In an earlier essay I argued that what is to be meant by ‘Indigenous’ is neither clear nor agreed upon. In this sequel I offer some numbers to support my view that, although there is much that remains to be done (by whom is not clear), the situation of our Aboriginal people(s) is improving, and that it is a very great deal better than it was in the middle of last century.
No one knows how many Aboriginal inhabitants the continent contained when European colonists arrived in 1788, but a conventional figure is 300,000. By 1966 the number seems to have been a little over 80,000. By 2001 it had grown to 485,000 and by 2011 to 548,400, when they represented 2.5 per cent of the population.
There is a perhaps widespread impression that most Aboriginal people live in the north of the country, if not the Northern Territory, but that is not the case at all. About seven in ten live in Australia’s cities, and only about one in eight lives in the Northern Territory. For Census purposes Australia is divided into 57 Indigenous Regions, and over half of all Aboriginal people live in just nine of them, most of them largely urban.
Much of the focus of the media is on the areas where Aboriginal people predominate. One measure is the number who live in areas with the highest proportion of Indigenous people, and that is 65,000, or about 12 per cent of the whole. All are indeed in the north of Australia. Refining the numbers even further, the number who live in Indigenous Areas with 94 per cent or more of Aboriginal people is 11,000, or 2 per cent of the whole. These are the remote settlements we hear so much about.
The condition of some of the people in these remote settlements is poor to awful, and that will be the subject of a later essay. In the remainder of this one I want emphasise that most Aboriginal people live in the cities, and that a lot of them are succeeding in building a life. Since my experience in education is strongest, let me concentrate on Aboriginal people in post-secondary education.
Here the news is most encouraging. The first Aboriginal graduate, Margaret Williams, gained her degree in 1959. At the end of 2010 there were around 25,000 Aboriginal graduates, a number expected to double by 2020. More than 300 are enrolled in doctoral programs, and 161 in medical schools (there are 153 Aboriginal doctors in the present workforce). The diversity of Aboriginal student enrolments is also notable — they are in every field. An Aboriginal Rhodes scholar is starting at Oxford next month, the first ever.
The VET numbers are no less impressive, with more than 11,000 Aboriginal people receiving VET qualifications in 2008; the figure will be higher today. There were not quite 5,000 Aboriginal apprentices in 2009 and again, the figure will be higher today.
You don’t hear much about such successes, and to think that all this has occurred in fifty years — in fact, most of it in twenty years — tells us that real progress is being made. It is still true that Aboriginal students are more likely to drop out than others, and that they are marginally slower to complete. But it is hard not feel cheered by the numbers alone. As we know, it is success in education, above all else, that gives people the best start in later life.
I took considerable interest in my own Aboriginal students, who had their own supporting Centre, and were given a lot of help in adjusting to university life. Some of them came from the Northern Territory, and were distinctive in appearance. But most were not especially so, and quite a few were not obviously ‘Aboriginal’ at all. No matter, they had identified as Aboriginal, and were accepted as such.
What happened to them after graduation? Some at least got jobs in the workforce, in the areas of their expertise. When I started at the University of Canberra, our Aboriginal students were mostly in one or two courses. By the time I left the University they were in every faculty and in nearly every course. We also know, from Census data, that about half of all Aboriginal people contract marriages with non-indigenous partners, and about the same proportion of both populations claim to be Christian.
These data suggest to me that Aboriginal people are blending into the larger society, as are Vietnamese people and more recent arrivals. It may not be happening quickly — few social changes are speedy — but it is happening, and it is our future. In the next instalment I will concentrate on the ways in which Aboriginal culture is becoming part of the wider Australian culture.
If you want a take-home message, it is this: assimilation may not be the future desired by some Aboriginal leaders, but it is what has happened, and will happen to the great majority. And I think it is the right outcome.