Sunday, January 17, 2010

Indigenous Peoples: 222 years of struggle for Australia's Aboriginals

Peter Robson
Green Left Online
222 years of Aboriginal struggle

“Two hundred years [ago], we had all the country out there, we had freedom to move, freedom of access to all our sites”, Aboriginal leader Richard Downs told Green Left Weekly on January 4.

“Then we were herded into missions and our movements restricted across this land. Today the government is taking our last little patch of freedom and imposing their will on us.

“With the intervention, anger, frustration and resentment [is] building. Aboriginal people are saying we have to come together and not be divided. And we said enough is enough. We’ve got to make a stand somewhere, so we walked off.”

Downs is the spokesperson for the Ampilatwatja walk-off — a protest by the Alywarr people in a remote Northern Territory community against recent government policies that discriminate against and disempower Aboriginal people in the NT. The walk-off is part of a long history of Aboriginal resistance to dispossession and oppression — a history that began on January 26, 1788.

For Aboriginal people, January 26 marks the day when the genocide against them began.

From the outset, there was a dramatic drop in the Aboriginal population, caused initially by deaths due to diseases that they had never encountered before.

Some historians, such as Professor Noel Butlin, say disease may have been spread deliberately by white colonists. The experience of Native Americans, who were given blankets laced with smallpox, attests that this was at least possible.

Colonisation then took the form of taking land. The land grab was justified by the doctrine of Terra Nullius, which said the native people of Australia were simply fauna, not owners of the land that colonists stole.

This legal fiction remained until 1992 when the High Court’s Mabo judgment finally recognised the pre-colonisation Aboriginal occupancy and ownership of the country.

However, subsequent legislation by the Keating and Howard governments ensured that Native Title was recognised in a largely toothless form, easily overturned if mining or agricultural industries demanded it.

Aboriginal people resisted the land grab in the “frontier wars”, in which thousands of Aboriginal people were killed.

The colonisers’ tactics in the fight for territory, which continued in some areas until the 1930s, included indiscriminate massacres of Aboriginals and the poisoning of waterholes.

Some historians place the Aboriginal population at between 250,000 and 750,000 people before 1788. By the beginning of the 20th century, this had fallen as low as 31,000 and took decades to recover.

That these horrors began on January 26, 1788 is why many Aboriginal leaders denounce Australia Day as Invasion Day and call for the date of Australia’s national day to be changed to one that can be celebrated by all Australians. Despite this being in line with ALP policy, the Rudd Labor government has refused to discuss any changes to the date of Australia Day.

“To our Indigenous leaders, and those who call for a change to our national day, let me say a simple, respectful but straightforward no”, said PM Kevin Rudd on January 26, 2009.

This is not the only promise to Aboriginal people the ALP has broken. Rudd’s policy is to look like it cares about redressing Australia’s racist past while doing very little in practice.

Despite Rudd’s eloquent apology to the Stolen Generations his government has refused compensation to those thousands of Aboriginal people who were taken, or had children taken, by state authorities, too often to be raised in conditions of slavery and abuse. And, of course, it has continued the hated, and openly racist, NT intervention.

Downs told GLW about the immediate effects of the intervention.

“The situation since the start of the intervention back in 2007 has meant total disempowerment of the Indigenous people in NT. Since the intervention, consultation and partnership projects have been abandoned.

“Aboriginal people now have no right to engage with the government at any level and the government makes no attempt to consult or engage the Aboriginal organisations on any issue … This has taken us back 40 or 50 years.”

The Ampilatwatja walk-off began on July 14, when the community decided to leave the boundaries of Ampilatwatja and set up a protest camp, outside the areas compulsorily acquired by the government.

“They left in response to the intervention’s harsh control measures and the crumbling infrastructure of their community, which had resulted in raw sewage running through their streets.

“Why is the government taking this action? Well it’s all about a land grab. The mineral resources in the NT are very rich”, Downs said.

“It’s about taking away land rights under the permit system giving both the federal & state governments free access to all the land.

“This is much clearer when you look at the issuing of exploration licenses. In 2006 there were 180 exploration licences, in 2009 there [were] 400 licences.”

The walk-off plans to build an alternative to the government’s intervention. It seeks to practise Aboriginal community control and develop infrastructure, such as housing, that was promised, but not delivered, by the intervention.

It sees its action as part of a broader campaign to reclaim Aboriginal rights and resist government racism.

“We gave them the power and we let them build on that power”, said Downs. “We need to take the power back and say we put you people in to those positions.

“We need look at the justice system and how all people Black and white are treated. We need to empower Aboriginal people.”

Since January 26, 1788 Aboriginal people have resisted white colonisation and dispossession. The Ampilatwatja walk-off is simply one expression of this.

The struggle by Tasmanian Aboriginal people against the Brighton Bypass that will destroy ancient Aboriginal artifacts is another part of this movement, as are the committees against black deaths in custody, active in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. It is a movement whose time has come.

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #822 20 January 2010.

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