Why Did Forced Separation from the Land Have Such a Devastating Impact on Australian Aboriginal Culture?
For an estimated sixty thousand years Indigenous people lived, surviving off the land, in what is now known as Australia - Why Did Forced Separation from the Land Have Such a Devastating Impact on Australian Aboriginal Culture? introduction. On January 26th 1788 the first British to settle Australia arrived at the location that is presently called Port Jackson near Sydney. This arrival marked the beginning of a new era in Aboriginal history that saw over the next two hundred years the forcible separation of indigenous people from their traditional homelands. It caused widespread devastation to their culture. This essay will examine why forced separation from traditional lands had such a devastating impact on Australian Aboriginal culture.
Firstly, I briefly examine the history of British settlement and the land policies implemented. I will then establish that land for Australian Aboriginals was the base upon which their cultural practices rested. It follows that by not being able to access their land, they effectively were rendered unable to continue these traditions. The devastation this caused was compounded by the fact that Aboriginal societies were oral societies, meaning once knowledge was lost it was lost forever. It is for these reasons forced separation from the land had such a devastating impact on Aboriginal culture.
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The British brought a very different view of land ownership to Australia when the arrived in 1788. Over the last two hundred years in England new land reforms had began which “put the property rights of an owner above that of the liberty, even the life, of another person. ” This meant that when settling colonies British forces had the lawful right to deny access to land they claimed as their own. In the case of Australia the British saw Aboriginals as savages without government or law. Captain Cook reflected this view when saying they were “like wild beasts.  Being accustomed to growing crops and raising livestock in order to feed themselves, the colonialists did not understand traditional indigenous use of the land. Also because the land was not broken up into easily distinguishable plots, as was in England, they saw it as a no mans land they could claim.  The British began giving Aboriginal land they claimed as their own to settlers and freed convicts. 
They deemed their own use of the land more important than the indigenous populations and “traditional hunting grounds were taken over for agricultural and pastoral uses.  This process continued over the next two hundred years, in one way or another, until the majority of Aboriginal groups over the country were forced off their traditional lands. County for Australian Aboriginals was, and still is, the center point of their respective traditional cultures. Before settlement in 1788, Richard Broome writes, “Local country provided food and water, formed the wondrous space through which they moved each day, and the place they slept at night under the starlit canopy. ” As their livelihood depended on the land, it follows they had a very close relationship with it.
With this in mind it seems natural that each Aboriginal group’s culture revolved around the land they inhabited. It formed the base on which their lifestyles and cultural practices were built upon. These cultural practices included traditional law, songs, stories, survival knowledge, language, ceremonies and custodian obligations to the land. The history of who they were was told by referencing the land they lived on.  Ancestors were embedded in places on traditional lands, their spirits still living.  Ceremonies and custodial practices to revitalize the land were held on specific times of year at specific places.
The ritual burning ceremonies by the South Western Australian Noongar people are an example of this.  They were done every few years in order to revitalize the land to bring new plant growth and attract new game. Complex systems of kinship that defined relationships between different families were understood and upheld by mutually understood land boundaries.  These different practices collectively made up the identity of different indigenous cultural groups and the individuals within these groups. The majority of these practices were location specific. Only by being on their country could these practices could be upheld.
So with this in mind, traditional country can be seen as the base of not only lifestyle and cultural practices, but also identity. Once the base upon which the majority of cultural practices rested was removed, Aboriginal culture feel into disarray. People’s way of life and cultural practices outlined in the previous paragraph became extremely hard to uphold when access to their land was taken away. Firstly, the denial of physical resources led to depravation of the indigenous population, “encroachment onto Aboriginal lands had taken away food and water supplies, and the ability to survive.  Secondly, cultural practices that were location specific, as talked about in the previous paragraph, could not be upheld. As Ronald Murray puts it “The conditions in which the Aborigines found themselves gave them little opportunity to keep their traditional practices, or to obtain more than a precarious foothold in the world which had supplanted theirs. ” Traditional obligations to their country, which defined each cultural group and their way of life, could not be maintained if they could not have access to the land.
Ceremonies, songs, stories could not be preformed properly without specific reference to locations. All the location specific practices that were so important to maintaining traditional culture could not be continued properly. A deterioration of cultural practices ensued. The elements that collectively helped form the identity of a people were being denied. This is why it is said that if an individual does not have access to their country then they are “a person who is lost, a desolate soul who doesn’t know who they are, where they are going, or where they have come from.  So it is clear the forced separation from the land led to loss of livelihood, the inability to sustain cultural practices and in turn the demise of the identity of different cultural groups.
The factor that compounded this devastation of culture was the fact that all Australian Aboriginal societies were oral societies. None of the knowledge of their land and cultural practices was recorded in writing. It was passed down to younger generations through story telling, “People ‘inherited’ stories and songs and became their keepers, eventually passing them down to the following generations.  Through ceremonies and initiations knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next.  But because their cultural practices were so land specific, without the ability to access the land and pass on the knowledge to younger generations, then much of the traditional knowledge died out forever. Without the ability to perform land specific tasks and ceremonies, it was much harder to effectively pass them onto the next generation. Once forced off the land people’s way of life changed dramatically.
So how could younger generations fully understand and appreciate what was being taught when the world had moved on and the knowledge was not relevant to their lives anymore?  Because that knowledge existed not on paper, but instead only in peoples minds, then it was lost forever if it was not passed on. And without access to their homelands, knowledge could simply not be passed on effectively. So in a mere two or three generations, it was possible for the collective history and tradition from the previous sixty thousand years to be largely forgotten forever.
This significantly contributed to the devastation caused to traditional Aboriginal cultures by forced separation from the land. When settlers arrived in Port Jackson in 1788 they had no understanding of Aboriginal culture and way of life. Because the land had not been segmented into nicely packaged units with defined boarders, they believed it was theirs to claim. They did not understand that the land was the centerpiece of Aboriginal culture. Once the access to this centerpiece was denied, it became near impossible uphold traditional lifestyles and cultural practices.
This damage was made irreversible due to the fact that Aboriginals societies were oral societies and no written records were kept. In a mere two or three generations much traditional knowledge of homelands would die out forever. To underline the importance of country to all aspects of Aboriginal culture, I will finish with a quote from a member of the Yindjibarndi group. He states, “only by carrying out our obligations on country, speaking our language and maintaining our cultural practices and knowledge, can we remain powerful. ”