Assimilation refers to those specific laws and policies that aimed to reduce, or even eliminate, the Aboriginal 'race' through its absorption into the white Australian population. The main approach to achieiving assimilation was the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and their placement into Homes. Assimilation was part of the broader 'Aborignal protection' policies that regulated the lives of Aboriginal people from the 1830s to the 1970s. The systematic child removal that was central to assimilation policies created what became known from the 1980s as the 'Stolen Generations'.
Assimilation might be understood more broadly as the wider aim of Australian governments and philanthropic agencies from the early-nineteenth century to 'civilise' Aboriginal people through their conversion to Christianity and their education to become industrial and compliant workers.
From the 1880s, governments were introducing specific laws to prescribe where Aboriginal could live and work and, significantly, the custody and care of their children.
By the 1930s, these laws began to focus on ways to absorb Aboriginal people into the white Australian population. The term assimilation was used officially in reference to Aborignes from the 1950s, borrowed from the immigration policies that shared the goal of a culturally and racially homogenous white Australia.
In Western Australia, the Native Administration Act 1936 gave extensive powers to the Commissioner of Native Affiairs (known formerly as the Chief Protector of Aborigines). In this role, Auber Octavious Neville, had, as historian Henry Reynolds summarises, 'almost complete control of the part-Aboriginal population'. Neville's aim, outlined to the 1937 Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aborignal Authorities was to 'elminate' the Aboriginal 'race' through its total assimilation into the white population.
'Are we to have one million blacks in the Commonwealth', Neville asked the 1937 conference, 'or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?'
Neville continued to explain how this complete assimilation of Aboriginal people could be achieved:
'[W]e must have charge of the children at the age of six years; it is useless to wait until they are twelve or thirteen years of age. In Western Australia we have power under the Act to take away any child from its mother at any stage of life, no matter whether the mother be legally married or not'.
Bain Attwood reflects how life 'under the Act' could be one of 'despair and hopelessness' for Aboriginal people. It fostered a sense of resentment, especially towards the policies of child removal, and created what became known from the 1980s as the 'Stolen Generations'.
The Native Welfare Act 1963 reduced the powers of the Comissioner; he was no longer the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. The Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority Act 1972 transferred the remaining powers of the Commissioner to the Department of Community Welfare.
Sources used to compile this entry: Anderson, Warwick, The Cultivation of Whiteness, 2nd edn, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005. pp. 246-247.; Attwood, Bain, 'Aborignal protection', in Davison, Graeme, Hirst, John and Macintyre, Stuart (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, 1998, pp. 10-11; Macintyre, Stuart, 'Assimilation', in Davison, Graeme, Hirst, John and Macintyre, Stuart (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 41-42; Reynolds, Henry, An Indelible Stain?, Penguin, Melbourne, 2001.
Prepared by: Rebe Taylor
Created: 11 July 2014, Last modified: 7 November 2017