NAIDOC Week 2016

By Interview by Efrosini Costa

Tammy Solonec, Amnesty Australia's Indigenous Rights Manager (AIA/Renee Stamatis)
Tammy Solonec, Amnesty Australia's Indigenous Rights Manager (AIA/Renee Stamatis)
Amnesty International's Indigenous Rights Manager, Tammy Solonec explains the history and significance of NAIDOC week for all Australians, indigenous or not.

NAIDOC Week – established in 1938 – is the opportunity to proudly acknowledge and celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Under this year’s national theme; Songlines – The living narrative of our nation  diverse celebrations and activities will be held with immense enthusiasm and pride around Australia – from the remote and regional communities to our urban and metropolitan centres – and all Australians are encouraged to find out what is happening in their local area and join in the celebrations.” Find out more about events in your local area here.

To celebrate, we spoke to Indigenous Rights Manager at Amnesty International, Tammy Solonec (currently on leave) just after beginning her role, about the history and significance of NAIDOC week for all Australians, indigenous or not.

What is the greatest issue affecting Indigenous Australian relations today?

There is no one issue. It’s a variety of issues, all interlinked and all traced to colonisation. There is a lot of trauma and hurt, and there has been a great loss of cultural knowledge and authority. As a result of the past injustices, Aboriginal people fair badly in relation to most social indicators including wealth, health, housing, education and employment. There are also overarching issues like land rights (and the impact of development), governance (especially for Aboriginal organisations, many of which struggle), participation in decision making (at all levels of government and business), and a whole set of issues for the broader community regarding the way Aboriginal people are perceived and treated that need to be addressed through legislation, education and public awareness programs. The over incarceration of men, women and children, and the removal of children through the child protection system is a serious current social issue, which I’m glad Amnesty is working on.

As a long-time advocate of Indigenous rights, what do you remember as the first moment you understood the injustice faced by Indigenous people in Australia?

I don’t know that there was a first time I understood the injustice, more that it has been a gradual thing I’ve learned to understand as I have grown. My interest was first sparked when I was 8 years old and living in the regional WA town of Mullewa, about an hour’s drive inland from Geraldton. A riot broke out when I was there after a publican killed an Aboriginal man, and I wanted to know what caused the racial tension in the town.

Your passionate advocate of tackling the incarceration rates. How do you think this needs issue needs to be addressed and what would be your ideal outcome?

The ideal outcome is easy, we want the number of people detained to reduce and for outcomes for those who are detained to improve. The solution is less easy because there is so much that disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and so much that needs to change. The first thing that needs to change is the punishment focused mind set of our systems, which stem from Australia being a British penal colony. In recent years, justice advocacy groups have been campaigning for a change in the rhetoric from ‘tough on crime’ to ‘smart on crime’ – urging policy makers to shift the focus from punishment to prevention, early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation. Our messages of investment in crime diversion are starting to be heard with some government by in both in terms of data collection and diversionary programs, but it’s not really coordinated or consistent throughout Australia. We have been advocating for a concept called Justice Reinvestment that has been adopted in a number of US States with good success. It is a framework for developing ways to divert crime in communities, which is based on offender data collection. We’d like to see a strategic and coordinated approach to justice that prioritises prevention and diversion by governments in partnership with communities preferably on a national level, but if not on a state by state level, as they are doing in the US.

What would you say are the greatest myths or misconceptions about Aboriginal people that continue to pervade Australian society today?

That people are smarter and better than us. My mum used to remind me that we had the same brain as everyone else and she is right. Aboriginal people are human beings who are just as capable as anyone else, but because of the overt discrimination against us, and racism that has been fed to people in Australia, there is this almost unconscious prejudice held by most people who were raised here, that we are less than them. We’ve been placed at the bottom of the social ladder for sometime and although things are changing, there are still a lot of negative perceptions about Aboriginal people that need to change.

You are a proud Nyikina woman from Derby and have two children. What does your work mean for them and for your family and community?

I’m sure my kids and family are proud of the work I do – but for them, me doing this work means I am very busy with not much free time. I travel a lot and I am working most days, and often long hours. I have a lot of support structures in place to enable me to carry the workload, but I’m still sure the kids would prefer I had a regular job. I know that many people in the community appreciate and value the work I do but I don’t know what it means to them. I am involved in many organisations and campaigns and have worked with incredible people, many who are supportive of me and my work – so I hope that means I am making a difference.

This week is NAIDOC week, a time for all Australians to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture and contribution to society. Why is this important? What would you like to see happen this NAIDOC week?

I have a big involvement in NAIDOC, including being the Convenor and Executive Assistant for NAIDOC Perth and until December last year I was a member of the National NAIDOC Committee. I believe in it as a significant cultural celebration for Australia, which celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and communities. It brings our people and the wider community together in the spirit of reconciliation, and positively promotes our history, culture and people. There are flag raising ceremonies ceremonies, family days, balls, awards, art and film exhibitions, music gigs, sporting carnivals, book launches, fashion parades and more. Most events will have a Welcome to Country and speeches by Aboriginal Elders and leaders, and performances by Aboriginal artists. It is one of the busiest times of the year for Aboriginal people who work in the performing arts industry. It operates on a local and national level. What I find particularly fascinating about NAIDOC is it’s history. It stems from a human rights movement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that started back in the 1880s as a protest on Australia Day about the treatment of Aboriginal people. Those protests lead to the day of Mourning Conference and march in Sydney on Australia Day in 1938. That protest eventually led to the creation of the National NADOC Committee in 1957, which has now been in operation for 59 years. NAIDOC is loved and cherished by the Aboriginal community who worked tirelessly to keep it going. This NAIDOC Week I would like to see as many Australians as possible attending events and joining in on the celebrations, and for increased mainstream acknowledgement and awareness of it as a significant cultural activity for all Australians.

Tammy Solonec is currently on leave from her normal position as Indigenous Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia, in order to run for the seat of Swan in the 2016 Federal Election. Results have not yet been finalised. 


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