As a kid growing up in rural Queensland I was patently aware that the parcel of land my family and many hundreds of other displaced Aboriginal people lived on was not their land of choice. My grandparents were forcefully relocated from their traditional lands, by the government of the day, to make way for the ever increasing expansion of the rural sector for new grazing and agricultural pursuits of the brave and adventurous white settlers.
It remains a tragedy to this day that traditional owners of the land my elders were forced on to had to endure two major impediments to their eons old lifestyle. The first setback was the violent upheaval by marauding settlers who sought to build precisely on their tranquil land located on a wide stretch of the meandering river with bountiful wildlife and white sandy shoreline. The second impediment was the realisation that they had to share their new fringe-camp confines, on the least desirable land adjacent to the town’s rubbish tip or sewerage treatment works, with unfamiliar traditional owners from lands far away.
With the gradual passing of time and the entry into my double figure years I acquired, from my economics class, the word “commodity” to add to my expanding vocabulary. My recently graduated teacher, on a hardship posting to the parched interior of our large state, informed my class that the word meant “article of trade”. In trying to get a fix on this new word I naively asked my father if our traditional homeland, hundreds of kilometres south west of our fringe camp and which I was constantly reminded by my elders not to forget, was a commodity that they had cause to dispose of. I received a reverberating “no” and given a valuable lesson on land rights which I fondly recall today.
Unfortunately circumstances, for some of our so-called "Indigenous leaders", have changed and they are now endeavouring to solve the ills of our world (alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, high unemployment, low education outcomes, problem gambling, child abuse, and so on) by the stealthy introduction of the word “commodity” to our daily speech. Indirectly they are trying to desensitise this word to make it sound palatable.
Warren Mundine, incoming ALP President, when speaking on The World Today on April 7, 2005 said he cautions the Prime Minister about sweeping changes to land rights legislation. He said, “… what we're trying to encourage now is for that to happen that we do have what we call a salt and pepper approach in our communities, of communal and private ownership for enterprise development and for asset building, as well as having government there which provides the infrastructure such as schools, medical centres, etc”.
Federal Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesperson, Kim Carr, speaking on the same program, expressed concern about Mundine’s comments suggesting instead that this recent debate, also entered into by the Prime Minister, is aimed at trying to encourage people to accept the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land. Carr said, “… very few people will be able to rush into the land market. There is no asset increases in prices through housing in remote communities. This is a proposal which goes to taking Aboriginal land for other economic purposes by people other than Aboriginals.”
I would suggest an overwhelming majority of Indigenous people would distance themselves from entering into the murky waters of untested economic development, with its associated legal contracts, on traditional land and instead support stronger protection of their hard-fought land rights in line with views shared by the Kokatha women of South Australia.
ABC News Online (April 19, 2005) reported that the Kokatha women from the Yellabinna region, north of Ceduna, said a meeting with the Aboriginal Affairs Department yesterday has given them hope about the further protection of culturally significant land.
The State Government is planning to protect 500,000 hectares from mining, but the Kokatha women want the entire Yellabinna region protected. Kokatha spokeswoman, Sheena Coleman, said the department has agreed to include her people in the decision-making process on further protection of the area. She said the land contains sacred sites that have played a role in her people's culture for thousands of years.
"Time has come for us to take care of the land because when the land is destroyed there will be nothing," she said. "The land is part of our soul and we have to take the responsibility to preserve and maintain the environment because our future is reliant on what the land produces."
Indigenous people’s affinity to the land is well chronicled internationally. Chief Seattle’s Message of 1855 to the Great Chief in Washington is a profound proclamation which elegantly states:
How can you buy or sell the sky? If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. This we know - the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.
My elders tell me that we, like all other displaced traditional owners, may have been forcefully removed from our traditional homeland but at no time did we cede sovereignty to our land. The Government was unexpectedly reminded of this, in the famous Mabo case of June 1992, when High Court Justice Brennan announced to the world “... that fiction by which the rights and interests of Indigenous inhabitants in the land were treated as non-existent was justified by a policy which has no place in the contemporary law of this country”.
It would be more prudent for some of our so-called "leaders" to desist in entertaining vague notions of alternate land use arrangements and instead seek recompense from the Government for allowing their brave and adventurous white settlers to engage in grazing and agricultural pursuits on our land.