Mainstream thinking at the time was that Australia’s First Nations were a ‘dying race’.
At the turn of the 20th century, Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their homes and country by colonial, state and territory governments and placed on reserves and stations.
Many operated well into the latter part of the 20th century. Paternalistically, their purpose was to ‘protect’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Protection policies were developed reflecting this view: the thinking was that all ‘full-bloods’ would eventually die off in these locations and that any children descended from white people could be ‘civilised’ by removal from their families.
Reserves were usually parcels of land set aside for Aboriginal people to live on and were not managed by the government or its officials. People living on unmanaged reserves might receive rations and blankets from the state or territory government, but often remained responsible for their own housing. Stations or ‘managed reserves’ were generally managed by officials appointed by the government.
Reserves and stations were deliberately designed to erase cultural identity. People were separated from their land and their families. They were not allowed to speak their languages, continue their cultural practices or teach their language to their children. As a result, much language, cultural practice, and tradition was lost.
Little to no background checks were done on the people placed in charge, nor was there much government oversight. Station managers had almost absolute control over the residents, including legal guardianship of their children. Managers were able to restrict residents’ movements, control food, rations and clothing allocations, control where they could work, if they could leave, who could visit, and even who they could marry. Education was limited. Basic human rights were ignored. Many abuses took place.
These ‘protection’ policies reached as far as the Torres Strait Islands where life was also rigidly controlled. Many islands were declared ‘reserves’, and Islanders were placed under curfews and needed permits to travel. Torres Strait Islanders had to seek permission to access their own money.
Most reserves have vanished, but some still exist in different forms. Depending on their governance structure, many have been reclaimed by First Nations People and are now in their control. Many are actively working to build their communities, improve the lives of their community and deal with the aftermath.
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