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For Indigenous Australians, painful colonial past mars queen’s legacy

The Australian and Aboriginal flags fly at half-staff on Sept. 12 on the Sydney Harbour Bridge after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

SYDNEY — When a young Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia on her first royal tour Down Under in 1954, one local authority erected hessian screens to shield the monarch’s motorcade from viewing Aboriginal camps along the route, according to several Indigenous elders.

Starting in the mid-1800s until 1970, about two decades into Elizabeth’s reign, government officials rounded up children — especially those of mixed White and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ethnicity. In many cases, the children were forcibly sent to boarding schools and church-run missions. For decades, as many as 1 in 3 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families nationwide, according to a later report commissioned by the Australian government. The children became known as the “stolen generations.”

The queen’s death last week brought the spotlight back to the complicated relationship between the monarchy and First Nations people here and around the world. Indigenous Australians have suffered greatly since the explorer James Cook first claimed part of the continent for the British crown — then held by the queen’s ancestor, King George III — and debate continues on whether she was responsible for past wrongs and the inequities many still face.

For some, the monarchy lies at the center of a vexed, often traumatic reckoning with their colonial past.

“The queen and her family represent the colonial system, which has created havoc in this country against First Nations people,” Lidia Thorpe, an Aboriginal senator with the left-of-center Greens, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “In all the time that this queen was reigning over our country — or so-called reigning over this country — not once did that queen try to stop any injustice against First Nations people.”

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Australia is one of the few settler-colonized Commonwealth nations that doesn’t have a treaty with its First Nations people. In neighboring New Zealand, Indigenous Maori chiefs signed one with the British crown in 1840, and Elizabeth was involved in at least one major treaty settlement, the country’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, recalled in Parliament on Tuesday.

The treaty, though acknowledged as imperfect by the queen, formed a binding connection between the Maori people and the crown. Later, it helped pave the way for settlements for the wrongful confiscation of land.

In Australia, the dark legacy of British imperialism has contributed to racial disparities in education, housing and incarceration rates, experts say. More than 400 Aboriginal people have died in custody since 1991, and the life expectancy of its 800,000 Indigenous people lags behind the wider population by years, government data shows.

Although some Indigenous elders recall the queen fondly — she visited the nation 16 times, venturing deep into the Outback — others have refused to mourn.

An Indigenous rugby league player received a one-game ban and a suspended fine this week from the sport’s administrators over a tweet — which was later deleted — that appeared to celebrate Elizabeth’s death. The Australian rules football league, meanwhile, decided not to mandate a minute’s silence for the queen during a round of competition celebrating Indigenous players and culture because it stirred up mixed emotions, the Age newspaper reported.

The Indigenous population is generally younger than the wider Australian population — some 31 percent were under 15 in 2021, according to official estimates — meaning many were probably too young to recall the queen’s last visit, in 2011. Only around 5 percent were 65 or older, compared with about 17 percent of non-Indigenous Australians.

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Thorpe — who made international headlines last month when she improvised at her swearing-in ceremony, adding the word “colonizing” as she pledged allegiance to Elizabeth — quipped that she was “probably busy doing something a lot better” during the last royal visit.

She is among a group of Australian lawmakers calling for a treaty with First Nations people, followed by a republic that would replace King Charles III with an Australian as head of state. “That is how we will unify this nation,” Thorpe said.

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Queen Elizabeth II
Laid to rest
Queen Elizabeth II has been buried in her final resting place next to Prince Philip, her husband of more than 70 years, capping an elaborate state funeral, which was invested with all the pomp, circumstance and showmanship that the monarchy, military and state could put on display for a global broadcast audience of millions. Here are some of the most memorable moments in photos and videos.
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Elizabeth’s death has sparked fresh debate in a number of Commonwealth realms about severing ties to the monarchy, although Australia’s leader has said he’s in no rush to address the divisive issue in his term.

While some people have expressed sorrow and nostalgia over the loss of Queen Elizabeth II, others are still stung by the colonial past of the British Empire. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

As Elizabeth gives way to Charles, realms consider severing ties

In New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said a republic is probable in her lifetime — she’s 42 — Maori politicians also reflected on the monarchy’s mixed legacy.

During condolences in Parliament on Tuesday, Maori party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said the British Empire was built on stolen “whenua” and stolen “taonga,” using the Maori words for land and treasure.

Mahuta, the foreign minister, who joined Charles at a Commonwealth leaders meeting in Rwanda a few months ago, said he made a commitment then to modernize the Commonwealth.

“He noted that to unlock the power of our common future, we must also acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past,” she told Parliament. “He spoke of colonialism, he spoke of slavery, and he understood the challenge in front of him.”

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