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What About History?

Can’t they just get over it?

Have you heard someone ask, "Why can’t Indigenous people just get over it? After all, it happened ages ago..." 

On the surface this might seem like a fair question, prompted by a genuine desire to see all Australians prosper together. The reason why many Indigenous people can’t simply get over the past is because the negative affects of colonisation are still having an impact on Indigenous people every day, often in drastic ways. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of this.

These statistics are a result of the lingering injustices of colonisation - dispossession, displacement, exploitation and violence that started at first contact. This behaviour towards Indigenous people was justified by the British colonial system that didn’t understand, respect or value Indigenous Australians. In the worst cases, people of influence refused to acknowledge Indigenous Australians as human in order to justify extraordinary acts of cruelty towards Aboriginal people. These 18th Century colonial attitudes set in motion events and policies and established systems and institutions that continue to have an impact on Indigenous people today, despite Indigenous people’s determined efforts to resist and overcome this adversity.

What’s the connection between the past and the present?

The social and economic impact of invasion and control of Indigenous people has accumulated across generations. It was amplified by policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged Indigenous people (1). In many instances, this has resulted in the transmission of trauma, poverty and other forms of disadvantage from generation to generation. So the disadvantage we see today is often the long term effect of lack of opportunities in previous generations, including poor nutrition and inadequate education and health care.

Intergenerational trauma

Indigenous people who haven’t directly experienced the events or policies of our history are often still impacted by the legacy left behind. Trauma caused by colonisation, including violence and loss of culture and land, as well as policies such as the forced removal of children, is often passed from generation to generation in families and communities, with devastating effects. It’s important to view the challenges faced by many Indigenous communities in the context of this history.

How far back are we talking?

Many people may not realise just how recent much of this history is. In fact, there are people alive today who:

  • Were forcibly removed from their parents under government policy
  • Had their children taken away
  • Were not allowed in towns after 6:00pm
  • Were not allowed to be in public areas without permission
  • Were barred from schools and hospitals
  • Were forced to work in the homes of non-Indigenous people and had their earnings permanently withheld by the government 

What are we really asking when we say, “Can’t they just get over it?”

When Indigenous people are asked to ‘get over it’ - it’s not just the physical violence of the frontier wars or even the stolen land or children we’re asking people to move on from. It’s the current bias in our society that prevents Indigenous people from achieving the quality of life that would otherwise be possible. It’s evident in the skyrocketing incarceration rates, devastatingly high suicide rates, unacceptable mortality gap and everyday discrimination. We’re still a  society where 1 in 5 people openly admit to having racist attitudes towards Indigenous people. 

Moving on together

Many of us are aware that this disadvantage and discrimination exists in Australia. But not all of us understand that it’s a direct result of our nation's history of colonisation:


Dispossession of land, population displacement, prejudice in everyday life and outright discrimination have, over the subsequent generations, resulted in Indigenous Australians being disadvantaged to the extreme and denied the chance to share in the benefits of one of the wealthiest nations in the world.” (18)


If we truly want to move forward together and be part of a better country, it’s essential that we openly acknowledge our history and validate the pain it’s caused. This means recognising that:

  • the land we live on and prosper from was previously inhabited by Indigenous people, and their displacement wasn’t founded on a mutual agreement
  • the social and economic impacts of invasion, dispossession, marginalisation and control of Indigenous people have accumulated across generations
  • this impact has been amplified by policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged Indigenous people
  • in many instances, this has resulted in the transmission of poverty, poor health and other forms of disadvantage from generation to generation
  • Indigenous people have courageously resisted and sought to overcome adversity generation after generation after generation


This mutual recognition and understanding of our shared history is a  foundation from which we can hope to move forward together. 


  1. For example, Stolen Wages. See Commonwealth of Australia, 2006, Unfinished business: Indigenous stolen wages
  2. beyondblue, 2014, Discrimination against Indigenous Australians: A snapshot of the views of non-Indigenous people aged 25–44
  3. Ross, I. 2006, Aboriginal Land Rights: A Continuing Social Justice Issue, Australian eJournal of Theology 
  4.  NITV, 2016, Explainer: What is Treaty?  
  5. Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872, University of Newcastle 
  6. Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square, pg. 24 - 28  
  7. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 251  
  8. Booth, A. 2016, What are the frontier wars?   
  9. Grey, J. 2008, A Military History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, pg. 28 
  10. Stephens, A. 2014, Reconciliation means recognising the Frontier Wars 
  11. Atkinson, J. Nelson, J and Atkinson, C. 2010, “Trauma, Transgenerational Transfer and Effects on Community Wellbeing”, in Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice, Purdie, N. Dudgeon, P. and Walker, R. (eds.), accessed 14th April 2015
  12. Commonwealth of Australia, 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families  
  13. National Museum of Australia, Programmed to be White  
  14. Commonwealth of Australia, 2007, Unfinished business: Indigenous stolen wages  
  15. Moreton-Robinson, A. 2017, Citizenship, Exclusion and the Denial of Indigenous Sovereign Rights  
  16. Hunter, B. 2009, Indigenous social exclusion: Insights and challenges for the concept of social inclusion, Australian Institute of Family Studies    
  17. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2015, Freedom from Discrimination: Report on the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act 
  18. Kapuscinski, C.A. 2013, pg. 1, Indigenous disadvantage in an historical perspective: the evidence of the last thirty years 

Find out more 

  • Learn about the prevalent attitudes amongst the early colonists here.

  • Find out more about the Stolen Generations here.

  • What were protection policies? Find out here

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