Indigenous Peoples of Oceania: Short Ancient and Modern History


People of Oceania

•The region of Oceania is comprised of Australia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia.

•The original inhabitants of this vast area included Aborigines, Melanesians, and Austronesians.

–First arrived from Southeast Asia about 60,000 years ago.

–The various forms of social organization and isolation gave rise to a large diversity of languages and customs among indigenous groups in the region.

Colonization of Oceania

•Europeans first contacted this area in 1521, when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on the Micronesian island of Guam (now a US colony)

•The region was officially divided among colonial powers in the early 19th century.

–The colonial powers included Japan, France, Britain, the US, and Germany


•Similarly to other experiences around the world, colonial powers emphasized extractive enterprises like export agriculture and mining.

–Indigenous people were often displaced from their land and were exposed to exotic diseases for which they had no immunity.

–Indigenous people refer to the colonial experience as “The Fatal Impact”

Rewriting regional history

•Oral traditions in the region can trace indigenous history as far back as their initial migration to Oceania.

–Despite this amazing historical narrative, Europeans viewed Indigenous people as a people without history.

The Making of Australia: An Introductory History 1917: “When people talk about the ‘history of Australia’ they mean the history of the white people who have lived in Australia. There is good reason why we should not stretch the term to make it include the history of the dark-skinned wandering tribes who hurled boomerangs and ate snakes in their native land for long ages before the arrival of the first intruders from Europe…for they have nothing that can be called history…When the white man came among them, he found them living just as their fathers and grandfathers and remote ancestors had lived before them…Change and progress are the stuff of which history is made.”

The noble savage

•A contrasting view of indigenous people that survives today:

–Does civilization actually improve the quality of human life?

–Negative affects of European colonialism coupled with local experiences with the industrial revolution drew into question the benefits of civilization.

–From a romanticists perspective “primitive” people lived a fuller more egalitarian life. They were untouched by the corrupting influence of civilization and industrialization.

The Lost/stolen Generation

•In Australia, Aboriginal people were seen to both a people without history and a people without a future.

•Driven by a belief that Aboriginal people would soon die out, the Australian government began a process of taking aboriginal people from their families and placing them in European homes and foster care.

–This process began in 1885 and continued all the way to the 1970s.

–These children are called the lost generation(s) because they were forcibly separated from their families and heritage.

Nancy De Vries: The Stolen Generation

•“I think it is important that people realize that these kids were taken from their families, separated from their culture, their identity, had to put up with dreadful, dreadful things. How many have survived sane I don’t know, and I realize many of us have died of alcohol. I was lucky, as I grew up, that alcohol never agreed with me. Instead of the slow death of alcohol, I tried the quick death of pills and hanging. I always tell people I cut my wrists here cutting a jam tin, because it is very embarrassing admitting that I tried to commit suicide. I tried to kill myself. I was lonely. I was unhappy. I wanted my mother, I wanted my identity, I felt cheated, I wanted to be me”

– Nancy de Vries was taken from her birth mother as a 15-month-old baby. She lived in 22 places before she was 18 years old. It was a shameful 53 years before she was reunited with her mother. Nancy de Vries was the human face of past government policies of dispossession.

Indigenous people and citizenship rights

•Until 1993 the Australian government viewed Aboriginal people to have no land rights because within their culture they had “no fixed abode, fields or flocks, nor internal hierarchical differentiation”

–This belief translated into the displacement of Aboriginal people from their land to make room for European settlement.

•Into the 1960s Aborigines had extremely limited citizenship rights (like the right to vote) and the government maintained an extremely paternalistic attitude toward Aborigines, like making it illegal for them to consume alcohol.

Changing perspectives on what it means to be an indigenous person

•Indigenous people: “Those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, cultural patterns and institutions” (UN subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities)

–1993- the first International Year of the World’s Indigenous People

–1994-2004- First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People

•Between 1991 and 1996 the number of people in Australia claiming to be Aborigine rose by 33 percent.

–This change reflects broader changes in attitudes about being indigenous.

–People began to recognize that colonial attitudes were largely responsible for the low social standing and impoverishment of Aboriginal people. Additionally, European and Aboriginal interaction and cohabitation became more common.


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