First Nations gathering discusses sovereignty

The national gathering took place at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Photo: Elizabeth Jarrett
November 24, 2017

I was privileged to be invited to observe a National Gathering of First Nations peoples on November 4–5 at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

Representatives from many different clan groups from a large number of First Nations across the continent attended. It was a direct response to the events at Uluru earlier in the year, with regard to Constitutional Recognition. Its initial purpose being to discuss the formalisation of a process of recognition of each tribe’s sovereignty.

There was broad agreement on many issues, which necessarily took into account proper cultural protocols in both speaking for, and deciding on, the matters at hand. 

In summary, these were the points that came from the two-day talks:

1. Sovereignty has never been ceded by the First Peoples of these lands. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

2. Constitutional Recognition is rejected as it is a document that is flawed from the outset (see 1 above) and cannot be amended.

3. Unity between each family, clan and First Nation is essential as the foundation of a new relationship with each other and with the rest of Australia, set down in treaties that honour these clear principles. In unity, each Nation will stand with every other Nation to assert and defend those rights like their own.

4. Representatives at the Gathering are to take a draft statement back to clan groups to mandate delegates for the next National Gathering early next year to work towards a series of First Nation to First Nation “treaty”-like agreements.

5. First Nations lore/law/Tjukurpa/Altjira is the essence of what it is to be here on this land.

6. This land is sacred and is defined by lines as clear as the Southern Cross and the Dreaming trails, the songlines and the ceremonies handed down to the First Peoples by their ancestors from the beginning of time.

7. Women are sacred, the givers of life and along with the men, they make the law.

8. The sanctity of families must be honoured and the children will not be stolen.

9. All First Nations Peoples have the right to practice their own religion, to obey Turintjamia (commandments), the right to speak and educate their children in their languages and the right to live in their culture.

10. The land is our mother. It must not be harmed and must be protected at all costs. All First Nations have the right to their lands, skies, waters, plants and seas with the resources that nurture us all.

11. Future decisions by delegates must seek to find words and meanings for their aims that are not those of the coloniser. As many Nations’ languages have been decimated or completely destroyed by the invaders, this task will be difficult, but it is essential to give true meaning to the Law.

12. Black deaths in custody, over-imprisonment and high suicide rates of First Nations Peoples in this land must stop. Further talks will be held on the establishment of a Genocide Tribunal and Law Council with this aim in sight and with the aim of holding the perpetrators of genocide to account.

What did I learn, as a lawyer and as an ally, from this gathering?

Probably many things I already knew were reinforced. I learned that white people speak too much and does not listen enough. That our sense of superiority is so deeply ingrained, even allies fall into the error of white exceptionalism or the need to become the next white saviour.

I learned that there are complex laws relating to speaking rights and decision making, which are still respected and put into practice by First Nations peoples today. From that I learned there is a reason why the First People are still here, the oldest surviving civilisation in the world. They are here despite us, not because of us.

This land is their land, and until we understand that, and enshrine it as a right, I do not see how this country can move forward. The country we call Australia has been founded on theft, genocide, rape and slavery. It is a legacy that continues today, although in the more insidious forms of land dispossession, high arrest, charge and incarceration rates, poor health services, huge poverty rates and the taking of Black children by family services.

Above all, I learned that this modern genocide will not be stopped, in a practical sense, by “recognising” First Nations Peoples in a document (the Australian Constitution) that is legally flawed from the start.

Perhaps it is time that we asked Them to “recognise” Us?

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