Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles

Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles

by Clare Land


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783601721
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 08/15/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Clare Land is a research fellow at Deakin University.

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Decolonizing solidarity

Dilemmas and directions for supporters of Indigenous struggles

By Clare Land

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Clare Land
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-175-2


Land rights, sovereignty and Black Power in south-east Australia

In the late 1960s, Aboriginal people in the south-eastern cities of Australia began to press for changes in state policies and practices much more stridently than ever before. This movement had its roots in the struggle of previous generations, but its young intellectuals noted that the strategies and even the achievements of the past decade in particular had not resulted in substantive change. The much-celebrated 1967 referendum, which empowered the federal government to take responsibility for Aboriginal policy, did not result in the immediate dismantling of discriminatory state regimes, which was the expectation of Aboriginal supporters of that campaign.

In addition to these immediate local antecedents were the decolonization struggles occurring across Africa. The ejection of colonial rulers energized and inspired other struggles: the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights, Black Power and native movements in North America (Hemingway, 2012). Liberation movements were arising worldwide. This context and the concurrent mass migration of Aboriginal people off reserves into major Australian cities produced both new needs and the urgency and confidence to address them.

Those who were teenagers and young adults in the late 1960s; those who, backed by older leaders, seized the political initiative and reshaped modes of resistance; had a long-standing influence on the political landscape. They put Aboriginal affairs on the national political agenda, where they have remained ever since. They re-centred land rights as the core of the Aboriginal political agenda, and succeeded in overturning the long-standing policy of assimilation (Foley, 2012). From 1972 onwards, Australia's liberal democracy had to consider how to respond to Aboriginal people's determination to survive as distinct peoples (Hemingway, 2012). The question is salient in all relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal polities, organizations and individuals that intersect with the public sphere.

The Aboriginal people who have pursued the politics of land rights, sovereignty and Black Power in the south-east of Australia have also been the ones to set out most clearly the role of non-Aboriginal people in their struggle. This political community has an inspiring history and has had significant, though unfinished, successes in confronting the legacy of British colonization. Members of this community have also recognized the politics of the way Aboriginal struggles have been represented by historians, and have been active in telling and interpreting the history of the Aboriginal movement.

Struggles in the south-east

Members of this community that I interviewed are people who were active in, and/or identify as core to their more recent political roots, the modern national land rights movement, the movement for Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs (with which Black Power and the community-controlled health movement are connected) and the famous Aboriginal Embassy, with its emphasis on sovereignty and material deprivation. For Foley (2011) these core ideas are interconnected in his view of the 'Koori struggle'. Three key agendas are subtitled by their practical implications: 'Land Rights (Land as an economic base), Self Determination (Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs) and Economic Independence (Aboriginal sovereignty).'

To characterize this political community here is to sketch out a genealogy and a politics in relation to which non-Aboriginal supporters and the nature of their support and roles can be understood.

Foley (2001) attributes a shared political consciousness to activists who emerged across the three major eastern cities of Australia in the late 1960s: 'the loose coalition of individual young indigenous activists who emerged in Redfern, Fitzroy and South Brisbane in the period immediately after Charles Perkins' "Freedom Ride" in 1965' comprised the Black Power movement of Australia. These activists had origins in rural areas across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and their vision, concerns and influence were nationwide (Horner, 2004: 167; Robinson, 1994: 50).

There are particular historical, political, geographic and economic links and commonalities in the south-eastern area of Australia which contributed to the meeting of political minds described by Foley (see Barwick, 1963; Boyce, 2011; Burgmann, 2003b; Chesterman and Galligan, 1997; Goodall, 1996). Australia's arable south-east is the most closely settled – and murderously possessed – region of the continent. It makes sense that the Aboriginal leaders who articulate the most acute critique of their condition should have arisen in those parts of Australia where colonization began and where it has been the most genocidal: 'It is history on the rebound' (Pierre Slicer quoted in Ryan, 2012: 327).

A shared political consciousness in the south-east can therefore be understood as a regionally specific phenomenon, yet also as part of the broader history of Indigenous resistance to colonialism across the continent from the time of colonization onwards. The activities of those who began to organize in the major cities of the eastern states of Australia, from Brisbane through to Melbourne, in the late 1960s quite quickly gained the responsive involvement of those further north and west, from Townsville to Ceduna (Foley, 2012: 245; see also Healy, n.d.). The land rights, sovereignty and Black Power activists had pan-Aboriginal concerns and enjoyed pan-Aboriginal support.

The strong, radical voices centred in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne brought the modern national land rights movement to prominence. Those who expressed these voices were as involved with the establishment and defence of the Aboriginal Embassy on the lawns in front of Parliament House in 1972 as they were integral to the development of local 'community survival' or 'self-help organizations such as free legal services, medical clinics and housing associations' (Foley and Anderson, 2006: 89; Gillor, 2011; Healy, n.d.; Watson et al., 2007). The protests and the community projects were philosophically intertwined. Speaking in 1988, Foley commented: 'We have a strong united national political movement which not only attempts to bring about political change, but, parallel with that, is actually overcoming specific problems that confront our community' (Foley, 1988: 3). 'Black Power' was expressed in Australia through the rubric of community control, black control of black affairs, a politics of pride in Aboriginal identity and culture, a significant self-help movement, and a belief that engagement with white people and institutions should be based on organized, internal community strength (Foley, 2001; Foley and Anderson, 2006: 88–9; Taffe, 2005: 250).

The self-help projects and organizations started off on a completely voluntary activist basis, 'operating on a shoestring, with mainly volunteer labour, and became an important activist base' (Foley and Anderson, 2006: 89). The first medical services supported other communities to set up their own services (Gillor, 2011). The services that proliferated nationwide in this way joined together into strong national networks such as the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organization (NAIHO) and the National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service Secretariat (NAILSS) (Foley and Anderson, 2006: 89; Bill Roberts, interview).

The Aboriginal people whose politics ground this book were participants in – or, if younger, inherited a politics from – this tumultuous and creative era. Members of the political community who embraced 1960s' and 1970s' radicalism actively continued to develop the politics and theorizing of their movement in the subsequent period. While the Aboriginal Embassy is marked by a sense of continuity – it is probably the 'longest protest site in Australia' (Watson, 2000a) – it has accrued meanings during its lifetime. As such, the Embassy is now understood for the dramatic protests of 1972 as well as through its continued focus on – and development of a politics of – sovereignty (Robinson, 1994: 63; Schaap, 2009; Muldoon and Schaap, 2012), a campaign of litigation against genocide (Balint, 2014; Scott, 2004), and a centring of/reference to Aboriginal cultural values within the movement (McGregor, 2009: 344; Muecke, 1998; Watson, 2000a, 2000b). A collection of ramshackle tents, the form of the Embassy manages to evoke the poor conditions in which many Aboriginal people live, while also serving as an embarrassing 'eyesore' for government. Simultaneously, the Embassy's location interrupts the line of sight between Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial in the highly symbolic layout of Canberra, the capital city of Australia, making it function as a living monument to Australia's unfinished business, most particularly the unresolved colonial land wars. All of these meanings are interwoven with a political genealogy stretching back to the early twentieth century, and earlier (Maynard, 2007). Aboriginal political activity has been said to have begun 'in the late 1830s on Flinders Island', Tasmania, and Aboriginal people on Coranderrk reserve near Melbourne were 'probably the first to sustain a political campaign' (Attwood and Markus, 1999: 30).

The radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s is firmly and self-consciously linked with past struggles. Key figures in the self-conscious political genealogy of the young Indigenous activists of this period include William Ferguson, Jack Patten and Pearl Gibbs of the APA, and William Cooper and Margaret Tucker of the AAL (Foley, 2012; Taffe, 2008). APA and AAL jointly organized the 1938 Day of Mourning. The activism and philosophies of Fred Maynard and the AAPA in the 1900s and 1920s were part of this genealogy, as archival records and family connections through to the young activists make clear. A key example is the connection between Fred Maynard and Gary Foley's great-grandfather Jim Doyle (Maynard, 2007: 86).

Apart from their favour for more confrontational approaches than their immediate forebears, these young radicals did not represent a break with older Aboriginal people or prior struggles per se. They had links with older community members and political leaders. Yuin warrior Chicka Dixon is recognized as a figure who joined with and mentored this younger generation in Sydney (Foley, 2001, 2012; Goodall, 1996; Robinson, 1994: 50); his experience as a wharfie and unionist endorsed and encouraged their appetite for 'street struggle' (Chicka Dixon, interview). Chicka Dixon saw himself as being more closely aligned in strategy to the new generation of Aboriginal people who took to the streets during the 1960s than he was to the 'old APA' who 'wouldn't dare dream of street struggle' (interview). Bill and Eric Onus and the younger Bruce McGuinness, their nephew (Horner, 2004: 140), as well as Bob Maza in Melbourne (Foley, 2001), and Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal) and Don Brady in Brisbane are regarded similarly as mentors to the Black Power/Aboriginal Embassy generation and the younger members of the Brisbane Tribal Council (Watson et al., 2007: 43, 44). The young radicals were also influential on some older Aboriginal community members. Alma Thorpe, who is the best part of a generation older than Foley, counts him and Bruce McGuinness as her mentors (interview). Gary Murray's father Stewart Murray worked closely with Alma's mother Edna Brown on the Aboriginal Funeral Fund. Like pastor Sir Doug Nicholls, to whom Gary Murray is related through his mother, Stewart Murray was deeply involved in the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL), the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) and the National Tribal Council (NTC). Both men are important to many Aboriginal people active in Melbourne today. That said, there are important nuances in the politics of the older generation mentioned, with those who understand their political lineage as running through the 'Onus line', anchored by Bill Onus, Chicka Dixon and Bruce McGuinness, identifying the 'Nicholls line' as relatively more conservative in agenda and strategies (Howell, 2013: 14).

The political consciousness expressed by Indigenous people of the south-east of Australia in the twentieth century, with its roots in the nineteenth, is both particular to its historical and political context, and part of a continent-wide story of Aboriginal resistance to colonialism. Indigenous struggles throughout Australia have employed diverse strategies, and have generally displayed pan-Aboriginal solidarity (Maddison, 2009; Robinson, 1994). Anthropologist Francesca Merlan (2005: 476) observes in two examples from the Northern Territory (documented in 1958 and 1963) forms of response to colonization that are more 'ritual' than 'protest'. While finding a contrast between the two forms (i.e. ritual vs protest), Merlan (2005: 474) notes the differing circumstances of their expression, and understands them both as being within the category of 'movement' (or 'indigenous mobilization'). Chicka Dixon has identified the political community I focus on not so much by their political views, but according to their particular strategies, which took account of their relative geographical proximity to the seat of federal power: 'How you fight it is slightly different ... We took the lead because we had quick access to Canberra. And we could embarrass the bastards' (interview).

Historiographical debates

There is a substantial literature on the history of Indigenous struggles in Australia from the time of invasion onwards, including histories and biographies (for instance, see Briscoe, 2010; Goodall, 1996; Huggins, 1998; Read, 1990a; Reynolds, 2006). But history writing is a contested field. The politics of the writing of history (and of the teaching of history) and relationships with the academy are key concerns of Aboriginal people from the political community with which this research engages (Atkinson et al., 1985). For some, the struggle for Aboriginal rights has included both an activist and a research or academic practice. Writing and interpreting history from an Indigenous viewpoint is key to the agendas of Indigenous peoples across the globe, and in particular key to Indigenous peoples' research agendas (see also Foley, 2001; Green, Sonn and Matsebula, 2007; Kuokkanen, 2003; Smith, 1999). While Indigenous academics view this as a core concern and one which is repeatedly dismissed by the academy, there are nevertheless some non-Aboriginal academics who have acknowledged the politics of history writing and history teaching (Paisley, Cole and Haskins, 2005). Historiographical debates in this field are not concerned with abstract questions; rather, they have real consequences for contemporary land rights politics (Vincent and Land, 2003).

Let's consider the issues at stake in this debate as it plays out in relation to Indigenous struggles in south-east Australia. The first issue concerns the political character of the Aboriginal movement over the twentieth century, and whether the relative emphasis on civil rights and land rights is a sign of evolving political priorities among Aboriginal people, or a sign of conscious strategy and externally driven limitations on their demands. The second concerns the 'onset' of an 'organized Aboriginal political agenda', and the long-held belief that this was in the 1930s. Third, historians' treatment of Aboriginal agency and political sophistication is contested. Finally, Maynard and Foley in particular argue that certain moments in the Aboriginal struggle and/or their historically significant qualities have been ignored.

On the first element of the debate, John Maynard questions the interpretations by various historians of the publicly articulated agendas of 'Aboriginal protest groups of the Cooper, Ferguson and Patten era'. Many have judged them to have been primarily interested in equality, citizenship rights and absorption into mainstream Australia, and not so much in cultural distinctiveness and 'Aboriginal rights, particularly in relation to land' (Maynard, 2007: 4–5). Maynard emphasizes the factors which might have constrained the ways they articulated their agendas and upholds their relative radicalism (Maynard, 2007: 4, 5). Foley and Tim Anderson accept Heather Goodall's argument that the land rights and civil rights movements can be understood as 'intertwined' (Foley and Anderson, 2006: 88;Goodall, 1996). Like Briscoe (2004), McGregor (2009) and Muecke (1998), Foley and Anderson conceptualize the Aboriginal movement in a series of phases. For Foley and Anderson (2006: 84), the first two phases include civil rights, land rights, self-determination and internationalist black consciousness in various measures. Crucially, they note that the demand for the return of stolen land was more central in organizations where Aboriginal community control was greater (Foley and Anderson, 2006: 84). Indeed, for Briscoe (2004: 192) the 'Aboriginal advancement' phase of the 1950s and 1960s in which organizations like FCAATSI were central is one of 'paternalism and reform'. This suggests that the land demand was suppressed within organizations like FCAATSI, as will be discussed in the next chapter. The third 'phase', from the 1980s onwards, is seen as a bureaucratic era: 'the bureaucratization of Aboriginal services and funding dependency slowed these campaigns in the 1980s' (see also Foley, 1975; Foley and Anderson, 2006: 84).


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Table of Contents

1. Land rights, sovereignty and Black Power in south-east Australia
2. A political genealogy for contemporary non-Indigenous activism in Australia
3. Identity categories: how activists both use and refuse them
4. Collaboration, dialogue and friendship: always a good thing?
5. Acting politically with self-understanding
6. A moral and political framework for non-Indigenous people's solidarity
7. Reckoning with complicity
Conclusion: Solidarity with other struggles
Appendix I. Acronyms
Appendix II. Key events and organizations in south-east Indigenous struggles
Appendix III. Biographies of people involved in the book
Appendix IV. Links to original activist documents

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