I belong to the Tanganekald, Meintangk, and Bunganditj Peoples of the Coorong and South-East of South Australia. Acknowledging my belonging has not always been easy. Growing as a young person, my belonging was normalized by a series of categories. For instance, the South Australian education system referred to my mother as half-caste. Therefore, in the 1960s while I was at school, I was called “Half-caste Casey”. As a very young child, whenever I looked at the colour of my hands, I had to ask my mother: “Who are we?”. I was told: “You are who you are. You belong to Tangalun, that is, the place at the end of the Tangane Peoples’ territory, and the boundary place of the Meintangk People”. My mother’s grandmother was born before the colonial state came to occupy our lands, and these are the stories that were held onto across a violent colonial frontier.

When, as a child, I looked at the map, I couldn’t find any of those names I was told. I only read names like Kingston; named after the Premier of South Australia, or Robe; named after the Governor of South Australia, as well as Mt Gambier, after the Admiral Gambier of the Royal Navy. These names dominated the map. For me it was an early learning of colonial mapping. When I look at the Aboriginal maps of Australia today, I see our ancient names still marginal or not even there. In 1840, the killing of several white settlers was attributed to the Milmendjeri of the Tanganekald. The British military responded. There are few records of what happened to the Milmendjeri/Tanganekald People, but at that time, our identity was buried, as were the bodies of the ancestors who were murdered in retribution.

Even native title claims, which have appropriated my old people as the apical ancestors for their claimant group, call our territories by another name. But the truth is that I belong to the Tanganekald, Meintangk and Bunganditj, always have, and always will. This is quietly the truth. So, it is across the colonial history of this continent that we now call Australia by this name. It is through this history that the normalization of colonial identities occurred and the struggle for the First Nations People intensified. It is the struggle to hold onto and remember ancient identities to whom we belong.

What does it matter? It matters a lot, because the colonial naming of our lands and identities was, and still is, a part of a process of normalizing colonization, while imposing colonial power. In more recent colonial history, a major highway through our traditional territories was named the Princes Highway after Edward VIII — the British monarch who abdicated in 1936. Do questions of authority matter? That is: What is named after whom, and when? I believe they do, because authority is the thing which can harden or counter power. However, a power that is used to impose, legitimize, and normalize unlawful occupation can be countered by Indigenous authority.

I acknowledge the authority of First Nations Peoples across the continent that we now call “Australia”.

From a Standpoint of Law: Whose Law?

I studied law in the late 1970s and 1980s to understand the colonial logic, language, and tools, which were used to “normalise” the unlawful occupation of First Nations’ territories. Upon this continent, a colonial foundation was based on the fiction of terra nullius, which means that there were no inhabitants until the British. “Australia” remains based on that same fiction, regardless of the High Court Aboriginal title decision.[1] The colonial logic of terra nullius retains de-jure power while Aboriginal Peoples’ centre and authority is derived from our laws, cultures, language, and relationships to the natural world. That’s our authority. In more than two centuries, the colonial occupation still fails to answer our question: By what lawful authority do you occupy our lands?

Australian legal history reveals an occupation by force. An occupation by force is unlawful in international law, but in practice, international law mechanisms are difficult for the nations to access under colonial occupation, and thus provide no remedy for its unlawfulness. Where they are accessible, arguments situated in international law are ignored by the Australian government, as we have seen in some recent determinations made by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.[2] Aboriginal laws hold an ancient authority which persists, but the military power of a self-proclaimed legitimate state opposes, annihilates, and ignores them.

Solutions and Remedies

Where are the remedies and a future peace which would enable us to be what we are, to name and claim whom we are, to live beyond the welfare doled out by the occupation with our own food, shelter, and water security? The space of the settler-colonial state power names and claims whom we are and determines whether, and how, we live. We live our lives in a space of token gestures of recognition, while the state is the only entity to determine the processes and outcomes.

The United Nations developed the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The visionary minimum standards developed initially to prevent the genocides of Indigenous Peoples, which are ongoing globally. However, they can only be rhetorical in the context of Article 46 of UNDRIP which enables the colonial state to determine how or if Indigenous concerns might be addressed. The Declaration establishes standards for engagement, but they are standards kept within the confines of state power to determine whose interests will prevail.

Our ancient laws have remedies and solutions to promote and enhance life in terms of shelter, food, and water security, for all people as minimum standards to life. The Australian settler-colonial state laws daily breach those same Aboriginal laws which have ensured survival in the land for millennia. For example, the state mandates laws which support land clearing, the over-allocation of water for irrigated agriculture, the destruction of our water ways, fracking and mining, and the rural dumping of toxic and dangerous wastes. If we are the solution, then how do we continue to hold an Aboriginal centre under the duress of colonial power?

Thinking through solutions and remedies requires unpacking our thinking on “recognition”, and how “recognition” programs, as we have seen them come and go, are translations from a neoliberal paradigm. From that paradigm, what are the possibilities of moving beyond the colonial matrix of power? Particularly, it is when colonial power determines and defines what “recognition” is.


Beyond the conundrum of colonial power is decolonization. How might decolonization occur? How might we begin to decolonize and, in that journey, go beyond the risk of slippage back into neoliberal frameworks of recognition? Natsu Saito writes that “most importantly, the way in which decolonization occurs must be freely chosen by the colonized; it’s not a choice for the colonizing power to make.”[3] But do First Nations have the privilege of choice beyond a neoliberal future, and submersion within a colonial state? Can we afford not to have a plan to decolonize?

So, when we speak of decolonization, how might it become more than words? As a process, how might it go further than the chat shows and band wagons of recognition that we have seen run and mandated by state? How might we share the things we know and map the road towards decolonization and freedom? In considering future possibilities, one starting point is to understand the complexities of colonialism and how it constitutes itself as a matrix of a power intended to be unbreakable. In proposing a dialogue, we should also understand how players within the colonial matrix contribute to the ongoing project of colonialism. Is there another way of being, or a horizon beyond the colonial matrix?

Indeed, it is an illusion to believe that there is not. Aboriginal peoples have been managing their lives in relationship with the natural world since the first sunrise. This is not illusory, but fact. We have always been here as Nations of Peoples. We are in contradiction to terra nullius. Another horizon predates colonialism and continues to exist under the lies of terra nullius. What we mean of decolonization is the aim of bringing about the restitution of Aboriginal country and life in such a way that it is not a metaphor for the things we want to do to improve Aboriginal lives and ways of being.

Decolonization is concrete and real to the lives of Aboriginal Peoples. It is not just another decade-long chat show. It is not locked into talking about “rights” in a future time to come, and it doesn’t disappear into the neoliberal agenda of the colonial states. It is beyond the agenda which reproduce a rights discourse that has no connection to or reflection in self-determined Aboriginality. The decolonization project for the First Nations is more than a civil and political quest for the human image but is inclusive of all life. The human is part of the whole.

First Nations have obligations to sustain the country for the benefit of future generations. This is a responsibility that we still carry. Now it must often be carried out under duress and in difficult circumstances. The Australian state continues to determine the future and balance Aboriginal interests against corporate developments and industry. These often threaten the futures we stand to uphold and protect. Non-sustainable agricultural practices, unconventional gas extraction, fracking for natural gas, uranium mining, and coal mining, all pose wide-scale threats to the territories of First Nations across Australia.[4] In Southern and Western Australia, there are populations which have been living on mined ground water for a century. Now, the basins are being sucked dry, and the only alternative is desalinated seawater.

First Nations have a deep understanding of whom they are in the world, not limited by what it means to be human, but whom you are in respect of where you come from, who your relations are, and what it means to be a Tanganekald, Meintangk, and Bunganditj, or a member of any other First Nation. Within the colonial matrix there has always been pressure to perform constructed and imposed colonial identities. The process of colonialism has produced a range of terra nullius identities: “natives”, “British subjects”, “Australian citizens”, and “native-titled persona”, all performed within the colonial hierarchy.

What does it mean to be Aboriginal? How do we be whom we are? How do we carry the Aboriginal knowledges which we still do, even though for many, they are fragments and remnant pieces after the genocidal centuries of colonial invasion? How might we advance discussions and knowledges of colonialism to better enable decolonization? How can we have truthful discussions that won’t be sabotaged by neoliberal agents? How might we be and stand our ground in our Aboriginality? To do this we need to exit the matrix of colonialism and realise the horizon and the space of our own Aboriginal being.

The Conundrum of Recognition: Why is an Aboriginal Framework Essential to Aboriginal Futures?

What do we mean by recognition, and from whose perspective are we interpreting and translating “rights”? Who determines what Aboriginal rights are? Should an Aboriginal framework apply in the construction of Aboriginal Rights? If our rights accrue because of our Aboriginality, then we need to remain Aboriginal peoples, as we have always been, and as we will always be into the future. From this standpoint, it should become clear that the effect of any consent to cession, extinguishment, or assimilation, would be counterproductive to our ongoing right to be Aboriginal, and to hold Aboriginal rights.

The Exclusion of Aboriginal Ways of Being Underpins the Foundation of Empire

To advance this view, we should consider Australian legal history in more depth: How was “Australia” founded upon the places of our ancestors, and on whose ontological and epistemological ways of knowing? Our ancient knowledges and laws were excluded upon the imposition of empire, colonies, and the creation of Australian law. Aboriginal world views are framed by an obligational and relational way of being, more importantly than individual rights-based approaches. For example, I belong to the country because of my connections and relationship, and not because I have a title of ownership. An individual ownership approach makes collective belonging and caring for country vulnerable to the power of whatever goes within the “business-as-usual” paradigm of “progress”.

The Australian Constitution is the result of a process of constructing, establishing, and constituting a legal foundation for what was (and remains) a colonizing mission. It was and still is a process of making legal and independent colonial states into a commonwealth structure. The Australian Constitution was and still is about the British Empire obtaining constitutional status and legitimacy for its invasion of the continent that we now call “Australia”, and throughout the process of constituting and legitimizing the colonial, Aboriginal peoples have been deemed non-existent of the past, and have been considered a local problem. We were constructed as uncivilized, “savage”, and “backward” peoples. This construction is both derived from and reflected in the foundation of the Australian legal system.

Terra nullius meant Aboriginal peoples did not exist as subjects in law, which means that they shared the same status as flora and fauna. In my view this is not altogether a bad thing, as in Aboriginal legal systems of obligation and relationality, we are all related—human, land, animal, and plant. That is the law. But from 1788 onwards, that is; after the time of invasion, the colonisers did not have the knowledge or the understanding of any other way of being in law. To this day, acknowledgement of whom we are as First Nations has not developed into any degree of respectful understanding and engagement on the half of the Australian state. From within the colonial matrix, Aboriginal peoples were never intended to survive the invasion, genocide, and occupation of our lands. Instead, the expectation was that we would all be dead, absorbed, or assimilated, and never considered to be sovereign peoples on our terms. Yet we did survive, we are still here today, we have never ceded our Aboriginality.

So, First Nations survive colonialism, and for the time being, life goes on.

[1] Mabo v Queensland [No 2] (1992) 175 CLR 1.

[2] A Request for Urgent Action was made by a group of First Nations Peoples living under the effects of the Northern Territory Intervention to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in February 2009. The Request for Urgent Action argued that the suspension by the Commonwealth of Australia of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Australian Government’s failure to consult adequately with affected Aboriginal communities, violates articles 2, 5, 6, and 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, opened for signature on December 21, 1965, UNTS 660 (entered force January 4, 1969). The Request for Urgent Action resulted in a request by the Chairperson of the Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that the Australian government lift its suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. The government was also requested to redesign the measures of the ‘emergency response’ in consultation with the Aboriginal communities affected by the legislation.

[3] Natsu Saito, “Asserting Plenary Power Over the ‘Other’: Indians, Immigrants, Colonial Subjects, and Why the U.S Jurisprudence Needs to Incorporate International Law,” Yale L. & Policy Review, vol. 20, no. 2 (2002), p. 479.

[4] The largest uranium mine in the world is at Roxby Downs in South Australia. The mine and processing plant have degraded the surrounding natural environment and rely upon the Great Artesian Basin underground waters around Lake Eyre, the land of the Arabunna People. While the state advises that they have obtained consent, Arabunna elder Kevin Buzzacott has protested the development since the 1980s, insisting that no consent to the destruction around the mine could ever be given from an Aboriginal standpoint. The processing plant uses 50 million litres of water per day. The water is drawn from ancient underground water reserves which connect us all in our future needs and dependencies, and thus should not be squandered on concentrating heavy metal ores. A new mine is being proposed on the lands of the Martu Peoples in Western Australia by the Canadian company Cameco. Many of the Martu First Nation claim they have not agreed to the process. In June 2016, the Martu continued their protest against the mine being developed: Angus Sargent, “Martu People Leave on 110km March in Protest Against Pilbara Uranium Mine,” ABC News, 4/6/2016, accessed on 20/2/2021 at: https://ab.co/2NDJPe7

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