North Sentinel Island and the Pemulwuy-Australia Condominium

I was engaging in a bit of “research” the other day and got sidetracked. When I say sidetracked, that’s pretty much how I do all my research these days. I’ll find something about a topic I’m interested in then I’ll come across something I didn’t know and find that interesting. Then I’ll find something else on that thread then get sidetracked again.

If you allow yourself to meander in this way it is amazing what can be unearthed. I love spending a lazy few hours “researching” like this.

And so it was I was reading about Aboriginal sovereignty when someone posted, at the bottom of a video, a link to a blog.

When I went to the blog it was all about a mysterious island in Asia inhabited by a people essentially uncontacted by “civilisation” to this day. Eschewing all contact with the outside world, any attempt to meet with these people has resulted in a volley of arrows and spears.

Huh? That’s impossible, I thought. It’s the sort of colonial, paternal, racist click-bait which usually ruins my morning.

The blogger didn’t mention where the supposed uncontacted people were but there was a satellite image of the island. Ok, I thought, let’s see. I’ll identify the island and put a comment on the blog which exposes this person for the fraud they so obviously are. Haven’t Indigenous people around the world suffered enough from the noble savage trope already?

Google Image Search is miraculous for this sort of thing and sure enough when I uploaded the image of the island it returned with a match. It was somewhere called “North Sentinel Island” in the middle of the Bay of Bengal and is politically a territory of India. Which means it was once a British “possession”. If those guys exist, I thought, there is no way the British would have left them “uncontacted”. The missionaries would have gone in quick smart and… well, game over, they’re fucked.

But upon looking up Wikipedia it all checked out!

It turns out that the “Sentinelese” people have, through a mix of being isolated, located on a small, defensible island which presumably doesn’t contain oil, gold, valuable forestries or arable cow pastures, managed to remain isolated to the point where even potential introduced diseases have not been able to enter.

One reason there has been such limited outside contact is because the Sentinelese defend their island with extreme prejudice. As soon as they detect a boat has come beyond the reef which surrounds their island out they come with volleys of spears and arrows.

The Indian government, to their eternal credit, has set up a no-go zone around the island to protect their way of life. India knows a bit themselves about being traumatised by colonialism.

An example of the Sentinelese fierce independence occurred in 2006. A boat from a group of Indian fishers strayed onto a beach after the anchor failed overnight when the sailors were drunk. The next day the Sentinelese attacked and killed the two fishermen and when an Indian army helicopter went to resume the bodies out came the Sentinelese shooting arrows at the helicopter. They had to abandon the search.

The responses of the two Indian families to the tragic event is of interest.

One father says that basically his son was trespassing and under Sentinelese law he was dealt with.

The wife of the other fisherman wants the Sentinelese who killed her husband to be brought to justice under Indian law.

Such an undertaking would lead to the destruction of Sentinelese society. There would need to be extraction of at least some islanders, which would involve bloodshed, the potential introduction of disease, the Sentinelese language, which is not spoken by anyone else – the neighbouring Indigenous peoples’ languages are not mutually intelligible – would need to be studied and learnt, involving, basically, destruction of the Sentinelese way of life.

And then there is the small question of sovereignty.

If the Sentinelese have never left their island, are unaware of any geo-politics or international law, have their own strong system of laws and justice, have been self-sustaining for 50 thousand plus years and have never ceded or signed any part of their land or sovereignty away, then why are the deaths of these fishermen not taken as just another nation’s form of justice?

That is, justice viewed the same way a public execution in Saudi Arabia or a caning in Singapore is viewed… not very nice, but it’s their law and they are exercising it.

The local Indian police chief summed up the situation as he sees it, “We have witnesses, yes, illegal poachers who won’t testify because they can be imprisoned. Then there are the language barriers; nobody speaks the Sentinelese language. This is before we think about identifying the culprits and compiling forensic evidence. We would have to arrest the entire tribe.

We are in an impossible situation. If we raided the island there would be casualties on both sides. If the tribesmen go inland we might be able to sneak back there and collect the bodies – that’s as far as this will probably go.”

Thinking of this event at North Sentinel island brings me back to those initial Australian contact days of 1788 and after. We have enough documentation from Watkin Tench and all the others which so closely parallel the description of the Sentinelese situation today.

The desire to meddle in Sentinelese affairs is the same as it was back in 1788 Australia. The difference is no-one would swallow the “terra nullius” line with the Sentinelese in the present.

And this is where sovereignty is important.

Since the start of time Aboriginal people, like the present-day Sentinelese, were police officers, lawyers, judges, premiers, prime ministers, public servants, military personnel and border control.

Then, hey presto the British arrive on the Australian continent and they call all the shots. Aboriginal people go to the bottom of the pile and – let’s not kid ourselves – have stayed there ever since.

This is the great failing of the British system in Australia. Two systems with two hierarchies and two modes of operation which back then could have attempted to come together (they chose, unlike the Indian government, not to stay away) at the very least via those shonky treaties the British were so fond of signing in the 19th century.

But… no. It was their way or the highway and Aboriginal people have been on a lonely dusty highway ever since.

So invasion happened. This isn’t North Sentinel Island. The British stayed. It is day 83,337 of the occupation. What to do about it?

The current thinking, strongly pursued by Governments in Australia, is for the inherited British system to continue on its merry way and just tinker a little with it by, say, adding some indigenous parliamentarians, maybe a constitutional preamble and, bingo, everything works fine and we’re all happy.

The problem with that is it won’t solve anything.

Whilst “mainstream” people say that “the past is the past, times have changed. I’m not guilty for what people did 200 years ago,” the thing which has not changed is the British legal system. And by that I don’t just mean the judiciary. I mean the parliaments, the executive and, most importantly, the people and culture perpetuating this power.

It’s always the same white people from the same white schools in the same white suburbs making the same white laws looking after the same white interests.

And, again, it isn’t what blackfellas want.

What do Blackfellas want? Time and time again Aboriginal people say they want sovereignty, self-determination.

We’ve been told by “experts” like Gary Johns (who seems genuinely terrified by the prospect of true Aboriginal Self-Determination) that the dream of Self-Determination has failed and now is the era of Howard’s “practical reconciliation.”

As most Aboriginal people are aware this is code for assimilation.

Unfortunately the democratic process in Australia is seen as divinely granted. It’s the rule of the(ir) people. It’s how they get out of their responsibility to us every time. The numbers are in their favour because it’s pretty much stacked with their people. It’s democracy, right? How can that ever be changed?

I’ve thought a lot about what true self-determination for Aboriginal people would look like.

I owe a debt to important essays such as Michael Mansell’s “Why Norfolk Island and not Aborigines” (2005) where Michael proposes what a sovereign Aboriginal state would look like.

Then there’s Callum Clayton-Dixon’s “Aboriginal or Australian?” (2015) where the author challenges the usefulness and legitimacy of Aboriginal people thinking of themselves as being “Australian” and all the dispossession and appropriation that comes with that term.

Irene Watson’s passionate “The future is our past: We once were sovereign and we still are” poses the question to the Australian state “by what lawful authority do you come to our lands? What authorises your efforts to dispossess us?” It is one of my favourites.

Of course, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is required reading (if not memorisation) for all Aboriginal people. Articles 3, 4 and 5 give me strength daily when thinking about what is right and just for our mob:

Article 3:
Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 4:
Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Article 5:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.

I still can’t believe such a beautiful document even exists. How was it allowed? No wonder Australia (and Canada, New Zealand and the USA – what do they all share in common?) held out signing it.

But the most important work I always turn to when thinking about Aboriginal sovereignty isn’t by an Aboriginal author at all. It is by an academic named Joel H. Samuels, a law professor from the University of South Carolina.

In 2008 Professor Samuels published a little known essay titled “Condominium Arrangements in International Practice: Reviving an Abandoned Concept of International Boundary Dispute Resolution.”

The essay provides a treaty and sovereignty framework for Indigenous people which everyone else seems to have missed.

Which proceeds from a simple proposition…

Why can’t two separate states exist on one piece of land?

That is, in a radical overhaul of the status quo where nothing ever seems to change and gaps never seem to close, why not consider a Condominium arrangement between the Commonwealth of Australia and a new sovereign state which is a federation of Aboriginal nations?

Give Aboriginal people full control to come up with their own solutions. Give Aboriginal people back their ancient right to govern themselves. Give them full control of their culture, communities and future.

But first, what is a condominium?

Wikipedia gives a nice definition;

In international law, a condominium (plural either condominia, as in Latin, or condominiums) is a political territory (state or border area) in or over which multiple sovereign powers formally agree to share equally dominium (in the sense of sovereignty) and exercise their rights jointly, without dividing it up into ‘national’ zones.

The Samuels’ essay is so important is because the Professor gives the historical and theoretical underpinning, from a legal western perspective, as to how full Aboriginal sovereignty is not only possible but can in practice be implemented.

It’s all done under western law. It’s in their legal history and theory. They can’t argue that it’s unworkable and impossible because it’s been done before under their system. In fact there are a few condominia which still exist in the world today.

If one’s thinking about sovereignty, self-determination, healing, rights and dignity for Aboriginal people proceeds from the concept of condominium then the way forward for not only Aboriginal people but all Indigenous peoples around the world – except, hopefully, the Sentinelese… (but don’t hold your breath) – becomes pretty clear.

Talk about “empowered communities.”

So what would a condominium between the Commonwealth of Australia and a federation of Aboriginal (and possibly Torres Strait Island) nations look like?

Well to start with, condominium would have to be achieved through a treaty. It would be the centrepiece of a proper treaty. A treaty with substance. Not some mealy-mouthed piece of paper which does nothing but “authorise” the Australian state to carry on as usual and deliver nothing substantive to our mob. Which is what the current constitutional referendum debate is all about – white guilt-reduction.

The central basis of a condominial treaty must involve the core economic basis of the new state.

There can be no escaping… Australia must pay tribute.

“Tribute” in this sense is perpetual payment for the use of our land. Land was never granted by us and it never will be. I don’t think the Australian nation as a whole has ever understood the simple concept:

This isn’t your land!

But as the basis for treaty Aboriginal people are prepared to grant perpetual leasehold to much of the land deemed freehold, etc. today in Australia. Let this be the central plank of treaty negotiation.

How would tribute be paid?

In practice this is up for negotiation but my belief would be, say, a perpetual 1% levy on every land sale in Australia, freehold or other, to be collected and transferred by the states and the Commonwealth in perpetuity for the use of the new Aboriginal state without condition.

Australia can afford it and it would go a long way toward finally creating “practical reconciliation”.

It would mean Aboriginal people could cut the funding puppet strings the Australian state has been yanking since the end of the frontier war era.

That’s the great myth about the endless white whining about “all this money we’re spending on Aboriginal people.” In reality it keeps them firmly in charge. It’s the modern form of state coercion since the missions got closed down and the protection acts got repealed.

When I hear the old “we can’t keep throwing all this money at the blacks. What a waste!”

I respond “then don’t… give them power instead.”

Tribute would be the economic basis for the new state. It is right and just that tribute is paid. Aboriginal land will never be ceded. Ever. But tribute is an acceptable and reasonable way for both peoples to move forward in the spirit of healing and goodwill.

True and “practical” reconciliation.

Tribute would be distributed centrally on an equitable basis for the use of all mobs. Just because the Sydney Aboriginal communities would be sitting on a tribute goldmine doesn’t mean they should keep it. Aboriginal people value reciprocity. It is a core cultural value. A world-view. Those remote communities will finally have the funding they need to function with dignity. What about all the jobs flowing from running their own hospitals, schools, local councils, media organisations. Not to mention their police forces, University campuses, prisons, fisheries, mines, emergency services, etc.

Once the economic stability is established the fine-tuning could begin.

How would the laws of each state apply to individual citizens of both states?

Aboriginal people would always be tried in Aboriginal courts, have Aboriginal passports, go to Aboriginal gaols. They would be subjected to the same laws as Australians on, say, the roads and in other equivalent areas.

There would be many areas of the continent which were solely under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal state. In others, there would be agreement as to how citizens of each nation would be policed by each separate law enforcement body.

For example, the Australian police forces may detain an Aboriginal citizen for a few hours but must instantly contact Aboriginal police and have the prisoner transferred.

Obviously the nutting out of these laws would be voluminous and beyond the scope of this article. This doesn’t mean such a complex undertaking is not possible. Of course it is possible.

What would the name of the new state be? No-one will ever agree because we were all disparate nations, fiercely independent, but if Aboriginal people can adopt a flag in common they can adopt a name.

My own belief is that it should honour Pemulwuy the great resistance leader of our people because he stood up for the maintenance of sovereignty from the start. He saw what Arthur Phillip – the most successful people smuggler in history – and what the rest of his lot had to offer and said an emphatic “no”.

Pemulwuy’s death and the cruel saga of his remains are also an insight into the ruthlessness of the British. And that ruthlessness is the direct foundation of the Australian state. It’s exactly how it all came into being, not at Gallipoli as they’d like you to believe.

Next, the location for a seat of government. A capital city would not be as important to Aboriginal people because our mobs are community based and much of their power would be retained at the local level. But you do need a supra-national body to deal with Australia, collect, distribute and maintain finances, resolve disputes between our nations and all that. So you need a location.

I believe that should be at Sydney. It is close to the important Australian centres of Sydney and Canberra for the ongoing close relationship needed between the two states. It would also be a symbol of resistance and triumph over the adversity Aboriginal people have faced since the European arrival in Sydney in 1788. Sydney is also an important centre for the evolution of the Aboriginal sovereignty movement from the 1930’s onward. Not to mention the political movement out of Redfern in the 1970’s.

The greatest value of a condominium arrangement with Australia though would be the removal of the Australian state in decision making over Aboriginal community life.

A condominium would mean the end of hundreds of years of entrenched suffering at the hands of the Australian state in many areas.

Gone would be the various state Community Departments (for example, the dreaded Department of Community Services or “DOCS” in NSW) having ultimate power to remove children. It would be Aboriginal national or regional governments with those powers.

Sure they’d make mistakes. But they would be our mistakes, which we would learn from.

That’s empowerment.

It’s also the Aboriginal gift to Australia… it would become truly legitimate as a nation state because Aboriginal people would finally recognise them as such. I think deep down Australians realise the lack of legitimacy Indigenous people regard them with. So they go all quiet on Australia Day now. Well, some do. It’s been like that since the Bicentenary in 1988, really. Finally they could have a bit of real pride about their foundation knowing some amends have been made.

And a treaty with condominium would allow Aboriginal people to well-wish them on Australia day. Why not… it would be a sign the Australian state had finally matured and been honest with itself.

Of course it will always be a day of deep mourning for Aboriginal people.

But I believe the 26 January 2038 is the perfect date for the birth of the new Pemulwuy state. Hopefully the “handover” would occur at the Australian Hall in Sydney. What a fantastic location to justify and honour those brave Kooris who organised the “Day of Mourning” in 1938, protesting the sesqui-centenary of the first-fleet landing. It’s the basis of NAIDOC week.

Or maybe at Sydney Cove itself.

The Pemulwuy state would not be perfect. Far from it. No post-colonial national government ever has been. But that is the journey Aboriginal people must take. Has any former colony ever appealed for the colonial power to come back? Not many. That’s instructive. I don’t see Timor-Leste begging Indonesia to “come back all is forgiven.”

Condominium is a radical solution to our problems. However, those problems are so profound and the trauma so deep there is practically no other way.

I hope the people of North Sentinel Island never have to face the same bloody and traumatic history we have had since the colonials arrived here in 1788. It would be nice to think they could continue living their lives as they see fit.

Aboriginal people have to exercise sovereignty in a different way. Through condominium there is hope for the future and for another 50000 years. And beyond.

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Is Governor Davey running for Mayor in Maitland now?

The welcome to and acknowledgement of Country has become a highly visible part of public ceremony in Australia in the past decade or so.

For Aboriginal people it is important because it is at least some acknowledgement of the fact that even though mainstream Australian culture is pretty European in practice, people attending these ceremonies aren’t actually in Europe (anymore) and the history of the particular country stretches back many timeless generations.

In a way, it also acknowledges what an incredibly traumatic year 1788 was for Aboriginal people. A year non-Indigenous people these days aren’t much fussed to talk about or especially remember.

Of course, 1788 was the beginning of all the dispossession, sickness and death which “Welcome to Country” comes some way to at least acknowledging.

I have a metaphor I use to explain 1788 to non-Indigenous people. I say it was “the day the planes appeared in the sky and dropped their atomic bombs. Kooris are today still walking through the nuclear fallout.”

Welcome to country challenges the three cheers for Australia colonial settlement story of rugged men in Akubra-like hats with whips and a tough little white woman at home. Well we assume he had a little white woman at home, even though the population statistics show that men far outnumbered women in the early colonial days. Certainly, there is no mention in the narrative that this strong man’s resolve would ever have weakened and his gaze move over toward the black women in his midst. But that’s another story.

Thinking about 1788 also means not everyone thinks of any individual piece of land as merely having a history of previous good tenants and proximity to parks and beaches. All private property in Australia has a start date after which someone with a European background and mindset decided to “improve” the land ready for sale or production. As part of this grizzly process Aboriginal people got cast aside. With extreme prejudice.

Aboriginal people know this and feel a deep sense of loss when they think about the appropriation of their land from 1788 to the present day. The sentiment is captured by Kevin Gilbert in the poem “On the Road to Queanbeyan:”

I look at the open fields and see
The space where my people used to be
I see the scars of wounded ground
I cry as I hear the death call sound
Of curlew mourning by.

I myself have felt this same desolation growing up in southern NSW, staring at all that flattened, cleared land with wheat and sheep everywhere. This used to be Aboriginal land I thought. Of course, it still is, but if I’d decided to camp there I’d be moved on quickly by some farmer overly concerned at the “invasion” of “their” “property”.

Sensible people in Australia understand, at least in part, the hurt caused by this injustice and, in their own way, try to make some form of amends. Thus we have acknowledgement of country, the recognise movement, sea of hands, sorry days, etc. It’s all largely ceremonial (thank god it’s not John Howard’s “practical assimilation reconciliation”) but at least it’s something.

So the revelation of Maitland City Council’s official Welcome to Country policy recently was, to say the least, a bit of a jolt. Probably more like a sledgehammer to the head.

The good councillors at Maitland have decided that it is not enough to acknowledge just the Aboriginal traditional owners of the Maitland region in acknowledging country.

No, the official Maitland Welcome to Country acknowledges the early settlers as well.

According to Maitalnd’s official policy an appropriate Acknowledgement of Country would go like this:

I would like to acknowledge the Wonnarua people who are the traditional custodians of the land. I would also like to pay respect to their people both past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal Australians who are present. I also acknowledge the colonial heritage of Maitland and recognise the contribution of the early settlers in laying the foundations of this great and historic city.

In other words, Maitland have included the very people who did the dispossessing, killing, raping and banishing in the very thing (Acknowledgement of country) which is meant to aid reconciliation of these wrongs.

After picking my jaw up off the floor, I checked the Maitland website for the procedure around how this policy was able to become in any way ‘official’. A bit of poking around led to the agenda and minutes at the council meeting that night.

The draft of the policy itself, which includes all the settler stuff, was authored by a council worker named Calee Smith. She could not be contacted for the purposes of this article because she was on leave. As far as I could ascertain she is not an Indigenous person.

The “Responsible Officer” for the policy draft at Maitalnd City is Graeme Tolhurst who is the Executive Manager of Corporate Services. I spoke with Mr Tolhurst and he told me that as part of the policy formulation process he had gone to talk to people at Mindaribba LALC in 2012. As far as he could remember they gave their consent to the policy draft.

How could that be? Consent for the colonials, the land thieves? I asked him if the draft as presented to Mindaribba included the wording about the settlers. Mr Tolhurst said he could not remember. He did add, however, that policy can be amended on the floor of council without notice, on-the-fly. So perhaps Clr Fairweather, who moved the motion, or Clr Wethered who seconded it, did the amending.

Mr Tolhurst was quite defensive about the council’s position. When I asked him about why Maitland, of all the local councils in Australia, had decided to deviate so widely from not just their own stated guidelines for the policy but the reconciliation path the whole of Australian society is currently following he replied “council is the democratic representative for the will of the people of Maitland”.

The person I spoke to at Mindaribba Land Council, whose father is involved in performing Welcome to country said that they found out about this about a month ago and were “challenging it”. She described the whole situation as “very stressful.” When asked about her attitude to colonial settler recognition in the policy she said “isn’t that what Australia day is for?”

Notwithstanding the distress of the local Koori people at Mindaribba especially and all other Aboriginal people in the area, it seems to me this is yet another example of how the “representative government” model in Australia repeatedly fails Aboriginal people in Australia.

If it is to be assumed that the policy was researched, drafted and forwarded to council in the standard form as proscribed by the Office of local Government in NSW, Reconciliation Australia and accepted pretty much everywhere else in Australia then perhaps the policy was changed on the floor of council because a few of the councillors got their back up about the wording. Maybe it smacked of “political correctness gone mad” to them.

I contacted the Office of Local Government and received the following response:

“Thank you for your email about the “Welcome to Country” practices of Maitland City Council.

The Office of Local Government encourages councils to develop productive partnerships with local Aboriginal communities and recognises that a “Welcome to Country” is an important mark of respect for Aboriginal people.

Under the Local Government Act 1993 (the Act), councils are largely “independent” and “self-governing” bodies with rights and powers conferred by law. They are accountable to their electors for their actions.

While I acknowledge your concerns at the departure from the traditional “Welcome to Country” by Maitland City Council this is a matter for Council to deal with in its discretion.

I can only suggest that you continue to pursue the matter with Council, possibly by writing to the General Manager or your local councillors. They are responsible for bringing community concerns before the Council and, where possible, resolving those concerns.”

So, in other words, Kooris are stuck with whatever the local government thinks is appropriate for them. Again, the very instrument which facilitated the dispossession originally now reinforces it. Truly, this is racism.

The problem of governance in Australia is that since the arrival of the Europeans, the needs and desires of Aboriginal people have been an afterthought. Their cultural values are an afterthought, their history is an afterthought.

Who do the councillors of Maitland represent? In assessing the responses of all levels of government in Australia to the needs of Aboriginal people one must refer back to Governor Davey’s famous proclamation board of 1816.

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The response to my enquiries received from Mr Tolhurst of Maitland Council, namely that the Acknowledgement of country policy reflects the will of the people of Maitland, reminds me of the position of the Governor and his minions (those in red coats) in the proclamation. The red coats hold a seemingly unchallenged position above their subjects. So it goes (in panel one of the proclamation) that black and white should get along with each other in harmony. No sign of the red coats here.

In panel two the red coats go out of their way to meet Aboriginal people as equals. As Penelope Edmonds points out, the central vignette of the proclamation is the meeting of the Governor (in ceremonial headdress) with an Aboriginal negotiator (in ceremonial headdress). In this instance this supposed meeting appropriates an agreement, understanding or even treaty. I’m not sure that in Tasmania around 1830 any Aboriginal person was actually aware of any treaty being hammered out but the consequence of this meeting becomes apparent in the final 2 panels where the red coats sit as the sole authority and take it upon themselves to mete out ultimate European justice to both black and white alike.

So the problem we have, both in Governor Davey’s proclamation in Tasmania of 1829 and the Welcome to Country policy of Maitland City Council in 2012, some 186 years later, is that a discriminatory policy – disempowering, dispossessive and cruel – has been implemented without the consent of the local sovereign Aboriginal people.

In both cases the policy has been instituted through the implied agreement of the local Aboriginal people. Agreement which is actually fictitious. But that didn’t stop the red coats in both Tasmania and Maitland.

Nope, it’s the democratic will of a government no Aboriginal person has ever consented to.

Australia will never quit appropriating Aboriginal land, culture, language, law, cuisine, legend, children, sport, music, art, etc. So what has happened at Maitland should come as no shock.

My opinion? There is only one way to finally free Aboriginal people and, through this freedom, the Australian nation itself. That is self-determination – the sure right of Aboriginal people from the start of time until the end.

 

Reference

Penelope Edmonds, ‘Failing in every endeavour to conciliate’: Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Boards to the Aborigines, Australian Conciliation Narratives and their Transnational Connections’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol.35, no.2, June, 2011, pp.208-218.

The Uluru Bark Petition and The Bli Bli Thongs

Obviously the recent “Uluru bark petition” has stirred up a lot of feeling among Aboriginal people because it feels like such a betrayal.

One of the amazing things about blackfellas is that, whilst there is an extreme diversity of personal opinion, voiced confidently – stemming from traditional governance where consensus ruled, not the edict of a divine chief or a democratic process – there is also, in the main, a united respect for core Aboriginal values.

These values include things like respect for elders, centrality of community and kin, belonging to country, rejection of commercial needs above spiritual and community ones, etc.

All of which makes the Uluru bark petition so troubling. Cloaked in all the symbolism of Aboriginal cultural values, this shonky group make a solely christian statement and try to pass it off not in their own names but in the names of many diverse Aboriginal nations from around the continent.

And not just remote nations where, perhaps, the power of the Christian missionary influence may still be overpowering. No, some of the nations mentioned as supporting the Uluru bark petition include Biripi, Bundjalung, Noongar, Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri. In other words, some of the most densely populated and Urbanised Aboriginal nations and communities.

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The “Uluru Bark Petition”

Ultimately though, individual Aboriginal people are not perfect. Nor do they have some pure sense of morality (the ‘Noble Savage’ trope). Like anyone, Aboriginal people just try to do their best guided by the best aspects of the culture they come from. For someone who grew up estranged from my Koori community and culture that can be a despairing, confusing experience. But that’s another story.

So here we have a group of christian preachers pushing a religious line they believe in. Is it such a big deal? Aboriginal people have “sold out” in the past what’s the difference?

The difference is that for the first time since 1788 Aboriginality has assumed a form of mainstream moral authority. Yes, all the protests and court cases, the history wars, sorry days, apologies, wage claims, land rights battles, deaths in custody and stolen generations have seeped into the conscience of white Australia.

But only slightly. Mainly, I believe, the Australian state needs the consent of Aboriginal people to legitimise itself. Australia has looked at its past. Looked at new arrivals and said “we decide who will come here”. To achieve absolute moral authority around the “we” bit they desperately need Aboriginal people. Without First Nations people, the “we” looks pretty flimsy… They were just any other wave of boat people.

As an example, witness the Indigenous rounds of AFL and NRL, etc. It strengthens their brand. Gives it a sort of moral dimension. So putting a white proclamation on a piece of bark with a lot of Aboriginal names and nations makes their moral claim look ancient, indisputable and (they hope) authentic.

So now it’s desirable to add Aboriginality to your brand. How times have changed!

Which is why I nearly fell over when I walked into a service station in Bli Bli (Sunshine Coast) to pay for my petrol the other day.

Among the chips and biscuits I came across this display:

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Yes, Aboriginal flag thongs! Koori flip-flops!!

And under $8! Woohoo, too deadly!

Sadly, they didn’t fit me. But it got me wondering.

Twenty, even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Aboriginal flag branded item of clothing to be on sale at a suburban service station like it was just any old brand. Only, maybe, at a souvenir shop for overseas tourists.

But here they are. In Bli Bli! Who is buying these? There are plenty of Murris living in the Bli Bli area but these servo thongs are in the same numbers as the good old Aussie flag ones on the far right of the photo. Wtf?

(Ha ha, the ‘far right’)

They look great and it makes me proud and all that. But there’s an unsettling aspect.

The Aboriginal “brand” now has power. It is acceptable, even “cool”. It is authentic. It has a moral weight.

It is also useful.

It is useful to Australia. So we have to become used to an ugly new reality. Aboriginality will be used in arguments and debates to acheive non-Aboriginal outcomes. The brand will be co-opted in the pursuit of Australian goals. These goals have little to do with Aboriginal culture but that doesn’t matter. White Australia isn’t too fussed about stolen babies and black deaths in custody and all that. Only in so far as it makes them look bad. Can’t be having Australia look bad.

But what is of interest to them is a symbolism which they can appropriate to achieve their own goals.

If the imagery and moral force of the Yirrkala and Barunga bark petitions are just roadkill on the quest for white politicians to stop same sex marriage then so be it. Whatever it takes.

I will proceed by relegating the Uluru bark petition to the moral dustbin. It’s just a stunt. And it won’t achieve anything anyway. I believe it has a snowball’s chance of actually stopping same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia.

But the appropriation of the Aboriginal “brand”? Sadly, that is here to stay. We have to remain vigilant.

These Aboriginal “elders” don’t speak for me. Or, I believe, the majority of Aboriginal people. But without a genuine political mechanism for allowing a representative Aboriginal voice we will never know.

A genuine mechanism would resolve these random individuals speaking on behalf of entire Aboriginal nations. But that’s the big battle for another day.

Until then we’ve got unelected “leaders” like Nyunggai W. Mundine speaking for us.

And those deadly thongs at the Bli Bli servo? Maybe next time I’m there they’ll have a size that fits.

Treaty yeah?… Nah.

It was with some horror a few days ago I read that the Victorian Government had begun initial consultations around the idea of a treaty with the Aboriginal inhabitants of that state.

Of course the media trumpeted it as some new high water mark for race relations in Australia and a triumph of fairness and humanity.

“Noooooo” I screamed from my laptop keyboard, “be very, very careful, they’ll divide you Koorie mob and drive through a watered down, weak as piss treaty and you mob will be essentially signing all your rights away!”

In the article it said that in researching a possible treaty, the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Natalie Hutchins, said she “will look at treaty examples in other Commonwealth countries.”

So, in other words, she will be looking at discredited 19th century documents where basically the local First Nations peoples were deceived and bludgeoned into signing their rights and land away as being the new basis for understanding between Victoria and the Koorie nations.

Victorian Koories must hesitate. You see, a treaty, or the absence of one at least, is the most powerful political tool Aboriginal people have.

Think of it this way… the British turned up in 1788 and said the following:

“We own this island and you blackfellas are all British subjects…”

The rightful response: “We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?”

“We will set up a system of laws and governance which will be for both our peoples’ mutual benefit and protection”

We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?

“We will acquire and ‘improve’ land under this new system because this is a modern and productive way of doing things. You will benefit from our methods”

We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?

“We will civilise you by forcing you into missions and reserves, stealing your children and assimilating them by denying their identity and culture.”

But we never agreed. Show us where we agreed to that?

But now, after everything those Koories have been through over the years, having fought to even survive, they finally come to them and say “Let’s talk nicely about this over a cup of tea and come to an agreement to legitimise our government and rubber stamp the system we have here with your seeming approval.”

I’m sorry, fuck off. The response should be something like “we’re not rubber stamping genocide without dragging you lot through the full ordeal of owning up to every injustice, written on memorials all over your state to the massacres and humiliations we endured. We want a day of mourning as a public holiday, NAIDOC day as a public holiday. Our own fully funded memorials and cultural centres at significant sites. Our own fully funded schools and hospitals. Our own fully funded University. We want our own prison to deal with our people, our way, culturally. We want affordable housing for our mob, on and off country. Offensive placenames changed. Our own placename boards in our colours in our languages. Massive funding to restore our languages for the use of us and our kids. And massive compensation, annually in perpetuity, including lots of land, for all that has been done to us in your name. And we’ll never cede any land, it’s always ours. But we’ll provide perpetual leasehold for your citizens, which is more than generous or more than your state deserves.

Why not? The power of the treaty is that Aboriginal people decide what they rightly deserve, not a court or government committee. Finally they can seek justice on their terms! And what’s the downside… the state says no, so no treaty. That’s their loss, not Aboriginal people’s. At least Aboriginal voices get heard. And the state doesn’t get its treaty.

Any treaty should demand extremely strong political rights. Basically, sovereignty. Self-determination. Starting with the ability to identify, fairly and equitably, Aboriginal political and community representatives in Aboriginal political and community representative bodies.

This is the greatest problem in Aboriginal politics to date. Not of Aboriginal people’s own making. It is the core problem with the framing and signing of any treaty… namely, which Aboriginal people sign the treaty? If we aren’t able to choose our own representatives, and I mean every single Aboriginal person in this country must have a direct say, then the piece of paper the treaty is written on will not mean a damn thing. Well, maybe as much as Captain Cook’s proclamation of “possession” of the continent in August 1770. Yeah, there’s a “consensus” document if ever I saw one. Not.

Unfortunately, present Australian governments don’t want true representative Aboriginal voices to be heard…. That’s why they abolish Indigenous representative bodies (after they have first set them up on their terms) and handpick blackfellas who they think will be closest to representing what they want. Witness Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson. I know they are fiercely proud Aboriginal men but who do they represent? Who do they speak for? Whose mob? All they represent is their own ideas. Maybe some of those are worthwhile but there’s no way if anyone like that signed any treaty they would be representing me, my needs or my voice.

No, Aboriginal people need what mainstream people in Australia get. A timely, well resourced political process. The makeup of which we will decide on ourselves. If it were to happen I believe there should be a lot more ‘consensus’ politics – which is cultural – than winner-take-all majority-rules European-style politics.

That’s just the start… and it will take a long time.

Once Aboriginal people have their own political processes in place (funded by the state… it’s the least they can do to transition Koories back to the power they’ve so cruelly denied for the past 200 odd years) then, and only then, can Aboriginal people start to think about what the demands would be for a treaty.

So, the proposed treaty negotiations in Victoria? Nice idea, but there’s some serious preconditions to sort out first.

Introduction

My name is Greg Page and this is my blog about being Koori.

My family is from Guriwal (La Perouse, Sydney) and my ancestors are Yuin people from the South Coast of NSW. I was fostered at birth and I grew up at Mungabareena (Albury) by the Millewa (Murray) river on Wiradjuri country. But I’ve reconnected with my Guriwal family and my identity as a Koori gives me strength and joy every day.

So my life focus at the moment is about my Aboriginal identity and balancing my interests within that: politics, history, writing, association football, gnu/linux and connection to community and family.

I’ve got a few ideas I want to share with mob so I hope you keep coming back and get something of interest each visit. See you!

Twitter: @boypage

Email: email