Member of any of the 500 groups of indigenous inhabitants of the continent of Australia, who migrated to this region from South Asia about 40,000 years ago. Traditionally hunters and gatherers, they are found throughout the continent and their languages probably belong to more than one linguistic family. They are dark-skinned, with fair hair in childhood and heavy dark beards and body hair in adult males. There are about 228,000 Aborigines in Australia, making up about 1.5% of the population of 16 million. The Aborigine rights movement campaigns against racial discrimination in housing, education, wages, and medical facilities.
There were about 300,000 Aborigines living on the continent in small kin-based groups at the time of the first European settlement in 1788. Decimated by diseases new to them and killed by settlers, their number dwindled drastically.
The Australian Aborigines have a rich oral tradition of legends, songs, rituals, and bark and cave paintings concerned with their Dreamtime, a primeval era when humans were first on Earth. Tribal totem (see totemism) ancestors of Australian Aborigines include the eagle-hawk, kangaroo, and snake. About 40% still follow the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life and live mostly in the remote desert areas of Northern Territory, the north of Western Australia, and in northern Queensland. About 12% of Australia is owned by Aborigines and many live on reserves as well as among the general population; (65% of Aborigines live in cities or towns). Others work on cattle stations, and a few have entered the professions and government service.
The unemployment rate among Aborigines in 1995 was three times the national average, and their average income reached about half. They had an infant mortality rate three times the national average, a suicide rate six times higher, and an adult life expectancy 20 years below the average for Australians generally; Aborigines living in remote areas of northern Australia faced extremely high death rates – three and four times the national average for men and women respectively. In 2000 Aborigines continued to be severely disadvantaged. Their infant mortality rate remained higher (one in four infant deaths in Australia is Aboriginal), life expectancy lower (53% of Aboriginal men and 41% of Aboriginal women die before the age of 50, while the figures for the wider Australian community are 13% and 7%). Rates of cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, diabetes, injuries, and infectious disease among Aborigines were much higher than among non-Aboriginal Australians. As well as having a higher unemployment rate, imprisonment rate is also higher for Aborigines, compared with the general population. Aboriginal people were also more likely to be homeless or living in overcrowded accommodation.
Land claims Aboriginal culture has been protected by federal law since the passing of the Aboriginal and Torres Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984. The Aboriginal Land Fund Bill 1995 established a fund enabling Aborigines to purchase land and housing.
In 1997 the federal government decided to reject the amended version of its proposed Aboriginal land rights legislation. The Senate, which the government does not control, added over 200 amendments to the Native Amendment Bill. The bill seeks to give farmers and mining companies greater security from Aboriginal land claims. Prime Minister John Howard found the altered bill unacceptable.
The United Nations race discrimination committee found in 1999 that the Australian federal government had breached international pledges not to discriminate racially. The committee found that a law passed to restrict Aboriginal land claims (the so-called Wik legislation) appeared to be in breach of the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, to which Australia is a signatory.
Human rights abuses An inquiry conducted by Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1997 showed that between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children (known as the ‘stolen generation’) were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes or sent to orphanages; many never saw their parents again. It was known as an ‘assimilation’ policy. The report accused the country's authorities of practising genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Australian parliament, in August 1999, passed a declaration of deep and sincere regret for past injustices to the Aborigines. The parliament acknowledged that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represented the most blemished chapter in international history. The motion stopped short of the unreserved apology called for by the Labour Opposition and some Aboriginal groups. However, in April 2000 Aboriginal leaders expressed outrage and threatened to disrupt the Sydney Olympic Games after a report by the Australian government was leaked which denied the practice of taking indigenous children forcibly from their families. In August 2000, the Australian government rejected a proposal put forward by opposition parties to set up a tribunal to pay compensation to Aborigines who had been separated from their families as a result of government policy.
Hunting rights The Australian High Court ruled, in October 1999, that Aborigines could hunt wildlife in accordance with their traditions, despite laws protecting endangered species. The court ruled in a case in which a Queensland Aborigine was prosecuted for hunting crocodiles without a permit. According to the judgement, hunting wildlife must be a traditional custom of the Aboriginal group in question, although it need not be done in a wholly traditional way.
Improving relations On 28 May 2000 a crowd estimated at between 150,000 and 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a gesture of goodwill between Aborigines and other Australians. The walk was organized by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and supported by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the chair of which, Geoff Clark, said that the walk showed support for a treaty between the Aboriginal population and the government. Prime Minister John Howard refused to take part in the walk and opposed the treaty.
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