Saturday, December 5, 2015

What I have been learning about sovereignty

Big roo woz ere. Path to the Keyholes, Minjerriba
(reflections and reporting on a turbulent time including discussions at Clancestry 2015)

What is happening in this country goes right back to the initial invasion. If you don't know what that means, you might like to read on.

Something I heard at Clancestry last night: sovereignty can never be ceded, when sovereignty is understood as the life force of the land that is carried through people's bloodlines to country. The land's life force cannot be destroyed, no matter how much it is battered and bruised by the consumer society that has landed and developed upon it.

Settler culture - the structures, buildings, concepts, rules - are "surface". These things have been placed on the surface, but don't regard or understand the bloodlines, connections back to creation beings. The surface culture doesn't have time to find out about the unexplored forms of knowledge and understanding that have existed is this place. However, this surface culture is being challenged by urgent evidence such as climate change, rising seas, poisoned creeks, droughts.

Aboriginal people - especially Elders - are worried. Their culture, their lives are still under threat. It's an achievement to live past 60. Many Elders are mourned and missed. Aboriginal rates of incarceration have risen, even after the Black Deaths in Custody report of the 1980s. Children are being taken from their families at an alarming rate, sometimes because they're not wearing shoes or because there's barely any food in the fridge, even after the Bringing Them Home Report of the 1990s.

As a person descended from white settler bloodlines, it's difficult to know how to be in this. I'm a person who was born on this land with the invisible cloak of white privilege. But there is a deep understanding as well about being compromised by this culture: my mother's bloodline was broken by a forced adoption based on the premise that the woman was too young to respectably have a child. And so it was done in secret and the young woman never shared this secret with anyone except her parents. This trauma - and plenty of unknown traumas - have been handed down through this culture where personal sovereignty, particularly that of the woman, has been so fragile for many generations.


In 2009, I inadvertently landed a role in the Queensland department responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy - I was kind of steered there from another job in the massive Communities department.

I was in that role when the department was implementing Alcohol Management Plans (restrictions) in remote Queensland communities, and I felt uneasy about such a random and untested "strategy". About that time, the NT intervention was going on as well, where Aboriginal men were getting the blanket branding in the media of sexual predators and land rights were again compromised. A couple of high profile people were claiming to speak for every mob across the continent. And they really weren't, and anyone who asked an indigenous person knew it.

Elders say, what was predicted at the time of those policies is happening now. An ice epidemic has been unleashed on Aboriginal communities. Band aids can work for surface scrapes, but they don't work for deep wounds and broken bones. Sometimes, if you try to heal things at the surface, the deep wound will fester and get infected, and the problem will get bigger than you could have imagined.

It all goes back to that initial invasion. It goes back to how we see ourselves as descendants of the settlers. It goes back to how we see this land.

Aboriginal people, who I've heard speaking over the past two days, feel there is still an intention - be it conscious or unconscious - to make them extinct. Right now, they feel unseen, as though they already don't exist in the eyes of this settler culture.

It's an unusual situation. As Vernon Ah Kee said, when travelling and talking about sovereignty with people around the world, the idea of not having sovereignty is unusual. Most people don't know what it feels like to not have sovereignty because they've always had it.

A moment of self-reflection: I too have rarely felt in this society, in this place, that I have real sovereignty. It's probably true to say that the times I have felt sovereignty have been times when I've been connected to nature, when I've tread gently through unspoilt lands to reach a remote lake on a sand island or a waterfall in a range of mountains. I've been alone, or with some fellow travellers who have felt similar respect and awe for the encounter. I've had barely any possessions with me at those times.

There is a dilemma. Who is my tribe? Who are my people? And if I "have" people, do any of us appreciate or understand what that means? This is where I feel the personal effect of the settler culture, the surface culture. I don't engage that well with small talk. Again, I'm not sure where I fit in. I get confused about the expectations of rights and responsibilities to the point where I enter martyrdom or enter resentment. It's difficult to find balance, a struggle to find reciprocity that satisfies everyone.


One of the most interesting points made during the discussions of the past couple of nights: when people talk about land rights, they are talking about an alien concept. The settler concept of "rights" is alien to the indigenous culture of Australia. Connection to country through bloodline just is. Sovereignty is in being.

And this brought me to hear, what was said to be the basis of Aboriginal culture: that all things are equal - humans, marsupials, fish, reptiles, rocks, waters - we are all equal, no more and no less. We need to honour all of these things in order to honour ourselves. And we need to honour ourselves in order to honour other people.

At the moment, under the settler culture, those links of honour are broken. My challenge - perhaps our challenge - is to mend them.

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