By Deb Sorensen
Darwin — At sunrise on July 5, a symbolic fire was lit and the ashes of the first World Indigenous Youth Conference were thrown into it. Traditional dances were performed in the light of the flames.
More than 2000 indigenous people gathered here for the second World Indigenous Youth Conference, held July 5-11 on the traditional lands of the Larrikia people.
This was an important meeting, filled with energy and determination to continue the struggle for indigenous rights. Inevitably, much of the discussion in the first days centred on Australian Aborigines, although there were representatives present of 29 peoples from around the globe.
Mabo, self-government as opposed to self-determination and sovereignty, institutionalised racism, social problems such as alcohol abuse, deaths in custody, a voice for indigenous youth, a campaign of civil disobedience and black pride were just some of the questions discussed.
Discussion was seen as a forerunner to action. There was a real sense of urgency and anticipation. Many of the delegates, of whom there were 1500, spoke of the need to get beyond discussion, to have the conference do more than just produce another set of declarations and demands.
Among the keynote speakers were long-term leaders of the Aboriginal community, including Michael Mansell and Josie Crawshaw from the Aboriginal Provisional Government; Bill Neidjie, Gagadju elder; and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, chairperson of the Northern Land Council.
Moana Jackson from the Maori Legal Service in New Zealand and Jose Ramos-Horta, representing the National Council of Maubere Resistance of East Timor, were among the international leaders who addressed the conference.
A common theme running through the speeches was a call for the young delegates to become leaders themselves. To instil this sense of responsibility and empowerment in the younger generation was clearly an aim of the conference. The official theme was "Claiming our Future: The reality of where we are and where we are going."
There was certainly determination from the delegates to continue to strengthen the struggle for indigenous rights.
James Shecapio, president of the Cree Youth Council of North America, raised in his speech the proposal for a world indigenous youth council. Shecapio was instrumental in organising the first World Indigenous Youth Conference, held in Quebec in 1992. He proposed a working group be established from this year's conference to look into setting up the council.
There were also daily workshops to look into establishing a national Aboriginal youth organisation in Australia.
In answering a question from a Maori delegate on how to forge a way ahead, Moana Jackson quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "A right is not a right until you take it". Jackson said Maori people and indigenous people the world over needed to apply this statement to their own struggles. "We need to find the best way within our culture and history to do it ourselves", he said.
Reference was made to the long and proud struggle for black and indigenous rights. Several tributes were made to Kevin Gilbert, Aboriginal poet, writer and political activist who died earlier this year. Michael Mansell, Josie Crawshaw and his daughters all cited Gilbert as a major influence on their lives and views.
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela were all talked about. There is a desire to learn from their struggles and continue their tradition.
One delegate from the Yamigee Nyoongars in Western Australia said people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi had led their entire nations, but he could see disunity amongst Australian Aborigines. "We
should march on Canberra, join as a nation and show blokes like Robert Tickner and Keating that we mean business", he told the conference.
Inaria Kaisiepo, a young woman representing the Foundation of Papuan Peoples, spoke on the theme of "Repression and Indigenous Resistance". Kaisiepo outlined the plight of her people and their determination to win against the giant mining and logging companies that exploit their land and against the occupation of West Papua by Indonesia. She also spoke of the need for international unity and solidarity with indigenous peoples.
The issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody was brought sharply into focus when Bradley Gundy addressed the conference on the shooting of his father and his family's quest for justice. David Gundy was shot dead by NSW police in his bed on the morning of April 27, 1989. Bradley was in the house at the time.
David Gundy was innocent of any crime and died because he was black. Police claimed they thought he was somebody else. Bradley said his father did not look like the wanted man, who had shot two policemen. The Gundy family has not seen justice over the shooting. Bradley vowed, "Our family will not give up the fight" and was received with an emotional standing ovation.
The question of the role of indigenous elders and a voice for the youth was taken up in a plenary discussion.
A representative from the Cree said indigenous youth must listen to the wisdom of their elders but also be true to themselves. If they feel something has to be said, and they feel it to be the truth, then it should be said. "My grandfather tells me walk tall, hold your head up high and walk proud. Walk tall but not too tall. You don't want to walk with your head in the clouds. You want to walk with the people."
On the future direction of the struggle for Aboriginal rights in this country, Josie Crawshaw said in concluding her speech to the conference, "Is our only choice to wallow in the backwaters or to sink in the mainstream? We must fight for a society based on need
without the divisions of race, sex and class. It is through this struggle for this society that we can gain the confidence to overcome our oppression."