Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Australia Day, Survival Day – Two Worldviews

When I saw this article in the Guardian recently and the comments that accompanied it, I felt compelled to respond.  The article is written by an Aboriginal woman, Kelly Briggs who is expressing her fear that her children could be taken away with the announcement that the Government will employ ‘truancy officers’ in remote Aboriginal communities.

I don’t intend to respond to the latest Government policy, but what I do want to respond to is the lack of understanding that persists in Australia around the very real experience of Aboriginal Australian’s.  It seems apt to discuss this issue as we begin to plan our holidays and celebrations for Australia Day on 26 January. Many indigenous people of Australia refer to Australia Day as Invasion Day or Survival Day,thus reflecting the events in 1788 when the first fleet of Europeans arrived in Australia and committed genocide against Aboriginal peoples.
We cannot forget in Australia that Europeans came here as colonisers and so began the role of Europeans as oppressors for indigenous people. Carlos Condori notes that, “Colonial society is violent by nature in that its political base is war and devastation in order to plunder land and other resources.” ((Condori, C. (2010) The Path of Decolonisation (in) Chomsky, Noam and Voices from North, South and Central America. Meyer, L. and Alvarado, B., (Eds.), New World of Indigenous Resistance. City Light Books, San Fransisco, p.285))

With the discovery of new lands such as Australia came the subjugation of indigenous peoples that inhabited the land and eventual colonisation in the case of Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand amongst other states. At Federation in 1901, the Australian constitution was enacted which did not recognise or in fact even mention indigenous Australians. In the 1930s and 1960s, Aboriginal people in Australia who were traditionally nomadic were ‘settled’ or assimilated into stationary communities on missions, settlements and large towns in the Northern Territory (NT). ((Marland, S., (2012) The need for homelands: Living on traditional, ancestral lands is critical for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Australian Quarterly Vol. 83, No. 3, July-Sep 2012, p.16))

Assimilation policies at this time were argued for by the left, as a way to provide ‘equal rights’ to indigenous peoples. These policies were considered progressive at the time and there was little concern or consideration for the impacts of these policies on traditional culture. ((Sutton, P. (2009) The Politics of Suffering – Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne University Press p.16.)) The damage inflicted upon Aboriginal peoples in Australia through the assimilation policies of this era however cannot be understated. Indigenous culture and knowledge was dismissed as being useless and instead there was a process of conformity to the new world order. Condori speaking in relation to indigenous resistance in the Americas makes the point that, “Indigenist policies of assimilation were denounced as another form of genocide.” ((Condori, C. (2010) op. cit., p.287)) This was certainly the case in Australia, as Aboriginal culture and language were suppressed.

Problems and conflict ensued with assimilation due to the close proximity of different clans, family and language groups. As a result, Aboriginal peoples decided to move back to their homelands in the late 1960s, a move that was referred to as the Aboriginal Homelands Movement. ((Marland, S. (2012) op. cit., p.17)) What was reflected in this movement was a connection to ‘home’ – the land where their ancestors were from and where the dreamtime stories continue to live as part of the landscape. Marland, when discussing the homelands movement describes how,

“It is not a rejection of modernity but an attempt by Aboriginal Peoples to embrace the benefits of citizenship rights, on their own terms, within their own value systems and own worldviews.” ((Ibid.))

This is an important point and one which many people do not recognise. Aboriginal peoples in Australia have a lived experience of inferiority, oppression and subjugation at the hands of the state. The fact that children were taken from their families by the authorities on the false premise of neglect or to create a ‘better life’ for the child is a scar that runs deep. I cannot even begin to imagine how painful this must have been and the fear of history repeating as Briggs describes in the article is understandable.

A more recent development that affects Aboriginal people in remote communities of the NT is the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) introduced in 2007. The NTER or ‘Intervention’ as it is widely known was a top down response to a report on child abuse in Aboriginal communities, Little Children are Sacred. The move saw measures implemented in remote Aboriginal communities of the NT such as, the supply of additional police to communities, health checks for Aboriginal children, restrictions on alcohol and pornography, acquisition of townships through five year leases, the removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from criminal cases, and the quarantining of a proportion of welfare benefits to all recipients in the communities. ((Sutton, P. (2009) op. cit., p.8)) As noted by Sutton, there was divided opinion amongst Aboriginal people to the intervention. ((Ibid.))
In August 2009, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya visited communities in and around Alice Springs to discuss the Intervention. He notes in the Addendum on the Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Australia that,
“Of particular concern is the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which in several aspects, limits the capacity of indigenous individuals and communities to control or participate in decisions affecting their own lives, doing so in a way that discriminates on the basis of race, thereby raising serious human rights concerns.” ((United Nations, Anaya, J. (2010) Report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people – Situation of indigenous peoples in Australia p.2))
Anaya notes in his report from visiting various communities, the expression by numerous indigenous women affected by the Intervention of their “deepening sense of indignity and stigmatisation that is brought about by the entire scheme.” ((Ibid, p.31)) Part of the stigmatisation of the Intervention included the erection of very large warning signs outside remote Aboriginal communities in the NT stating that alcohol and pornography were banned. Few can dispute the discriminatory nature of these signs.

Anaya’s report states that improvements in accessing food and safety for women and children had been reported by the Government, presumably due to the quarantining of welfare payments which prevented the purchasing of alcohol. However, there was no evidence to suggest that the discriminatory and ‘rights impairing’ nature of the Intervention has been necessary. ((Ibid, p.32)) It should also be pointed out, that in order to implement the Intervention, the Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. However, this has since been reinstated, albeit with amendments that fail to end the racially targeted aspects of the Intervention.

The oppression of Aboriginal peoples in Australia is not unique, although it has been sustained and continues to this day. The Intervention was particularly brutal in further eliciting an opinion of indigenous peoples in Australia as being inferior. Indigenous views on the Intervention vary however it appears that the consensus on the discriminatory nature of the Intervention holds. Other ways in which indigenous people are oppressed is through the labels that are applied to indigenous knowledge and worldviews, such as backwardness which is synonymous with the oppression of indigenous peoples globally.

I have provided some context and history in this article to make the point that unless you have the lived experience of an Aboriginal person in this country, please do not judge. The point that Kelly Briggs makes is a very important one that needs to be heard and respected. Aboriginal people have a history in this country: A history and a worldview that prior to colonisation did not include genocide, oppression, shaming and the taking away of children at the hands of what has been and continues to be a dominant power. The continued oppression of Aboriginal peoples is not only historical, something that happened in the past, it continues to the present day in the form of the Intervention, deaths in custody and in policies that suggest Aboriginal peoples are second class citizens that cannot be trusted.

Personally, this Australia day I wish to celebrate the survival of Aboriginal peoples in this country and I truly hope that more people begin to understand the gifts, knowledge and collective wisdom that indigenous peoples all over the world have to teach us.


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