When I was in school in the 1960s we were all made to read a book entitled, The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings (1965). That book was dedicated “To the Brown People, who handed down these Dreamtime Myths.”
Those “Brown People” — the original inhabitants of the nation of Australia — were presented to us as a simple, primitive, childlike people. Their stories were quaint. Their children were cute. They lived aesthetic lives as hunter-gatherers in the wild interior of our country.
But more recently I’ve discovered that so much of what I was taught about the original inhabitants of this great land was based on misinformation or racism. Even today I’m still learning how limited my education was in my youth. Here are a series of myths you were probably also taught. It’s time to bury them for good.
MYTH 1: THERE IS ONLY ONE ABORIGINAL CULTURE
That book I mentioned earlier, The Dreamtime, was written by anthropologist Charles Mountford and illustrated with the surrealist paintings of artist Ainslie Roberts.
It was a collection of origin stories, a bit like Kipling’s Just So Stories, only set in Australia.
But neither Mountford nor Roberts were Aboriginal people. In fact, Roberts was British. And they retold the Aboriginal myths as over-simplified, popularised, and radically contracted versions of the original stories.
Mountford stripped the stories of all cultural specificities, presenting a kind of uniform pan-Aboriginal culture. This reflected the belief of the time that Aboriginal storytelling was a primitive way of understanding the world that existed at “the very dawn of time, when all men were of one race.”
As a kid I read these stories and looked at Ainslie Roberts’ paintings, reproductions of which were hung in our classrooms, and assumed Aboriginal people belonged to one big, primitive nation.
But the reality is that before the arrival of British colonisers in 1788, Australia was inhabited by over 500 different clan groups or ‘nations’ around the continent, many with distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages.
And Aboriginal peoples didn’t all live in the Outback or the desert.
Sydney was home to the Eora nation, and its sub-groups like the Kameraigal, the Bedia-mangora, and the Gadigal.
My hometown of Manly was established on the traditional lands of the Kayimai.
Melbourne was home to the Wurundjeri. And Brisbane to the Jugerra and Turribul people.
This map shows the number and diversity of Aboriginal nations across the country.
So it follows that Aboriginal peoples (note the plural) will hold a variety of views on things like the date of Australia Day, or a treaty, or acknowledgement in the constitution, or monuments to white colonisers. To speak of them as some monolithic group as if they’re all the same as each other is to reduce them to the “Brown People” I learned about in school.
MYTH 2: ABORIGINAL PEOPLE ARE INHERENTLY PASSIVE AND LAZY
I heard this all the time as a kid, mainly because I grew up in Manly. We were always told our town got its name because of the aggressive, or manly, Aboriginal warriors who confronted Governor Arthur Phillip in September 1790 and drove a spear through his leg. We were told that the reason why this story was important, and why it led to the bay where he was attacked being named Manly Cove, was because it was so unusual.
Aboriginal peoples from the Sydney area were passive, frightened, skittish and easily overcome. The Aboriginal men in our town were different. They were fighters.
At least that’s what we were taught.
Never mind that recent scholarship has brought to light the fact that the spearing might have been deliberately orchestrated by influential Aboriginal leader, Bennelong, to resolve political conflicts between the races. He might have convinced Governor Phillip to submit to a public ritual spearing as a formal punishment for British misdeeds.
Nonetheless, the story of the “manly Aborigines” played into the broader narrative that Aboriginal people in general were as James Cook had described them, “weak, timid, cowardly and incurious.”
And that narrative has been so dominant it has effected the Australian understanding of First Nations peoples more than anything. It led to the wholesale and continuous denial of the Frontier Wars (“We didn’t fight Aboriginal people because they’re so passive”) to the patronising and evil policy of forcibly removing infants from their families of origin (“For their own good because their culture is dying out”) to the more recent Northern Territory Intervention (“For their own good because they’re all lazy, drunk pedophiles”).
You hear that narrative played out in the refrain by many white Australians that Aboriginal peoples are lazy, that they are all given free houses and cars, and that they live comfortably on generous social security benefits.
None of this is true.
In her article, “Here’s the truth about the ‘free ride’ that some Australians think Indigenous peoples get”, Bronwyn Carlson busts these myths and concludes,
“Characterisation of Indigenous Australians as recipients of a ‘free ride’ and who are seen to be motivated to rort the public purse has its roots in an ignorance of Indigenous experiences of dispossession, colonisation and ongoing colonial violence.”
MYTH 3: ABORIGINAL PEOPLE WERE JUST HUNTER-GATHERERS
When I was young, one of the common phrases used by teachers if you were late to class was, “Did you decide to go Walkabout?”
Even when you were caught daydreaming in class (which happened a lot for me) you were accused of going Walkabout.
Walkabout is in fact a male rite of passage during which Aboriginal adolescents undergo a journey that involves living in the bush for a period as long as six months. They are making the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood.
But in my school it was used to describe tardiness or a lack of attention.
The assumption was that Aboriginal peoples had some inbuilt nomadic predisposition to wander aimlessly, that they were instinctively transient.
I suppose this came from the myth that deep down “Brown People” were all nomads and drifters. After all, they were originally just hunter-gatherers, eking out an existence in the wild deserts of central Australia, weren’t they?
This myth is incredibly pervasive. It also bled into this ‘primitive culture’ myth, and was used to justify the lie of terra nullius — that the continent was empty, uninhabited, unworked . As Prof Megan Davis has explained, the early colonisers took the view that they could claim any land for settlement because “the land is desert and uncultivated and it is inhabited by backward people.”
But in a fascinating new book Dark Emu, Aboriginal historian Bruce Pascoe shows that even before colonisation Aboriginal peoples lived in villages with permanent buildings made of clay-coated wood. They baked bread, created art galleries, and maintained cemeteries. Pascoe writes:
“If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.”
Pascoe goes on to show that after the Frontier Wars which included the burning of villages by white settlers, there was little left to show of this pre-colonised culture after 1860.
MYTH 4: AUSTRALIA WAS AN UNTAMED WILDERNESS BEFORE SETTLEMENT
Far from living in untamed wasteland, Aboriginal peoples established a sophisticated form of land management, carefully tended irrigation and extensive farming and fish-trapping practices.
In his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Bill Gammage reveals that early explorers and settlers were astonished to discover the cultivated nature of the Australian landscape.
The original inhabitants used fire to tend and improve the terrain. They made conscious decisions on when to burn and what not to burn, when, and how often, in order to regulate plants and animals. They cleared undergrowth, and put grass on good soil, clearings in dense and open forest, and tree or scrub clumps in grassland. Their land management was so expert that the first European visitors believed they had stumbled on a “gentleman’s estate” of gardens and farms.
I remember being absolutely flabbergasted when I read Gammage’s book in 2012. I had literally no idea that Aboriginal peoples had been so good at cultivation and land management. I can’t look at the Australian landscape the same way any more.
The fact is that the primitive “Brown People” I learned about in school don’t resemble the sophistication and complexity of the indigenous peoples of this continent.
We need to relinquish the old tropes and narratives, abandon the racist assumptions of the past, and learn anew what remarkable peoples we now share these islands with.