On February 9, members of the National Freedom Movement gathered on the lawns at Parliament House in Canberra to present the Australian minister for Indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion, with the Aboriginal Sovereign Manifesto of Demands. This document calls for negotiations between the Commonwealth government and Indigenous nations across the country to set out a framework for what’s known as “decolonization.”
The National Freedom Movement was born out of the Freedom Summit that took place in Alice Springs last November. The summit saw a delegation of Aboriginal leaders from around the nation meeting to declare the independence of Australia’s First Peoples and address the growing disparities they face. These include increasing levels of incarceration and suicide, the continuing forced removals of children from their families, and the Western Australian government’s intentions to close down up to 150 remote Indigenous communities.
On January 26, the delegates along with 500 supporters converged on Old Parliament House in Canberra to stage a sit-in, protesting the occupation of their land for the last 227 years. When they returned on the day federal parliament reopened to present the manifesto, politicians from both sides of government met with the leaders to discuss their grievances.
The National Freedom Movement is not alone in demanding decolonization. Other Indigenous movements, such as the youth group Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, are also calling for an end to the colonization of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
So just what would the decolonization of Indigenous Australia entail?
The Aboriginal Sovereign Manifesto is built around the 1992 High Court Mabo decision which recognized that Aboriginal land title survived British settlement, when it agreed with a ruling from a 1888 British Privy Council case.
Based on this, the manifesto calls for the Commonwealth of Australia to undertake a series of treaties with all Indigenous nations—a process that would require Australia to become an independent federated republic. These nations would then become self-governing territories within the republic. And a new constitution would be drafted, which would incorporate Aboriginal law as part of the legal system.
“Decolonization is about giving the people the freedom to exercise their right of self-determination. It’s about taking ownership of our issues and affairs and developing an economic base that we control and own,” Ghillar Michael Anderson, leader of the Euahlayi people, said. “In this country Aboriginal people are not allowed to control our own economics because governments have ownership over everything.”
Anderson, a co-founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, wrote the manifesto. He believes that the new constitution would put Aboriginal people in a position to start asserting their self-determination, but this can’t happen if the government keeps “destroying our population.”
“Out in the bush, you see hundreds of people dying. We’re losing a generation in the group between 12 and 18, because of drug use, as well as hopelessness and despair. The suicide rate is endemic in this country right now amongst Aboriginal kids,” Anderson said. “We’re saying that the government is killing our people.”
Included in the manifesto are demands for a share of all revenue raised from the exploitation of natural resources, a moratorium on the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, and reinstating classes taught in the original language of each nation.
These demands have been made by members the older generation. But are the voices of Indigenous youth movements fighting for the same thing? According to Meriki Onus, a representative of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, they are chasing the same ideals, just somewhat differently. She supports the call for negotiated treaties and the establishment of autonomous Indigenous nations. But she ultimately sees this as based on the colonizer’s laws and questions how this would affect people on an individual level.
“I think it’s deeper than political,” she said. “In a practical sense we need to go back to a time when things really did work for us. We need Aboriginal self-determination. Our freedom will never be found within the Australian legal system.”
Decolonization can be undertaken on a personal level through everyday acts, Onus explained. She lists such ways as being conscious of diet and the clothes that are worn, as well as an awareness of where money is spent and what it’s contributing to. She believes an important part of the decolonization process is not exposing oneself to corporate media.
“And also reviving your language, going back to country, learning your creation stories and forming a relationship with your people,” she added.
Onus, a Gunnai and Gunditjmara woman, travelled to Canada last year to visit local Indigenous communities. She warned that although treaties have been established there, these communities are still facing high suicide and imprisonment rates.
Controversy marked her return to Australia when the group she travelled with re-entered the country using Aboriginal passports instead of Australian ones, an act Onus sees as “liberating our lives from colonial control.”
For Terry Mason, senior lecturer at the Badanami Centre at the University of Western Sydney, decolonization is linked to the concepts of sovereignty and treaty. He envisages an Australia where there are multiple treaties which allow “Aboriginal people to be able to respond in a modern world in a way that reflects their cultural and social continuum.” Treaties would reflect the circumstances of different nations. Those in the outback may be able to get their land and resources back, while those on the coast may not.
Mason, an Awabakal man, said decolonization relies on self-determination, which allows people to have the ability to imagine their own future. But in Australia there’s been an internal colonization of sorts. “If you’ve had five generations of Aboriginal people with all their decision-making rights over their lives removed, then people don’t grow up with the concept of imagining futures,” he said.
He also points out that Australia moved toward greater colonization with the Mabo decision and the establishment of native title. As land use under native title is co-managed with government bodies, Aboriginal rights are often subsumed by other stakeholders.
“In ’88, we weren’t walking down the street saying ‘native title now.’ We were marching down the street saying ‘we want land rights now,'” Mason said, highlighting that land rights result in actual Aboriginal control of the land and its resources, rather than just nominal ownership. “Land rights carry with them your spiritual, your cultural, your social links but also an economic base.”
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