Reflections on Dungala Kaiela Oration 2015

NAIDOC Week for 2015 was celebrated with enthusiasm and energy in Shepparton and surrounds. On Monday, there was a breakfast and launch of Naidoc Week with a flag raising, attended by many community leaders. There was a tour of the Mooroopna Flats on Monday afternoon, the Dungala Kaiela Oration on Wednesday, followed by the Algabonyha Roundtable on Thursday. On Friday, Shepparton Library conducted a screening of "Our Vote Counts", a documentary featuring local Yorta Yorta women.

Dungala Kaiela Oration

'Defining Shepparton' - The Dungala Kaiela 'Defining Shepparton' Oration is an annual event co-hosted by the Kaiela Institute and the University of Melbourne. The Orations have rolling themes examining culture, climate change, economics and regional development, legal issues, health and society. The aim of the Oration is to celebrate Aboriginal cultural identity, create a shared vision for the people of the greater Goulburn Valley, and build bridges to promote Aboriginal social and economic development.

Niall Brown gave a welcome to country, calling on Biame, Great Creator Spirit to come and be present. In his welcome to country, Niall said "All share in spirituality, going forward. There is depth of spirituality that comes with language. We are all Yorta Yorta going forward in harmony."

Paul Briggs introduced the evening and recalled past speakers. Paul also addressed spirituality and language, and recalled his childhood years, growing up on the banks of the Murray, Dungala. Paul recalled the sounds of the environment from his youth, and told that management of the environment requires knowledge of language. Where there are no words, no concepts, then there is no environment.

The 2015 Oration:
The Hard Conversation - Voices and Public Policy

Prof. Glynn Davis, AC, Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne delivered the 2015 Dungala Kaiela Oration. Prof. Davis examined foundational issues - survival, identity, community. The talk was frame-worked around Taking up Public Policy (the national conversation) across generations - aboriginal voices and how these have shaped the times, reflected education, growth, understanding of the needs of their people. Generations grapple with the same questions and bring their own taste to the questions. There were five "moments" in this conversation.

The First Moment began with William Cooper c1860 - 1941. William Cooper was born in Yorta Yorta country around the intersection of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in Victoria, Australia, on 18 December 1860. He was one of 11 signatories to the Maloga in 1887, which sought Aborigines of the district, "should be granted sections of land not less than 100 acres per family in fee simple or else at a small nominal rental annually with the option of purchase at such prices as shall be deemed reasonable for them under the circumstances, always bearing in mind that the Aborigines were the former occupiers of the land. Such a provision would enable them to earn their own livelihood...

Cooper was careful to argue his case in legal terms. He argued that the British - and their descendants - had an obligation to aboriginal people who had suffered violent dispossession from their ancestral lands. Cooper was one of the first to argue that the Commonwealth had responsibility for the welfare of the indigenous Australians. Cooper said, "We need to be partners in the work of our country".

The Second Moment was the 1967 Referendum. William Cooper's initiatives seeking equality for Aboriginal Australians was expressed by the next generation in Adelaide, who in 1958 - formed the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Prof Davis narrated events leading up to the Referendum and remarked that that the YES case reflected wider community concerns. When approached by the media, no parliamentarian would write the NO case, for the public support for the referendum was so overwhelming.

Prof. Davis went on to discuss the Freedom Ride and Charles Perkins' recollections of that time, as illustration of the conditions Aboriginals were confronted with:

Not being able to sit down at a restaurant, you know, in a delicatessen, whatever, or a restaurant in a country town if white people wanted a seat, is not acceptable, you know. Or not being allowed to sit down anyhow. You can only have takeaways. Only being served in one bar in a hotel and not the lounge or anywhere else. Not being able to sit at the back seats of picture theatres, only in the front. This all happened in Walgett. Walgett was Australia all over. And so it started there and from there it just flowed everywhere. The social change was on, the revolution was on. We were evolving into another sort of society.

In my mind, Walgett, Moree too ... but Walgett was the beginning of the social change for Aboriginal people in Australia, which allowed the referendum in 1967 to be successful.

Charlie Perkins

The Third Moment focussed on Aboriginals seeking management of Aboriginal Affairs. On 26 January 1972, four Aboriginal men (Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams) arrived in Canberra from Sydney to establish the Aboriginal Embassy by planting a beach umbrella on the lawn in front of Parliament House (now Old Parliament House).

In February 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy presented a list of demands to Parliament:

  • Control of the Northern Territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the Northern Territory to be predominantly Aboriginal with title and mining rights to all land within the Territory.
  • Legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia.
  • The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia.
  • Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities.
  • Compensation money for lands not returnable to take the form of a down-payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income.

Although enacted legislation saw the nascent Aboriginal Embassy torn down peremptorily, several days later, more than 2000 people marched on Parliament House and re-erected the Tent Embassy. Nearly half a century later, the Tent embassy still stands, repainted regularly with slogans which express distance and isolation. It was a vivid reminder - and symbol - of a strand of aboriginal thinking of how to express political points.

The Fourth Moment was somewhat highlighted by the acts of Kath Walker. In 1988 she adopted a traditional name: Oodgeroo (meaning "paperbark tree") Noonuccal (her tribe's name). The Ten Black Commandments delivered by Oodgeroo Noonuccal at the opening of the Second Aboriginal Writer's Conference in 1983. The was the time of growing awareness that the Supreme Court of the NT rejection of Land Rights evolved to Native Title, the landmark Mabo decision, the Nookoonbah resistance to mining. Prof. Davis showed photographs from this period of the resistance of indigenous peoples to encroachment by mining companies on traditional lands.

Prof Davis elaborated the stark, visible consequences of underinvestment by governments in the socio-economic and social structures of indigenous Australia, and went on to cite the previous Dungala Kaiela Oration speaker, Noel Pearson, who wrote in his 2014 Quarterly Essay Radical Hope, "the only path to close the socio-economic gap is for indigenous Australians to become active agents in their own development". Prof Davis summarised Noel Pearson's activities at Cape York and cited their slogan, "Responsibility, Opportunity, Freedom". Pearson argues that passive welfare will not contribute to growth, and indigenous Australians must create their own future in employment, education and economic development so there are jobs for people.

The Fifth Moment, or final conversation focuses more on social issues and overcoming social dysfunction. Prof. Davis referenced a citation from Patrick Dodson on why social dysfunction was occurring. The conversation now becomes accessible to all Aboriginals - a conversation by and with Indigenous Australians who are active agents in creating their future. New concepts of partnerships are promoted and there are Partnerships to empower communities. Empowered Communities gives account of this recent development. (You can access the Design Report for Empowered People, Empowered Communities here. )

Long standing Aboriginal conversations with the body politic seek two outcomes: to close the gap and to enable cultural recognition. This is the pathway - suggests Paul (Briggs) and those in this conversation - to thrive in the reality of contemporary Australia and yet, to convey indigenous heritage.

Prof Davis summarised efforts since the days of William Cooper in 1938 by many who attempted to bring aboriginal issues into the national conversation. Local identities and local needs do not suffice; there is a need to re-imagine indigenous identity for the benefit of the whole of indigenous Australia.

How is this Oration defining Goulburn Murray?

Rumbalara was formed when the Yorta Yorta peoples walked off the Cummeragunga Mission and walked down to the Mooroopna Flats and established camp there. Rumbalara came into being with the State Government granting housing and land on a temporary basis with resettlement into urban accommodation following many years later. The land became Rumba and eventually returned to service as the location for essential services. It is interesting to note that the ups and downs of the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club have somewhat mirrored the hard conversations outlined by Prof. Davis, with the Club experiencing times when no football league would accommodate them as a participant.

This oration traversed an ambit from the principles of William Cooper and to the national conversation illustrating how the principles enshrined by William Cooper with his values of dignity and decent treatment for all needed to be taken up in a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Australia and its indigenous peoples. William Cooper was far sighted and most certainly far ahead of his times, clearly delineating that Commonwealth was responsible for the welfare of all its peoples. Cooper he has been honoured in the Holocaust Museum in Israel for his efforts to preserve the dignity of Jews in Germany after Kristallknatch. Cooper's vision and principles have become embedded in the national psyche today. William Cooper grasped the deeper truths in his education with regard to dignity and equality for all. This is an illustration of an ancient Vedic spiritual teaching that truth is the basis of the universe: where a person upholds the truth (of human dignity) then that person is protected by truth. This truth has flowed beyond William Cooper to be articulated by many indigenous persons and so has gone on to elicit the proper results for the indigenous peoples.

Prof. Davis illustrated how the conversation has changed focus somewhat. Whereas the indigenous peoples seek to close the gap and cultural recognition, passive welfare does not take the indigenous community forward. Whilst there has been a lack of infrastructure investment in the social and economic needs of the indigenous communities as Pat Dodson points out, the community is now recognising and articulating its own need to create their own future in employment, education and economic development. Fruits of this will be to elicit self-respect, dignity and thrive in the reality of contemporary Australia and yet - convey in a powerful and authentic manner - their indigenous heritage. This is a significant and meaningful challenge for all Australians.

Whilst the oration highlighted the acts of those in the past, the values of taken up and lived by those in the past need to be the values of all Australians as the welfare of all Australians - indigenous and other - is the responsibility of all, as the 1967 referendum so overwhelmingly illustrated. As human society progresses forward - recall Niall Brown and "we are all Yorta Yorta going forward" - the questions and their resolution periscope to the lowest possible level of governance and resolution; on the ground, as it were. As Paul Briggs told, "No one is above you, no one is below you, we all move forward, side by side". As the recent Algabonya Roundtable illustrated, progress as a community involves all the community, and imagines a future of prosperity and participation for all who comprise the peoples of the Goulburn Valley.

The Goulburn Valley, the land of Yorta Yorta, the intersection of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers, is a place of bounty, a place of blessing and gifting from the land. In many dimensions we all eke our living from the land, be it orchards, livestock, grain or canola. Some work in the parks, some work in the offices, some sell goods, some stock our supermarkets and others tend the market gardens. Water is our livelihood - we are a river people. We listen and hear how each generation grapples with the question of being human, working, playing, eating, sleeping, and moves forward as multicultural community bounded by Dungala Kaiela. This conversation is a conversation we all need to have together. Whether we play "at Home" or "Away" games, we play the game of life together. Life is a challenge, Meet it!

Dungala Kaiela - Defining Goulburn Murray


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