Tuesday, July 9, 2024
HomenewsForget Australia’s referendum. Indigenous people make strides on their own

Forget Australia’s referendum. Indigenous people make strides on their own

Shepparton, Australia  – Brad Boon gestures towards the towering mural, one of many that dot the small rural town of Shepparton in Australia’s southeastern state of Victoria.

The faces of Indigenous heroes William Cooper and Sir Douglas Nicholls stare defiantly across the smattering of shops under the glare of the midday Australian sun. Despite the onslaught of British colonisation and discrimination, Sir Douglas became the first Aboriginal person to be knighted and was made the governor of South Australia; he was also a talented Australian Rules football player.

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Cooper, meanwhile, long campaigned for Aboriginal rights and is also recognised for protesting against the Nazi regime, seeing correlations between Indigenous peoples’ treatment in Australia and that of the Jewish people under Nazi Germany.

Both Cooper and Nicholls came from the Indigenous Yorta Yorta nation – the traditional area surrounding Shepparton. That their faces – along with other Indigenous heroes – are emblazoned on the walls around the town are testament not only to the Yorta Yorta peoples’ survival and resistance to brutal colonisation but also to their enduring legacy.

Despite their long history of resistance and activism, however, the Yorta Yorta people are still fighting for their rights in 2023.

In October, Australia held a referendum to decide whether to establish a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous “Voice to Parliament“.

The proposal was to establish an advisory council in the federal government to advise on matters concerning Indigenous peoples and address the continued inequalities they face in Australia.

Despite fierce advocacy from its supporters, the proposal was rejected.

In Shepparton, the no vote resounded even louder. More than 76.2 percent of the population voted against the voice – far higher than the national average of 60.62 percent. It was a disappointment to many of the Yorta Yorta who make up one of the largest populations of Indigenous peoples in the state.

While living in Shepparton for 17 years, Boon is originally from the Kurnai nation in southeast Victoria. However, he has a Yorta Yorta partner, has worked in the town’s Indigenous legal services and is a former player and now volunteer in the local Indigenous-run Rumbalara Football and Netball Club.

The referendum was notable not only for the resounding defeat but also for the racism and negativity that typified the debate.

Well-known local Indigenous rapper Briggs – Brad Boon’s brother-in-law – was a strong advocate of the Voice to Parliament, even holding a free concert in Shepparton to gain more voter support.

Despite the loss, Boon says there are many positive Indigenous-led outcomes in small towns like Shepparton that are rarely touted in the media or recognised in politics.

“At the minute we’re just seeing bad stuff – domestic violence, sexual abuse, all the stuff that they want to get people up in arms about,” he said.

“But they’re not talking about the good that’s happening around the state. And that’s what I think we need to do more of.”

Pushed into slums

Shepparton is a small town nestled in a riverine floodplain, just two hours north of Melbourne.

Surrounded by fragrant gum trees, undulating native bush and once-flourishing river systems, the region has been home to the Yorta Yorta for tens of thousands of years and maintains a rich cultural history still present in the local community.

Early colonialists established sheep farming in the region, forcing the Yorta Yorta first into a settlement called Cummeragunja in the 1880s and then into slum housing on the banks of the Goulburn River in 1939.

The Yorta Yorta lived in huts made from tin and hessian sacks in an area subject to flooding, which was known as the Mooroopna Flats. Leaders – including Cooper and Nicholls – campaigned for better conditions at a time when Indigenous people across the nation were denied equal wages and were subject to punitive legislation that allowed for the removal of their children into white institutions, known as the Stolen Generations.

In Victoria, the effects of colonisation were even more severe than in the rest of the country. At least 50 massacres are estimated to have occurred, with some killing up to 200 Indigenous peoples in what is often referred to by Indigenous scholars as a genocide.

It is a history that underpins both the struggle and success the community has made since the days of Cooper and Nicholls, but racism still runs deep in the small town.

Heidi Knowles says she regularly experiences racism, especially if she wears a T-shirt featuring an Aboriginal flag.

She says shopkeepers assume she is going to steal something, perpetuating a stereotype of Indigenous people as criminals.

“I might get followed around the supermarket and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But I’ve got nothing to hide.” Knowles is proud of being an Indigenous woman.

“I wear my Koori [Indigenous] top with pride and you will see me [in it] every single day,” she told Al Jazeera.

The 39-year-old mother works as the manager of operations and student success at the local Academy of Sport, Health and Education (ASHE), a high achievement centre for predominantly Indigenous young people.

She says that such a centre is vital for Indigenous students who may experience racism and discrimination at their local school or who simply do not fit into the mainstream education system.

“Our young ones were falling through the cracks in mainstream schooling. So, they come here, because it’s a culturally safe, culturally appropriate place where they can reach their full potential,” she said.

Knowles herself was once a student at ASHE and told Al Jazeera that growing up in Shepparton, she faced many barriers to gaining employment, which she believes was due to discrimination.

As such, she knows firsthand how important Indigenous-led education programmes are.

Students from ASHE have gone on to undertake doctorates and become nurses as well as sport professionals.

“Being in a culturally safe place you feel connected to your culture. And feeling connected to your culture, it plays a big part in achieving what you want to achieve,” Knowles said.

“Because if you’ve got your connection to culture, the sky’s the limit.”

Rooted in culture

Near the ASHE education centre, the Shepparton Art Museum is home to another local Indigenous success story, recently establishing an Indigenous art space called Kaiela Arts.

Modelled on the art centres normally found in central or northern Australia, Kaiela Arts is next to the river and surrounded by the ubiquitous Australian gum tree.

Tammy Atkinson, one of its artists, says the work created by the Yorta Yorta community is very different from the better-known dot paintings from the desert region that have come to typify Aboriginal art.

“What they assume as Aboriginal art is different to Aboriginal art down here,” she said. “Down here, this art is more about narrative storytelling and lines.”

Like many of the successful programmes developed in Shepparton, Kaiela Arts began as a community initiative with Yorta Yorta elder Les Saunders collecting art from people’s homes and selling the works privately.

Today, Kaiela Arts is one of 90 recognised Indigenous art centres across Australia and hosts programmes for women, children and young people.

Artists and community members Belinda Briggs and Lyn Thorpe share the same enthusiasm for Kaiela Arts, telling Al Jazeera the youth arts programmes will help ensure a strong culture for the Yorta Yorta community into the future.

“[Young people are] like the young gumtree,” said Briggs. “We want them to be old gumtrees one day, with strong roots and they know where to find the water that gives them sustenance and nurtures them. And then they are passing that on to the next generation.”

Along with being an artist, Lyn Thorpe led the development of a photo wall at the local Rumbalara Football and Netball Club, which depicts generations of family history.

She said that even such a small thing as a collation of family photos was a form of resistance to colonisation, which – through the Stolen Generations – aimed to divide and erase Indigenous families.

“We’re talking about generations of people, forever trying to rebuild. It gets broken down, we rebuild again,” she said.

On the outskirts of the town, a rebuilding of a different kind is under way.

The Munarra Centre for Regional Excellence will serve as a purpose-built, modern facility for the Yorta Yorta to combine education, culture, arts and sport.

Another local initiative, the Munarra Centre is set to open in 2024 and is designed as a hub for the local Yorta Yorta people with the aim of fostering the next generation of leadership.

The result of the referendum might have been a disappointment but In Shepparton, the Indigenous community is charting its own path in the fight for equality.

“For us, we’ve just got our head down and our bums up and just persevere and chug along and get the results that we want for our community,” Boon said.

“It’s not newsworthy but it should be. Because little things like that really empower our mob [people]. Our young kids see that and then they’re happy to go around and talk about being Aboriginal and what it means to them and see the good that’s happening.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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