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The continuing impact of colonisation

Find out how Australia’s history of colonisation continues to impact on the health of First Peoples by hearing from Professor Gregory Phillips.
We have an opportunity to heal the past, but we have work to do here and now. And that is joint work, and we can all share in that together. Colonisation does affect us all. I’m going to share this story from Aunty Lilla, where she talks about the Aboriginal terms of reference, or the Aboriginal worldview, the Aboriginal ways of seeing the world. She says “Aboriginal people believe that the spirit child comes from the earth. I haven’t seen this belief about the spirit child in any other cultures, even Indigenous ones. We come from this earth, and we are born from the earth.
We believe that the whole of life is a spiritual experience and that we as Aboriginal people are actually more spirit than matter. I really believe that emotions can create chemical reactions in the body. If we don’t face those emotions, it can create sicknesses. So, for Aboriginal people, the whole of life is a spiritual experience. And so the whole of sickness is a spiritual process. The spirit cannot be in balance if it’s out of balance with the body. If you’re spiritually unwell, you can’t help but affect the whole of your being. See, the impact of colonialism has been huge. We Aboriginal people are spiritual people, and we’re still recovering because of colonialism.
There’s not a lot of understanding about that, on the part of white Australia, because they have this misguided belief that colonialism doesn’t affect them. Of course it does. It’s made them into the people they are today, which means they cannot hear what Aboriginal people are telling them. Many are trying to run away from their own history. As they get older and more mature, hopefully they’ll have a better understanding. You see that mouth of the snake. Our people have retreated into the belly of the snake. It’s our consolidation of our Aboriginality, a renewing of our identity. Only recently have we begun emerging from the mouth of the snake, with renewal and consolidation of who we are.
You see, it’s the white terms of reference. It’s their misinterpretations that have given definition to Aboriginal illnesses.” So, Aunty is talking that Colonisation does affect us all. But she also tells us that, rather than just seeing things in how Western communities think of history and of culture and of people, let’s go back to the Aboriginal terms of reference. And she’s giving us an example. She’s saying that, for the Aboriginal worldview, the way that we understand colonisation is that we’ve spiritually retreated. We had to retreat, back into our shells, to survive. And now we are trying to come back out and be ourselves.

Many people don’t appreciate how Australia’s history of colonisation continues to impact on the health of Australia’s First Peoples. Listen to Prof. Gregory Phillips to learn more.

Colonisation has resulted in inequity, racism and the disruption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. In fact, it has been the most detrimental of the determinants of health that continues to significantly influence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes today.

Let’s take a few minutes to identify the key aspects of colonisation.

In 1788, there was an estimated Indigenous population of 750,000 people in Australia when the first British fleet entered the coastline of Warrange, now known as Sydney. The land of Aboriginal peoples was claimed under the ‘legal fiction’ of terra nullius, enabling the dispossession of Aboriginal lands (Moreton-Robinson, 2015, p.4).

‘Terra nullius’ translates to ‘nobody’s land’, but the truth is the British claim on the land disregarded evidence documented by early settlers and explorers that prior to colonisation, Aboriginal people had well established systems of land and water use (Pascoe, 2014, p.129).

A history of resistance

Contrary to what many Australians think, Aboriginal people actively resisted the British invasion of Australia right from the beginning. This resistance resulted in brutal massacres known as ‘Frontier Wars’. Their sole purpose was to break down the resistance of Australia’s First Peoples (Ryan et al, 2017).

Up until as recently as 1960, thousands of Aboriginal people (including women and children) were also massacred while going about their daily lives.

  • Assimilation policy

Between 1910 and 1970, many Indigenous children were taken from their families and ‘assimilated’ into non-Indigenous homes or placed under State care. These children are known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and many are still searching for their families today.

The children were often neglected and abused (physically, emotionally and sexually). Their names were changed, they weren’t permitted to honour their culture or speak in their own language. The hope at the time was for Indigenous Australians to be erased from society or at the very least, be assimilated into ‘white’ society.

  • Protection policies

Many Indigenous Australians were segregated from other Australians and relocated to missions and reserves.

The events of the past are very important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These events weren’t that long ago. There are many people alive today who:
  • Were forcibly removed from their parents under government policy.
  • Had their children taken away.
  • Were not allowed in towns after 6:00 at night.
  • Were not allowed to be in certain areas without permission.
  • Were barred from schools and hospitals.
  • Returned from wars only to find they did not have the same rights as white people.
  • Have not enjoyed the same rights as others, simply because they were Indigenous (Reconciliation Australia, ND).
  • Self-determination: census and equal pay

Up until 1967, Indigenous Australians weren’t counted in the government census. It was around this same time in Australia that Aboriginal stockmen finally received the right to be paid award wages.

Historical timeline: Our shared history

Take a few minutes to review Our Shared History. It highlights some of the policies imposed on Australia’s First Peoples since colonisation. Please note: you will need to scroll down a little to access the interactive timeline.

Intergenerational trauma – connecting the past with the present

The physical, spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted on Australia’s First Peoples continue to impact on the current health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The cruelty and violence that spanned so many years is at the heart of the intergenerational trauma continuing to be experienced today.

Watch the video to better understand the impact of colonisation and intergenerational trauma on First Peoples health.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Your task

Reconciliation Australia says there’s growing momentum to establish a truth telling commission to open up an honest and more complete understanding of colonisation, dispossession and the ensuing trauma for Australia’s First Peoples (2018).

Is Australia overdue for a ‘truth-telling’ commission? Read Truth-telling Central to Reconciliation Process and then share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Reconciliation Australia. (ND). Our shared history

Reconciliation Australia. (2018). Truth-telling Central to Reconciliation Process

Ryan, L., Richards, J., Debenham, J., Anders, R.J, Pascoe, W., Brown, M., Price, D. (2017).l Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788 – 1872, v1.0 Newcastle: University of Newcastle (funded by the Australian Research Council)

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Safer Healthcare for Australia's First Peoples

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