Whether it's a conversation with your mates in the park or the pub, a debate at school or a dinner time chat, here are some facts to help you set the record straight about Indigenous Australia.
Myths are powerful: they influence the way we think about things we might not have direct experience of. Because relatively few Australians have direct relationships with Indigenous Australians, myths have become one of the main ways of 'knowing' about Aboriginal people. As Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton says, the most difficult relationship is not between black and white people, 'but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Most Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists.'
We need to bust a few of these powerful and often destructive myths by setting the record straight about Indigenous Australia so that real understanding and reconciliation are possible.
Press the links below to bust some myths!
The highest proportion of Indigenous Australians live in Sydney. In 2006, 31% of Indigenous people in Australia lived in major cities; 22% lived in inner regional Australia; 23% in outer regional Australia; 8% in remote Australia and 16% in very remote Australia.
Not as many Indigenous people live in the bush compared to urban and regional areas. It is important to remember that a person does not stop being Aboriginal because they have a western lifestyle; the two cultures do not cancel each other out.
The legal definition provided by the Federal Court declares a person is Indigenous when they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, that person identifies with the culture and is accepted as such by the community in which they live, whether that community is in Yuendumu, Redfern or Perth, they are no 'more or less' Indigenous because of where they live.
This paper prepared by John Taylor at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research explores the public policy impact of changing Indigenous population dynamics.
One of the biggest myths about Aboriginality is that if you have white skin you can't be Indigenous - you've got to be black to be "a real" Aboriginal - or that Aboriginality is attributed to the degree of ancestry, such as "she is 1/8th Aboriginal" or a varying combination of "white-bits and black-bits". These perceptions are highly offensive to Indigenous Australians and must be understood as products of colonial thinking. Ideas of genetics and culture are often mistakenly collapsed together so that if someone's skin is lighter, they are thought to have lost that equivalent of Aboriginal culture. Identity is tied to the cultures that a person is raised in, and how they identify with that culture.
There are a multitude of Indigenous high achievers in a broad range of fields that are not as high profile as sports heroes. There have been, and continue to be, Indigenous heroes in science, law, the creative arts and medicine, just to name a few. For example, Stephen Page is the internationally acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre. Dr John Moriarty AM is a successful businessman and chairman of the Jumbana Group. Bob Bellear was the first Indigenous Australian Judge and Dr Kelvin Kong is an accomplished surgeon. These are just a few of the many Indigenous Australians who have excelled in their own way through a diverse range of careers.
Drinking alcohol is a well-entrenched Australian tradition. In fact, settled Australia began as a rum-colony and rum was the currency that paid for our hospitals and built our churches. Alcohol abuse is a thread throughout Australian colonial history and remains a problem for many communities, black and white. But it is the notion of the "drunken black" that remains one of the most pervasive stereotypes of Indigenous Australians.
As a proportion of each population, more Indigenous (37%) than non-Indigenous (22%) people do not drink alcohol at all. Though it has been found that those Indigenous people who do drink, do so in more dangerous quantities than non-Indigenous Australians. Lending weight to the perception of high levels of Indigenous alcohol use is the fact that Indigenous social drinking, unlike non-Indigenous drinking, is also often highly visible, conducted in public places like parks.
The popular belief that Indigenous people are genetically unable to tolerate alcohol because they did not drink until Europeans settlement is another myth. Indigenous people have long fermented drinks into alcohol from a range of sources such as the sap of some gum trees, bauhinia flowers and wild honey, banksia cones, pandanus plants and in the Torres Strait, the juice of coconut tree buds.
There is no scientific evidence of a genetic variance that would predispose any racial or ethnic group to alcohol or make them less tolerant. In fact, humans are very genetically similar, sharing 99.9% of their genomes in common.
The Indigenous jobless rate has fallen from 18.3 per cent in 2002, when the bureau of statistics first began its survey, to 14.3 per cent in 2006. The figures also show that, despite common stereotypes, the proportion of the Indigenous community working or looking for work is not much different to the national average. Between 1994 and 2002, there was an increase in the number of employed Indigenous people aged 15 years or over (from 36% to 46%). There was an increase in both mainstream and Community Development Employment Project scheme (CDEP) employment.
Patterns of employment were different between remote and non-remote areas, with the majority of Indigenous people in remote areas having jobs with the CDEP scheme (63%). In non-remote areas 90% of employed Indigenous people had jobs in mainstream employment.
The myth that Indigenous people are lazy and don't want to work may arise in part from a lack of awareness of the factors contributing to high levels of unemployment. For example, in remote Aboriginal communities the unemployment rate is often a reflection of the low labour market, as well as the limited educational and training opportunities combined with lingering prejudice among non-Aboriginal employers. As Reconciliation Australia's Fred Chaney states: "It's time we stopped complaining about people not joining the real economy if we don't extend to their towns the real jobs paid for by government everywhere else."
Indigenous people are subject to the same social security laws and entitled to no more (and no less) government sponsorship than any other Australian. There has never been a government program that distributes free houses or cars.
It is incorrect to say that Indigenous people receive undeserved special treatment. Tailored solutions are necessary to overcome the unique problems that confront Indigenous Australians.
Sexual assault, particularly child sexual assault, forms no part of Indigenous culture and a multitude of authoritative national reports have shown this to be a myth. While there used to be systems of punishment for people who contravened community regulations, including physical punishment, violence and sexual abuse against women and children has never formed part of traditional cultural practices and it is considered abhorrent by Indigenous men and women of all generations.
Such behaviour is learnt and has been found to be generational and cyclical; abusers have often been victims of abuse themselves. The literature on abuse is clear - that the trauma suffered by one victim will often manifest in that victim being a perpetrator of similar crimes to others later in life.
The colonial experience has left a legacy of sexual abuse in many Indigenous communities: as long ago as 1898, Northern Territory Judge Charles Dashwood urged for laws to prevent European settler's kidnapping Aboriginal children 'for the purpose of having carnal knowledge or intercourse' on stations far away from their homelands. The recent report on abuse in the Northern Territory by Pat Anderson and Rex Wilde states: 'sexual abuse of children is not restricted to those of Aboriginal descent, nor committed only by those of Aboriginal descent. The phenomenon knows no racial, age or gender borders. It is a national and international problem.'
In 1992, when the High Court handed down its decision in Mabo, for the first time, Australian law recognised Indigenous people's connection with and rights over land. This is known legally as native title. The decision overturned the concept of terra nullius which asserted that before European settlement, the land of Australia belonged to no-one.
Following the Mabo verdict, there was a barrage of misinformation spread by opponents of the decision declaring that "Australians were going to lose their backyards". Sadly, despite 15 years of Native Title decisions proving otherwise, this myth lingers today.
Native title has no bearing on existing property rights because claimants can only assert their title over publicly owned land, called Crown land. Any house (including its backyard) is considered private property and therefore extinguishes native title.
"I often hear or read of people saying that reconciliation is dead. And I've got to say I find it deeply irritating and a bit of a cop out.
"Just because the political argy bargy around reconciliation doesn't appear on the front page of the newspaper as often as it did a decade ago - just because a term that should be easily understood can be so misunderstood - this does not mean that reconciliation has been lost."
Professor Mick Dodson, Director Reconciliation Australia
Following the high profile Bridge Walks of 2000, some people felt that reconciliation slipped off the national agenda - others felt the walks meant that Australia had "done" reconciliation.
The reality is somewhere in between.
Reconciliation is not an 'event': it is a journey, it's about the way Australians think and act all the way from a personal to a national level. It is about closing the gaps in life expectancy and opportunity. There are very few examples of this that don't involve partnerships between Indigenous people and the rest of the community - corporations, government agencies, sporting codes and community organisations. We have the ingredients to replicate it because we've seen it in action in local councils, schools and workplaces, industry groups and community organisations. We know that it involves respect and honesty and partnership.
Reconciliation is one of those words holding different meanings for different people. Most people agree that reconciliation is about equal rights (81%) and mutual respect (77%). It is not about making white Australians feel guilty.
As Mick Dodson explains it:
"Reconciliation is a movement that?s moved beyond being about fine words and is now about taking action. It's gone beyond being recognised as a moral issue to being recognised as an economic one also - the opportunity costs of not making progress are frightening and the Australian business sector knows this and wants something done about it.
"Reconciliation has got beyond being an issue of the left and a tad exclusive in the people it attracts, to being an issue that engages a broad range of Australians, as it must, whatever sector they're from, whatever political persuasion.
"This is what's happened to reconciliation. This is what needed to happen to reconciliation. And I urge all Australians to get the information you need to be part of the conversation through www.reconciliation.org.au."
One of the most prevalent media images of Indigenous communities shows dilapidated, poorly maintained houses. Unfortunately, this is a reality, but it has given rise to the myth that Indigenous people purposely trash their own homes.
Data collected over a long period by healthabitat shows the majority of all repair works (70%) to houses in Indigenous communities are needed because of lack of routine maintenance of public housing by government - less than 3% arose because of vandalism, intentional damage or misuse.28 Other major causes include the chronic shortage of housing and lack of consultation with communities about their needs.
The high cost of maintenance in remote areas and the harsh climates in which homes are built are also contributing factors.
Despite the effort and commitment of most Indigenous Australians to overcome problems confronting their communities, there is a pervasive myth of Indigenous passivity.
Since settlement, Indigenous leaders and communities fought long and hard for citizenship rights, land rights and the right to be counted in the census of the population; rights that non-Indigenous people take for granted.
A recent example of communities fighting to overcome their problems is the strong leadership of the Pitjantjatjara communities of South Australia in combating the scourge of petrol sniffing. As Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma recalls: 'they were prepared to own the problem of petrol sniffing in their community - they simply needed help in dealing with the outside forces that were causing it, they almost begged for a ban on sniffable fuel - at a time when all governments thought that would either be too hard or too expensive. But the community knew what it needed.'
This is one of the many instances of community leadership that has triumphed over a specific problem facing a specific community.
"Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage comes at a price but let's stop pretending that there's ever been an investment in Indigenous Australia based on need, let alone on a vision of success."
Professor Mick Dodson
Most Australians have heard the myth about "too much money is thrown at Indigenous affairs". The reality is that Indigenous-specific funding represented 1.58% of total Australian Government spending in 2006-2007.31 As a percentage of GDP, Indigenous-specific spending is about a third of one percentage point,32 which is about the same amount as Australia spends on aid to foreign countries.
In the 2007 federal budget, $748.3 million33 is the identifiable amount being spent on Indigenous affairs - based on an Indigenous population of around 500,00034 this calculates to $1500 per person.
Professional organisations including the Australian Medical Association, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and Indigenous organisations point out that if Australia is serious about closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians a lot more money is needed. But even more important than that, the money needs to be spent properly with less of it channelled into expensive, inefficient bureaucracy.
It is true that you can't solve problems simply by throwing money at them because you also need sound policy and effective administration to utilise the funding effectively.
For example, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) recently established a trial site in the Kimberley to try and cut bureaucratic red tape. Media reports identified a government allocation of $1.3 million to run the trial, of which nearly $1 million was reported as being spent on salaries, travel and administration by federal government bureaucrats.
Many Indigenous groups and individuals37 have called for an auditing office or some other independent body to track exactly where and how much money is being spent in Indigenous affairs, to monitor expenditure transparency, program success, increase accountability to the Indigenous community and to reduce the financial confusion and blaming that occurs between the state and federal governments.
As Mick Dodson maintains: "An investment in getting real results means hundreds of millions of extra dollars every year for at least a decade and perhaps more. It's time we started telling the Australian people about the economics around not investing in this national effort because as parts of corporate Australia already know and are acting on, if a popular, well resourced government doesn't do it now, the cost will skyrocket out of our reach."
This idea stems in part from controversies that surrounded the now disbanded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and some of its officials. Despite claims about its unaccountability, ATSIC remained the only statutory body with its own internal audit section and was reviewed satisfactorily by external assessments and investigations.38
The circumstances in many Indigenous communities present unique governance challenges for many Indigenous organisations which, like any others, need to be well governed in order to succeed. There are countless successful, well-governed Indigenous organisations and businesses. And their success relies on the capacity of managers, staff and board members to understand and follow complex rules of fiscal and corporate responsibility - which in turn require a level of training and support that has been lacking in many Indigenous communities.
New research into Indigenous governance is revealing what works in Indigenous governance, what particular challenges organisations face and what governments can do to help improve community governance capacity.
Indigenous political structures often operate differently than they do in the broader Australian community. The western system of representative democracy is not a traditional characteristic of Indigenous cultures, where leadership can be inherited, conferred by age, status or cultural authority. There is a complex rule system regarding 'who can speak about what' which interplays and overlaps between gender, social standing as well as neighbouring and local knowledge.
There are high profile national Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, Lowitja O'Donoghue, Mick Dodson, Marcia Langton, Peter Yu and Patrick Dodson. But there are many more leaders who operate at the regional and community level.
Aboriginal people are not a homogenous group of people: they comprise a collection of nations, similar to Europe, with different languages and cultural practices, and confronting different challenges in their communities. In much the same way international diplomacy operates, a leader of one nation cannot speak for the country of another.
Given the demographics of Indigenous communities where 60% of the population is under the age of 25, there is a strong case for government to invest in future generations of leaders. The fact that the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is 17 years lower than other Australians also has very real implications for leadership.
ATSIC was never an Indigenous creation - it was created by government and most Indigenous spending and programs, including health, education and employment were controlled by government.40 Yet ATSIC was often blamed when not enough was seen to be done in these areas.
ATSIC administered less than 50% of Australian Government expenditure in Indigenous affairs. Of the money ATSIC did receive, 85% of was quarantined for government determined program.
It is a myth that the failure of ATSIC was a failure of Indigenous 'self-determination', when most of the control and decision-making remained with governments.
The recent Northern Territory Little Children are Sacred Report debunked this myth noting, "the media has highlighted a few cases where sexual abuse of a child has occurred in the context of an Aboriginal traditional marriage in the Northern Territory".42 The Inquiry did not come across any evidence to show that children were being regularly abused within, and as a result of, traditional marriage practices. This was despite the fact that in many places such practices still existed.
These practices do not exist to provide young women for the sexual gratification of old men, but are a part of a complex system that has had many practical aspects. These include preventing inter-family marriage, and providing a system of custodianship to land, information and ceremonies.
Self-determination is the principal right identified in the two major international human rights charters. Self-determination is the ability of peoples to determine their own future and is gauged by the amount that people feel they have control over the political processes that affect them. There was a brief period that Indigenous affairs in Australia had the title of 'self-determination' but has since been officially abandoned by the Australian Government.
Throughout the administrative history of Indigenous affairs, even during the so-called period of 'self-determination', the approach has been one of 'top-down' decision making where governments have controlled the major actions to be taken. Under this approach, Indigenous people are not able to influence the processes of these decisions, nor are they encouraged to 'own' the problems and solutions that affect them.
Self-determination is about effective decision making. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has 'yet to find a single case in the United States of sustained economic activity on indigenous lands in which some governmental body other than the Indigenous Nation itself is making the decisions about matters such as governmental structure and natural resource use.'
Self-determination has not been properly tested in Australia despite the fact that previous governments have adopted the term. This has created the myth that self-determination has been tried, and failed.
Social Justice Report 2002
Read "Self-determination: the freedom to live well," Chapter Two of the 2002 Social Justice Report.
We are all part of the future of reconciliation. Partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are at the heart of countless success stories and they often start small. As Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody tell us from little things, big things grow.
Be part of the conversation through www.reconcile.org.au, learn about becoming a friend of reconciliation, Reconciliation Action Plans and take what you learn back to your colleagues and your communities.