MELBOURNE—Taking a break in a Melbourne Thai restaurant, I idly glanced at the TV which held my fellow diners’ attention so raptly. A bearded Richard Chamberlain and a gracefully aging Karen Allen were puttering about with some tribal decorations from the American Pacific northwest. The Australians seemed positively fascinated by the colorful masks of the Native Americans. And it was at that moment that one of those coincidences happened that you think don’t mean anything, but upon reflection you realize they signify everything.
Shuffling by outside the window was a crushingly indigent Aboriginal woman, her tattered and soiled singlet, which must once have been purple, hanging off her beefy shoulders. Her hair was a tangle and her eyes swollen shut. She moved her lips as if talking to herself or chewing something. Her flip-flops were bright pink, but one of the straps had come loose and she had to drag her left foot to keep her shoes on her feet.
Confronted with such poverty, I couldn’t help but remember that Australia is a comfortably prosperous country. By all accounts, it has escaped the worst of the recent economic crises and its cities, towns, general stores and charming main streets evoke a stolid, middle-class respectability. But — and this is hardly news to anyone — the Aborigines have been strangely left out of the progress from a colonial outpost to a modern, 21st-century economic nation.
Just a few sobering statistics from a 2007 report by the Productivity Commission: As of the 2001 census, there are about 366,000 self-identified Aboriginal Australians out of a population just shy of 20 million. They make up about 2.2 percent of the total population. In almost every social indicator, the Aborigines are getting hammered:
As an American, these numbers are uncomfortable reminders of the similarities of Australian and American history when it comes to their indigenous populations. In both countries, the native population was devastated by disease, warfare, prejudice and assumptions of eventual extinction as distinct cultures. And when the natives inconsiderately held on, the conquering people suffered pangs of conscience and decided to do something.
So — believe it or not — these numbers represent an improvement. Aborigines weren’t even counted in the population until 1967; just another indignity visited upon a people who had been in Australia at least 50,000 years and perhaps as long as 80,000. Only Africa has evidence of human habitation going back further. Just to give you an idea of how old the Aborigines are, they had colonized Australia almost 24,000 years before humanity’s Asian and European populations had split. They are routinely recognized as having the oldest continuous human culture on the planet, and are the descendants of perhaps our species’ first seafarers. Their ancestors may have crossed the Timor Sea in large enough numbers to create a breeding population that swiftly occupied ever corner and crinkle of the island continent. That is an extraordinary feat when you think about the fact that modern Homo sapiens was still in its infancy.
After the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal numbers were decimated; their lands taken by British colonists, backed by magistrates who declared the newly discovered southern continent terra nullius despite hundreds of thousands of people already living there. Their culture was denigrated as backward and uncivilized. And all that is not to even get into the Stolen Generations. From 1869 to 1969, the Australian government would just up and take Aboriginal children from their families and put them in missions or other state institutions. It was ostensibly for their own good and to prepare them for life in “white” Australia, but the rationale displays a casual cruelty. By 1911, the states were the legal guardians of Aboriginal children, not the parents, who were considered part of a “dying” race. So, in what it considered a kindness, Aboriginal children were taken from their parents’ arms and separated from the only culture they knew… until they were 16, and then they were left to fend for themselves. This meant living in either white society, where they faced unfathomable prejudice, or going back to people and customs they barely remembered. It was a recipe for social disaster.
But that was then. Australia today is a considerably bigger-hearted country, with millions of dollars spent on programs, education, health clinics and the usual social development programs. The government, led by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, formally apologized in 2008 for the horrors inflicted on the children of the Stolen Generations.
But none of that makes up for the fact that the Aborigines just aren’t visible in the larger population. From Perth to Melbourne, including in Adelaide, I rarely saw an Aborigine. And when I did, they were like the poor woman I saw today, sitting around on the margins, singly or in small groups. White Australians seemed to scarcely notice them. Even worse, in Coober Pedy, I was warned of an Aboriginal “gang” roaming the streets at night, as if they were wild dogs. I’ve never seen an Aborigine working in Australia, either as a cop, a waitress… as anyone. Just two indigenous Senators have served in the Federal Parliament, and none in the House of Representatives. There has never been an Aboriginal cabinet minister.
What’s the solution? Damned if I know. After decades, Australia is trying to make up for past wrongs, but for many reasons the descendants of the first and probably most intrepid of humanity’s explorers are just not included in the story of modern Australia to the degree they deserve. For most Australians, the Aborigines are not just forgotten; they’re invisible.
Which brings me back to the Thai restaurant. After I noticed the woman, I looked back to the few other patrons to see if they had seen her and, perhaps, grasped the tragic irony of being entertained by a colonial cousin’s own experiences on TV while their own history was literally right outside the window. But no one turned their head, no one saw.
When I turned back, the woman was gone, as if she had never been there.