I was handing out flyers in Perth, Western Australia, when an indigenous woman sporting a devilish grin and with her right hand raised and curled into a fist began walking purposefully towards me. I looked away, certain that she couldn’t have me in her sights; I’d never seen her before let alone had a chance to upset her. But before I even had a chance to squeal (my favoured sound in times of danger), she had pressed her fist firmly against my cheek, smiled wickedly and walked casually away.

Several weeks before that rather unfortunate encounter, I had another meeting with an indigenous person that was less upsetting, but equally as bizarre. On a three-day camping trip to one of Australia’s most remote and arid regions, our tour guide introduced us to a humble looking man named Keith. He was disheveled in appearance and had few teeth remaining, but he smiled shyly at us and held out his hand for us to shake. Keith, so we were told, was the proud owner of both Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the nearby Kings Canyon. We wanted to laugh, as it seemed so strange that one man with no apparent wealth could actually possess those two landmarks, but we were assured that it was true.

I was to learn that the aboriginal people have an entirely different concept of land ownership than that of many other countries; land may technically be owned by an individual, but it is still communal and has great spiritual significance. Aboriginal spirituality has an intimate relationship between humans and the land, and they call the beginning of the world, ‘The Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’. During this time, they believe that their aboriginal ancestors rose up from beneath the Earth to metamorphose into various elements of nature, like animals, water and the sky, where they remained spiritually alive.

Aborigines kicking up dust in a dance at sunset, photo courtesy of nationalgeographic.com

It wasn’t until 1788, when European civilisation first made its way to Australia, that the Aboriginal way of life first became threatened. White settlers began to forcefully and unfairly acquisition land from the indigenous people and, soon, the life they had enjoyed for thousands of years was under threat. The settlers had a culture and way of life far different to the Aborigines, and when they quickly established their own laws for this new land, such ancient tribal traditions and practices like fishing, hunting and food gathering, were restricted as the settlers took over.

In the process of invading the land, the Europeans destroyed native plants and wildlife, disturbed sacred sites, and brought deadly diseases across the water with them. When the Aboriginal people tried to defend their territory and their traditions, they were shot or poisoned. This ill-treatment became widespread, even leading to bloody massacres, in which hundreds of indigenous people were slaughtered. In the end, after the very real prospect of being driven to extinction, they gave up and began surrendering to the Whites. Many turned to alcohol, a substance which had first been introduced to them by the settlers, and others died of European diseases to which they had never been exposed before. By 1850, few had survived.

In attempting to ‘civilise’ Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, Europeans stripped these people of their culture and denied them the land of which their very existence relies upon.

Today, such ill-treatment is no longer tolerated, but these ancient indigenous people are still in trouble. Although the bloody massacres of yesteryear are no more, many say there is now a ‘silent massacre’.

Aborigines in custody have a far higher death rate than among the white criminal population, a lack of housing and health care has resulted in a high infant mortality rate and HIV is slowly spreading through their heterosexual community.

Some say that Australians of today present a facade of goodwill towards the people who originally inhabited their homeland, but that subtle undertones of racism exist. As a result, the Aborigines often find themselves widely discriminated against in society and struggle to integrate in the community, something I’ve seen myself throughout my travels around Australia.

Help is out there, with the Australian government attempting to provide adequate housing, healthcare, educational and employment opportunities, and many  indigenous people are fiercely protective of their culture and will fight for their rights as Australian citizens, but there’s a very long way to go before they achieve the status within their homeland that they so rightly deserve.