Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) cultures are dynamic and have adapted to the modern world surrounding them. The world is looking at Australia’s Indigenous cultures with special interest, in particular the people’s spiritual connection to place through the Dreaming. The world’s oldest surviving, living culture is appreciated for its values of custodianship, family/kinship bonds and oral traditions through stories, songs and artwork. Cultural tourists are fascinated by ATSI cultures that were largely ignored throughout the history of colonisation. The impact of this devaluing of the Indigenous cultures has been devastating over the last two centuries and has led to appalling health conditions and economic dependence in many communities. However, Australia’s Indigenous people have survived and a new era is evolving through attitudinal change.
Despite the culture being valued internationally, many mainstream Australians have been slow to understand and appreciate the depth and complexity of Indigenous cultures and languages.
‘Indigenous Australians live within a bicultural world where they are constantly crossing over from Indigenous ‘way’ into mainstream culture and back again. By and large, this has not led to a dilution of Indigenous identity. Rather, the identity of Indigenous Australians today is often defined as Islander or Aboriginal in contrast to mainstream identity. Today as part of the efforts at promoting their cultural survival Indigenous Australians are returning to regional and local clan affiliations (TSI, Warlpiri, Nunga, Nyungar etc) as their main identity indicators.’1
Cultural separation is a striking feature of Australian demographics.
‘This separation of two worlds is not simply a cultural matter. It is also a product of recent Australian history, during much of which Indigenous Australians were either in conflict with, or excluded by, the dominating western society. This history of conflict and exclusion has led to the adaptation of Standard Australian English as an Aboriginal language which resists the pull into the ‘mainstream’. For example, due to the ‘culture of resistance’ which has developed Aboriginal English includes many features which actually decrease the level of mutual intelligibility, such as inverting meanings to be opposites in the two languages.’2
Added to this is the intolerable suffering caused by dispossession, disease, government policies and racism. All mainstream Australians need to understand why Aboriginal identity continues to be separately maintained.