50 Years of NAIDOC WEEK 5 (1998–2006)

John Howard came to power in 1996, after 13 years of Labor dominance under Hawke and Keating. We have already noted that the themes chosen for NAIDOC WEEK in the early Howard years, 1996 and 1997, were both incisive comments about our public life.

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/03/50-years-of-naidoc-week-4-1991-1997/

The themes that followed in the Howard years continued this stance of naming key issues from an indigenous perspective.

1998: Bringing Them Home

1999: Respect

2000: Building Pride in Our Communities

2001: Treaty—Let’s Get It Right

2002: Recognition, Rights and Reform

2003: Our Children Our Future

2004: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility

2005: Our Future Begins with Solidarity

2006: Respect the Past—Believe in the Future

In his overview of indigenous affairs during the period of the Howard Government, Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes a cluster of immediate changes made by the incoming Howard government—changing terminology, withdrawing support from established initiatives, applying economic markers to the outcomes desired, amending the Native Title Act, and reducing funding to ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission). See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

Over the ensuing decade, Gardiner-Garden notes that “perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community”, and records a series of decisions and actions which provided ongoing concern within Aboriginal communities: the ultimate demise of ATSIC, the attempt to establish a Special Auditor “to make a determination on whether a prospective grantee was ‘not fit and proper’ to receive public money”, a contentious Ten Point Plan to deal with the Wik decision, alterations to the Native Title Act which were seen as racially discriminatory, a Racial Hatred Act (1996) which fell short of many provisions that had been requested, and finally the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more widely known as The Intervention.

This latter event was applied to 73 Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and involved withholding 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous welfare recipients—-bans on alcohol and pornography—-increased police presence in Aboriginal communities—-compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children—-and the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.

The Intervention was a highly controversial policy, with many Aboriginal leaders speaking out against it.

There was some support within the Australian Indigenous community as well as beyond it. Australians Together report that “two of Australia’s most influential Indigenous academics and leaders, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, supported several of the more controversial aspects of the Intervention.”

See https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/the-wound/the-intervention/#Interventionreference1a

The Intervention, however, is viewed by most Aboriginal people as yet another instance of white colonial supremacy over blacks. It is perhaps appropriate, then, for this blog to go live on 10 June, which was the day that the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place, in 1838. This event has come to be a symbol of all that has been wrong about the way that the invading British colonisers treated the indigenous peoples who had been the continuous inhabitants of the land “since time immemorial”.

Creative Spirits describes the 1838 event as follows: “12 heavily armed colonists rounded up and brutally kill 28 Aboriginal people from a group of 40 or 50 people gathered at Henry Dangar’s Station, at Myall Creek near Inverell (NSW). The massacre was believed to be a payback for the killing of several hut keepers and two shepherds. But most of those killed were women and children and good relations existed between the Aboriginal people and European occupants of the station. Seven stockmen are eventually hanged for murder. This outrages the colonial press and parts of the public who cannot understand why anyone should hang for murdering Aboriginal people.”

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/australian-aboriginal-history-timeline/massacres

The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial

A pivotal event took place in 1997, when Prime Minister Howard addressed the Australian Reconciliation Convention, a forum for Australians to discuss Indigenous issues. The conference drew widespread participation, but was overshadowed by the controversy that Howard generated in his opening address on 27 May 1997.

Howard said: In facing the realities of the past, […] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism […] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.

The reference to “blemishes” in Australia history was an incendiary remark. Indigenous delegates who were listening to the lecture stood up and turned their backs on the Prime Minister.

Delegates at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention,
upset by the speech of Prime Minister John Howard,
stand and turn their backs to him

It was a shameful moment, a deliberate aggravation by the elected leader of the First Peoples present. The 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, Wik—Three Strikes for Justice—Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, offered a striking rejoinder to the mean-spirited assessment of the Prime Minister (see previous post).

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In 1998, the theme for NAIDOC WEEK was equally striking. It was a direct reference to the landmark report on the stolen generations which had been issued in April 1997 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home, and that exact phrase was used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.

Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at that time, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”

The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.

Creative Spirits offers an excellent overview of the issues associated with the Aboriginal people who had formed what became known as “the stolen generations”; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/a-guide-to-australias-stolen-generations

They also have a comprehensive cataloguing of the impacts that being removed from your family home as a child can have on such children, running throughout their lives and on into subsequent generations; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/stolen-generations-effects-and-consequences

The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies were made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997), New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.

The texts of the above apologies can be found at https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-apologies-state-and-territory-parliaments-2008

The Howard Government did not offer a formal apology; instead, they brought a motion to the Parliament in 1999 which expressed “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations”, noting “the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.

The government described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “

“most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or “apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries.

Subsequent NAIDOC WEEK themes would speak back to this inadequate and insulting governmental response.

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In 1999, the theme was Respect: Show Some, Earn Some. This was a plea to provide what many Aboriginal people had felt had been missing over the decades: respect.

In 2000, the theme was Building Pride in Our Communities. This connected back with earlier themes in which community had been a motif. It also offered an encouragement to Aboriginal people, to be proud of who they are and what they have to offer.

2000 was the year when hundreds of thousands of people “walked for reconciliation”, a strong statement of the popular support that existed for clear action in the way that Aboriginal and Islander people are treated. The most memorable walk was across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000, when a quarter of a million people (250,000 people) walked across the bridge.

See https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/walk-for-reconciliation

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For the centenary of Australia as a nation, the theme for 2001 was Treaty—Let’s Get It Right. This was another strong statement to government and public intransigence in the face of a growing recognition that the situation of Indigenous peoples was damaged by injustice upon injustice.

The history of seeking a treaty reveals stalled attempts, negative responses, and inaction by various governments. In 1979, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had convened a number of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians, working towards the implementation of a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples.

In 1981, the Fraser Government responded by rejecting the notion that a Treaty was needed. Treaties, it was said, are concluded between separate sovereign nations; the Aboriginal people were not a nation with which a treaty could be concluded.

In 1983, the National Aboriginal Conference proposed that, rather than a single national treaty, each individual Aboriginal nation might negotiate its own treaty or agreement. By 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had signalled a willingness to produce some form of agreement for the Bicentenary of 1988. The Barunga Statement was presented to him in June 1988, but no action ensued.

By 1991, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been formed. In 1996, iconic rock band Yothu Yindi released their single, Treaty, which peaked at number 11 on the Australian charts and number 6 internationally. But no action followed. By the end of the decade, Prime Minister Howard had definitively rejected any notion of a treaty, because “it implies that we are two nations; and we are not, we are one nation”. Thus, the 2001 theme of Treaty—Let’s Get It Right was a clear political statement.

For the history of discussions and proposals relating to a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/treaty-timeline-events-from-1835-to-today?page=2

On what is involved in such a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/what-is-a-treaty

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In the following years, the NAIDOC WEEK themes referenced familiar motifs.

For 2002, the theme continued the explicit political plea of 2001, with the triple alliteration of Recognition, Rights and Reform. In 2003, the theme of Our Children Our Future looked back to earlier themes.

In 2004, the theme had four parts: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility. The poster had a striking indigenous image set within a pair of cupped brown hands.

The 2005 theme, Our Future Begins with Solidarity, reinforced once more the importance of working together, both within the Aboriginal community as a whole, and also with white allies in the wider Australian society.

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Perhaps the theme for 2006, Respect the Past—Believe in the Future, was chosen with an eye to the prevailing “black armband” view of history that had been actively prosecuted in the so-called “history wars” during the Howard years.

The “black armband view of history” had been first suggested by historian Geoffrey Blainey in a public lecture he gave in 1993. A series of polemic interactions from historians and commentators ensued over the next decade, fuelled by comments made by John Howard in a 1996 lecture, soon after he had been elected Prime Minister.

Mr Howard asserted that “the ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.”

Howard continued, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. … But … our priority should … [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.”

The transcript of the lecture is at https://web.archive.org/web/20110727080235/http://www.menzieslecture.org/1996.html

This Prime-Ministerial advocacy added fuel to the fire raging in the debate. It was countered by the patient work of Henry Reynolds in advocating honesty in the public discourse about “The Frontier Wars”, a term which has come into popular usage to describe the series of aggressive engagements and terrible massacres that took place from early in the years of British colonisation, through into the 20th century.

Respect the Past—Believe in the Future was a fine and suitable theme to highlight in 2006. The theme for the following year built on this with its reference to Looking Forward, Looking Blak.

50 years of NAIDOC WEEK 4 (1991–1997)

Today, 3 June, we remember the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided by the Australian High Court. The court effectively recognised the existence of Native Title rights and rejected the concept of terra nullius, which claimed Australia was a land belonging to no-one prior to British occupation. The judgement opened the way for the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/native-title

This decision of the High Court was one of the highlights in the area of indigenous affairs during the period that Paul Keating led the federal government. The Mabo case was decided just six months after Keating had become Prime Minister (in December 1991).

The other highlight was the powerful speech that Keating delivered a year later, in December 1992, which is known as the Redfern Speech. In this speech, Keating acknowledged the role played in destroying the culture of the First Peoples by those who invaded and colonised the continent in the early decades of British settlement.

Paul Keating delivers the Redfern Speech in December 1992

“The problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians”, he declared. “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/paul-keatings-redfern-speech

It was a searing recognition of the multitude of ways in which white Australian society had impacted the long-established cultures of the First Peoples; a recognition of the complicity of white Australia in the devastation of black Australians. It was a clear step beyond anything articulated in public in previous years.

In assessing the period when the Keating Government was in power, Dr John Gardiner-Garden began by referencing Keating’s Redfern speech of December 1992, as well as “his government’s decision to set up a national inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children”. Keating “sought to encourage recognition of past injustices. In his government’s native title and land fund legislation and proposed ‘Social Justice Package’ he sought to advance the process of making amends for the disregard of Indigenous common law rights which the 1992 Mabo judgement had found to have occurred.”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

During the years that the Keating Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:

1991: Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us

1992: Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage

1993: Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity

1994: Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link

1995: Justice Not Tolerance

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In 1991, the focus on community in the theme, Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us, echoed the earlier themes that referred to community: talking together in the 1983 theme, Let’s talk—we have something to say; seeking understanding in the 1985 theme, Understanding: it takes the two of us; and working towards peace in the 1986 theme, Peace, not for you, not for me, but for all of us. The theme also had a future orientation, expressing hope for what might lie ahead for Aboriginal people: Our Future Depends On Us. That “us” clearly included white and black together, working in common in community.

The 1992 theme, Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage, looked back just a couple of years, to the 1990 theme, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage, and to the 1988 theme, Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. It also referenced the 1978 theme, Cultural Revival is Survival. All four years focussed attention on the long-exisiting culture that was maintained and passed on by indigenous peoples around the continent.

In addition, the 1992 theme included a reference to Dreaming; this is a term, somewhat contentious amongst First Nations people, which has nevertheless seen widespread acceptance and adoption in the wider Australian society. It is generally understood to be a way to refer to the collection of stories that form the foundational mythology of Aboriginal peoples.

Reconciliation Australia, on its website shareourpride.org.au, states that “it is impossible to find words that adequately capture this core element of who we are but it’s something you feel when you sit with us on our country and hear our stories with an open mind and heart.”

The website affirms that “Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as Aboriginal people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life.”

See https://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-culture/index.html

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The 1993 theme, Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity, incorporated three distinct phrases. The final phrase looked back by incorporating one phrase of the 1991 theme, Community is Unity. However, the full theme included a clear reference to the struggle that had culminated in the 1992 Mabo decision. It identified Aboriginal people as Owners of the Land Since Time Began. This was the principle underlying the High Court’s Mabo decision, and which then enabled the development of the Native Title Act of that year (1993).

Furthermore, the 1993 theme included a clear declaration that Aboriginal people had not simply been “one nation” before British invasion and settlement commenced in 1788; the reference to the plural, Aboriginal Nations, was highly strategic. It had been the custom in the 19th and 20th centuries for Aboriginal people to be described and treated as a single cultural and historical unit.

By contrast, today, two decades into the 21st century, the claim made by the 1993 theme is widely accepted and commonly spoken. British settlers have dispossessed people from well over 250 different nations right across the continent and its associated islands. The clearest example of this recognition is the map published by the government agency AIATSIS (the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

On a website explaining this map, AIATSIS explains that it “attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.”

The map presents a clear lesson in a graphic manner: there were many, many nations across the continent prior to 1788.

See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia

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The NAIDOC WEEK themes of the next two years continued to articulate core beliefs within Aboriginal culture. The 1994 theme, Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link, alluded to the 1979 theme, What about our kids?, and would provide a prophetic looking-forward to the key findings of the Bringing Them Home report issued just a few years later, in 1997.

The 1995 theme, Justice Not Tolerance, was a plea to move beyond ideas of merely tolerating indigenous people, and adopt the principles of justice that would see them treated equitably, with wrongs righted and reparations made for past errors.

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In March 1996, John Howard’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Party, was elected, and formed a government that lasted for the next 11 years. The 1996 and 1997 themes for NAIDOC WEEK continued to provide sharp insights into what was needed in Australian society, even with a more conservative government at the helm. In 1996, the theme was Survive—Revive—Come Alive.

In 1997, the theme was equally pointed, as it,celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum,

Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes the many retrograde steps taken by the new Howard Government: they “dropped the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘self-determination’, withdrew support from many of the initiatives and institutions for which these terms were the raison-d’etre and declared its new priorities to be ‘accountability’, ‘improving outcomes in key areas’ and ‘promoting economic independence’.”

He furthered noted that “Government actions such as creating a Special Auditor, reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) funding, amending the Native Title Act and perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community.”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

The three events referenced in the 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, and Wik, were pivotal moments in the advancement of Aboriginal claims in the 20th century.

The Gurindji Strike of 1966 was led by Vincent Lingiari. A protest against the Wave Hill station managers resulted in the return of some traditional lands to the Gurindji people under a lease arrangement in 1975, and later led to the granting of inalienable freehold title to this area in 1984.

In the Mabo decision of the High Court, handed down on 3 June 1992, the court recognised the land rights of the Meriam people. They were the traditional owners of some islands in the Torres Strait. Marked on the map as the Murray Islands, the Torres Strait Islanders called these islands Mer, Dauer and Waier). The case is significant because it rejected the view that at the time of colonisation, Australia was terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.

The case had initially been brought in 1982 by five indigenous people. Because Eddie Koiki Mabo was the first plaintiff in the case, it became known as the Mabo Case. In its judgement, the High Court acknowledged that “Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.” See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/mabo-case

On Eddie Mabo, see https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/eddie-koiki-mabo#toc-the-mabo-case

The Wik judgement of 1996 built on the basis of the Mabo decision. The case related to the right to hold native title in an area where there were pastoral,leases in place. By a majority of 4–3, the High Court agreed that the pastoral leases did not extinguish the native title of the Wik and Tahyorre people of Cape York.

Sadly, the remembering of these three key events during the early years of the retrogressive Howard government, strikes a note of pathos. These advances were not built on by the Howard government. In the ensuing decade, due to the intransigence of the government, things would actually go backwards.

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See also

Fifty years of NAIDOC WEEK 1 (1972–1975)

Today, 26 May, is Sorry Day in Australia. It is a day to remember the impact of past policies of forcible removal on the Stolen Generations, their families, and their communities.

The day is of particular significance to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia, but it is also an opportunity for all Australians to remember past mistakes and build stronger bridges for a richer, stronger future together.

NAIDOC WEEK is usually held during the first week in July (Sunday to Sunday), ensuring that it incorporates the second Friday of the month.

Historically, it began life as National Aborigines Day, then it became known as The Day of Mourning, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). The first Sunday in July was designated as a day of remembrance and celebration for Aboriginal people and heritage.

Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week. The first National Aborigines’ Day occurred fifty years ago, in July 1972.

Each year, a different theme was chosen to highlight this day (and, later, when it became a week, the theme covered the whole week). The early themes are striking. They reveal a clear understanding, amongst Aboriginal leadership of the time, about the needs of their peoples, and the claims on national policy that thus should be made.

The theme for the 1972 National Aborigines’ Day (organised by NADOC) was Advance Australia Where? The theme played off a line in the refrain of a 19th century song, written by Scots-born Peter Dodds McCormick; the song later became the official national anthem of Australia, in 1974.

The song, Advance Australia Fair, appears to praise the “fairness” of the Australian nation—in its time, perhaps, a reflection of the ethos of the pioneer spirit, but in our time, a direct slap in the face to the First People of the nations that had existed on the continent and its surrounding islands, for millennia.

Advance Australia Where? riffs off the words of the song and poses an important question—one that we have sadly failed to answer with any satisfaction in the ensuing decades.

In thinking about that question from five decades ago, surely it is now time to pay attention to what indigenous leaders from around the country have asked for, in the Statement from the Heart that was issued in 2017 at Uluṟu:

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination. We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

See https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement /

The theme for the 1973 National Aborigines’ Day was It’s Time for Mutual Understanding. In late 1972, the Whitlam Government came to power after 23 years of turgid conservative governments. The theme is that election was simply, It’s Time. The NAIDOC theme built on that call for change, focussing on the importance of Mutual Understanding between black and white in the country.

The Whitlam Government took this call seriously. The Whitlam Institute reports that “Whitlam’s 1972 election campaign speech was clear on the need to accord Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the rights, justice and opportunities that had been denied to them for so long.”

See https://www.whitlam.org/whitlam-legacy-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples

Whitlam committed to “legislate to give aborigines land rights – not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation”. He said Australians “ought to be angry – with an unrelenting anger – that our aborigines have the world’s highest infant mortality rate.”

The Whitlam Government adopted a policy of ‘self determination’, relinquishing the paternalistic control that previous governments had exercised over the lives of Australia’s First Nations Peoples. In 1972 the Whitlam Government created the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1973 they established a Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights. There was a significant increase in expenditure and programme planning in Indigenous Affairs during the years of 1972–75.

After the Whitlam Labor Government, the conservative Fraser Government continued many (but not all) of these reforms. Sadly, in the years since the 1970s, this momentum has stalled. It’s surely time, once more, to renew our mutual understanding and to commit to stronger actions to bring justice to our First Nations.

A ceremony to officially hand back traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people took place on August 16th, 1975 at Daguragu.
Prime Minister Whitlam made a short speech, took some sand, and poured it into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, the leader of the protest movement.

Whitlam’s gesture of pouring sand into Lingiari’s hands in 1975 was intended to symbolically reverse a similar act in 1834, when John Batman, the founder of Melbourne claimed land in that area from its indigenous people, and an Aboriginal elder had poured earth from his land into Batman’s hands. The image of this moment (above) remains as one of the key moments in 20th century Australian history.

The theme for the 1974 National Aborigines’ Day was Self Determination. This was a matter that was a lively concern at the time.

The Indigenous website, Creative Spirits, notes that “the first expression of Aboriginal self-determination is usually said to be in 1972 when the Whitlam government abolished the White Australia Policy and introduced a policy of self-determination.” This means that the 1974 theme was reflecting changes in government policy, as well as the hopes of the Aboriginal community.

Creative Spirits also notes that “50 years before [the Whitlam Government changes] Aboriginal activists already lobbied for self-determination when they formed the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in April 1925.” The AAPA had drawn inspiration from earlier activity by African Americans (what was then called the Universal Negro Improvement Association).

Self-determination reflects an intention for Aboriginal people to organise themselves and make their own decisions about their lives, in their own culturally-appropriate ways. See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/what-is-self-determination

Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines three key elements that describe what Self-determination involves:

“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

Creative Spirits observes that “Self-governance allows Aboriginal people to talk about their interests and goals, exercise their rights and responsibilities, and resolve their differences in a culturally appropriate way. It also means that Aboriginal people can do this free of discrimination from individuals, governments or external stakeholders.”

Back in 1925, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association had sought the following: 40 acres of land to be granted to each and every Aboriginal family in Australia; an end to the policy of child removal from their families by the Aboriginal Protection Board; replacing the Aboriginal Protection Board by an all-Aboriginal body to oversee Aboriginal affairs; citizenship for Aboriginal people within their own country; a Royal Commission into Aboriginal affairs; the federal government to take control of Aboriginal affairs; and the right to protect a strong Aboriginal cultural identity.

Some of those demands were subsequently granted—and later still withdrawn. Some remain as matters that still have a claim on our national life. How might we respond today?

In 1975, the day organised by NADOC became a whole week, organised by a committee that included Torres Strait Islanders alongside Aboriginal leaders (NAIDOC). The theme for the 1975 NADOC Week was Justice for Urban Aboriginal Children. The week was built around the first Sunday in July, which was maintained as a day of remembrance and celebration for Aboriginal people and heritage.

This theme clearly identified an issue that was a major concern within indigenous communities. The long history of removing Aboriginal children from their homes, families, and communities, was here identified in the public arena. It would become a strong focus in national public life with the establishment in August 1995 of an enquiry into this matter by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

The Commission delivered its report, Bringing Them Home, in 1997, and provided a detailed series of recommendations to address this terrible policy. The 1975 theme was thus (in one way) “ahead of its time”, foreshadowing a critical public discussion; although, in truth, the need for this theme and for such an enquiry would have been well known to indigenous communities decades earlier.

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See also

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 50 years

On 26 January 1972, four Aboriginal men—Billie Craigie, Michael Anderson, Bertie Williams, and Tony Coorey—set up a beach umbrella on the lawns opposite the Parliament House in Canberra. The men were protesting the resistance that the conservative Liberal-Country Party federal government were exhibiting towards granting land rights to Aboriginal people.

Even though Aboriginal people had lived on the land of the continent of Australia for millennia, they had no rights to land in most places across the continent. The British Invasion of Port Jackson in 1788, some years after Lt James Cook had imperiously claimed the land of New Holland for the British Crown in 1770, led to expanding colonisation of the land over the ensuing decades. Each new colonial settlement was associated with battles between the local indigenous people and the invading British. Massacres resulted in almost every location.

The men sitting under the umbrella in Canberra in 1972 described it as the Aboriginal Embassy, alluding to the fact that the city of Canberra was home to scores of embassies from the governments of overseas nations. Indeed, the city had been established early in the 20th century with the guarantee that those nations could have a piece of territory in the new capital city where their diplomatic staff could live and work.

By the late 1970s, seventy nations had embassies in Canberra (see https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/115002/2/b11766608.pdf), but there was no formal channel for relationships with the First Peoples of Australia. Somewhere around 400 groupings of Aboriginal people were believed to have lived across the continent and on the surrounding islands, including the Torres Strait Islands, with at least 250 languages being spoken.

But decades of British colonisation had seen the indigenous people marginalised from “mainstream” white Australian society. Numbers declined, living conditions deteriorated, especially in towns and cities, and racist attitudes towards “the blacks” predominated. Of those 250 languages, less than a half had continued into the 20th century, and many of those continuing languages were in peril of dying out completely.

Aboriginal leadership had been agitating for their people for some time. The YES vote at the 1967 referendum augured well, it seemed. Yet the Prime Minister of the day (and arguably one of Australia’s worst leaders), William McMahon, and his conservative government colleagues exemplified the cultural arrogance and racism that held sway across the nation at that time.

The National Museum of Australia reports that “On the eve of Australia Day 1972, the McMahon government announced the implementation of a new system that rejected granting independent ownership of traditional land to Indigenous people in favour of 50-year general purpose leases for Indigenous communities, provided they could demonstrate a social and economic use for the land and excluding any mineral and forest rights.

“After the ongoing disappointments of the land rights struggle, this announcement sparked action among many Indigenous groups and directly contributed to the founding of the Tent Embassy.” (see https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/aboriginal-tent-embassy) The time was ripe for Aboriginal leaders to step up and speak out on behalf of their peoples.

The initial demands of the group which established the Tent Embassy read today as a sensible set of actions which, although achieved in part, are sadly yet to be completely fulfilled. Those demands included:

• Complete rights to the Northern Territory as a state within Australia and the installation of a primarily Aboriginal State Parliament. These rights would include all mining rights to the land

• Ownership and mining rights of all other Aboriginal reserve lands in Australia

• The preservation of all sacred sites in Australia

• Ownership of areas in major cities, including the mining rights

• Compensation for lands that were not able to be returned starting with $6 billion and including a percentage of the gross national income every year.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/aboriginal-tent-embassy-canberra

In the ensuing years, there have been legal challenges, removal of the embassy, reinstitution of the embassy, arson attacks, moves to other sites in Canberra, and eventually, the registration of the embassy site with the Australian Heritage Commission as a part of the National Estate.

The Embassy has been maintained continuously since 1972 by First People leaders, and this month the 50th anniversary is being celebrated. (The recent incident at the front of Old Parliament House was not associated in any way with the Tent Embassy, nor with any responsible Aboriginal leadership.)

Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Director of The Centre for Global Indigenous Futures, Macquarie University, writes that “Nowhere else in the world have we seen such longevity around a site of protest. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is an impressive achievement that demonstrates the tenacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our continued fight for the reclamation of our lands and sovereign rights as First Nations peoples.” (see https://theconversation.com/a-short-history-of-the-aboriginal-tent-embassy-an-indelible-reminder-of-unceded-sovereignty-174693)

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

*****

Working with First Peoples and advocating for them

I recently participated in a workshop on Advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, in the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, we explored what we know about the history and current situation of First Peoples. In the second part, we considered what actions we might take to work with and advocate for First Peoples.

What do we know?

In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First Peoples of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.

The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the Truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.

First, there is the story—now becoming well-known and widespread— of the impact on First Peoples from the invasion and colonization that took place from 1788 onwards. (I use these terms deliberately; describing the British colony as a settlement is far too benign; it ignores much of the harsh reality of what took place.)

The period of invasion and colonisation saw innumerable massacres take place. As well as the thousands of Aboriginal deaths that occurred through these massacres, British invasion also led to the deliberate marginalising of people in many of the Aboriginal nations that existed at that time.

There is a powerful visual symbol of these massacres at The killing times: a massacre map of Australia’s frontier wars | Australia news | The Guardian

The map is interactive. The number of massacres that were perpetrated by ordinary people—not soldiers, not government officials—is truly horrifying.

Associated with this is an observation that provides a second area worthy of note. It is the case that virtually no white persons were charged for the acts of violence and murder that they perpetrated. (The Myall Creek Massacre provides one of the rare exceptions to this claim. See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/myall-creek-massacre-1838)

Third, Nathan referred to the rationale that was driving both the colonisation of the continent and the massacre of First Peoples—the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated in medieval times and driving the expansionary colonisation policies of many European nations, including Britain. It was this Doctrine which formed the foundation of the claim of terra nullius—the notion that the there were no people in the land who were settled in the land.

The Uniting Church in Australia has joined with other churches around the world in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

Fourth, Nathan noted the issue of the Stole Generations, a blight on the history of Australia since the nineteenth century. This matter was addressed in Bringing Them Home, a highly important report issued in 1997. The commission that produced this report was led by Sir Ron Wilson, a High Court judge who had served as UCA Moderator in Western Australia and then as the fifth national President (1988–1991).

See https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-social-justice/publications/bringing-them-home

The continuing saga of Aboriginal children being taken from their homes remains with us today, to our national shame. Even in the 21st century, indigenous children continue to be taken from their families. In fact, there are far more Aboriginal children in out-or-home care now, than there were in 1997 when the Bringing Them Home report exposed countless stories of terror and tragedy amongst the Stolen Generations.

The final area canvassed in the first part of the workshop focussed on the theme of Voice. Treaty. Truth. This was the theme for NAIDOC Week 2019. It consists of a call to give Voice to the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a representative body to advise federal law makers; to establish a Treaty with each of the nations that were in the land before the British sent their invading colonisers; and to tell Truth about the history and the present situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

Nathan encouraged all of the workshop participants to learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, and their aspirations, and to approach First Peoples with an open mind and with a compassionate heart.

What can be done?

In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:

Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it

Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism

Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First People’s (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples, eg those advertised by FISTT (Fighting In Solidarity Towards Treaties, a Facebook group)

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local organisation

Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives

Make your church space available for use by Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)

There are plenty of practical suggestions in this list. It is worth the effort to start implementing some of them!

Heal Country: the heart of the Gospel (for NAIDOC WEEK 2021)

This week is NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021).

NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week (Sunday to Sunday) of July that incorporates the second Friday. Historically, it began life as ‘National Aborigines Day’, then it became known as ‘The Day of Mourning’, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week.

Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. Two years ago, inspired by the Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth.

In that same year, the NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church adopted a proposal to lobby the commonwealth government to establish a Makarratta Commission and to advocate with state governments that they make treaties with the indigenous peoples of their region.

In the Uniting Church, as we have drawn on the voices of Indigenous peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. The commission and these treaties would have Voice to the First Peoples, ensuring that their Truth was known.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/what-synod-support-for-the-statement-from-the-heart-means/

The next year, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, was the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. (It was held later in the year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

This theme recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.

In the Uniting Church, the National Assembly adopted a proposal in 2018 that affirmed “that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land.” The proposal noted “the Statement from the Heart’s acknowledgment that sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”. Connection to country is deeply important, profoundly spiritual, amongst all of the First Peoples of this land.

We have continued to strengthen the covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) and we have worked hard to give priority to the Voice of First Peoples in our church. See https://uniting.church/sovereignty/

This year, the theme is Heal Country.

This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19).

That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3). Such a vision is offered in a highly imaginative, and much more detailed way, in the final book of scripture, where “a new heaven and an new earth” is described (Rev 21:1–2, 21:9–22:5, drawing on the vision of Isa 65:17–25).

These visions are built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31; so also Neh 9:6; Psalm 104:24–25; Job 26:7—14), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15; and see the laws that command respect for the land, such as Lev 18:26, 28; 25:23–24; Num 35:33–34; Deut 20:19).

Further to that, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17). The eschatological view of scripture is that God will “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at the time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) or bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).

So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle.

The theme of Heal Country is important for the life of the whole of Australia at this moment in time. It is also a theme that draws deeply from the scriptural witness. It is a theme that people of faith should embrace, proclaim, and live with all our being—this week, this year, and on into the future.

*****

A whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment.

Many local churches of various denominations have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

There is a prayer for Healing Country at https://www.commongrace.org.au/healingcountry_prayer

The Roman Catholic Church has been guided by the papal document Laudato si’, which provides an extensive exploration of environmental issues from a faith perspective. I’ve posted a series of reflections on this important statement at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (3)

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (4)