‘Woop-woop’. It’s an Australian slang term meaning a remote area or town. We use it casually to refer to somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but it was first coined in the 1920s to mimic a placename of Aboriginal origin.
Ironically enough, I was in the middle of woop-woop, or ‘nowhere’, in a small, no, minuscule town, in true-blue, south-east Western Australia, when I went to my friend’s twenty-first party and saw something that really pissed me off about the way we treat Aboriginal Australians.
My friend is a Maori girl and one of the first people to do their speeches, very sweetly, was her dad, who stood and spoke warmly to her in language, before performing a haka, a traditional ceremonial dance, with his brother.
It was a beautiful moment and I could see how proud this man was of his daughter, as he proudly spoke to her in Maori and performed a special dance for her.
People were clearly feeling the emotion too, and a group of girls sitting at my table, all non-Indigenous Australians, ‘awwed’ and ‘ahhed’ and murmured how special and incredible this moment was. I couldn’t agree more.
However, the next morning my now 21-year-old friend came up to me, and probably knowing how I would react, due to my own Aboriginal—Whadjuk—ancestry on my dad’s side, told me with slight exasperation that her friends had been saying racist things earlier about Aboriginal people. They had been challenging her with possible scenarios of doing things in the face of unbearable situations. “Would you do such and such if you had to sit next to a disgusting, drunk Aboriginal?”
I didn’t have very high expectations from this crowd of people—we all have our own reservations and generalisations. Mine were around kids who went to farming school and spoke with a particularly strong Aussie twang. But after hearing the clapping and glamorising of my friend’s Maori culture the night before, I was more than frustrated that our own Indigenous people are thought to be so despicable.
It always appears that Indigenous people are treated better when they are in someone else’s backyard, or we see their haka performed at a rugby match or watch a live version of Pocahontas and feel enlightened for an hour and a bit.
But when it comes to the Indigenous people whose rich culture spans this nation for 60,000 years or more, whose ideas, techniques, music, tools and dance are uniquely Australian, we prefer instead to see the issues, the problems, the otherness, and the front-page news citing Aboriginal crime, or those articles defending Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s racist remarks on Studio Ten.
Maori’s are cool, but Aboriginals are lazy. Maori culture is admirable; Aboriginal culture is boring. Maori’s are strong; Aboriginals are weak. The ‘noble native’ versus the ‘savage’ are two stereotypes that still permeate Western thinking.
It is not my intention to directly compare Maori’s and Aboriginal Australians; this argument relates to any other First Nations people around the world. But these are some of the stereotypes that are only applied to our own Indigenous people, because they are considered by some people to be a problem for our society, or an embarrassing taboo preferred left unmentioned at the dinner table, rather than a vital part of our identity as Australians, and a culture we should look to, to guide us into the future.
The last stereotype, in particular, that of Aboriginal people being weak, is particularly enmeshed in some people’s mindset when considering and comparing different Indigenous people.
I told the story of my encounter with the aforementioned bogans at my friend’s 21st to another friend, who seemed dismayed to hear it. In response to my feelings of frustration that people seem to respect Maori and other Indigenous groups more so than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, my friend said, “Yes, but it must also have to do with the history. The Maori people were strong and they fought back. The Aboriginal people were just decimated when European people colonised Australia.”
I was taken aback. His remark insinuated that Aboriginal people had just sat back and watched their lands being taken from them, as passive as the trees and the rocks around them; and worse, that this perceived passivity is reason enough to respect them less. It seemed to say, well, you didn’t fight for it—you can only blame yourself for what you lost.
The truth is, which I went on to explain to my friend, was that Aboriginal people never sat back. There is a long history of wars and struggles and fights, of Aboriginal warriors defending their people and their country. They are called the frontier wars.
Mounted police engaging Indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre of 1838.
It is a history that was not taught in school, or if it was, it was skimmed over in the obligatory first page of the history books.
While the first few months after the landing of the first fleet in Botany Bay were indeed peaceful, with both the English settlers and the Aboriginal people choosing to cooperate, it is believed that the first violent encounters began soon after with both sides gaining casualties. Aboriginal people lost many more, with a safe estimation being that 20,000 were killed in the wars that would follow from colonisation to the last recorded conflict in 1934. I say “safe” because the numbers are likely considered to be much higher. In comparison, an estimated 2,500 European settlers died as a result of those same clashes.
The historian John Connor, who authored The Australian Frontier Wars: 1788-1838, wrote extensively on traditional Aboriginal warfare that existed before white settlers even began arriving in Australia. He considered it to be both limited, and universal. It was limited, he argued, because wars were often driven by small groups of people, which had no hierarchy, and therefore there was no danger of one person gaining too much power and seeking bigger prizes, using bigger forces. The primarily hunter-gatherer nature of Aboriginal society also meant that there simply wasn’t enough time for war; life was never going to wait for anyone, and the greatest need of all, survival, was prioritised over any great battles of revenge or desire to power-balance.
However, Aboriginal warfare was also universal: by this, Connor meant that the entire Aboriginal community was involved if they did go to war. Boys grew up playing with weapons for as long as they could wield them; indeed, every initiated male (a boy who had gone through the ritual of becoming a man) was considered a warrior. Although rare, sometimes the women would also join the fight.
Aboriginal men in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, in the 1920s.
This gives us a very different picture of the First Australians from what many people seem to have learnt, or not learnt, during their school years.
In fact, Aboriginal resistance to European colonisation was relatively immediate and explicit. One of the first Aboriginal warriors was Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man from the Botany Bay area, who led a 12-year resistance campaign using guerrilla tactics against the British invaders. It was his spearing of Governor Phillip’s gamekeeper, John McIntyre, in 1790, that led to Phillip’s order to seek vengeance on the Bidjigal people. This was two years after the colonisers had begun to clear and farm the land for themselves.
Their campaign, which aimed to kidnap 6 Aboriginal people in retribution, is considered to be the largest military operation since the founding of the colony. While unsuccessful, as the Bidjigal people simply couldn’t be found, it must have stirred Pemulwuy into action.
He persuaded people from other clans—from the Eora, Dharug and Tharawal people—to join his campaign against the Europeans. From 1792, until his assassination in 1802, he led his forces in a series of raids on settlers, usually burning their crops and stealing their livestock. He was considered a formidable force and a sorcerer, by both his people and the settlers; a man that could not be destroyed. Yet after a reward was issued out for Pemulwuy’s capture, wanted either dead or alive, it was a bullet from a British sailor that killed him.
“Pimbloy: Native of New Holland in a canoe of that country.”
Engraving by Samuel John Neele of a man who is considered to be Pemulwuy.
The history of these conflicts invariably followed the same story throughout Australia’s colonisation. Wherever the settlers went, initial contact seemed peaceful until of course their expansion inevitably threatened Aboriginal land and resources, which they depended upon for survival. Conflict, whether through warfare or massacres, would soon follow.
While warfare was usually never organised, with neither the British nor the Aboriginal parties moving beyond small groups and individual disputes, there were numerous occasions when British soldiers and police officers were brought in to ‘manage’ the hostilities. The one exception to this may have been the ‘Black War’ between settlers and Aboriginal people in Tasmania, where martial law was declared on the latter group, effectively allowing settlers to go on a ‘free-for-all’ murderous rampage against the native population. Many consider this particular war to have been genocide.
Meanwhile, there were instances where Aboriginal people across the nation hoped to use sheer force in numbers to overpower the technological advances of their European enemies, with reports of bands of Aboriginal people rushing forward in crescent formation to surround their opponents, and hurling spears while the settlers fumbled with their weapons to reload. Overwhelmingly, however, the Aboriginal people never posed a real military threat to the colonisers.
Yet it is important to recognise that Aboriginal people did fight; we have great warriors in this nation who we should be proud of. The statuesque figure of Yagan in Yagan Square (as pictured in the feature image) may go unnoticed by many unblinking eyes, considered to be a tribute to Aboriginal people in general; but Yagan was a warrior of the Noongar people, and someone we can be proud of as Perth locals. He died fighting against an unjust and what seemed to him an inexplicable invasion of his land and his people’s way of life—and he did so bravely, with grace and with courage.
After the arrest of his father Midgegooroo, Yagan is known for saying to a settler, George Moore, that, “White man shoot Midgegooroo; Yagan kill three.” Moore reflected on his encounter with Yagan later, saying that, “The truth is, everyone, wishes him taken, but no one likes to be the captor… there is something in his daring which one is forced to admire.”
Just this little snippet of the history of the frontier wars and some of its most famous warriors leads me to believe that our Aboriginal history is fascinating but relatively untouched. A few classes or weeks given on Aboriginal history in our general summary of Australian history is skimmed over; treated as an entrée to the main dinner.
My belief is that we should be learning about Aboriginal history, culture, and society in much greater depth. People’s misunderstandings about Aboriginal people today stem from their lack of knowledge about the Aboriginal people of the last 200 years and more. Sentiments of disrespect and a tendency to stereotype, such as those stories I mentioned above, are ones that can easily be tackled if we embrace Aboriginal identity as our own. That means learning all its history, all its battles, all the pain, and all the joy.
Perhaps coming together to learn our shared past, can help us to work on building a better future. A future where we can respect Aboriginal people and acknowledge their great contributions to this country, past, present and future. Because really—without Aboriginal Australia, can we even call ourselves Australian?
I’ll leave you now with this heart-warming video of kids singing the ‘I Am Australian’ in Yawuru, in my home town, Broome.