Twenty years ago, more than a quarter of a million people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge calling for change and a more reconciled Australia. And in recent days another movement for social justice and equality for Aboriginal Australia has developed momentum, somewhat conflicted by the disruption of COVID-19.
In the current and seemingly endless news cycle of public health and Black Lives Matter coverage, and just trying to generally get on with life recently, it may have passed you by that mid-last week was in fact the 20th anniversary of National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June) – the week dedicated to growing respectful relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
This is particularly poignant as this week also coincided with the ongoing protests associated with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody, and with the destruction of two ancient rock shelters by Rio Tinto – recognised as one of Australia’s oldest known Aboriginal heritage sites and evidence of human occupation from over 46,000 years ago. More information has also recently to come to light about past and upcoming plans to destroy more highly significant Aboriginal heritage sites as part of mining expansion.
National Reconciliation Week was dedicated as a time for all Australians to consider the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Reconciliation Australia says that acknowledging the 50,000+ year history of Indigenous Australia, pre- and post-colonisation, is “essential to our reconciliation journey”.
The date for NRW week come from two very significant milestones towards reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians:
- 27 May, 1967 was the date on which the Federal Government held a referendum asking Australians if parts of our Constitution that discriminated against the country’s First Peoples should be removed (the day before, 26 May, is also National Sorry Day – a day to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of Aboriginal people, particularly the ‘Stolen Generations‘).
- 3 June, 1992 was the date on which the High Court of Australia handed down its decision on ‘Mabo‘ – the legal rejection of ‘terra nullius’ & recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as having a continuous and special relationship with the land otherwise, known as the Native Title Act 1993.
More recently, a four-day First Nations National Constitutional Convention was held at Uluru culminating with a Statement from the Heart – endorsed by standing ovation by a gathering of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders on May 26, 2017 – primarily to recognise Aboriginal Australian’s in the nation’s constitution.
While it seems like we are still making heartachingly slow progress towards true equality; access to basic health, education, safety and respect, there has been some movement towards recognising the vast land and water management knowledge of Aboriginal people. In particular, as the impacts of climate change have become more intense and brutal in the context of the bushfires burning much of the east coast at the end of 2019 and into 2020, and ever frequent and longer droughts, with the effects of both likely to be felt permanently, and for many years to come.
Fire has been a land management tool used by Aboriginal people over large parts of Australia for thousands of years.
Aboriginal leaders say there has been ‘huge interest’ from farmers, landowners and communities wanting to learn about traditional burning – mostly commonly the use of smaller, more controlled flames than hazard reduction burns, and with more applications than just reducing fuel load.
Local knowledge from traditional custodians guides how practitioners use fire: current weather conditions, the size, shape, direction and duration of the burn, as well as habitat and vegetation, soil type, and moisture levels. e.g. fires will be allowed to burn hotter in locations where weeds or invasive natives need to be removed. Cultural burns also focus on rejuvenating local flora, protecting native animal habitat, and gaining understanding of the current condition of the land – as well as reducing fuel load and minimising fire risk.
Similarly, but perhaps with less of a spotlight, is traditional Aboriginal knowledge on water management within the Australian landscape.
However, the National Water Commission’s Second Biennial Assessment of Progress in the Implementation of the National Water Initiative (2009) reported that:
It is rare for Indigenous water requirements to be explicitly included in water plans, and most jurisdictions are not yet engaging Indigenous people effectively in water planning processes (NWC, 2009).
In an effort to increase Aboriginal involvement in water planning, and promote Indigenous water knowledge from the past and present along with a vision for the future, AWA/WSAA launched the Talking Water video series last week.
In the first video we hear from Aboriginal elders and custodians from the Western Arrernte people, Central Arrernte people and Warlpiri people in Central Australia. ‘Kwatja Ngkama’ is the Western Arrernte translation for ‘Talking Water’. The interconnectedness of water systems, the rich heritage and environmental values associated with healthy water systems, the loss of environmental diversity and resources as a result of the impact of historical and current landuse, and the benefit of sharing knowledge and working together are some of the issues touched upon in this first video.
The video features:
- Kevin ‘Mpitjana’ Ungwanaka, Custodian of Irrmankarra (Running Waters)
- Que ‘Nakamarra’ Kenny, Custodian of Lhere Pinte (Finke River)
- Peter ‘Mbitjana’ Renehan, Custodian of Lhere Mbantua (Todd River)
- Benedict ‘Kngwari’ Stevens, Custodian of Lhere Mbantua (Todd River)
- Ned ‘Jampijimpa’ Hargraves, Warlpiri Elder and Traditional Owner Pirlinyanu
It is everyone’s responsibility to actively seek out and learn from knowledge such as this, and educate themselves on the reality for Aboriginal Australia as well as the vast lore that they are willing to share.
More than ever, with recent ongoing environmental emergencies, public health crises, and racial tensions, the 2020 National Reconciliation Week theme of being #InThisTogether is particularly resonant in ways which could not have been foreseen when announced last year. It does remind us whether in a crisis or in reconciliation, working respectfully together will only benefit us all and result in a kinder, richer, and environmentally diverse and beautiful Australia.
(Did you know: Neville Thomas Bonner became the first Aboriginal parliamentarian in 1971 after being elected as Senator for Queensland?)