News & Views

Australia: Heading Back to Homelands


[Note to Aboriginal readers: this article may contain images of people who have become deceased]

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples comprise some of the oldest and most vibrant cultures in the world. They are rooted strongly to the lands that sustained their ancestors, despite often having been forced out of those places over time. For generations many Aboriginal people have nourished hopes of returning to these homelands, and for the last several decades many have been doing just that.

“You are nothing unless you are on your country, because that country actually owns you”, says Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, an Alyawarr/Anmatyerr elder living in Utopia homeland in the Northern Territory. “That’s where you get your identity, your language.”

Colonization and the Loss of Homeland

From the time of British colonization in 1788, Aboriginal people were progressively pushed off their lands by incoming settlers as the frontier expanded across the continent. Those in the settled and rural regions that survived the diseases and massacres were removed to church-run missions, where they were confined under ‘Aboriginal protection’ laws that segregated them from the settler society. In the more remote pastoral regions of the continent, many Aboriginal people were allowed to stay on their lands to provide essential labor for the cattle industry. Those confined to the missions and reserves were encouraged by the administrators to culturally assimilate and prepare for integration as un-skilled labor in the modernizing Australian economy. With increasing mechanization in the agricultural and pastoral industries, however, the Aboriginal workforce became increasingly unemployed and forced to depend on welfare.

In the late 1960s, after enduring decades of mistreatment and neglect at the hands of state and territory governments, responsibility for Aboriginal affairs was transferred to the Australian Government, which oversaw the repeal of racist laws in favor of policies that progressively returned control of Aboriginal communities to Aboriginal people themselves. This era also saw the rise of the Aboriginal land rights movement and with the passage of the Commonwealth Native Title Act in 1993, many Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups have had their native title recognized over their traditional estates. These good intentions, however, have not created healthy and viable Aboriginal communities across the board. Remoteness, lack of economic opportunity and essential infrastructure (housing, health and educational facilities) coupled with a succession of poor policies have left many Aboriginal communities impoverished, welfare-dependent and marginalized.

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Two generations of artists from the Utopia homeland who paint their country. From left to right: Renita Loy Kemarr, Myrtle Petyarr, Kathlenn Petyarr and Violet Petyarr.
Photo: April Pyle

Healthy Homelands, Healthy People

With a Prime Ministerial apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 followed by a national commitment by all governments in Australia to Close the Gap on Indigenous Disadvantage, things are slowly starting to improve for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Today, Aboriginal people on homelands enjoy greater control over their lives through the restoration of community-based decision-making and governance models. They have stronger spiritual and economic ties, better transmit their traditional culture and values to their children, and have been found to be healthier. According to a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, Aboriginal people living in a remote part of the Northern Territory showed lower than expected morbidity and mortality partly attributable to “the decentralised mode of outstation living (with its attendant benefits for physical activity, diet and limited access to alcohol), and social factors, including connectedness to culture, family and land, and opportunities for self-determination.” This case underscores the importance of a more holistic understanding of health and wellbeing that values a vibrant cultural life. For the hundreds of homeland communities across Australia, there is now growing support from governmental and private philanthropic organizations who are uncovering the social and environmental benefits of having the Aboriginal stewards back on the land.

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School children in Kowanyama learn the art of traditional spear making before heading out on a field trip to hunt for fish. Hunting and consuming ‘bush tucker’, rather than importing processed foods, leads to healthier homelands communities

Many communities living back on homelands eat healthier traditional foods, employ time-tested landscape management practices, and thrive with the presence of their ancestors at sacred sites. Over the last decade, in part with the support of allies like The Christensen Fund, Aboriginal peoples have begun to build a new kind of culture-based economy that integrates traditional lifeways with income from art sales, environmental management and other sources. Organizations like the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), The Mulka Project (at the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre in Yirrkala) and Kowanyama Aboriginal Land & Natural Resources Office – all of which Christensen has had the honor to support – are leading the way in traditional livelihoods innovation, creating new Indigenous “industries” such as carbon farming based on traditional fire management practices and the application of digital technologies to pioneer new forms of creative expression and cultural mapping.

Indigenous land managers are being recognized and backed by many leading Australian environmental scientists, and a number of the universities and cooperative research centres have developed relevant research, training and policy work to improve the capacity and enabling environment for collaborative efforts. James Cook University’s Centre for Sustainable Indigenous Communities, launched in 2007 with support from The Christensen Fund, is a prime example of this creative blending of knowledge systems.

“The country needs its people,” says conservation biologist Dr. Barry Traill in a presentation at TEDx in SydneyDr. Traill, Director of Pew Environment Group – Australia, was inspired by his experience with the late Aboriginal elder and artist Jimmy Pike, a dear friend of Allen Christensen, founder of The Christensen Fund.

“Our Outback is one of a tiny number of great wild places left on our fairly crowded planet,” says Dr. Traill. “If we want to keep it healthy, if we want to keep our extraordinary wildlife there, we need to bring back people into all our Outback wilderness.”​

The Minyirr Park Project near Broome in Western Australia epitomizes the Aboriginal style of blending traditional knowledge, art and resource management on homelands. Following an historic 2007 agreement with local government, a Shared Responsibility Agreement was established, with support from the Kimberly Land Council and The Christensen Fund, which enables the Yawuru custodians to jointly manage the important coastal dunes and numerous cultural sites that are associated with their traditional songs. Laid down in the Bugarregarre Dreaming, each song cycle (or song-line) is made up of sites across the different ecosystems making it possible for people, animals, fish and birds to all live together as a living system of territorial governance. Programs like this can ensure ecological and cultural continuity in the face of change. As Murrandoo Yanner, a Gangalidda man and a director of the Carpentaria Land Council argued in the Canberra Times in 2013: “A quiet evolution has been occurring in remote Aboriginal communities over the last decade, with ranger programs enabling people to [manage country], earn a decent income, support their families and experience the pride that comes with that.”

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Young Yolŋu filmmaker Ishmael Marika, who was trained by The Mulka Project, scouts locations for his film. He believes that documenting and archiving the biocultural vitality of his homeland Yirrkala is essential for the future of his people and the local environment.

The increasingly popular option of biocultural tourism is also helping homelands communities to strengthen traditional practices and knowledge systems while developing important revenue streams. Young people like Juan Walker, of the Kuku Yalanji people of far North Queensland, are restoring expertise in traditional ecological knowledge and using it to impress and enlighten tourists from around the world. Walker runs a successful tour outfit called Walkabout Cultural Adventures and takes visitors on a variety of daytrips through his homeland, where you can learn about traditional medicines, spear a mud crab and more.

“The stories of my grandparents are amazing,” says Walker. “Up until 1961 they weren’t even classed as human, they were classed as flora and fauna. They weren’t allowed to practice many of the traditional customs that we do today. It was just through sheer determination and positive attitude that [my grandparents] were able to pass on all of the stories and all of this information that I share with people today.” Walker believes that cultural tourism in Queensland is changing perspectives on how Australians view Aboriginal peoples. “It’s a great way of educating people on how we live and what we do so that they can have a better understanding and a positive look at the people rather than just seeing Aborigines as drunks down in the park, they can see that we still have a strong culture, a strong heritage, and that we can still live it.”

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Indigenous land management practices in homelands such as Kowanyama, where paid Aboriginal Rangers employ wetlands and fire management regimes, are creating livelihoods and resilience in remote areas.

There are many challenges to providing services like health care and culturally-appropriate education to remote homelands communities , which actors at several levels are working to address. The Christensen Fund’s contributions over the years include the development of the Remote Area Teacher Education Program (RATEP), based at the Far North Queensland Institute of Technical and Further Education in Cairns, which enabled many indigenous teachers in isolated schools to gain full accreditation. This means that children in remote communities can get access to formal education from qualified Aboriginal teachers, who in turn get better salaries and institutional support from Government than they did as auxiliary staff.

The Importance of Indigenous Rights

Around the world, generations of Indigenous leaders and their allies have created the opportunities that communities have today to secure their ancestral lands. Organizations like Amnesty International have long supported the Homelands Movement, and the inviolable rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples are laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including in Article 25:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

Building on the increased recognition of Indigenous land rights, The Christensen Fund and Oxfam-Australia have worked with the Australian Human Rights Commission to assist them in promoting awareness and engagement of UNDRIP among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the production and delivery of powerful community education materials, toolkits and programs.

Backing Indigenous Revitalization, Together

Foundations and donors are also increasingly stepping up to the challenge of backing Indigenous efforts to revitalize their homelands and communities, and the dynamic Philanthropy Australia has created, among other efforts, an Indigenous Affinity group on LinkedIn for funders interested in supporting Aboriginal initiatives. The expanding Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, meanwhile, is working with its members to build on the myriad links between empowered Aboriginal communities and healthy ecosystems. Indigenous communities now hold substantial rights over most of Northern Australia’s most biodiverse regions, and their presence on the land and resource management decisions are becoming crucial to the future of environmental integrity in the region.

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Juan Walker, of the Kuku Yalanji people, is revitalizing the traditional knowledge systems of his culture and sharing them with tourists from around the world

Rather than advocating for a return to some prehistoric traditional way of life, many Aboriginal leaders in the homelands movement are realizing their right for self-determined development and artfully blending their traditions with the fabric of the wider Australian society and economy that surrounds them. “I live in both worlds,” says Juan Walker. “I love hunting and doing my traditions out in the rainforest and along the coast, but I live in the 21st century. It’s a modern world and I try to mix them both together to keep a balance.”

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