January was a long year for many Indigenous people living in settler-colonial Australia. The weeks of ‘public debate’ leading up to 26 January are always a ritual contest between many Aboriginal people and their supporters, and defenders of ‘white Australia’. As the Victorian state government introduces legislation to continue Australia’s first attempt at a treaty with Aboriginal Nations, this article revisits the Invasion Day movement, which drew record-breaking numbers of protestors and widespread media coverage in 2018.
Large-scale rallies such as Invasion Day are important, exposing participants and the public to assertions of unceded Aboriginal sovereignty and accounts of the impacts of historical violence and ongoing colonisation that are central to treaty. But in order for the treaty process to gain momentum, allies and casual supporters need to educate themselves and their communities on black politics and history, not just in the lead-up to each Invasion Day, but throughout the year. This article concludes by offering some practical strategies and resources to learn about the treaty process.
More than any other month, January sees the intense, colonising gaze of conservative politicians, the mainstream media and Indigenous ‘Leaders’ (nominated for their compliance and propensity to speak on behalf of over 700,000 people) stoke a defence of white history and national symbols by celebrating British ‘settlement’. In recent years, there has been an outpouring of writing, interviews, and artistic expression reflecting the complex and diverse views of First Nations peoples on invasion and Australia’s violent history.
Taking a position on 26 January is personal and political, but in many ways the debate around changing the date or adopting the label Invasion Day distracts the public and is irrelevant, certainly in terms of decolonisation. While being told by politicians and the media to focus on ‘real issues’, such as employment, education and health (which governments give scant attention to year-round), activists are being forced to engage with a routine discourse about changing the date: a change that will not translate into enhanced rights, increased power or self-determination. This is something articulated excellently by IndigenousX’s Luke Pearson:
“There are more important things to talk about than the date of Australia Day!”
“Ok, let’s talk about Treaty.”
“Indigenous representation in govt?”
“Reducing incarceration rates?”
“Reversing funding cuts”
— IndigenousX Pty Ltd (@IndigenousXLtd) January 11, 2018
For some, 26 January will always be Invasion Day; a day of sorrow for ancestors and culture lost. But it can also represent a day of action and resistance that reclaims the colonial narrative.
The Invasion Day 2018 Rally saw the largest crowd of supporters in decades march for Aboriginal rights and justice, converging on the centre of Narrm (Melbourne). The protest was organised by a small group of proud Indigenous women from the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance collective (WAR). Over the past four years WAR has been strategically expanding their network of activist supporters who can assist in on-the-ground tasks such as sound engineering, social media, promotion, postering, and marshalling. Allies contribute their skills and resources predicated on their decolonised practice of solidarity which must respect WAR’s sovereignty and absolute authority regarding tactics and decisions. WAR’s uncompromising approach has been refined over the past four years, with protests increasingly influential. Rallies have mobilised large numbers, effectively shutting down the CBD with sit-ins, dragging public attention to pressing Aboriginal issues, such as the forced closure of remote communities.
The women of WAR directed the march, assisted by volunteer marshals (of which I was one) to ensure over 60,000 people could safely listen to a series of passionate and provocative speeches made predominantly by Aboriginal women, despite the real threats of interference or assault from racist, ultra-right-wing groups or Victoria’s militarised police force which have marred recent pro-refugee actions. Respect must be paid to Tarneen Onus-Williams, Meriki Onus, Arika Waulu, Celeste Liddle, Gwenda Stanley, Jenny Munroe, Aretha Brown, Ruby Kulla Kulla, and all Aboriginal women who expressed their anger at the ongoing and seemingly consequence free killing and imprisonment of their community, profound outrage at the ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their families, and grief for the ongoing capitalist and colonial destruction of country.
Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung sovereignty, culture, and leadership were at the forefront of Invasion Day. The march was cleansed by a smoking ceremony from Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson and led by a traditional dance group of young Koori women and girls. Defying the colonial symbolism which celebrates the landing of Cook, WAR marked the eightieth anniversary of the first Day of Mourning protest by embodying the pain, grief and anger of a funeral. In 1938 William Cooper and the Sydney-based Aborigines Progressive Association led the first nationally coordinated Indigenous civil rights protests to decry their discriminatory treatment.
The Aboriginal community continues Cooper’s legacy, calling on their supporters to honour their ancestors; whose land was stolen, who were killed in frontier wars and massacres on reserves, in custody, and those taken from their parents. Aboriginal survival and the importance of family was clear as multiple generations walked together; children holding the hands of Elders and their great-great-grandparents, whose own parents and grandparents may have marched down the same Melbourne streets in 1938. Men painted for ceremony and mourning wore chains around their necks, carrying a large cardboard coffin inscribed with ‘Colonisation’. Prior to the first speeches, hundreds of flower bouquets were laid on the steps of Victorian Parliament House.
Following WAR and the Aboriginal community, there was a sea of red, yellow, and black. Many different groups marched in solidarity for the cause of Aboriginal justice: African migrants, refugee collectives, Muslim groups, queer and non-binary folk; all identities and ethnicities marked by colonial oppression, violence, and routine targeting by the media/state. Unionists lent substantial logistical support and their rally equipment to the march, and certain socialist groups attended in numbers (and, despite WAR’s annual request for them not to, had their members sell newspapers and merchandise). Thousands of white-settler supporters from all backgrounds marched and the movement will continue to grow in numbers and impact if next year each participant brings a friend or family member as requested by the day’s speakers.
It’s important to acknowledge the heavy organisational, emotional, and educational burden on WAR and the speakers, before, during, and after Invasion Day. While many white participants return to work and normality following the summer holidays and annual rally, Indigenous peoples continue to struggle to be heard; they are slandered by media outlets like consistently appalling (and protested) Sunrise; reports on their mass incarceration are ignored by governments, and their voices of dissent silenced as their culture is co-opted at the Commonwealth Games protests.
One of the speakers on the day, writer and historian Tony Birch, pointed out that it was within Melbourne’s parliament that colonial legislators had debated and enacted Australia’s earliest genocidal policies, which sought to classify Aborigines out of existence. Colonial authorities, let alone the Melbourne public, could not have imagined that the local Aboriginal people not only survived genocide but would lead a powerful national movement 183 years after that initial dispossession.
It was undeniably energising to be part of Invasion Day in Narrm, as speakers told us we were part of history and speaking truth to power. Invasion Day is a vitally important event where the public — allies, first-time attendees, members of the police, tourists and passers-by — are exposed to direct articulations of Aboriginal sovereignty, Black Power, anger and pain. Invasion Day powerfully confronts the settler public’s history and speaks to our ideals of decolonisation. And this year, the Narrm Invasion Day march absolutely dwarfed the official Australia Day parade.
Through WAR’s lead in growing Invasion Day and other protest rallies, public awareness and attitudes towards national symbolism seem to be shifting, at least in Melbourne. The debate over Invasion Day can also test the limits of potential or self-professed allies to the Aboriginal struggle. What proportion of Invasion Day attendees took to social media to stand in solidarity with its organisers, who were abused by racist and misogynist trolls? How might people react if they had to sacrifice an entire public holiday to the march, not just their morning?
Activist and historian Gary Foley challenged Invasion Day attendees to educate themselves on the history of the Aboriginal political struggle, and to learn what had happened to First Nations peoples in the areas where they live. Foley maintains an online resource at kooriweb.org and is in the early stages of having his personal archive of 500,000 items – that document fifty years of Black power, land rights and self-determination – digitised.
Treaty will undoubtedly test the limits of some supporters because it demands that the coloniser sacrifice power and privileges to the colonised. In the absence of a negotiated treaty, Invasion Day participants and indeed progressive institutions can contribute a proportion of their income to Pay the Rent, which directly supports local traditional land owners or Indigenous activist groups until a treaty is reached with the state. Some may ask what hope does the fledgling treaty have when the premier of Victoria refuses to consider changing the date? Daniel Andrews could offer the Victorian Aboriginal community an important gesture of good faith by following the lead of three inner-Melbourne Councils and reconsidering his devotion to Australia Day.
Supporters of Invasion Day should take time to learn about treaty as it unfolds over the coming years (modern Canadian treaty negotiations are averaging 15–20 years); supporters should follow the politics and form a position, as they have on 26 January. At a minimum, in Victoria, the First Nations treaty process is an opportunity for Elders and experienced campaigners to politically activate, educate and challenge a new generation of Indigenous youth to determine their demands for the future. For non-Indigenous Victorians, supporting the treaty process is an opportunity for decolonisation that is not offered in the Australia Day debate – and it is something that may deliver genuine empowerment, reparations and justice to Aboriginal people.
The election of a Liberal government in South Australia is likely to see their initial treaty discussions terminated. Mass public support for the treaty in Victorian would send an undeniable message to state and federal governments that the politics of symbolism can no longer be a substitute for justice and sovereignty, which are articulated so powerfully on Invasion Day.
If settlers are to see a treaty substantively address injustice, power, and inequality, we need to listen to Aboriginal people, especially to Aboriginal women, whose views, anger and pain are routinely silenced by nationalist discourses. We need to ensure that the state moves beyond the symbolic politics of recognition. We need to own our black history and participate in the actions that WAR, and other Aboriginal-led organisations across the country, push us to.
White Australia needs to understand that the WAR and Aboriginal-led protests at the recent 2018 Stolenwealth Games in the Gold Coast are intended to draw attention to ongoing Indigenous survival and sovereignty – and the absurdity of celebrating colonisation in the only Commonwealth state without a First Nations treaty (see Jack Latimore’s excellent on-the-ground coverage and analysis of Camp Freedom; Tony Birch also has an excellent essay on the history of such protests). Rallies led by Aboriginal groups are effective and important, but they require enormous effort and are physically and emotionally taxing for organisers. Supporters need to engage with Aboriginal justice and politics for more than a handful of days a year – to continue learning, without relying on Aboriginal activists and groups to do the educating. To quote WAR:
We gather to educate and to encourage this country to engage in a truth-telling process so we can ensure future generations are not plagued by the same state-sanctioned and socially-enforced ignorance. Collaboration and a positive future are only possible when this white-washed cycle is ended.
An ongoing goal of WAR is for Australians and the state to engage with treaty, and a genuine truth-telling regarding the continuing violence of colonisation. It is not difficult for supporters in Victoria to engage with this work. Read up on what a treaty is, how the Victorian treaty process began, and why it is important for Indigenous and settler peoples. Listen to activists, academics and community experts discuss the first steps of the treaty process and the politics involved, as well as the next steps. Critically compare the recently launched Greens policies on clan-based treaties, spearheaded by Gunnai-Gunditjmara MP Lidia Thorpe, with the Victorian Labor government’s proposed legislation and approach. The treaty process and the politics surrounding it hold great possibilities and uncertainties for Aboriginal Nations in Victoria; the approach and process will influence burgeoning treaty talks in other jurisdictions. As the November 2018 Victorian state election approaches, more informed supporters of the treaty process will increase the next government’s propensity to continue working towards a substantive, not symbolic, decolonising of Indigenous-settler relations.
Images: Invasion Day, Naarm 2018 / Brendan Bonsack & Kyle Dadleh