How have Aboriginal cultures and heritage survived colonisation?

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Britain was once the biggest colonial power in the world. Unfortunately, colonisation often had some disastrous consequences on the native populations, for instance on the Aborigines in Australia. However, Aboriginal cultures and heritage are still alive: how have they managed to survive the colonising process?

I Understanding Aboriginal cultures and lifestyles

Within indigenous communities, kinshipsystems, that is to say relationships in the extended family, are central to the way culture is passed on. Children and education are the concern of the whole community.

Education focuses on the relationship between children and their social and natural surroundings. The most important traditions are taught by the Elders; they pass on their knowledge, experiences and beliefs through storytelling.


kinship: (liens de) parenté

surroundings: environnement, cadre

Dreamtime stories, in particular, are about ancestral beings and places. They explain how the world was created, how their ancestors came to Australia and migrated across the country.

II The effects of colonisation on Aboriginal cultures

1 Taking Aboriginal land away

In 1770, James Cook declared Australia was “terra nullius” (no one’s land). And yet, in 1788, when colonisation began, there were actually about 400 Aboriginal clans living there. The British settlers gradually dispossessed them of their land. For the Aborigines, losing their land meant losing their beliefs and culture, in fact losing their real identity.

2 The government’s assimilation policies

The white settlers and then their Australian descendants made it difficult or even impossible for many indigenous communities to keep passing on their culture and knowledge from one generation to the other. For example, the colonists tried to stop them speaking their own Aboriginal language: there were about 700 indigenous languages and dialects in the 18th century, there are about 250 left nowadays.

Between the independence in 1901 and 1969, 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly taken away from their families to be educated in government-run institutions so that they could be assimilated. They are referred to as “the stolen generations”. Aboriginal heritage, which is about creating and maintaining continuous links between the people and the land, was thus strongly affected.

III Reconciliation and its impact

In 1992, the High Court of Australia recognised Aboriginals’ rights over their lands. On 26th May 1998, the first “Sorry Day” was held in memory of the stolen generations and is now commemorated nationally every year. A “National Reconciliation Week” is now held at the end of May.


Uluru is a natural red rock in the Australian Outback. It is both a significant place in Aboriginal spirituality and a major touristic attraction in Australia. 

In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd presented national apologies to the Aboriginal peoples for the harm done.

In 1985, Uluruwas returned to the Anagu people, its traditional owners. Since then, they have jointly run Uluru national park with the Australian government. In 1994, the World Heritage site was relisted to include its Aboriginal values.

Nowadays, Aboriginals still have to work hard to keep their culture and heritage alive. However, they do speak and teach their languages, pass on their knowledge through stories, rituals and artwork; they also protect their cultural property and sacred sites.