David Johnson, Queensland Regional Meeting

David JohnsonRight relationship with the land and with Aboriginal people requires we acknowledge Aboriginal Sovereignty over Australia. This is not an easy thing for many to consider.

For Aboriginal people Sovereignty is, in the words of Kevin Gilbert[1]:

Now our Sovereignty
– let’s be clear what Sovereignty means –
Sovereignty means our ownership
our rights in the country
our true identification
as a separate People
from the colonisers
the English people who came over
and colonised our land.
We are a separate People.
We do have rights in the land.

Sovereignty asserts that the ancient, unchangeable law of the land, and that living in right relationship with the land has primacy over the changeable laws and decrees of the imported European culture. Caring for the land, caring for community, caring for each other are more important than allocating corporate business rights or personal possession rights over the land.

The law of the land guides how we are to live, and our responsibilities to the land, the plants and creatures, the waters and the skies. Humans do not have dominion, they have the responsibilities of stewardship.

Each culture expresses these ancient truths in its own language, and it is necessary but not sufficient to know these stories and cardinal rules, the do’s and don’t’s. The essence lies in obedience to the guiding Spirit.

In the words of Black Elk, last free-living of the Oglala Sioux medicine men:

We should understand well that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We should know that [the Great Spirit] is in all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that [the Great Spirit] is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as [the Great Spirit] intends.[2]

Any practical common sense or legal decrees can only arise from a spiritual acceptance that the Earth belongs to the Creator who made it and we hold it temporarily in trust. The land was first gifted in trust to the Aboriginal people who have never ceded that Sovereignty.

The Australian Mabo decision (1992) established the country was not terra nullius, empty of owners and ready for the taking. In fact English possession of the land has been illegal even under British law.

7. Saving of rights of tribes Nothing herein or in any such Order in Council contained shall extend or be construed to extend to invest Her Majesty, her heirs and successors with any claim or title whatsoever to dominion or sovereignty over any such islands or places as aforesaid, or to derogate from the rights of the tribes or people inhabiting such islands or places, or of chiefs or rulers thereof, to such sovereignty or dominion, and a copy of every such Order in Council shall be laid before each House of Parliament [3]

We cannot but admit that the European settlers came and despoiled the land. Certainly they made wealth, building a treasure that lies in earthly possessions. They made that wealth at the expense of the Aboriginal people, exterminating thousands, destroying culture, traumatising children, and sacrificing the plants, wildlife and natural waters. We know our newcomer culture has done wrong, though it pains many of us to admit it, and we may often retreat into rationalisations. The great struggles by many to restore the environment over the last 50 years, and to place value on the integrity of the land, its landscape, plants and wildlife is but one sign of our recognition of the damage done. Yet this is not enough.

We know our way of life is unsustainable, and that most Australians have become divorced from the land. We make small excursions into national parks and to beaches and walk along manicured riverbanks, and we do this because the Spirit inside is telling us we need it and our sanity demands it. Many find the prospect of full immersion in the bush, of sleeping on the ground, of listening only to the sounds of the land, just too strange or even frightening.

Kevin Gilbert speaking on 20th anniversary and re-establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, January 1992. Photo: Eleanor Gilbert

Kevin Gilbert speaking on 20th anniversary and re-establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, January 1992.
Photo: Eleanor Gilbert

How will we find our way back into right relationship, and into a secure acceptance of our spiritual dependence on the land? It will come from accepting the truth of Aboriginal Sovereignty and it is the Aboriginal people who will show us the way. When we have followed this way we will come to a shared vision for this country and we will be much saner and more peaceful.

I believe if there is to be an Australian culture, it cannot be an imported, ersatz culture. Cultures and the people are developed from the land they occupy. Culture has to be developed from the heart, from the depths of human integrity, the depths of human passion, the depths of human creativity and I believe that, if there is ever to be a sound overall culture for this land, it has to involve everyone and it must involve everyone, and it must evolve and be based on those fine aspects of the human family – integrity, justice, vision, creativity, life , honour …[4]

We do not know exactly how this Sovereignty will work out and it will take time to travel this way together. We invaders and immigrants cannot just all go back where we came from. We know the country will still have to produce food and goods for living, and to provide education, medical care and transport systems in ways that are spiritually, environmentally and economically sustainable. The first step is to acknowledge the Aboriginal Sovereignty and then start living it. Like life itself, this is a step into the unknown. The land and the Spirit will show us the way.

If we take this step into Truth, then we can believe we will be shown the way – just as it was when people took steps to eliminate slavery, to give women and Afro-Americans the vote, or accept environmental limits on land use.

[1] Vince Forrester interviews Kevin Gilbert CAAMA Radio 1989

[2] The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux

by Nicholas Black Elk, Joseph Epes Brown. University of Oklahoma Press. 172pp.

[3] U.K. Pacific Islander Protection Acts 1872 & 1875, especially this quote from 1875, section 7. The Terms of these Acts notes they shall mean and include all the Australasian colonies of NSW, New Zealand, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia at the time.

[4] Kevin Gilbert, speaking as Chairman of the Treaty 88 campaign. Quoted by Reg Pollock, Assistant Director General, NSW Department of School Education in Foreword to Jumna Milla Truth: Our Weapon/Our Shield ( Penrith, NSW: Lewers Bequest and Penrith Art gallery, 1993).


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