The new voice of Indigenous Australia

In Australia, the debate on Indigenous Peoples issues takes two forms: silence or romanticisation.

4 Uluru Convention delegates
Uluru Convention delegates Irene Peachey, Jackie Huggins (National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples), Irene Davies and Commissioner June Oscar. (c) Australian Human Rights Commission)

I’m constantly drawn to the similarities between the history of Indigenous People in Canada and Australia. In both places, settlers stole their land and tried to wipe out their cultures, mainly by taking children from their parents with an aim to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. (The approach was shockingly similar in the US also).

The newcomers failed however, and today Indigenous People in both Canada and Australia are becoming more powerful, as their populations grow, become better educated and politically active. This has led to reconciliation movements in both places. In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has finished its work and now, as they say, the hard work begins.

In Australia, the First Nations National Constitutional Convention (or Uluru Convention) met earlier this year. It “called for the creation of a constitutionally enshrined voice for Indigenous peoples and a commission both to supervise ‘agreement-making’ between the government and Indigenous peoples and to enable ‘truth-telling’ about the past,” writes op-ed contributor Kenan Malik in the New York Times.

Malik raises the important point that delegates to the Convention were invited by the government and were not chosen by Indigenous People themselves, an approach that could easily lead to Australia’s initiative being dismissed as unrepresentative of the very people it is meant to be empowering.

In Canada, the inquiry established to look into the over-representation of indigenous women among female victims of violent crime has foundered in its first year. One commissioner has resigned and the remaining members have decided to ask for an extension of the body, whose mandate expires in August 2018. There have been calls for the inquiry to be dissolved and its mandate given to Indigenous People themselves.

Malik suggests that, in Australia, the debate on Indigenous Peoples issues takes two forms: silence or romanticisation. To support his first point, he points to the now customary practice of starting any public event by acknowledging Indigenous ownership – which happens in Canada also.

However, I disagree with his second point. He contends that the common claim that Indigenous People have a “special attachment to the land and a unique form of ecological wisdom” is the flip side of the historical argument that they are primitives who cannot adapt in the modern world. He calls it a “reworking of the ‘noble savage’ myth.”

In my experience, Indigenous Peoples are – in general, certainly not every individual or group – closer to the land. Some, especially in the Third World, still make their livelihoods primarily from the natural world, many others feel a spiritual bond to it. As is being constantly pointed out, knowledge of the environment that many Indigenous Peoples possess could be an important asset in helping the world understand, and adapt to, climate change.

That said, there’s no doubt that the voices of Indigenous Peoples are gaining strength in many parts of the world (not to ignore that they are still being viciously silenced in others). I expect that trend to continue.

What do you think?


Author: Marty Logan

I am a husband and father communicating to change the world. I write, edit and podcast, mostly about health and human rights. Canada and Nepal.

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