Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On diverse views of Constitutional Recognition

This was a piece I submitted to The Age in response to an editorial they ran championing CR. As it has not run, and as I have since been quoted in other forums as well as been asked for radio interviews, I have made the decision to finally publish it here, unedited. My sole purpose for doing so is to assist in the diversification of conversation. My view is not absolute; there are plenty of others with views on this issue and the Australian public needs to be engaging with these views - CL

On Monday this week, The Age ran an editorial calling for support of the inclusion of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution. This was particularly in response to Tony Abbott's comments that Australia was not settled (quickly corrected to the equally appalling “barely settled”) before the British arrived. These comments had many in our community reeling and questioning his suitability as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs”. 

Unfortunately, his statement also illustrated views Indigenous people encounter socially every day and have been fighting to change for a very long time. In my opinion, his statement should have indicated a need to stop and listen to Indigenous voices, but this hasn't happened. Indigenous people are not a homogeneous group and our views reflect this diversity. This diversity is, in fact, reflected in the community responses to Constitutional Recognition yet to date, Australia has not seen a lot of these diverse views.

Part of the reason the discussion on Constitutional Recognition is being held is that sections of the constitution were written specifically to exclude Indigenous people. This is evident from the race power that it includes; the amendment of which has been recommended by the expert panel. Therefore, a question arising from sections of the community is this: do we wish this historical example of institutionalised racism to be rectified simply by our inclusion within the constitution, or are there other moves that we should take to ensure that we are coming to the table as respected original peoples and negotiating the way forward for this country on equal footing?

It was found by the expert panel following extensive investigation that most Australians would not support the concepts of sovereignty and treaty being included within the constitution. Whilst work has been done educating the community on how our sovereignty would not be negated by recognition, the fact that these concepts themselves are so oppositional to a great majority of Australians is of concern. If Australians take issue with these items then the argument that recognition would not negate sovereignty and could further the discussions on negotiating a treaty doesn't hold. Indeed, it shows that the national psyche really hasn't shifted since discussions of treaty were front and centre in our political movements.

Many in the community see the push for Constitutional Recognition as a watered-down position following the calls for a treaty between white and black Australia up until the late 1980s. The Hawke government, after being presented with the Barunga Statement in 1988, promised that there would be a treaty negotiated by 1990. This was later reneged upon by the government and the discourse changed with “reconciliation” becoming the main alternative.

The idea of Constitutional Recognition was initially championed by the Howard government. In the unsuccessful 1999 Republic referendum, a second question on the inclusion of a preamble in the constitution was put to Australian voters. Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their “deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country” formed part of this proposed preamble. Howard reinvigorated the proposal to recognise Indigenous peoples in the preamble as part of his election promises in 2007, stating that should his government win power again, a referendum would be held 18 months into their term. The Howard years are generally not looked upon fondly by many Indigenous peoples. His time marks continual refusals to apologise to the stolen generations, the reinforcement of the “White Blindfold” view of history, and the Northern Territory Intervention. A good portion of the community still actively question anything Howard felt was a good idea.

Our oppositional views have mainly been championed by grass roots Indigenous organisations, Indigenous commentators and social media conversations. Such organisations include the Tent Embassies, Idle No More and the National Unity Government. Interestingly though, the oppositional views that the general public have most been exposed to have come from non-Indigenous commentators. Andrew Bolt, for example, has written columns arguing against recognition on the basis that he feels it would be divisive. The pro-recognition view has also come from independent Indigenous voices, but greatly by the Recognise movement – of which former secretary of the Labor Party Tim Gartrell is the campaign director. Additionally, Recognise will receive ten million dollars over two years in funding by the federal government. The alternate views don't have funding, have received little airtime, and therefore the general public is not being exposed to our debates on this issue.

The discussions on the matter of recognition within the Constitution are far from over within the Indigenous community. External to our communities though, there remains a view that we wish to be included and are waiting for the Australian public to come on board. The reality is far more complex. The media could draw on these diverse views and facilitate debates openly so information is circulated and informed decisions at the ballot can be made. One thing is certain though: recognition will not stymie future unfortunate comments from our Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

PS. Since I wrote this, the Interim Report has been released from the expert panel and there has been subsequent media coverage. The report is available here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ms NAIDOC Day 13 - Andrea James

And on the final day of Ms NAIDOC, I'd like to share this profile of Andrea James as received from her long-time friend Brhaspati. It's really great to feature Andrea on the final day because Andrea was someone who blazed a couple of trails that I ended up following! We are both La Trobe Uni graduates who majored in theatre and drama, and she worked at the Vic College of the Arts a few years before I did. It seems a completely appropriate way to finish up Ms NAIDOC for this year, and I'd just like to say thank you to all those who submitted stuff, who had their profiles up, and who read and shared these. You are truly wonderful and it has been great to carve out some space and celebrate some amazing black women. Without further ado, here's Andrea as told by Brhaspati!

 The pic was taken in 2002 in Deoghar. Andrea is on the left, Brhaspati is on the right and in the middle is Arjit.

When I first suggested that I wanted to profile her for Ms NAIDOC 2014, Andrea James laughed bashfully, downplaying her achievements and talking up the artists and elders with whom she works. This is entirely in keeping with the Andrea I have known for 12 years – a warm, generous and self-effacing woman of Yorta Yorta, Kurnai and Polish descent who is characteristically modest about the international impact of her creative work.

Andrea & I first crossed paths in North India, on a month-long pilgrimage to the ashrams of the Satyananda Yoga lineage in Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Bihar. We bonded over shared rooms, chai stalls, pre-dawn asana on the rooftop to the call of the mosque’s muezzin and wanderings along the banks of the Ganga.

During one of these strolls, Andrea mentioned, in passing, that she was using her time in India to work on a play she was writing. It was not until I attended the premiere season of Yanagai! Yanagai! at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2003 that I realised the significance of what she referred to as her ‘little play’.

Yanagai! Yanagai! tells the story of her mob’s ongoing connection to their freshwater country along the Murray River in north eastern Victoria. This is an important story to tell, given the context of the Yorta Yorta people’s Native Title bid being thwarted on the basis that colonial dispossession, genocide and assimilation via Cumeraganga Mission had supposedly severed their link to their culture and language. The play toured internationally, being performed in New York and Glasgow, translated into Italian and published by Currency Press.

In her role at Blacktown Arts Centre, Andrea programmed The Native Institute + Sites of Experimentation exhibition in 2013, commissioning contemporary Aboriginal artists to reveal the history of the Blacktown Native Institute from an Aboriginal perspective through site-specific installations and visual art works.

Andrea collaborated with Giordano Nanni and Ilbijerri Theatre to stage Coranderrk: We will show the country at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne (2011), the Sydney Opera House (2012) and the Belvoir Street Theatre (2013-14). Coranderrk brings to the stage the voices of Aboriginal people residing at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station near Healesville, Victoria who submitted evidence to an 1881 Parliamentary Hearing. When Andrea spoke of popping down to Melbourne to do some more writing with Giordano, she neglected to mention that this was for a weighty AIATSIS publication they launched in 2013.

Her most recent curatorial work, Hereby Make Protest at Carriageworks, tells the story of the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association, who decreed 26th January 1938, the 150th anniversary of British colonisation of their land, a Day of Mourning. Weaving historical documentation with commissioned works by contemporary Aboriginal artists, the exhibition highlights Aboriginal resistance in the face of systemic racism. 

Andrea consistently takes a self-effacing yet fiercely compassionate approach to bringing Aboriginal lived experiences to life via the stage, and, more recently through exhibitions. As a playwright, director, actor, and now curator, she combines historical documents and contemporary art forms to engage, educate and challenge her audiences and achieve justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I am proud to call this deadly woman my friend.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ms NAIDOC Day 12 - Petronella Channing

Received this one all the way from the antipodes where Sharon Davis happens to be studying right now, so I think Sharon has just become my first internationally-sent Ms NAIDOC submission. Too cool! Sharon has sent in an awesome profile on her mother, Pat Channing. A really inspiring story and it's a real pleasure to feature Pat on day 12. In Sharon's own words: 
This is Petronella Channing, but everyone knows her as Pat (That’s my dad, Dave in the pic with her). 

Mum was born in Broome and is from a very large family. Actually, I could have entered all my Aunties, but that would make a very large post!

Mum is a hard working woman who runs a small tourism venture up the Dampier Peninsular called Mercedes Cove (Check it out Named after mum’s mum (my granny) it is a very special place for our whole family.

Mum (and Dad) have supported me and my brother and sister in everything that we do and I would like to her to know that although I don’t say it enough, I am truly thankful.

My mother is a quiet, yet strong Aboriginal woman. She is well loved in our community and is a rock for many people in times of trouble. Mum is very proud of her history, and is a testament to her own hard work and determination. She has had to overcome hardships and challenging times during her life, and has managed to do so with such grace, resilience and humility. She is everything that I hope to be as an Aboriginal woman.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ms NAIDOC Day 11 - Haylee Davis

Jazlie Davis-Grygoruk submitted this wonderful profile on Haylee Davis and again, I'm just gobsmacked by the talent in this family. Not only that, but Haylee is going to be studying in Berlin, so I've got the major jealouses going on here because THAT'S MY DREAM! Can't wait to hear how that all goes :D. Without further ado, here's Haylee!

My cousin Haylee Davis is real Ms Naidoc material. She's a proud Biripi woman from the mid-north coast area of NSW. Hayls quietly works away at the things she's passionate about with integrity, confidence and strength - primarily human rights and rights of the World's Indigenous peoples. 
Haylee has managed to complete a Bachelors Degree in International Studies and Global Studies at UNSW and a Bachelors Degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences/Liberal Studies as an international student in the Netherlands. Recently she has been accepted into a Masters of Research with Maquarie Uni.
Haylee can't stay put for more than a few months at a time. Having travelled to most of the world's continents she has a loving, accepting view of people and their different cultures. Next year she will study part of her Masters as an international student in Berlin.

For the last three years she has worked for NSW Aboriginal Land Council as a policy and research officer. Part of her role is to coordinate and manage NSWALC's International engagement strategies, including relationships within the United Nations. She also analyses and comments on new legislation and Government policy relating to issues affecting Indigenous people and advises the Council on human rights issues.

In 2013 she was accepted as a candidate in the Indigenous Fellowship Programme of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. As a candidate she was able to participate in the 6th session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She also completed an internship with the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations. 
The girl knows how to balance work with fun like no one I know and I love how our conversations naturally bounce from politics to babies to human rights. She is a doting aunt to my baby girl and I am grateful that my daughter has such an amazing example of a strong Indigenous woman to grow up with. Keep speaking out sis, I'm proud to have you representing us mob

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fighting for rights a worldwide struggle

This piece was published in the final issue of Tracker - an amazing publication that ceased operation following the decision of the NSWALC to discontinue it. I am taking the liberty of republishing my piece on my blog to preserve it but also to correct a few typos that I noticed in the text. I apologise to those who have already read the original version.

I often credit going to my first WIPC:E in 2005 in Hamilton, Aotearoa, as being a defining moment in my political development. 

2005 was the first time I had ever been overseas. Whilst New Zealand, at least to the average white Australian, is not considered much of a stretch as far as international travel goes, I found the differences stark, unsettling and deeply confronting.

To go to a land where Maori ceremony precedes most events and is seen as essential rather than an inconvenience; a land where there is a recognised Maori monarchy; where the gubbahs (or Pakeha) speak Maori and are indeed taught it from a young age; where a treaty exists, was eye-opening for me. 

Compared to the situation in Australia, the Maori culture seemed much more central to the everyday lives of the average Kiwi. Whilst I completely acknowledge that I idealise their treaty to an extent because the Maori fight tooth and nail to try and get their government to honour this agreement (Waitangi Day tends to be a day of protest), at least they have an agreement they can hold their government to. 

It makes the current move in Australia for Constitutional Recognition; or us being merely written into a document which was initially developed to specifically exclude us by the colonisers; seem comparatively toothless.

Over the years, more visits to Aotearoa have followed and my perspectives have shifted. More in-depth discussions with colleagues over there have better informed me of the similarities we face with regards to disparities in education, socio-economic status, health, and so forth. 

When we presented a paper at the Hui of the NZ Tertiary Education Union a couple of years ago, our Maori colleagues were similarly distressed but completely unsurprised by the rates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff were experiencing racism, discrimination and lateral violence in the Higher Education system. 

In short, our staff were reporting experiences of racism within the academy at a rate of roughly 80% and our Maori colleagues felt that this reflected their experiences within the sector as well. Certainly, from a political and cultural perspective, in many ways I still find that they are in a better position than what we are, but they still have to fight every step of the way and sharing these experiences across the Tasman Sea benefits us both.

We presented a similar paper to an international Indigenous audience at this year's WIPC:E, which was held in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Hawaiian experience has been a completely different one to what I experienced that very first time in New Zealand. 

I don't think it is possible to replicate that very first wake-up call I received in NZ, and the USA, with its particular brand of “democracy”, adds a completely different context anyway. 

What was replicated though was the responses to our research from this global perspective. 

I saw the nods of assent when we relayed that Indigenous-specific university subjects were seen as “Mickey Mouse courses” by other university staff, or that there always seems to be this racist assumption that we gain our degrees and qualifications on a concessional basis rather than through hard work within a hostile, white-western-patriarchal system. 

There was broad agreement with the idea that our cultural business of importance is seen as an inconvenience in the workplace rather than an integral part of engaging with Indigenous workers and facilitating cultural exchange. 

Simply put, the more time we spend engaging with Indigenous peoples from across the world, the more similarities we can identify with regards to the struggles we face in our homelands.

More than anything though, meeting with Indigenous peoples worldwide provides me with points of comparison as to where we are in our own struggles in a range of fields. I went to a particularly inspiring talk by Mana Party candidate Annette Sykes about the threats that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) poses to Indigenous peoples. 

Among many poignant points made during this session, Sykes argued that the TPPA was yet another front for colonisation via promise of “economic development” and of particular concern should be our intellectual and cultural property, land rights, resources and development. Additionally, she highlighted how a number of decisions directly affecting our sovereignty are being negotiated in secret. 

Not only did I come away from this session better informed, but I also realised through discussions with fellow Aboriginal people on this topic that when it boils down to it, we are in even worse stead in fighting these threats than the Maori because unlike them, our sovereignty is not recognised nationally via treaty(ies).

Likewise, on attending a session on the Sand Creek massacre and hearing just how long and hard the Cheyenne and Arapaho had to fight to get recognition of the site where this horrific crime took place, it was further highlighted to me the extents in which colonising powers will go to not acknowledge their own history. 

We will continue to have a long and hard fight to gain recognition for the frontier wars, not just of the warriors who fought but also the women who were raped, murdered or taken into slavery. Slowly, we will gain recognition; bit-by-bit rather than for the frontier wars in their entirety; but this will only happen if more of us not only challenge for this recognition, but also enter the education system and have a hand in shaping the opinions of the future generations.

Finally, as if by some twisted irony, whilst I was over there Warren Mundine decided to state that some Aboriginal people are using “cultural obligations” as an excuse to not go to work or get a job. At the very same time, I was hearing some incredibly pleasing examples of educational institutions elsewhere in the world that have embraced the cultural practices of their community. 

Tribal colleges, community colleges and indeed some universities seem to believe that taking into account the life experiences of their Indigenous workers and students leads to better-rounded experiences and higher success and engagement rates. 

It's interesting that here we continue to fight for the smallest of rights ever, such as the right to use language or attend ceremony, whilst some of our own people continue to denigrate these practices to the mainstream for their own advancement. In other places across the world, it is thought that building an inclusive environment creates the best chance for success and exchange. Indeed, when it comes to our right to be recognised, we seem to be going backwards in this country.

So for mine, whilst being engaged in my home country is integral to my very work and my being, engaging on a global scale as Indigenous peoples gives me the opportunity to put things in perspective. To critically analyse and see how our situation relates to the experiences of other Indigenous peoples. It also creates the opportunity for solidarity, particularly when we are fighting battles on a regional and global scale. 

The feeling of isolation that many Indigenous people feel, including myself, on a daily basis when struggling to make things better is lessened through knowing that others are fighting the same battles across the world as first peoples. 

Through collaboration, we may even beat them.

Ms NAIDOC Day 10 - Leesa Watego

When Ebony Allen sent this one through and said "Leesa NEEDS to be here", I was in total agreement. Leesa is one of those warm, wonderful women I came across on the web and has been integral for the promotion of Indigenous bloggers, amongst many other things. But I'll let Ebs talk about that, and hope you all enjoy her profile on Leesa!


Leesa Watego is one of those dynamic, deadly women that it is really hard to describe because she is and does so many amazing things that you’d be perplexed as to where to start.

In no particular order, Leesa is a proud Murri woman, an entrepreneur, a mother, social justice warrior, a writer + blogger + tweeter + vlogger and educator.

I met Leesa online a few years back on twitter (where all the cool peeps hang) and have continued to be inspired by her tenacity in continually innovating the way that the world sees First Nations peoples.

While she, like most mothers, would say her greatest achievement is her children (and she’s probably right if we go by a recent blog post by her thirteen year old daughter Annie), what I’d like to highlight in terms of one of Leesa’s achievements is the Deadly Bloggers network.

In 2009 Leesa had the idea of collating a list of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who blog. It started off as a link list on Leesa’s personal blog and in 2012 evolved to a facebook page, blogspot directory and a twitter account.

At present, DeadlyBloggers has a dot com, an extensive list of blogs on almost any given topic and an inaugural Deadly Bloggers Carnival; a month of rotating posts by First Nations Bloggers. The concept of creating a database and a network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bloggers is simple yet so powerful. 

Through it and accounts like @IndigenousX, we are able to take control of our identity and demonstrate to the world the diversity of our First Nations people, our experiences, our thoughts and the way we express ourselves.

While you can find Leesa on pretty much every social media platform, I recommend finding her through her main blog Not Quite Cooked.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ms NAIDOC Day 9 - Jazlie Davis-Grygoruk

Jazlie sent her own profile through, which, as I said, I absolutely love. Why? Because in a world where women are taught to be placid and "modest", I reckon it's pretty damn feminist to take stock and go "you know, I have done some awesome things". And Jazlie most definitely has. Thank you for this fantastic profile, Jazlie. Everyone else, enjoy reading about this "high-flier" ;)

I am a Biripi woman (mid-north coast NSW), a qualified commercial pilot, a wife & mother. I completed my BSc (Aviation) at UNSW, including training for my pilot's license. I flew light aircraft for three years, based out of Galiwin'ku Community on Elcho Island in North East Arnhem Land. During this time I flew to every community in the NE Arnhem region, as well as all the surrounding homelands. Seeing our people live on country their way with their law has changed me. The more I learn about Yolngu society/culture/kinship/law, the deeper my grieving for what my own people have lost.

I am a non-religious person of faith, informed by Koori, Yolngu and Christian stories. I am intrigued by spirituality and creation and have completed my GDip in Theology.

I was adopted into the Galpu clan in Galiwin'ku and am semi-fluent in the locally spoken Dhuwal language of the Djambarrpuyngu people. I am a firm believer in teaching and speaking Indigenous language and to this end have completed a GCert in Yolngu Studies through Charles Darwin University, as well as personal study of my own Gathang language (currently being revived by my aunt and a group of strong Biripi people).

My Aussie/Ukrainian husband and I have a 1 year old daughter (best thing I've ever done with my life), whom we are raising in Galiwin'ku (pause here for rant about how denigrating mainstream Australia's attitude toward public breast feeding is for a first time mum - the primary purpose of breasts is to make milk, give me a [*profanity*] break).

I stopped flying when I was 4 months pregnant. Now my partner and I job share, helping to run a grass roots community development project on Elcho Island. Its focus is personal, social and economic enterprise development. We work with Yolngu entrepreneurs and visionaries one-on-one, using language and cultural parallels to help strengthen their capacity to engage with the dominant culture world - always done from a place of strength, grounded first in Yolngu Rom (law/culture). I'm passionate about seeing culture, law and language valued and maintained and hope that our work contributes to the fight against assimilationist policies and attitudes of mainstream Australia.

Having witnessed the destructive effects of oppressive, paternalistic Government policies in remote Indigenous communities, I am now becoming more politically involved as a campaign manager for an independent running in the next NT elections.

Next year I intend on studying law, with a view to exploring solutions to the undermining effect (and resulting social dysfunction) the imposition of Australian law is having on traditional Indigenous law in Arnhem Land.