The aborigines have an intricate classification system that defines kinship relations and regulates marriages. The Kariera, for example, are divided into hordes, or local groups of about 30 people, which are divided into four classes, or sections. Membership in a section determines ritual and territorial claims. In half of the hordes the men are divided among the Karimera and Burung sections; in the other half they are divided among the Palyeri and Banaka sections. These sections are exogamous, and rules of marriage, descent, and residence determine how these sections interact: Karimera men must marry Palyeri women, and their children are Burung, and so on. Sons live in the same hordes as their fathers, so the composition of hordes alternates every generation. The complex system, by requiring each man to marry a woman from only one of the three possible sections, fosters a broad network of social relations and creates familial solidarity within the horde as a whole. Aborigines maintain elaborate systems of totemism (the belief that there is a genealogical relationship between people and species of plants or animals). They see the relationship between totemic plants and animals as a symbolic map of the relations between different people.
Contact with British settlers, beginning in 1788, initially led to economic marginalization, a loss of political autonomy, and death by disease or at the hands of the settlers. So-called pacification by force culminated in the late 1880s, leading to a massive depopulation and extinction for some groups. By the 1940s almost all aborigines were missionized and assimilated into rural and urban Australian society as low-paid laborers with limited rights; many aborigine children were taken from their natural parents and given to foster parents to promote assimilation.
Since 1976 the Australian government has enacted land-rights and native-title legislation that has returned to the aborigines a degree of autonomy, and court decisions in 1992, 1996, and 2006 have recognized aboriginal property and native title rights. By 2016, roughly the title to roughly a third of Australia's lands had been transferred to aboriginal peoples. The recent increase in aboriginal population reflects improved living conditions and a broad and inclusive definition of aboriginal identity on the part of the government. Their average standard of living and life expectancy, however, are not comparable with that of most Australians. In 1999 the Australian government issued an official expression of regret for past mistreatment of aborigines but, concerned that it would encourage claims for compensation, did not issue the formal national apology sought by aboriginal leaders until 2008, when the government was led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The election of Adam Giles as chief minister of Northern Territory in 2013 marked the first time that an aborigine headed a state-level government in Australia.
See P. S. Bellwood,
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Peoples (except New World)