Aboriginal history of Western Australia

Aboriginal history of Western Australia

The history of the indigenous inhabitants of Western Australia has been dated for tens of thousands of years prior to European contact.

Western Australian Aboriginal history

:"See Timeline of Aboriginal history of Western Australia for specific details"

Aboriginal people of Western Australia practiced an oral tradition with no written language prior to contact with European people. Aboriginal history in Western Australia has been grouped into five periods of time from before contact through to settlement and into recognition as a people.

1. Prior to 56,000 BCE until 1629

This history has a long period to which dates cannot be put with any accuracy. It can be divided in two by the events of the fifteenth century, in which the Ming Chinese Admiral Zheng He and, later, Portuguese explorers, came to link the oceans of the world together. This period ended in about 1600, when the Dutch ousted the Portuguese, and contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans began to increase. However there is a first period to this contact which has rarely been considered. In the Kimberley, Aboriginal people were associated through long contact with Indonesian fishermen from Macassar, working seasonally with their praus. New skills were learned on both sides. When this contact began we do not know, and may even extend back thousands of years, to the time of the introduction into Australia of the dingo. This contact made the Kimberley and Arnhem Land region a centre for cultural innovation for the whole of Australia, not just Western Australia, as the distribution of Melo (genus)baler and Trochus shells throughout the continent indicates. It is not surprising that some have suggested that the Pama Nyungan language family that covers most of the continent may have begun here, spreading to carry those cultural traits like the "Dreaming" that we consider so typically "Aboriginal", right across the land. There is also a possibility that Portuguese may have settled not far from Derby, and that the English explorer, William Dampier, was searching for this Portuguese settlement when he landed on Western Australia.

2. 1629 - 1829

From 1629 to 1829, Aboriginal people witnessed an increasing presence of Europeans around the Western Australian coastline. First contact, appears to have been characterised by open trust and curiosity, although Aborigines were willing to defend themselves. An English settlement was established in 1788 on the east coast of Australia, and English colonisation of the West Coast followed.

3. 1829 - 1881

The early 1840s colonisation of Western Australia by Europeans, under James Stirling, in created a generation of colony-born men who engaged in hostilities and imprisonment of Aborigines. Colonisation proceeded with the expropriation of land, the exploitation of cheap labour, and the quashing of Aboriginal resistance. [Statham-Drew, Pamela (2205), "James Stirling: Admiral and founding governor of Western Australia" (UWA Press)] .

4. 1881 - 1943

The sixty years from 1881 to the 1940s can be divided into two by the passage of the 1905 Aboriginal Act, which, it has been alleged,Who resulted in institutionalised racism and created what amounted to Aboriginal "concentration camps" in which the Aboriginal people were to be confined until the race became extinct. It began with the Fairburn Report which first drew attention to the "Aboriginal Problem". This institutionalised racism reached its peak in the 1930s. Children were removed from Aboriginal parents, who were considered "biologically capable of having children, but not socially capable of raising them". This continued beyond this period until well into the 1970s. The major task confronting Aboriginal people throughout this period was how their cultures could survive.

5. 1943 to the present

This period began with the Great Stockman's Strike of 1946. It, like the other periods, can be divided into two by the events of 1967, in which Aboriginal people were recognised as Australian, and by the passage of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, which for the first time since 1829 recognised Aboriginal people as equal under Australian law. The passing of the Mabo and Wik High Court Decisions, which recognised Aboriginal people as in possession of the land at the date of European settlement, is an appendix to these changes. This period is still not complete, as the Western Australian Labor government is still resisting the Native Title claim of the Noongar people.

Documentation of Western Australian Aboriginal society

The documentation of Aboriginal history is challenging, [Stannage, T. (Ed) (1981) "A New History of Western Australia" (UWA Press)] due to the fact that Aboriginal people lived in a pre-literate (or oral) culture prior to 1827.


The recording of, and collection of material related to Aboriginal people had not been systematic in the first century of settler-aboriginal contact.

The most significant collection in the twentieth society was that of Ronald and Catherine Berndt [ [http://www.berndt.uwa.edu.au/Berndt/action.lasso?-database=Information.FP3&-layout=Show&-token=Berndt&-response=generic.lasso&show Obituaries: Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt] at University of Western Australia at the University of Western Australia anthropology department.

More recently the work of historians such as Neville Green. [Green, Neville (1979) "Nyungar - the People: Aboriginal Customs in the Southwest of Australia" (Mount Lawley College of Advanced Education); Green, Neville (1984) "Broken spears : Aborigines and Europeans in the southwest of Australia" Perth, W.A. Focus Education Services, ISBN 0959182810 ] has improved the knowledge of aboriginal society.

Since the European colonisation of Western Australia by the British, there had been relatively few Aboriginal people who had become anthropologists or historians. However at Edith Cowan University, Curtin University and University of Western Australia - centres and individuals have contributed extensively to anthropological and historical knowledge of aboriginal history and culture.


The study of Aboriginal history in Western Australia has been enhanced in recent years by people like Lois Tilbrook [Tilbrook, Lois (1983) "Nyungar Tradition: Glimpses of Aborigines of South-Western Australia, 1829-1914"] who have started collecting information and records on key Aboriginal Families in WA. Due to the comprehensiveness of the records of the Department of Native Affairs, more is known about Aboriginal families than about most European families. Anna Haebich [Haebich, Anna (1992), "For Their Own Good - Aborigines and Government in the South West of Western Australia 1900-1940" (International Specialised Books); Haebich, Anna (2000), "Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800-2000" (Fremantle Arts Centre Press)] has written of the Moore River Native Settlement [Maushart, Susan (1993)"Sort of a Place Like Home: Remembering the Moore River Native Settlement" (Fremantle Arts Centre Press)] and the so called "Stolen Generations", for which extensive documentation exists.


Advances in archaeology since the 1950s, through the work of such scientists as Sylvia Hallam [Hallam S. and L. Tilbrook (compilers)(1990), "Aborigines of the Southwest Region 1829-1840" (Perth, 1990) ] and Charles Dortch, [Dortch, Charles (1997) "Prehistory Down Under:" archaeological investigations of submerged Aboriginal sites at Lake Jasper, Western Australia (Antiquity Volume: 71 Number: 271 Page: 116–123)] has increased what is known of the history of Aboriginal people in that area.

Oral tradition

The preservation of Aboriginal history through an oral tradition and stories has increasingly been recognised. Aboriginal coastal dwellers in both the south and the north of Western Australia, not only preserve stories about extinct Australian megafauna, but also preserved stories about the rising sea levels and the loss of lands offshore as a result of the sea level rise of the Flandrian transgression, at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age.

Aboriginal oral history details accounts of legendary and cultural information, and includes personal biographical accounts. Sally Morgan's "My Place" was one of the first Aboriginal biographies in Western AustraliaFact|date=March 2008, and a number of Aboriginal people have started telling the stories of the lives of themselves and their families. The internationally acclaimed "Rabbit Proof Fence" is an example of the autobiographies that have been written since the 1980s.


The Western Australian landscape has been shaped by Aboriginal people living on the land for over 40,000 years. Previous to Euopean settlement of Australia most rivers, extending from the Moore River to the North to the Fitzgerald River to the south east, were a fresh-water stream of potable drinking water. Today, they are considered too saline for human consumption. Indeed, it has been stated Who|date=March 2008 that the continued "health" of the Australian landscape has been the greatest cultural achievement of the Aboriginal people. [Blainey, Geoffrey (1976) "Triumph of the Nomad" (Macquarie Books)] Blainey tells how the Aborigines "terraformed" Australia by fire, how they learned to exploit every plant, insect, animal, and water source, how they coped with the volcanic eruptions of five to eight thousand years ago, how they developed the technology they needed, using all the materials available. Without any domesticable animals except dogs, which had come with them, and without any metals, they managed to maintain a stable lifestyle for thousands of years.

The contemporary writing of Aboriginal history has been criticised by former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard and newspaper columnists, as promoting a "Black Arm Band" view of Australian history. This view has been supported by such writers as Geoffrey Blainey [Blainey, Geoffrey (1976) "Triumph of the Nomad" (Macquarie Books)] and Keith Windshuttle [Windschuttle, Keith, (2002) "The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847", Macleay Press,] and contested by such historians as William Stanner [ Stanner, W. (1968) "After the Dreaming" (ABC Boyer Lecture Series)] and Henry Reynolds.


:"See also Aboriginal groupings of Western Australia"

On the basis of cultural affinity, Aboriginal people in Western Australia identify on the basis of culture, shared history and sense of thinking of themselves as belonging to one of five large groupings or "people", closely associated with "country".

These groupings, as culturally diverse as European nation states, prior to contact had significant cultural differences, which have tended to collapse and fuse as a result of European cultural contact. Nevertheless they remain strong parts of Aboriginal identity in contemporary Western Australia.


External links

* http://www.aboriginalhistory.org/
* http://www.berndt.uwa.edu.au/

ee also

*History of Indigenous Australians

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