When the British came to Australia, the number of Aborigines was approximately 300,000, with one estimate as high as 700,000. At that time, the English functioned on the principle of terra nullius - that the lands in Australia belonged to no one. Aborigines had no evidence of ownership and no permanent settlements, therefore settlers felt they could take whatever they wanted.
When I was at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in northeast Australia with a group an Elderhostel group, we saw a movie about the British treatment of the native population that hit me like a punch in the gut. They were hunted like animals, starved, given poisoned bread, introduced to diseases and generally mistreated. Their sacred places were defiled, and the countryside was ruined by the introduction of cattle and the cutting of trees. This malice reduced the population to about 30,000 individuals.
In recent years, the Australians have admitted their crimes against the aborigines and have been changing their treatment of the native people. This has allowed Aboriginal numbers to grow, and at 460,000, they make up 2.5 percent of Australia’s population - 29 percent in the Northern Territory. With government help, the natives are in the process of rebuilding and rediscovering their culture. Museums and cultural parks introduce tourists to their way of life, arts and myths.
ABORIGINES IN THE OUTBACK
Alice Springs sits in the middle of the great Outback desert the Australians call the Land of Never-Never. What appeared to us from the air to be thousands of small lakes turned out to be dry saltwater holes. Because this was the driest year in a while, the rivers also were just dry beds. Little sign of human habitation existed outside the city.
As I stepped off the plane in February, the 104-degree heat hit with the force of a furnace. My traveling companions from northern states did considerable complaining about the scorching sun, but coming from Missouri, I adjusted quickly.
I was soon introduced to the Aussie Salute, the constant flipping of hands in front of the face. Soon I was doing the same thing to brush away the flies attempting to get in my nose, eyes and ears. Many of my companions started wearing green netting over their heads.
Although about 27,000 people live in Alice Springs, the downtown area seemed quite small. The major business is souvenirs, made by the Aborigines and the Chinese to sell to the 300,000 tourists who drop in each year to visit Ayers Rock.
This was our first contact with Aborigines since getting to Australia. A fair number of them were just hanging around town: They live in communities at the edge of town, but now dress up like Aussies. There are many shops in town; mostly for tourists and their main product is Aborigines art.
The original telegraph station has been restored as a museum and our guide was an Aborigine who had been taken from his family and raised at the station, which had been the government school for Aborigine children. When we asked him about the experience he seemed quite content with what had happened.
To get to Ayers Rock from Alice Springs, we drove six hours over land where, if you observed it from high ground, you could see a lot more of nothing. A-bomb tests were conducted there years ago because it was believed nothing could be harmed in the area.
Since 1995, Ayers Rock, the most famous natural landmark and the most visited site in Australia, has been called by its Aboriginal name, Uluru. The world’s largest monolith, it rises 1,100 feet high and is six miles in circumference. It is the tip of a sandstone mountain that extends far below the surface.
The local Anangu tribe, believed to have lived in the area for 20,000 years, pushed for the site to be returned to them. The caves at the base of the rock contain carvings and paintings sacred to them. The site was returned to the tribe in 1985 after a 10-year battle, and some of the area is now closed to the public. In other areas, photography is not allowed. Aboriginal guides, available for the walking tour around the rock, explain its importance in their legends.
With the temperature at 104 degrees, no climbers were allowed on the rock when we visited. Aboriginals don’t like people climbing it, but they will not actively resist if anyone wants to. If you climb, you must come early in the morning. If the temperature is expected to be under 100, you will be permitted to start if you are carrying plenty of water.
As Aborigines are concerned about sacred places, tourists cannot take pictures of the people or of places with religious significance. Our bus driver indicated if we took forbidden pictures, the people might take revenge by breaking the windows of our bus.
At Ayers Rock, we saw 30,000-year-old rock carvings and rock art made by painting figures and outlining hands with ocher. Aborigines also paint on bark and make totemic poles. Body painting has developed into an art form, with the figures based on the individual’s totem.
Their art forms are bringing them positive attention, and sales to tourists in the fancy shops in Alice Springs are enriching the community.
A lecturer described how Aborigine artists made paintings using symbols, drawing the scene as it would look from above as if traces were left behind by feet and bottoms. Most of the commercially available paintings are done in that form. Also available in tourist shops are baskets woven from natural materials and the large wooden, two-tone horn called the didgeridoo. The musician in our group found it impossible to get notes out of the one he bought.
After the drive around Uluru, we toured the culture center, where Aborigine art covers the walls. Photos again were not allowed, but reproductions were available in the shop. When artists die, all pictures of them are removed from the center, and black strips are put wherever their names appeared.
That evening we watched sundown on the rock, the view was impressive. However, 20 buses were in the parking lot, and about 800 people were picnicking and drinking champagne - quite a contrast to the earlier treatment of this as a revered place.
Another evening we watched a movie on how the Aborigines without training could do mechanical repairs on cars and keep them running. They were very creative is finding substitutes for what they lacked.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE CULTURE
When Aborigines lived in a natural state, the separation of women’s work from men’s was complete. Women dug for roots and gathered grubs and seeds, and men confined themselves to hunting. The community was based on sharing, with definite rules as to who got what. The man who killed a kangaroo got the thighs, and other relatives were assigned parts based on relationship. Because everyone was related, everyone got something.
When the British arrived, Aborigines lived in small tribes with 500 to 600 languages spoken, some of which seemed only vaguely related. That number is down to 200 languages, some of which are mutually understandable. After many years of having their language repressed, they are relearning it and speaking it as a matter of pride.
Their languages are different from English in what they allow you to think about. They have no specific words for many things, including numbers above two. Instead, they say there was a mob.
Self-sufficiency was stressed, and the young men had to do a walkabout to prove they could live off the land. Many Australians still know little about their native people, but several movies have drawn attention to them, including "Walkabout," "Quigley Down Under" and "Rabbit-Proof Fence."