This article was written by ASEN member Em Russ in 2008.
Activism can become very problematic if non-Aboriginal activists are not frequently engaged in dialogue with Aboriginal people. Without active dialogue between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians self-determination will inherently be discouraged. Activism is about challenging the status quo and acting to change it. Active dialogue discontinues the construction commonly found in mainstream society of Indigenous Australians as the ‘other’. Through positive dialogue and contact with Aboriginal communities, non-Indigenous activists can learn on a personal and practical level about the culture that they’re fighting to keep alive. Environmental activists can learn how to live with and care for this land from Aboriginal people whose ancestors were caretakers of it for tens of thousands of years. Activism is about empowering all people to take control of their world, promoted through dialogue, skill-sharing and broad contact with all cultures, discouraging exclusivity. Aboriginal activism can very effectively involve non-Aboriginal people who acknowledge their role of support and solidarity and act in consultation and accordance with Aboriginal people. Many opportunities can be created in activist circles for Aboriginal people to share knowledge and skills, heightening the potential for direct action to effect real social change.
Complexities, Complications and Positive Alternatives
There are many ongoing complexities of cross-cultural negotiation and collaboration in Aboriginal activism. It is common for non-Indigenous activists to be wary of involvement in the struggle for justice for Indigenous people. Non-Aboriginal people wishing to actively support Aboriginal struggles can be fearful of hostility as well as their own cultural insensitivity and therefore withdraw. Racial hypersensitivity can smother open discussion in both communities. Active dialogue and contact that is respectful between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people in activism should dispel common fears of saying something that is considered not ‘politically correct’. Non-Aboriginal people have the responsibility to critically engage in these debates rather than hide behind their non-representatives.
Non-Aboriginal people who do join Aboriginal political groups can find themselves secondary in status and authority while actually still appropriating power in such groups through the routine exercise of their skills and cultural competencies. Non-Aboriginal activists granted greater responsibilities in an Aboriginal campaign, without adequate acknowledgement of their power, could weaken organisational autonomy and entrench neo-colonial subordination within a rhetoric of self-determination.
‘One of the greatest areas of underlying tension and dispute between Kooris and their non-Koori supporters is how these support groups and their members relate to Koori people. Often without even realising it, many non-Kooris are patronising and paternalistic in their dealings with Koori people, and thereby present themselves to Kooris as little different from those who oppose justice for Aboriginal Australians. Also, failure to properly understand the importance of “Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs” to indigenous people can create tension where white supporters think they know better than the Koori community.’ Gary Foley (1999)
Many non-Aboriginal activists taking a leadership role are unable to see the dangers such dependencies pose, relying on the ‘purity’ of their intentions. It is important for a non-Aboriginal activist to realise that they have a major role to play in their own communities, in creating awareness and encouraging understanding of the Aboriginal struggle for justice. This is when real cross-cultural dialogue is essential, along with addressing one’s racial privilege. Analysing the construction of whiteness is important as a means of reconceptualising the grounds on which white activists participate in anti-racist work.
On a practical basis, any actions, meetings, camps or conferences should invite Aboriginal peoples, elders especially, to participate and share their knowledge. Activists can acknowledge traditional owners before any meeting takes place and also integrate Indigenous words into their vocabulary, especially when referring to place (eg. I grew up on Yorta Yorta country). This ensures non-Indigenous Australians are aware and conscious of Aboriginal history and the idea that we live, love, work and act on sacred land that was, and is continually, stolen and exploited by our European ancestors.
Case study: ASEN Indigenous Solidarity Working Group
The ASEN (Australian Student Environment Network) Indigenous Solidarity Working Group, formed in January 2007, provides a networking opportunity for student and non-student groups and individuals who are demonstrating and building Indigenous solidarity. So far, a cross-cultural convergence of non-Indigenous activists and the Wiradjuri peoples at Lake Cowal took place over Easter. Activists spent much time listening to the elders’ knowledge of the sacred wetland (under threat from large-scale cyanide-leaching gold mining) to learn and strategise for stop-work action that would effectively give voice to the Wiradjuri peoples struggle in the media. The working group aims to ensure Indigenous elders will have fundamental roles in the mid-year national conference ‘Students of Sustainability’. Also on the agenda are community outreach, discussion, skill sharing and personal education around Indigenous struggles, sovereignty, solidarity and racial privilege.
Aboriginal activism seeks to end the domination of one people by another, and should be based on ideas generated from those who have suffered. Activism should work to redefine the limits of white political domination of Indigenous peoples. One of the possible inadequacies of activism is that it can be based on white/European methods and models. The nature of cross-cultural activism involves compromise. Non-Aboriginal activists must be open-minded and ready to do things the Aboriginal way, which may mean following instructions from elders in conjunction with consensus decision making. Activist circles should aspire to create spaces where all involved feel comfortable and confident in taking action. Working together for political and social change as non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people strengthens the cause. It is necessary because Aboriginal justice will not only affect Indigenous people, but change Australian society as a whole, becoming a collection of communities believing in and working always for equality and sustainability.
Foley, Gary. ‘Whiteness and Blackness in the Koori Struggle for Self-Determination.’ The Koori History Website, June 1999. http://app.lms.unimelb.edu.au/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab=courses&url=%2Fbin%2Fcommon%2Fcourse.pl%3Fcourse_id%3D_40924_1, Accessed 23/4/07
Ruth Frankenberg, White women, race matters: the social construction of whiteness, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1993.
Hollinsworth, D. ‘Community Development in Indigenous Australia’. Community Development Journal Vol 31 No 2, 1996.
Turner, P. ‘Administration and Self-Determination’. In C. Fletcher. (ed.), ‘Aboriginal Self-Determination in Australia’ Aboriginal Studies Press. Canberra. 53-56.
For any Sydneysiders, Sydney Uni Student Environment Action Collective (SEAC) are hosting a discussion on Thursday May 24 on how to be a good ally in Aboriginal struggles. (NB: It won’t be a ‘lesson’ on how to be most effective and respectful! It will be a discussion of people’s experiences.) See here for more info: https://www.facebook.com/groups/225181824259783/