Here are five key chapters in the history of Indigenous Australians since the beginning of white settlement.
First Nations peoples — whose ancestors have lived on the continent for more than 60,000 years — now represent 3.8 percent of the country’s 26-million-strong population.
A landmark referendum on October 14 seeks to recognise Indigenous people in the 1901 constitution for the first time, and to give them the right to be consulted on matters that affect them.
Centuries after British colonisation, official data show First Nations peoples have lifespans eight years shorter than other Australians, have less access to education and are far more likely to die in police custody.
– Penal colony –
Captain James Cook declares the entire east coast of the continent to be a British possession on August 22, 1770, ignoring the presence of Aboriginal peoples he encountered.
On January 26, 1788, a fleet of 11 British ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip lands in Sydney Cove to establish a penal colony.
Celebrated as Australia’s national day, January 26 is also referred to by some people as Invasion Day because of its impact on Indigenous peoples.
– Disease, massacres –
A smallpox outbreak in 1789 kills more than half of the Indigenous people of the Sydney basin, according to Sydney’s Aboriginal Heritage Office.
From 1788 to 1930, more than 11,250 Indigenous people are killed in “colonial frontier massacres” at 421 sites, as documented by Australia’s University of Newcastle.
In 1845, Archbishop of Sydney John Bede Polding testifies to a New South Wales committee that he has heard an “educated” sheep farm owner say “there was no more harm in shooting a native than in shooting a wild dog”.
– Stolen generations –
Thousands of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are taken from their homes and put in foster care with white families under official assimilation policies that persist into the 1970s.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd apologises in 2008 for the “stolen generations”.
“The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses,” he tells parliament.
– Finally counted –
A new federal electoral law is passed in 1962 giving First Nations peoples the right to vote in federal elections. Remaining states still restricting Indigenous voting follow suit over the next few years.
Until then, Indigenous people had different voting rights depending on where they lived. In Queensland, for example, Aboriginal peoples had been deprived of the vote since the late 19th century.
Later, in a 1967 referendum, people vote to amend the constitution to include Indigenous peoples, like other Australians, when counting the size of the population.
The vote also allows the federal parliament — not just the states — to make laws for Indigenous peoples.
– Land rights –
Australia’s federal 1993 Native Title Act opens the way for Indigenous people to claim their traditional rights to land and to compensation, after decades of struggle in the states.
Native title can take various forms — from the right to visit traditional lands to an exclusive right to possess and occupy them.
The federal law follows decades of struggle for Indigenous land rights in the states, with some important gains.
In 1992, the High Court notably ruled in favour of the land rights of the Mabo people of the Torres Strait in Queensland. It found Australia was not “terra nullius” — land belonging to no one — at the time of white settlement.