Reconciling Australia: It Starts With Our First Nations

Partnerships-Full-Image

“Partnerships”

In the mid-90’s I had the privilege of attending an advanced cultural awareness workshop for staff of the (then) Department of Human Services and Health in Canberra, at which Aboriginal Elder Aunty Mary Graham was one of the main facilitators. Aunty Mary shared many gems of information over those days, however one of the main statements she made that has always stuck in my mind was this:

“Aboriginal people will never have their Martin Luther King [Jr.]”

It was a statement made as part of a discussion on the diversity of Aboriginal peoples aimed at broadening the participants’ understanding of Aboriginal Australia as a ‘nation of nations’ – a land where each Clan/Language group was as separate and distinct from each other as other countries of the world are. The overarching message was that the Government must recognise that attempts to engage in consultation or partnerships with Aboriginal peoples needed to be done at local (community) levels; that there was not – and never will be – ‘one person’ who could speak for or claim to represent all Aboriginal peoples.

In that sense, Aunty Mary’s statement is very true, and I appreciate and agree with it from that perspective. However, to my way of thinking, it’s also a sad statement, because in a broader context, it also suggests that Aboriginal peoples will never achieve unity amongst ourselves. When you consider the achievements of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., one of the main things he did was unify people. In leading the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr King not only provided a voice for African-Americans, he gave them a common cause to rally to, and in doing so, brought African-Americans (and in a broader sense, all Americans who believed in racial equality) together in the spirit of unity. As a result, Dr King is credited with achieving, “more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years …” (The King Center).

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples may never have our Dr King, however, we do need to create that unity amongst our First Nations. There have been attempts, the latest of which has been the formation of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress). Congress was established under the premise of being a representative body for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that could act as our national voice, particularly when dealing with Government. Congress states that as of January 2014 it has over 7,500 individual members from all over Australia – a considerable figure given it was only formally established in 2010. However, whether this can be considered sufficiently ‘representative’ (about 1%) of the almost 670,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in Australia is subject to debate, as is Congress’ continued existence, given the Australian Government’s recent decision to discontinue its funding.

What isn’t debatable is the need for a unified voice that led to the formation of Congress in the first place. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still only make up approximately 3% of the total Australian population, giving us a relatively small voice in Australian affairs. Divide that by the number of First Nations (estimated at about 600 prior to European settlement), and the voices of individual Nations becomes even smaller. This would not necessarily be a problem if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples enjoyed an equitable status in areas such as health, education, employment, and social justice, with non-Indigenous Australians. The fact that we don’t, and that the scales are tipped so far away from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, should be reason enough for us to unify and seek solutions to common problems.

Ironically, in my observation at least, it is these very inequities that steer us away from unity. There is conflict between and within nations, communities, and sometimes even families, over what needs to be done and who has the ‘right’ to make those decisions. We fight over who should or shouldn’t have access to services, who should or shouldn’t be able to speak for our peoples, even who should or shouldn’t be identified as Aboriginal. This is not to say that there aren’t real issues within nations and communities that require resolution, however, when you consider that many of these issues only exist because of the effects of both historical and current policies and practices that have been imposed upon us, you have to question whether much of our internal conflict stems from a continued – perhaps now self-imposed – ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy. As an Aboriginal person, I find this highly distressing, divisive, and confusing. I can only imagine how it must appear to non-Indigenous peoples. How can we possibly expect to achieve Reconciliation within Australia, when we’re unable to achieve it amongst ourselves?

It is crucial that all First Nations be able to retain their individuality in their identity, their Law, their cultural practices and beliefs, and their ability to determine their own futures. However, if we are going to make changes and improvements for the betterment of our peoples, we need to unify to address common issues. We need to reconcile both within and between communities and nations, and present a united front – a united voice – to combat the injustices we face. We need to adopt the old adage of “strength in numbers”, because as a minority within our own land, we need all the numbers we can get!

And if we can reconcile amongst ourselves, we give ourselves a greater chance of achieving Reconciliation amongst all of Australia. We can achieve a lot with 670,000. Imagine what we could achieve with 22 million.


I would like to acknowledge and thank the Making Two Worlds Work project for permission to use the image, Partnerships, in this article.


This post appear[ed] as part of the Deadly Bloggers Inaugural Blogging Carnival, held during Australian Blak History Month. To read other posts from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Bloggers, visit the Deadly Bloggers website.

One thought on “Reconciling Australia: It Starts With Our First Nations

  1. Pingback: Reconciling Australia: We Need Acknowledgement More Than Apology | raygates.me

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