Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman Lidia Thorpe is a life-long Indigenous activist who, among other things, helped lead the successful campaign to save Nowa Nowa Gorge in East Gippsland. She also recently served as a Victorian Greens MLA representing the state seat of Northcote.
In the lead up to Invasion Day, Thorpe spoke with 3CR’s Green Left Radio presenter Jacob Andrewartha. Below is an abridged version of the interview.
With Invasion Day once again approaching, what are some of the key issues affecting Aboriginal people today?
We have never ceded sovereignty of our land, that’s the biggest issue right now and has been for over 200 years.
The question of sovereignty is one of this nation’s biggest issues and until we acknowledge the original sovereigns of this country, we cannot truly go forward.
Despite the undeclared war that has been waged on our people since invasion, we’ve survived genocide, we’ve survived assimilation. But it’s still on-going.
You can see it in the incarceration rates for our people, in the removal of our children and in the ecocide of our country. I think these are the three biggest issues that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
What do the January 26 celebrations mean to you as an Indigenous person?
I think it’s a huge insult. Any country that celebrates a day where massacres occurred is disrespecting every First Nations person in that country.
For us, January 26 is a day of mourning, where we reflect on what’s happened to our people, our culture, for the past 230 years. January 26 marks invasion; it’s not a day of celebration.
We can’t celebrate on that day, but we also can’t celebrate on any other day until we have peace in this country. Changing the date is not the answer — it won’t work.
All peoples of this country want to know the true history of this country and we need to start telling it.
January 26 is an opportunity to tell that story. It’s a day of mourning, it’s a day of justice and it’s a day of opportunity to tell the truth about our country.
If we are going have a day to celebrate, we need to stop the injustices that are happening towards our people first.
What can you tell us about the on-going campaign against child removals?
Grandmothers Against Removals is a group that was started in New South Wales and it has had quite a remarkable impact on removal rates.
Rates of removals have dropped quite dramatically because these Aboriginal grandmothers were part of the conversation. These grandmothers know who in their family can take these children and maintain their connection and identity with their families and communities.
I was part of setting up Grandmothers Against Removals in Victoria. We are getting up to 35 elders coming to meetings with painful, traumatic stories of their grandchildren being taken away and how the system is not supporting families to get these children back.
I’ve heard stories from ex-child protection workers about children who are placed with non-Aboriginal families and who are in great harm. They’ve being completely disconnected from their Aboriginality and their community.
The legislation we have in place isn’t being followed by any of the institutions that are taking our children away and nobody is questioning this. We have over 2000 children in out-of-home care today and this number continues to rise. This has to stop.
It’s genocide to remove children from culture, family and their land.
These children are growing up with no identity. When these children grow up to be teenagers, adults, they face an identity crisis. It’s part of a strategy to wipe out the very essence of who we are as people.
We also need to change certain legislation. For example, currently, if a child is in out-of-home care for two years then that family or those carers can adopt that child. Once the child is adopted they are gone forever.
Legislative changes need to occur but these grandmothers don’t have legal representation.
We are on a journey to ramp up our campaign and to share our stories widely on what’s actually happening with child removals.
What are your thoughts on the connection between Indigenous sovereignty and climate justice?
It’s all one and the same — Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture is the land, is the people. We are no different to the land; it’s all one.
We have a holistic approach towards caring for country. To continue our culture we need to care for our country.
The environment movement in particular doesn’t see that. The environment movement for far too long has campaigned to save trees, to stop burning coal, but it has never really connected with the sovereigns of those countries.
Where they have there has been very good results. Where sovereign people of that country are leading the fight and the green movement supports that fight and works with the sovereigns, in a true partnership in which we consolidate our knowledge, efforts and campaigns, we actually save country.
One of the priorities I had as a Greens MP was to bring the green movement in with our movement to work together to start saving our planet before it’s too late.
With the Great National Forest Park, for example, we need to stop logging. But nobody ever talks to Blackfellas about what was happening. When we brought the clans to their country to look at the devastation it changed everything.
Now we have a movement that will continue to work together to save Toolangi but in a way that is respectful to sovereign connections to that part of the country.
The challenge is for greenies and environmentalists to ensure that sovereigns are at the table, participating in these campaigns.
We are struggling to survive in our daily lives; we are struggling to keep our children at home and our people out of prison. If we didn’t have to fight for basic survival every day we would be out there blockading and saving our country.
Whitefellas need to understand that there are a whole lot of campaigns out there that you need to support us on so that we can be strong enough to protect our country at the same time.
Aboriginal people know how to heal this land and people need to understand that, respect that and take it on.
What is your vision of achieving sovereignty and true justice for Indigenous people?
We have sovereignty and we have never, nor will we ever, cede our sovereignty.
Not everyone agrees but I think a true peace treaty could achieve true justice, starting with a truth and justice commission to look at past wrongs and hold governments to account.
For any treaty process to work they must stop removing our children, they must stop incarcerating our people at current rates, they must stop the ecocide, and they must start negotiating the return of the wealth stolen from us over more than 200 years.
We don’t want handouts, we want to be in control of our own destiny. But to do that we need some of the wealth accumulated since invasion to be able to decide our own future.
We need whitefellas to support that process.
We need whitefellas to understand that they are living on stolen land and that they are beneficiaries of stolen wealth. I know there are a lot of people who are starting to wake up in this country and getting on board.
Once we achieve this, we can look forward to a brighter future.
We need governments to stop pushing policies and legislative processes, such as constitutional recognition, that are dividing our people.
We don’t want constitutional recognition because we haven’t reached an agreement to settle in this country.
The constitution is a legal document that has being forced upon our people. We never agreed to the constitution, it was written by a group of old white fellas that never had the best interests of Aboriginal people in their mind when putting it together.
So why would we want to participate in it, or go into that document without having a treaty first?