Understanding Indigenous sovereignty

By | | comments |

Ruth Forsythe examines the Tent Embassy’s 40 year anniversary celebration “Corroboree for Sovereignty” and the political and media understanding of the surrrounding issues — as well as asking Bunjulung Wahla-Bal Custodian, the Lore/Lawperson of the 13 tribes and 13 sacred rivers that comprise the Bunjulung Nation, what sovereignty means to Indigenous peoples.

What does the Tent Embassy message “Corroboree for Sovereignty” mean?

This Australia Day, 26 January 2012, marked the 224th anniversary of the First Fleet’s landing. On the same day, the world watched Canberra as the original people, the Sovereign Nation, gathered at the longest camped protest on the planet — the 40 year celebration of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. According to one non-indigenous participant, John Passant:

“Earlier that morning 2,000 of us had gathered at the Australian National University for a welcome, some talks, rap and dancing before marching up to Parliament House and then on to the Tent Embassy at Old Parliament House. From other participants, I heard of a smoking ceremony held at Parliament House.
Smoking ceremony outside Old Parliment House 26/1/12 (Image courtesy Anna Morozow / ABC)


However, on the day, the message – of unity, one mob, of healing the Nation – was hijacked; obscured in the media fervour of the repetition of a pictorial juxtaposition of body guards with two frightened Australian leaders — one missing a shoe.

Looking through the media preceding the event, I found it hard to get satisfactory answers to explain what Aboriginal people wanted and what The Aboriginal Tent Embassy “40 years of Protest” was all about?

Michael Brull was one who provided a succint summary, when he explained that the Tent Embassy protest from 40 years ago:

"…was about Aboriginal sovereignty, about the ability for Aboriginal people to control their own affairs. Aboriginal Australia wanted an acknowledgement for a sovereignty that was never ceded."

I realised shortly after the first draft that I was writing a very sensitive article about a very controversial word: sovereignty.


“Get rid of that word “sovereignty” from your piece”, describes the majority of the feedback I received when I showed the article to a couple of acquaintances from the North-Eastern NSW area of Bellingen.

One man got half way through the draft and said sovereignty, according to the dictionary, was:

“Total authority, absolute, unlimited power held permanently in a single person or source.”

A king or queen is typically the sovereign ruler. A scary prospect! He understandably declined to read the entire article.


I asked Bunjulung Wahla-Bal Custodian, the Lore/Lawperson of the 13 tribes and 13 sacred rivers that comprise the Bunjulung Nation, what was meant by the Tent Embassy’s call in January 2012 for a “Corroboree for Sovereignty”.

The reply was:

Aboriginal Sovereignty is not about power over others. We don’t want to be like the system, to govern over men (Government) and end up sitting around table like white-fellas. What the elders want is for there to be true protocol in the Law. There has been a breaking of the three laws of refraining from lying, stealing and killing, given to us by the three brothers. The shame is every community has broken these Laws. The key to sovereignty is maintaining our culture. Traditional life is about the custodian’s role of caretakers of the rocky outcrops, desert plains and sacred mystical waterways that belong to the people of the Seven Wonders of the World”.

However, “the custodian’s role of caretakers” didn’t get a mention a week earlier in a leading national paper, when a self-described whitefella poet (Patrick McCauley, Weekend Australian, 14-15/1/12) gave us “facts” such as:

Whitefellas always acknowledged Indigenous people even as we fenced the land”,


Australians somehow always loved Indigenous peoples, though they may not have always liked them. This is much closer to the truth of our history than any of the genocide theories yet postulated by ambitious left-wing historians.

McCauley does not explain how poisoning clan groups with flour laced with cyanide, pushing families from cliffs, fencing off the parts of the land most rich with traditional foods and fresh water, forcibly removing people from their homelands to clear the land, removing children from their kin or making it unlawful to practice your culture, support his version of a “loving” whitefella history.

It sounds more like the dictionary definition of genocidal to me:

destruction with intent to destroy a racial, religious, ethnic or national group as such”.

We heard sentiments similar to those of McCauley from the opposition leader, when Mr Abbott told reporters in Sydney on Australia Day:

“…the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian.”

The dismissive and the provocative comments by Tony Abbott saw the tent embassy accuse Mr Abbott of inciting racial riots with his comments.

Mr Abbott also told reporters in Sydney on Australia Day that he understood why the tent embassy was set up

"all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then… and it probably is time to move on from that.”

Abbott’s views were supported by former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr, who said on the day following Australia Day (Jan 27, 2012):

I agree with Tony Abbott and think his remarks entirely sensible. The tent embassy in Canberra says nothing to anyone and should have been quietly packed up years ago. Suddenly we are presented with a demand for “Aboriginal sovereignty” – which can only mean separatism – which nobody has defined and which, on principle, 99 percent of Australians would oppose and a majority of Aborigines oppose.

Have Mr Abbott and Mr Carr forgotten that they are advocating for the disbandment of a site of such significance it was added to the Australian Register of the National Estate in 1995 — the only Aboriginal site in Australia that is recognised nationally as a site representing political struggle for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people!

In the wider mainstream perception, we are asked to trust the battle is over and be comfortable it is no longer necessary to continue a dialogue – after all, we’ve said ‘Sorry’ – and sovereignty is interpreted as a call for separatism.

The promotional invitation from the Tent Embassy highlighted the gathering as a “Healing of Australia” and invited Religious leaders to join with Indigenous leaders on 26 January at the 40 year Tent Embassy celebrations. It didn’t read like a call to arms. However, there appears to be much fear and negative publicity about Human Rights and Aboriginal people, particularly around the word sovereignty. Sovereignty was already the case in Aboriginal Australia pre-European landing. Sovereign men and women lived in small family groups, free to be creative through art, music and dance. Captain Cook was confused; where was the Emperor, the sovereign King or Queen to negotiate with? Obviously, without a monarch, he found the people “uncivilised” and of a “primitive nature”. He had no experience of self-sovereign peoples whose members had obligations and responsibilities toward the welfare of all.

In large groups, which may have comprised several hundred people, a number of Elders met to make decisions on behalf of the group. This has become known as an Elder's Council, but it wasn't a council in the sense of being a form of Government. Instead, such councils met for the purpose of significant events and decisions, such as initiation, marriage and burial ceremonies.

Clearly, there appears to a fundamental divide in the way that Western and Indigenous peoples view the word “sovereignty” — and this appears to be a major source of misunderstandings.

There exists perhaps no conception the meaning of which is more controversial than that of sovereignty. It is an indisputable fact that this conception, from the moment when it was introduced into political science until the present day, has never had a meaning which was universally agreed upon. ” ~ Lassa Oppenheim, an authority on international law

However, in Australia, we have never suffered the division that arises from a violent civil uprising, and this is primarily due to the values of patience, humility, wisdom and forbearance that were held by our Original custodians — even though they were for a time offered assistance to cultivate violent revolution from Gaddafi.

Our Original people have always participated for the good of all Australians, whether it was to help people on the land, the explorers or as police trackers. They have shared bush tucker, medicines, song, dance, as well as having fought in two world wars alongside other Australians and competed for the nation in sport and at the Olympics.


Tent Embassy Coroboree for Sovereignty 2005

Aboriginal people have always held out the hand of reconciliation, compromise, understanding and peace, regardless of the scorn, discrimination and outright genocide inflicted upon them. Why? Because they were not understood or valued by a dominant western cultural paradigm that holds a diametrically opposite viewpoint. Basically, both sides of politics are operating under the same Eurocentric construct of sovereignty.

Remember, “Aboriginal Sovereignty is not about power over other”.

The dominant culture grasps, in its haste to consume, own, and control; it looks at the vastness and beauty of the Australian land, sea and air in terms of monetary values, i.e. profits. Aboriginal people were living as sovereign peoples when the First Fleet landed. Indigenous culture – humble, tolerant and patient – has lived in family clan groups in relative harmony as one with all that is for over 50,000 years. They are the caretakers and custodians of this vast land. They understand the land, the sea and her rivers, and how they are connected, as a physician understands the wholeness and interconnectivity of the systems that comprise the human body.

Further discussions with Bunjulung Wahla-Bal Custodian, on the Tent Embassy’s call for “Corroboree for sovereignty” reveal that:

Sovereignty is the key to reconciliation. We collaborated a long time back in the 1860’s and 1600s*. It’s about human rights. Again, we fought for life from 1970’s to now, for a better future. But things didn’t turn out, things stopped, different to how we thought it would. There is still lying, stealing, murdering in non-Indigenous society and, in turn, our communities are full of thieves, liars and murderers. It is legal genocide.”

As stated before “Aboriginal Sovereignty is not about power over others”.

We want to hold our heads high and walk forward for the today of tomorrow, it’s for the elders and the children, and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren, 2035-2075. That’s the vision for all mankind. As one mob, as it is ancient wisdom that is brought forward through our elders to make their Dream come true; as unification as one mob, we bleed the same, we still weep of bad memories, we still feel presence of bastardisation through the eyes of our elders that they witnessed. Unity upon us all”.

In ending our discussion on the Tent Embassy’s “Corroboree for Sovereignty”, “Bunjulung Wahla-Bal Custodian said that

People are not gathering together for aggression, not a repeat of the shame and oppression of 1972 experience. But for unity as one mob”.

Forty years since its inception the tent embassy is still a scary thought for the some sections of the government, coal seam gas, big multi-nationals and mining companies. I wonder why?

Let’s simplify it and face it together — let’s not let the foreign and domestic corporate interests that run Australia as a fuel pump and watering hole continue to separate us. Let us honour a treaty with our First Nation people; end “development” (better known as destruction) of sacred sites (such as at Bulahdelah, NSW); recognise tribal sovereignty or autonomy; end toxic dumping, such as the Ranger uranium mine inside the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, which is leaking 100,000 litres of contaminated water into the ground beneath the park every day; and other ecocidal practices, such as the recent Santo admission that a coal steam gas spillage had killed trees and animals around the in NSW’s Pilliga State Forest. Unsurprisingly, these events are all occurring on Aboriginal lands and sacred sites.

Part of embassy march not shown on Australian media (image courtesy Mystery Dingo Tours).

A non-Indigenous participant at the Tent Embassy celebrations, Dudley Leggett,a founder of the Sustainability Research Institute and Byron Council of Peace says aspiration should be for a “nation of sovereigns”:

'For the first peoples of Australia and for those of us white Australians who attended the Tent Embassy 40th anniversary in Canberra, the aspiration is to live as a nation of sovereigns, where sovereignty means possessing the right not to be ruled over by any other or, having the right to self-determination. In other words, a nation of sovereigns or sovereign people would be one where each one would enjoy freedom to seek their personal happiness (Enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as the Right of every American to their pursuit of happiness.) And clearly what comes with this agreement on a universal right is the recognition that no-one has the right, in the expression of their freedom, to interfere with another's right to that same freedom.


'Such a society would be in the best interests of all Australians because the purpose of all national agreements would then be to determine what it is that best serves the interests of all Australians, the Australian people, rather than that which best serves the corporate institutions and the financial oligarchy.'

Self-sovereignty is, basically, self–determination. Let’s do Australia the highest service, by each of us learning from our Indigenous caretakers that we all need a life that promotes self-sovereignty, so we can co-operate in harmony with the forces of nature.

As Andrew Cohen so eloquently stated:

Coming to the end of aggression, destructive and selfish behaviour is evolution in action”.

Whether or not Australia Day should continue to be held on Invasion Day, we could all remember the underlying sentiment expressed by some of the beautiful words in I am Australian (or We are Australian) the popular Australian poem written in 1987 by Bruce Woodley of The Seekers and Dobe Newton of The Bushwackers. Its lyrics of unity and diversity have led to a popularity that has allowed it to join the ranks of other patriotic songs that are considered as viable alternatives to the Australian National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair.


I came from the dreamtime from the dusty red soil plains I am the ancient heart, the keeper of the flame I stood upon the rocky shore I watched the tall ships come For forty thousand years I'd been the first Australian.


We are one, but we are many And from all the lands on earth we come We share a dream and sing with one voice: I am, you are, we are Australian.

(*It’s a little known fact that most historians hold that the European discovery of Australia began in 1606 with the voyage of the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon on board the Duyfken.)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Recent articles by Ruth Forsythe
The Hero's Journey: The story of Ben Moghimi

This is the story of Iranian refugee Ben Moghimi, held on Manus Island for four ...  
ANZAC Day and the Frontier Wars: 'The amnesty on ignorance is over'

As we mark ANZAC Day again, it is time for the people on the continent to get back ...  
Official launch of Australia’s First Nations Political Party

Australia’s Indigenous People are getting politically organised and active, with ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate