In 1964 my family joined with others to make the Yirrkala bark petition, which is now displayed in Parliament House, Canberra. The main reason for that petition was to protect our land, law and culture from people who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand our way of life. At the time, the federal government didn’t listen to us — it allowed a big bauxite mine and town to go ahead. It also ignored our elders who wanted to prevent bad influences such as alcohol coming into our country.
For more than 30 years we were told by each federal government how important self-determination is. But there was never any true self-determination. Money to support our community projects and initiatives such as land management, the homeland movement and indigenous enterprises was always very hard to come by. And there were never any real jobs made available in our communities, even though many people worked hard for years on training money. Education, too, was limited and poorly delivered. The same thing happened with housing and health. We became more and more overcrowded and sickness increased, along with drinking and fighting.
Yet none of this ever prevented the most recently arrived non-indigenous workers from getting decent housing and wages ahead of our own people, including people such as qualified teachers and office staff who had been working steadily for many years.
And now it seems that our whole culture is being blamed by government and media for the problems associated with grog, poor education, a lack of jobs, houses and health care. The main problem our culture is being blamed for is child abuse. I want to say clearly that abuse of children is something we mothers and grandmothers are very worried about, because family is even more important to us than it is to most non-indigenous people. But such abuse is not limited to Aboriginal communities. And it occurs in Aboriginal communities because of the situation we are living in, not because of our culture.
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We live in circumstances that are not of our own making and without the kind of support that other people in Australia have had for many years. The small number of persons who go against their families and bring shame on us all must be held accountable — but it is not the fault of our society as a whole. Many of us do not drink or take drugs, and we protect, respect, love and care for our children, our families and our cultural traditions.
The Government is now trying to say that land, community councils and the permit system are also part of the reason for child abuse. But this is a lie. Has any non-Aboriginal council ever been taken over by the government because of child abuse occurring in its area? Has anybody in non-indigenous Australia had their land taken away because of child abuse in their community? I don’t think so.
Our relationship to our land has nothing to do with child abuse. It is the foundation of our spirit and identity, it connects our families and without it our children will suffer even more. More damage will happen to them if anybody is allowed to walk into our land, and if we have to put up with more government people who will not listen to us because they think they know what is best.
What gives this Government the right to say that we are not allowed to control our future, our lives, our families or who comes into our country? Or that our cultural way of life is no good? We are human beings with our own languages, kinship system, religious beliefs, and traditional ways of controlling access to country. And we are living in our own land, where our families have grown up for hundreds of generations. No other people in this country of Australia can say the same thing, or identify with our land in the way that we do.
So I want to say that we do honestly welcome any real help with the problems created by our contact with non-indigenous society, and by past failures to fund and deliver basic services, but we will not be treated as though we have no rights in our own land or lives. Like our elders before us, we will continue to stand up for what is right and fair. And for who we are. I am not just talking here for the sake of it: I am a senior traditional owner of the Yirrkala community land, which the Federal Government is trying to take from my family, without even having the guts or the courtesy to speak to us.
Don’t use our children as an excuse for stealing this land away from us.