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Indigenous in the 21st Century

In commemoration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, MiNDFOOD spoke with four Indigenous Australians to discuss the struggles and challenges they still face today and the hopes for a brighter future.

Indigenous in the 21st Century

Tanya Orman – NITV channel manager Tanya Denning-Orman is a Birri and Guugu Yimidhirr woman from north Queensland who, as an Indigenous woman, feels immense privilege to have such a strong community connection to Australia.

“I wouldn’t be here without my family. I’m very fortunate that they worked so hard for me to have the opportunities I’ve had in my life. For me, in the world I’m in, to be an Indigenous person of the 21st century is a resilience. I think beyond everything that has happened there has always been laughter and we’ve always moved forward.

Access is still a major issue for Indigenous Australians today. Access to education, health, essential services … ensuring, as Australians, we’ve got the right to have our own media, our own voices and, importantly, children to learn bilingual education. Where you see the access blooming, there are young Indigenous people who now know their language … It humbles me to see that because not to have access to your first languages, cultures, land is still a major implication to health and wellbeing within communities.

Not long after the 1967 referendum*, my grandfather got permission to leave the mission and his daughter, my mum, was able to have access to a different path that he didn’t. My family were able to live in an Australian town so that then triggered more opportunities for me as the next generation.

Who we are as Indigenous people is not just the body that we encapsulate, but it’s the trees, it’s the stars, it’s the sea. Australia is part of us as Indigenous people and that’s something that Australians can be immensely proud of. We’re all on this journey together. Indigenous people are the connection to country and that’s a gift.

Changing the institutions and moving the systems, that’s where we really need that people power. We can do it. We have done it in the past. We can’t think it’s impossible. Change can happen.

I think it’s important to have these international days and that we make sure we’re at an equal footing, to have our language, our education, our media … it’s also the celebration that Australians are part of the world’s oldest continuous culture on the planet.”

* 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which saw Australians vote unanimously to accept two changes to the constitution: 1) to have Aboriginal Australians included in the census, and 2) under the jurisdiction of Federal Government law. It did not give Aboriginal Australians the right to vote, which was a right they already held across Australia, with Queensland the last state to give the vote in 1965.

Nancia Guivarra – Nancia Guivarra, an NITV journalist, feels sure of her identity and strong in the world as a result of her Indigenous background, which includes Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal ancestry. Her people are from Meriam in the Torres Strait, and Wuthathi and Bindal Juru in far north Queensland.

“The history, the traditions and the customs of my ancestors and my community today has a lot to contribute to the growth of this nation. I don’t just mean in a GDP sense. I mean in the sense of having a lot to offer based on thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. That’s something that makes you proud to be a part of and gives you a good strong sense of identity to be an Australian and to look after this nation.

I was born in February 1967. I’m a product of that year. My life is really different to my mother’s life and my grandparents’ life, and that’s as a result of the 1967 referendum. I went to school. I had the benefit of some of those funding programs like Abstudy that helped Indigenous families send their kids to school. My first year after school I had this computer programming scholarship, and after that I went to uni. I was the first in my immediate family to go into uni. I had jobs ever since I left uni. I had the benefit of all that our ancestors fought for.

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years now and I’ve been in Indigenous affairs all my life. I was part of one of the first government departments, the Aboriginal Development Commission. As a journalist one of the things I always hear blackfellas say is, ‘We want the right to determine our own futures, our own opportunities, our own policies, and our own programs, and we’re the right ones to do that.’

Today, Aboriginal people still struggle for the right to self-determination and the ongoing right to cultural maintenance. The right to be able to speak and maintain your own languages, the right to live your own cultures and customs, and the right to your own land … Land is the basis for all of us. If those rights aren’t allowed to exist in Australia for Indigenous people that would pretty much mean the extinction, unintended maybe, of our cultures.

Australia has not yet fully acknowledged its identity. It’s still holding onto a past colonial identity that is not here any more. While there’s some remnants of that, we need to come to terms with who we are now as a population, with all of the histories interwoven. Then we’ll all be a lot happier, I think.”

Marcus Mungul Lacey – A respected young leader of his community, Marcus Mungul Lacey is a Yolngu man from Arnhem Land who runs a tourism business with his mother and grandmother that allows people to walk the journey of the story that Marcus tells about country.

“Looking back at how far we’ve travelled, it’s quite a remarkable journey and quite an achievement. It’s a challenging role as well. The mainstream culture, the dominant culture, is the main challenge for us because of the laws that we have to evolve with, but it also gives us a chance to stand up and stand strong.

A legacy of that era [since the 1967 referendum] is that I can talk to you from homeland where it gave an opportunity for Yolngu to move out of towns into small homelands. It did give some Yolngu an angle to stand up and say, ‘We are people of this nation.’ At least we have a say, a voice, in our country.

Within our culture we have a sustainable structure where we can sustain Mother Earth and carry each other into our future. Our freedom is not as protected as it should be and our culture should be more recognised. Our laws have been going on for a long time, but it’s not seen seriously. Our laws are not looked at properly. If the mainstream law structure starts to recognise our way of living. It’s not just the law to govern ourselves, it’s the law to help us survive, live longer. There are aspects within mainstream law that can apply with our customary laws. The Northern Territory intervention wasn’t our agenda. Our system was totally overridden. Our leaders were seen as nobodies. They weren’t approached respectfully and, basically, it’s the government saying, ‘This is our country now.’ It’s disunity.

Yolngu people would like to see things happening. Our education is everything now. It’s the key to any jobs. There are so many ways our children are being taught, but it has to be meaningful to us too. Yolngu educators and Yolngu learners. If we can strengthen that area of education, our children can look at two worlds, where they come from and this world that is changing. If they can come out seeing that, they can be stronger and better Yolngu.”

Picture credit: Lydia Shaw 

Clinton Pryor – It’s been more than 10 months since Clinton Pryor set off from his home state, Perth, to walk to Canberra in the hope to deliver an important message to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the struggles and challenges of Indigenous people today. A Wajuk, Balardung, Kija and Yulparitja man from Western Australia, Clinton’s Walk for Justice gives voice to Indigenous rights, needs and the injustices of the past that still affect Indigenous people today.

“I’m proud to be part of a culture that’s been here since the creation of the Dreaming. Our people survived through the hard times back in the 1700s and 1800s and early 1900s and we’re still here. Our culture is getting stronger now. I’m really proud to be a sovereign man on this land that we all stand on.

Being forced off our ancestors’ lands into missions, to live life the European way when we lived our way for 60,000 years, traditional way with the land, looking after the land … being forced away, it hurt a lot of our people so badly. We still have to battle against a system that is doing its best to take away our sovereignty rights, where we’ve become British subjects, but we are not British subjects, we are people of this land that lived here for thousands and thousands of years, and we don’t want to become a part of a system that has only been here for 229 years. We want to mingle in with the modern world, but we just don’t want to give away our rights as sovereign people.

Our people should have access to what we had always for 60,000 years – to land, to hunt, to gather food, to teach our kids our language, our culture, and also to teach about this country’s past, and educate our young generation that our people had to go through so much to survive. We want to keep our sovereignty and we want to push for treaty talks.

We allow everyone else to have their religions and beliefs, temples and churches and mosques, but what about us? Why aren’t our beliefs being well respected? Sacred sites, that’s our church. We don’t go and blow up a church or blow up a mosque or blow up a temple, why demolish our sacred sites? We just want things to be done properly and not be treated like we’re garbage. We want to see the power given back to the people.”

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