Aboriginal women on why Australia needs a treaty

April 8, 2015
Aboriginal women dicuss a treaty for Australia’s first people. Photo: Mara Bonacci

More than 150 people filled the Redfern Community Centre on March 20 to discuss a treaty for Australia’s first people.

Organised by Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS), the event was hosted by veteran journalist Jeff McMullen and televised by National Indigenous TV. As coverage of female Aboriginal voices are rare among mainstream discourses, their retelling of their pasts and hopes for the future captivated the room.

Natalie Cromb, a Gamileraay woman, said that a treaty “would help the Australian government keep its word to the Aboriginal people”. She noted the ongoing debates between treaty and constitutional recognition and argued that the British colonisers fashioned three legal ways to justify their occupation: “First it was settlement, second through conquest, then third through succession — where sovereignty was ceded and agreement was reached between the parties.”

Cromb observed that Britain occupied the land, declared terra nullius and declared that Australia’s Indigenous people were an absent, fading race. “Terra nullius was deliberate and the average Australian does not know about this history of rapes, murders, and genocidal policies, and that it was also used to deny compensation,” she said.

Cromb said that a treaty “is vital to our solution. It would be a first meaningful step. A treaty is the insurance policy we need to hold the government to account. But we are still at the bottom of the social pyramid. We are having water switched off in communities. We know constitutional change won't stop the removal of our people.”

Amala Groom, a Wiradjuri woman and founding member of Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) and STICS, noted that a treaty “would recognise the sovereignty of the First Nations over their land”, and secure the right of self-determination which was promised when Australia ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 40 years ago. “I am in Team Treaty”, she said, “but I am also on Team Change. I want the best outcome for our people. There is growing incarceration, stolen generations, this government is worse than Howard, and we have to ask what good can come out of this conversation around treaty with this government?”

Groom stressed the need for Aboriginal self-governance and capacity to manage their own economic affairs. She referred to the treaty between the Sami people and the Norwegian government, passed in 1989. “Its self-determination structure is an assembly of First Nations. They service the Sami population, deal with administration, and carry out various indigenous nation building projects.”

The Indigenous Nation Building project at the University of Melbourne is researching the Sami treaty and is also comparing similar treaties between governments and indigenous peoples in former colonial states.

Brenda Croft, a Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra artist, praised the massive protests against WA community closures. “They say this is about ‘remote’ communities — but these communities are living on their ancestral land. It is we in the cities who are remote from them.”

Croft criticised the Abbott government’s axing of support services, saying: “The money for health and education in remote communities is taken out of mining royalties that have been cheated from Aboriginal accounts. This leadership in Canberra is making Blacks desperate.”

Croft said she was “sick of the sorries” given by the Kevin Rudd government without any action, and stressed a need for engagement with Aboriginal people at all levels. “I have a great worry for my nieces and nephews — for every Indigenous person," she said. "They are removing, displacing, making us homeless in this occupied land. Our people are constantly made to feel useless and helpless, as our rights are taken away.”

Finally, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks recounted the brutal history of conquest against the Aboriginal people, where various members of her own family died of deliberate flour poisoning, “and I am not 200 years old”. But, she said, “I don’t want to be angry. I want to wake up and stop saying ‘yes boss’. I have seen skeletal remains of babies who were killed — and they raped us. Lang Hancock said in 1938 we should be sterilised. But it is us who have been deemed paedophiles, and not one paedophile ring found in NT.”

Kunoth-Monks stopped her speech to unwrap her coat of arms — a hand-crafted bark shield. “I am a sovereign woman of Arrernte-Alyawarra, a fighter and warrior woman. We have lived here for more than 40,000 continuous years with a beautiful culture and the fact is I am equal to those people who settled here.

“I love any human being from every nation of this globe, and in discovering other humans we extend our humanity. By all means we access knowledge from other cultures. We do not lose identity while learning, but we are not here to be bashed, shot, then what remains to be assimilated.
“To journey together, we must recognise Blacks as equal and beautiful, and that we want our land and culture back. I believe in spirit country, in a fair-go.”

She said a “belief in humanity” is needed for treaty recognition to work, and positive changes can be achieved through people power and unity of both black and white Australians.

“I say to my First Nations, don’t wait," she said. "Assert yourselves; we are sovereign and instead of being so angry, reach out. Understand that some of these people were also brutalised. Let us travel this journey together and demand, not beg, for our land back.”

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