With Reconciliation Week in sight, which coincides with the end of my studies, I feel the need to take a step back and reflect on what Reconciliation Week symbolises and means for Indigenous Rights here in Australia. As a Native American woman I come in with a slightly different frame of reference. In the United States, Native American people have land, sovereignty and the right to self-determination. Here in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been deprived of these rights along with the freedom to maintain their languages, culture and connection to the land.
However, Indigenous Australians were finally given the respect of an apology, which is well overdue in the US. And along with that came the concept of reconciliation and unity. This framework is absent in American society. It is very much the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Although an apology is an inadequate attempt at providing real change in the area of self-determination and Aboriginal Affairs, it is still a significant step toward promoting cultural awareness and recognising and taking responsibility for the atrocities of the past.
I came to Australia to study human rights with an Indigenous focus and work with an organisation that works towards Indigenous rights and positive change. I was fortunate to find an internship with the New South Wales Reconciliation Council (NSWRC) who are dedicated to raising cultural awareness from a grassroots level by providing channels for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to engage with reconciliation efforts in the community. They accomplish this by putting together cultural events, workshops, youth art exhibitions and musical events which provide a platform for individuals to create dialogue and personally engage with the idea of reconciliation, Indigenous rights, social justice, and equality. I have had the chance to contribute to their work toward positive change, closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and working toward constitutional recognition for one of the oldest Indigenous peoples in the world.
My position at NSWRC also provided another avenue for me to gain more understanding of international Indigenous human rights. I joined 30 other Indigenous participants at the Diplomacy Training Program: Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights & Advocacy in Sabah, Malaysia last month.
The training helped to put human rights and Indigenous rights into a global perspective. This program had an Asia-Pacific focus and drew participants from countries all across the region. We worked together to engage with and understand the obstacles that different Indigenous groups face within their individual countries and throughout the world. We also engaged with groups from local Indigenous communities who shared with us their personal struggles in fighting for their rights. They are currently facing displacement of their lands due to palm oil plantations and the building of hydro-electric dams. We approached human rights and Indigenous rights advocacy work with the goal of creating a global Indigenous community where we can strengthen our rights by working together and supporting one another.
Reconciliation Week is upon us and now is the time to engage with the concept of reconciliation and what it means for each and every one of us. It’s time to take reconciliation efforts one step beyond an apology and give Aboriginal Australians the respect they deserve and have been deprived of for so many years. As I head back to the U.S. I plan to take my knowledge gained here and put it into action. I hope to use my experiences and knowledge gained throughout this year to bring the concept of reconciliation and a unified country to American soil. Until we move away from ‘us’ and ‘them’, we will always have a wall between us which allows for racism and bigotry. I hope to break down this wall and create a new era of Indigenous and non-Indigenous unity that looks toward the future with solidarity.