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Reclaiming Djarrbarrgalli: the spaces of anti-colonial resistance

In conversation with Gadigal descendant Nadeena Dixon about the reclamation of land for community, justice and dialogue.

Photography: Aman Kapoor

The reclamation of physical space is a fundamental requirement in resisting colonisation, and is a necessary precondition in the campaign for Aboriginal sovereignty. Last year marked some of the first protests to occur on the Domain parkland — or Djarrbarrgalli in traditional Gadigal language. Gathering in Djarrbarrgalli was momentous for the Indigenous justice movement as it represented the reclamation of traditional land for its original purpose as a meeting place. These protests in mid-2020, which drew comparisons between the treatment of Black people in the United States and here, took place away from the colonial monuments that litter most of Sydney’s urban landscape including Hyde Park.

The call to return to this space was instigated by traditional descendents of the area, who asserted their sovereignty and reclaimed the place as their own land after rediscovering its traditional name. These Gadigal descendents articulated that Djarrbarrgalli was a deeply important site of gathering and community in pre-colonial times, and to them it was the perfect place to come together today and continue fighting for justice and sovereignty. 

I sat down with Nadeena Dixon — one of the Gadigal descendents who was part of this process — to discuss how the reclamation of Djarrbarrgalli came about during the 2020 protests. We discussed the Indigenous experience within Sydney’s urban fabric, and the historical importance of reclaiming physical space to counter hegemonic cultural ideas within the colonial system.

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Seth Dias: Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your family?

Nadeena Dixon: I’m Nadeena Dixon, I’m an artist, an academic and a child of freedom fighters who have lived in the Sydney basin for 80,000 years. I’m also an educator, so I think it’s important to talk and transcend the bullshit we’ve been fed through very limited [colonial] narratives.

My mum is Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor; a Gadigal Elder. She was born in a time when Aboriginal people weren’t actually recognised as human beings in Australia, so for the first 14 to 15 years of her life she was treated as Flora and Fauna. At that time, Aboriginal peoples’ lives were completely controlled by government legislation and we were monitored by the Aborigines Protection Board — a very oppressive and dehumanising regime that was placed on Aboriginal people. That’s had a huge impact on us to this day. 

My grandfather was Dr. Charles ‘Chicka’ Dixon; he was heavily involved in the freedom fighter movement that brought about the ‘67 referendum that gave Aboriginal People the right to vote on their own sovereign land. He, being of the older generation, suffered extreme degradation, starvation, abuse and complete government control over his and all Aboriginal Peoples lives; adult people that had no rights, who weren’t even considered to be human. With the [child] removals policy we had lots of people, even in my own family, that were removed. They weren’t even able to form normal relationships because they had been institutionalised from such a young age, meaning they had no family structure or family environment to develop in. The impact [child removals] had on the psyche is far reaching through the generations, so we have inherited the legacies of intergenerational trauma, which is yet another reason to fight for justice.

SD: 2020 was a landmark year for the Black Lives Matter movement both here and overseas. How do you think this has shaped or influenced the Indigenous sovereignty movement in Australia? 

ND: We’ve always resisted as sovereign peoples who never ceded their sovereignty. We resisted from the very beginning. I suppose it hit this point where the world had to awaken to these realities. We realised that unless all of us are free, then none of us are free. This applies to all movements, such as marriage equality which came so late as well. It’s like, why are we even talking about these things so late in the day? It feels like there is a great need for connection and meaning as a global community; we want to connect to something bigger than us. The same goes for climate action today as well —  it’s all interconnected. The planet doesn’t care if we’re black, white or whatever. We have to come together and move above these illusions that separate us. The 2020 protests went a very long way in showing just how connected these things are and how united we need to be.

SD: Last year saw a change in venue for many Indigenous justice rallies, with Djarrbarrgalli (the Domain) becoming a key meeting point. Can you explain why this shift occurred?

ND: It was documented in the earliest colonial contact and mappings of the Sydney basin that all the prominent locations along the coastline had Aboriginal names. Growing up being a traditional descendent of the ancestors from this area, I always felt like our existence had been erased; and it literally had you know? It’s been under attack from the very beginning of colonisation and we’ve been pushed out of the city over time. There were rulings made that enforced curfews for Aboriginal people — they couldn’t be within the city limits after dark. People were rounded up and put into missions mainly out at La Perouse, Western Sydney and other Aboriginal missions where they were basically monitored and surveilled. So all of our history and our beautiful legacy had just been erased from the landscape in such a short time — less than 200 years out of 80,000 years of peaceful existence. We lived in another Black reality where we had such an awareness of these things existing, but the outer world didn’t present or mirror any of that. 

The site of Djarrbarrgalli is significant because it was a ceremony site; it was documented and known to be a ceremony site and a very significant area for Aboriginal people to gather and talk about important business. Then later on during the 1930s, there were significant Aboriginal people that would go there and speak about Aboriginal rights. There is an area within the site where people would stand on speaker boxes; people like Donny Dodd, Pearl Gibbs, Jack Patten and other community people. These were leaders who came out of Salt Pan Creek, which was a significant camp community of Aboriginal people that refused to live on the missions and be under the control of the government. There was an autonomous community that was quite large and lots of the early resistance of the 1930s came out of Salt Pan Creek. 

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As Nadeena articulates, there is a significant historical precedent of physical space being used as a base for counter-cultural development and political education against hegemonic ideas. One of the best examples of this is Salt Pan Creek.

Emerging in 1926, Salt Pan Creek was an autonomous camp of Aboriginal families and refugees. The new community had withdrawn from the Australian colonial project, rejecting the oppressive powers of the Aborigines Protection Board which required constant surveillance, containment and management of all Aboriginal people by settlers. Instead, they sought to establish a community where they could self-determine their future and launch a broader campaign for their sovereign land. The establishment of community and sovereign control in this historically rich place is seen by many as the beginning of the modern struggle for Indigenous Justice. Legendary Gumbaynggirr activist Gary Foley explains that the self-declared autonomy of Salt Pan Creek allowed the political growth and education of some of the foundational leaders in the movement. Historically influential Aboriginal leaders and some of those activists who spoke at ‘Speaker’s Corner’ spent time there in the late 1930s learning and defining the modern Australian anti-colonial movement in Sydney. The political planning and education that came out of the Salt Pan Creek community culminated in the 1938 Day of Mourning protest. This was one of the first major protests held in Australia on the 26th of January, or Invasion Day, and is considered the first public rally in the modern fight for Indigenous justice. With a cultural landscape that is dominated by colonial ideology, the reclamation of any physical space to then practice and teach counter-cultural ideas of anti-colonial resistance, must be realised to achieve true justice for Indigenous People.

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When asked about some of the major historical anti-colonial protests in Sydney and the importance of place to them, Nadeena immediately asserted the importance of land to community and gathering.

SD: These major historical protests relied on important geographical bases of resistance, such as Salt Pan Creek, The Block in Redfern or La Perouse. Do you think Djarrbarrgalli could be the next site of resistance?”

ND: I think it is, because it holds that energy of memory and it holds that energy of business [and] of coming together to benefit the broader community. It’s a place where we can hold space to seriously discuss these issues, so even within a contemporary context we can go there for business and for ceremony… I believe it’s the people’s ‘court.’ So we’re holding court there to say ‘this is what we want to happen, the power is with the people there and the people alone. In so many ways, the government has become a dictatorship and we’re being forced to live in their constructed realities which we don’t align to, and it’s a system that doesn’t value or include us at all, and chooses to value settlers instead. I think it’s this idea of gathering where my people could come together from all different clans and groups and give reverence to mark time, space and ceremony. The place [Djarrbarrgalli] becomes a magnetised space where you can assert intention for your cause, in this case resistance, in physical reality. It can become a portal or space holder for these energies and causes to gather power; this is the importance of a place to us and our struggle.

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Since 1938, we have seen many militant protests and celebrations of Aboriginal survival on days such as Invasion Day. Without a reclaimed place like Salt Pan Creek to organise and educate from, some of the foundational figures in the movement may never have had the space to learn to lead this campaign and instigate the movement we’re still fighting for today. Power is expressed and sustained in the reproduction of culture, which manifests itself in physical space; the act of establishing a new self-determined community in Salt Pan Creek allowed for the reproduction of counter-cultural anti-colonial ideas in a physical space. This could not have been done under the constant surveillance imposed on Indigenous People by the Aborigines Protection Board. Much like then, today we also need a place to connect and build community. While we may not live there, the connection to Djarrbarrgalli enables many of the same counter-cultural ideas forged at Salt Pan Creek to be expressed and refined. Without Djarrbarrgalli, those leading this movement are forced to educate and communicate in physical space that exudes dominant cultural ideas and could therefore invoke traumatic memories.

The way physical space plays a fundamental role in perpetuating dominant cultural ideas can be seen across Sydney in two overarching ways. Firstly, the grid system and central planning arrangement here is an imposition of Eurocentric geometric ideals which can be observed across the colonial world. Settlers and early planners of the city believed that the grid system was a superior system which would allow them to position themselves in the centre of power and override the undulations of the natural landscape. Settlers then began a rapid process of containment of Indigenous People, pushing families and communities out into missions located on the outskirts of the grid system, where many still reside today. Early planners believed that the grid represented the European power of intellect and organisation. It is a clear tribute to Euclidean geometry as an urban form, a system seen in Greek, Roman and Victorian cities; imposing this system on the colonial world laid the physical foundations of Eurocentric cultural dominance. 

Secondly, we also see the perpetuation of dominant culture across this city in the form of cultural memorials. Sydney is rife with these, with statues depicting Captain Cook, Governor Macquarie and Queen Elizabeth scattered across the Central Business District. Memorials or monuments may seem like a background concept in our day to day lives, but for those not within the dominant cultural group — for example, Indigenous People living on their stolen land — they serve as a constant reminder of the trauma of the revered figures and the political ideas from which they are excluded. Geographer Philip Hubbard argues that “Both literally and figuratively monuments and memorials set dominant socio-spatial relations ‘in stone”. Reclaiming space enables marginalised groups to express their culture away from physical reminders of their oppression. 

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Nadeena explains that there are abstract and physical forms of land reclamation. To her, both are equally important and need to be fully realised in order for true sovereignty to be achieved.

SD: There has been a broader international movement to decolonise places by renaming them, would you support something like this for the Domain, and could the reclamation assist in the broader fight for Indigenous Justice?

ND: I think naming is extremely powerful — it connects the energy of the language back to the Country that it’s come from, that it’s always existed within. So even us speaking the name is giving it power, and we’re putting a whole different shift in consciousness back into the place, into Country as a living entity. It’s not the case that we build the city over the country and then it becomes a nameless and story-less space with no history. But what happens [after 1788], and what has happened historically is the erasing of the human connection to it all. We’re hoping that by renaming, reclaiming and speaking the name back into awareness that we’re bringing back the energy of the countless generations that existed there.

SD: So in conclusion, what does reclaiming space mean to the Aboriginal community broadly? 

ND: I’m part of this emergent school of thought known as design sovereignty. There are so many ways that we can unpack space from Indigenous perspectives and methodologies… In contemporary society, we’re told that we’re nothing; just a number among many. The idea of space for community dialogue, ceremony, sharing the difficulties and celebrating the wins, and where we people can feel a part of something bigger than ourselves will bring nourishment, joy and resistance. [It] is a fundamental requirement of achieving justice for our people. [Colonial] society has taken so much from us that can only be brought back from the grassroots, and from community, but it all starts from reclaiming space and restoring true sovereignty over this Country.