There were over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations occupying this land for many thousands of years before Cook’s voyage to the east coast of Australia.
For First Australians, looking back on the arrival of the Endeavour brings up many emotions—not just because of the voyage, but due to the 250 years since. To some Australians the voyage is a symbol of change for the people and the land, and a reminder of the European colonisers that followed.
In the early days of colonisation, Indigenous people experienced frequent violent encounters with officials, convicts, law enforcers, settlers and missionaries. Encounters were commonly about access to land, resources and women. There were also conflicts between Western and Indigenous ideologies and ways of viewing the world. Western ways took precedence over Indigenous ones, and the land became owned and managed through Western laws and systems. This led to the displacement of Indigenous people in many nations and impacted the cultural structures that governed them. Indigenous people still feel the trauma of colonisation to this day.
Citizenship and cycles of change
When the Australian Constitution was written there was barely a mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The welfare of Indigenous people was a state responsibility. It was not until 1957 that Albert Namatjira, a Western Arrernte man and Australia’s most prominent water colour artist, became the first Indigenous person to become a citizen of Australia. Becoming a citizen allowed him to vote and to live where he wanted, still with restrictions.
In the 1950s and 1960s, awareness of the treatment and rights of Indigenous Australians started to rise, stirring public debate. Actions started to take place, including the petitions organised by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ Freedom Ride.
These actions eventually led to a national referendum in 1967, proposing to amend the Constitution, allowing the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the national census. Ninety per cent of Australians voted in favour of the proposed amendments, meaning all Indigenous people would now have the same rights as other Australian citizens.
The 1967 referendum led the way for a rise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in the 1970’s, who began to fight for equality. A major milestone was in 1971 when Neville Bonner became the first Indigenous Australian to sit in the Federal Parliament, taking up a seat as a Senator for Queensland.
At the same time action about employment conditions and land started happening. In a strike action lasting for seven years, 200 Gurindji stockmen, house servants, and their families, had walked off a cattle station at Kalkarindji, in the Northern Territory because of poor treatment and no wages.
As missionaries began to withdraw from Northern Territory communities, Indigenous people began to be a part of a cash economy, with access to travel and also access to alcohol and other drugs. However, the impact of these new, introduced elements in communities was mixed. There was less involvement and attention towards traditional practices.
Elders and communities became concerned for their people and their country. This concern led to small groups of Aboriginals returning to their traditional land to avoid the social problems in the larger communities. In 1976, the Fraser Government passed legislation that began a significant process to formalise the return land to Aboriginal people. Today, 50 per cent of the Northern Territory land has been returned.
21st Century Australia
Now in the 21st century, a lot has changed for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. There is a rising respect and understanding of Indigenous cultures and the land we share. Indigenous leaders are now being consulted within specialised fields, such as land, water and fire management, to share their expertise and traditional lore.
Australia is home to one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. One that had builders, farmers, law enforcers, teachers, astronomers and healers before the Endeavour first encountered the country and its people.
We are learning from our First Peoples—their culture and their lore, the impacts of colonisation, what the commemoration of the Endeavour means to us as a nation, and how we can embrace different knowledge systems. We still have more to learn from each other, beginning with the acceptance that our shared history has many different perspectives.