More than just a sporting event, the Olympic Games also offer the host country a chance to capitalize on weeks of unrelenting attention from the world’s media. It’s a time when the host country polishes its facades to a high shine to appeal to the tourist sensibilities of the millions who watch.
But as the Olympic city of Atlanta learned when its efforts to shift homeless people off the streets fell under media scrutiny, the exposure can reveal problems underneath the whitewash. In this year’s Olympic host country of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island activists (the indigenous inhabitants of the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea) see the event as an opportunity to bring the world’s attention to the ongoing struggle for reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the Australian federal government.
From the earliest days of British occupation, Aboriginal people endured systematic dispossession of their traditional lands, leading to widespread poverty, disease, and displacement. Today, they experience higher infant mortality, poorer health, fewer employment opportunities and educational services, and a much higher rate of imprisonment than nonindigenous Australians—all the legacy of more than 200 years of entrenched racism.
In the early 1900s, the Australian government decided that Aboriginal people with some European heritage were “salvageable” and could be integrated into white culture. The federal and state governments jointly decided to implement policies for assimilating those Aboriginal people deemed not of full blood, regardless of whether they identified as indigenous. For decades, part-Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed with white families or in orphanages, destroying families and decimating cultural heritage.
A 1996 Senate inquiry led to the report Bringing Them Home, which tells of the horrors of life in orphanages and foster homes: children were forbidden to use indigenous languages; they were told their parents were dead or had abandoned them; physical punishment and neglect was rife; and sexual assault was part of the landscape of abuse.
Indigenous women and girls bore the brunt of forced removal in many parts of the country. A study recently published in the University of New South Wales’ Law Journal found that it was primarily girls who were taken from their Aboriginal mothers, after their white fathers had moved on. These girls were placed in institutions before being sent out to work as virtually unpaid domestic help in the households of white Australians. In 1928, another report noted that across the Northern Territory—a region with a proportionally high indigenous population—girls made up almost three quarters of the children removed that year.
When the practice of forced removals was at its peak (from the 1920s through the 1940s), between 10 and 30 percent of indigenous children were taken away from their families. These children—now adults—have dubbed themselves the Stolen Generation, and their experiences are the hub around which the indigenous reconciliation debate is currently centered.
At the forefront of the movement is the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, a publicly funded, independent body dedicated to creating a blueprint for reconciliation by the end of 2000. The council spent months visiting with and hearing submissions from indigenous community groups across the nation. Their final recommendations, made in May, were summarized in the Declaration Towards Reconciliation—a document that invites the nation to apologize for past wrongdoings.
The call for an apology has been heeded by a few state and territory governments, as well as by more than a million ordinary Australians who have signed their names to “Sorry Books” around the nation and online. And in May, around 250,000 people took part in a ceremonial walk over the Sydney Harbor Bri