Message from the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous): NAIDOC Week

Here at La Trobe last week we’ve been celebrating Victorian NAIDOC Week, and now we are celebrating National NAIDOC Week. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee and grew from long-standing desires to improve Non-Indigenous Australia’s awareness of our shared history, since colonisation, along with the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s NAIDOC Themes are: VOICE. TREATY. TRUTH. Let’s Work Together for a Shared Future.

When Indigenous Australia casts a vote at local, state and federal government elections that does not necessarily mean that those who end up elected will deliver on the range of aspirations Indigenous Australia has. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have pushed, over a long period, for a direct say in how our lives are governed. You may be familiar with the latest proposal: the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Developed through national consultation, this lays out a rationale and a constitutionally-enshrined mechanism for just such a ‘First Nations Voice’ – but, so far, has been resisted by federal government.

In the early nineties, I took my then pre-school daughter to Blues Fest at Byron Bay. She struggled to stay awake, but wanted desperately to see and hear Yothu Yindi perform their giant hit song. She looked up as they started, got out a few repetitions of “Treaty! … Yeah!” and fell asleep again.  She turned thirty-three last week, but we still have no treaty. We’re all living on un-ceded territory.  Many of you will be aware that Aotearoa/New Zealand has had a treaty, the Treaty of Waitangi, since the 1840s. The Statement from the Heart wants to address this: it calls for a Makarrata Commission to oversee a treaty-making process, but the Yolgnu word ‘makarrata’ has complex layers of meaning. In particular, it draws our attention to the need to actively ‘make’ peace after conflict. And conflict there was – and hurt there still is – post violent dispossession, frontier wars, forcible child removal, indentured labour and a formal, and informal, system of de facto Apartheid. 

In the absence of federal action, some states have stepped up. In this state, a three-year process of community consultation will culminate with an election, this month, for a First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. This group will then negotiate a framework for a treaty. The Victorian treaty advancement commissioner, Jill Gallagher, has overseen a process that is arguably the furthest along in the land, though there is a similar sense of pushing forward – including negotiating directly at an Indigenous governance organisation level to a state government level – in other parts of the country, with some advances in South Australia and early days in the Northern Territory.

Fifteen years ago, I was part of a small team that interviewed over thirty Aboriginal men, who as boys had been institutionalised in one particular home for taken children, the ‘stolen generations’. They told us of their de-humanised and brutal treatment at Kinchela Boys Home, near Kempsey on the north coast of New South Wales. They, their partners and their children all had to deal with the legacy of those times. Apart from services to help them heal, the single biggest wish they had was for the ‘truth’ – of their experience, and its resonance down the generations – to be told.  And inform a better future.

We should, and can, work together for a better, shared future. That only has a chance, however, if we’re grown up enough, as a nation, to grasp the nettle of our shared past.

Professor Dennis McDermott, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous)