in the bush compared to urban and regional areas. It is important to remember that a person does not stop being Aboriginal because they have a western lifestyle; the two cultures do not cancel each other out.
The legal definition provided by the Federal Court declares a person is Indigenous when they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, that person identifies with the culture and is accepted as such by the community in which they live, whether that community is in Yuendumu, Redfern or Perth, they are no ‘more or less’ Indigenous because of where they live.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people excel at more than sport
There are a multitude of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high achievers in a broad range of fields that are not as high profile as sports heroes.
There have been, and continue to be, Indigenous heroes in science, law, the creative arts and medicine, just to name a few. For example, Stephen Page is the internationally acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre. Dr John Moriarty AM is a successful businessman and chairman of the Jumbana Group. Bob Bellear was the first Indigenous Australian Judge and Dr Kelvin Kong is an accomplished surgeon.
These are just a few of the many Indigenous Australians who have excelled in their own way through a diverse range of careers.
You can read about many Indigenous high acheivers in Success stories
Aboriginal Tasmanians are alive and well
The myth of Aboriginal extinction in Tasmania is grounded in the story of Truganini, the woman from Bruny Island, who died in 1876 after being the sole returnee from the Flinders Island mission where Tasmanian Aboriginals were sent for resettlement.
Reconciliation Australia’s Mick Dodson explains the misconception that ‘having declared the very last Aboriginal person dead, her descendants could not, by definition, be Aboriginal.’
Indigenous Tasmanians of mixed descent are in a constant struggle to remind the larger population of their existence, history and culture. While both the forcible and passive removal of Aboriginals from Tasmania resulted in a severe fracturing of traditions and languages, Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to survive and practice cultural traditions. While their legacy is inextricably linked with those of European sealers and settlers, Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage is a living culture.
Violence/abuse against women and children is not part of traditional Indigenous culture
Sexual assault, particularly child sexual assault, forms no part of Indigenous culture and a multitude of authoritative national reports have shown this to be a myth.
While there used to be systems of punishment for people who contravened community regulations, including physical punishment, violence and sexual abuse against women and children has never formed part of traditional cultural practices and it is considered abhorrent by Indigenous men and women of all generations.
Such behaviour is learnt and has been found to be generational and cyclical; abusers have often been victims of abuse themselves. The literature on abuse is clear – that the trauma suffered by one victim will often manifest in that victim being a perpetrator of similar crimes to others later in life.
The colonial experience has left a legacy of sexual abuse in many Indigenous communities: as long ago as 1898, Northern Territory Judge Charles Dashwood urged for laws to prevent European settler’s kidnapping Aboriginal children ‘for the purpose of having carnal knowledge or intercourse’ on stations far away from their homelands.The recent report on abuse in the Northern Territory by Pat Anderson and Rex Wilde states: ‘sexual abuse of children is not restricted to those of Aboriginal descent, nor committed only by those of Aboriginal descent. The phenomenon knows no racial, age or gender borders. It is a national and international problem.’
Native Title can’t take away people’s property
In 1992, when the High Court handed down its decision in Mabo, for the first time, Australian law recognised Indigenous people’s connection with and rights over land.
This is known legally as native title. The decision overturned the concept of terra nullius which asserted that before European settlement, the land of Australia belonged to no-one.
Following the Mabo verdict, there was a barrage of misinformation spread by opponents of the decision declaring that ‘Australians were going to lose their backyards’. Sadly, despite 15 years of Native Title decisions proving otherwise, this myth lingers today.
Native title has no bearing on existing property rights because claimants can only assert their title over publicly owned land, called Crown land. Any house (including its backyard) is considered private property and therefore extinguishes native title.
We can make a difference
We are all part of the future of reconciliation. Partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are at the heart of countless success stories and they often start small.
As Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody tell us from little things, big things grow.
Learn about becoming a friend of reconciliation, Reconciliation Action Plans and take what you learn back to your colleagues and your communities.