This is a question that can cause heated debate in Australia. This very issue is actually the sticking point for progress between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australia.
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that Aboriginal people were the first people to live in Australia. This is fairly obvious. It is backed by science and is widely accepted by people from all around the world. Our people have lived here for a minimum of 65,000 years and we are the very first people to walk these lands. There are a small minority of people who claim there was a race of pygmy people here before us, but this theory is simply not backed at all by experts.
The second thing that needs to be asked is how did England come to inhabit Australia. What were the laws of the time in 1788. This time was not a lawless time as some may like to believe. There were in fact three ways that England could legally have taken possession of Australia.
- Direct trade or purchase of land. (This did not happen)
- A signed treaty with the various Aboriginal nations. (This did not happen)
- A declaration of war. (This did not happen and would have been condemned if it did)
So if none of those three occurred, then what happened?
Australia was initially claimed as Terra Nullius. This is a term that means land without people. This was simply not true but was conveniently accepted at the time by the English as there was a belief that Aboriginal people were sub-human. This ridiculous notion of Terra Nullius managed to persist as a legal term until it was thrown out in 1992 after the Mabo land rights case. The reason why Terra Nullius remained for so long was because our people were locked away on reservations as Australia’s towns and cities began to develop.
There has always been resistance to the illegal occupation of Australia. In the early days we had resistance fighters who fought directly against the waves of settlers that were protected by units of armed military and police. In the mission days, there were those of us who were able to begin resisting through education and dialogue. Although some progress was made, the racist beliefs that Aboriginal people were somehow sub-human persisted. These beliefs and and the harsh restrictions placed on our people allowed for such a ridiculous claim of Terra Nullius to continue for so long.
The final part of this debate centers around whether or not Aboriginal people believe in ownership of land. In 1992 the Mabo case acknowledged that systems of land ownership pre-existed colonisation on Murray Island. Mabo was not Aboriginal as he was a Torres Strait Islander, however similar systems of land ownership do exist right across Australia. For thousands of years there have been set territories belonging to various tribal groups. The way ownership was passed down did vary but to say that we had no concept of ownership is as ridiculous as the notion of Terra Nullius.
Did you know that Bennelong (the very first Aboriginal man to speak English) was able to detail the land ownership systems of his people in the heart of present day Sydney?
Today if you google Aboriginal proverb; 90 percent of the results will show one single proverb. This proverb which I don’t believe to be Aboriginal is now being used as a ‘way out’ of the debate about Aboriginal ownership/sovereignty in Australia. The proverb that I am talking about begins with “We are all visitors to this time, this place…”. If this is an Aboriginal proverb, how come there is no information about which Aboriginal nation it comes from? Where is the original translation for such a detailed statement.
My challenge for the world in 2018 is for people to address the issue of Aboriginal sovereignty and the illegal occupation of Australia. To continue ignoring this issues means you are taking part in the continued oppression of our people. We must be allowed to have our Indigenous rights respected to protect our land, people and culture for the future.
We are also at a time where a balance between Aboriginal society and western society can be met. With a genuine effort towards ‘sustainable futures’ instead of ‘stronger futures’ we could really create something special in Australia. We could really become the best country in the world and a shining light towards the survival of our planet.