Dr Emma Lee is a trawlwulwuy woman from tebrakunna country, north-east Tasmania. She is a Research Fellow at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, and an Honorary Member of the ICCA Consortium.
To be an Indigenous person is to be a recipient of other peoples’ idea of what ‘development’ should look like. I am a trawlwulwuy woman from tebrakunna country, north-east Tasmania, Australia, and as an Indigenous woman I recognise that policies and strategies are created by non-Indigenous peoples to ‘do’ things for me, be it to reduce poverty or increase educational opportunities or whatever is deemed necessary.
I’m not here to talk about that, however. I want to share a story about what happens when Indigenous peoples take the lead to devise regional development methodologies and create platforms for decolonisation based on principles of reciprocity and mutual respect.
If you have heard of the island Australian state of Tasmania, then there are probably three things you might know – trees, trees, trees; the birthplace of The Greens political party over protests to stop the Franklin River hydro-electric dam in the 1980s; and the extinction of Aboriginal Tasmanians upon the death of our countrywoman Trucanini in 1876.
You can find our ‘extinction’ as the reason and metaphor for HG Wells’ 1898 book War of the Worlds or as the archetype definition that Mr Raphaël Lemkin used to help coin the term ‘genocide’. These long-standing myths of extermination have caused us further harms and traumas beyond the ordinary nature of death and dispossession that colonisation brings us.
Yet we survived: we were pushed to geographical and social margins, but we remained as Aboriginal Tasmanians. However, our peoples have had to contend with outsized, global stories that have dressed up the excesses of colonisation as a thrilling, cautionary tale. Our peoples have been denied the right to exist and define our identity as Aboriginal Tasmanians because of baked-on extinction myths.
If identity is bewildering for many people, then try to be an ‘extinct’ person making claims for existence!
And to be a ‘non-being’ does not make our Indigenous rights to lands and waters any easier. Since the 1970s, we have undertaken protest activism to reclaim our identity, names and places. But the methodology has failed and the violence of denial has created a divided society and further excluded our peoples. Some meagre land rights, mainly to small, off-shore islands, were granted to us in the mid-1990s, yet there have been no systematic social shifts to deliver true social justice to our peoples.
‘Love-bombing’ the government to reset the relationship
In 2014, a change toward a conservative government (after 16 years in opposition) was an opportunity for us to try a different form of Indigenous advocacy. A small group of our peoples, including Elders, decided to turn to love as a social solution to our problems of non-recognition. This method, which I term ‘love-bombing’, was predicated on reflecting who we are as Indigenous peoples, rather than what we should be as extinct beings.
The tools of choice for our advocacy could then rest upon our cultural values of kinship, reciprocity and strong connections to country. Therefore, as Indigenous peoples, we could offer love to our colonisers as a position of strength and extend our kinship practices so that other Tasmanians could become a part of our extended family, as we find our place in relation to each other. We belong to you, and you belong to us.
Colonisation creates a violent governance relationship and thus love-bombing became the first step in repairing this damage, which not only affects us, but all Tasmanians. Our efforts to create equity and the conditions to decolonise government was a means to reset the relationship. So we adopted a process of deep listening and mutual respect, and framed a collaborative approach to gain mutual benefits. We demonstrated our love by, for example:
- offering and giving cultural gifts, such as kelp water carriers (image 1), to members of government and the public service;
- undertaking the recovery of cultural practices in public view to build and paddle a bark canoe as a journey of belonging (image 2);
- inviting the Governor of Tasmania to become a patron of a cultural day – Mannalargenna Day – to honour our ancestors and share with the public our cultural practices (image 3); and
- writing public opinion pieces in a state newspaper that thanked the Tasmanian public for their acceptance and investment in our love-bombing.
The results of our decolonising strategy
The success of our advocacy has resulted in ‘reset the relationship’ becoming a formal government strategy that tackles the problems of Indigenous affairs as a whole and overarches the rights frameworks for Aboriginal Tasmanian land and sea management.
In two short years (2014-2016), immense positive changes occurred to carve out a space for Indigenous rights and regional development to go hand-in-hand. What’s more, love-bombing meant that rights were fun to negotiate, because they came from a place of love, belonging and respect for all Tasmanians. And in this process of remaking relationships, we did not deepen our historical and individual traumas. In fact, this is part of our collective healing.
Between 2014 and 2016, the impacts of the reset strategy delivered:
- the first joint management of a protected area, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area or TWWHA country, which covers one-fifth of the Tasmanian land mass;
- removal of discrimination clauses from the Act that governs our cultural heritage, together with the largest sets of fines in Australia for damage to sites and places;
- greater inclusion by aligning Tasmania’s definition of Aboriginality with that of the Australian Government;
- a globally unique Indigenous education curriculum (PLATE 4) – The Orb – that is a public-access, web-based platform to bring Indigenous knowledge and peoples into the home and classroom;
- programs and funding of more than $24 million to decrease disadvantage and increase Indigenous benefit through education, child protection, employment, family violence and land management; and
- constitutional recognition as First Peoples and traditional owners of our lands and seas.
For me, the greatest achievement has been the gains through constitutional recognition. We have reclaimed our name and place, our identity and future, away from extinction and towards a vibrant pride in our status as First Peoples and traditional owners. No longer will we have to defend against the horrors of extermination; we exist and have the same rights to equality as other Tasmanians.
The reset strategy continues to deliver with a regular forum established in 2018 between Tasmanian Government heads of agencies and departments and the diverse organisations that represent Aboriginal Tasmanians to build on the initial gains from the reset strategy. We are also negotiating fishery rights, where in 2018 we took kinship with us to one of Tasmania’s largest food festivals, Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast, and in sharing our cultural foods with festival guests an Elder, Aunty Netty Shaw (PLATE 5) remarked “for this moment you are all family…we share a meal, we share each other”.
A Statement of Intent has also been developed between several Aboriginal Tasmanian community groups with the two major political parties in Tasmania to respect the rights for groups to be consulted over regional development within their own regions. The latter is especially important as it is a means of self-determination outside of the election cycles, which often leaves Indigenous regional development at the mercy of political whims and fashions.
Decolonising as constructing shared futures
This is what decolonisation looks like. It is a genuine attempt to shift government policies that look to our cultural strengths and assets of kinship and reciprocity as a new way of developing shared futures.
As a key architect of the reset strategy, I am so proud that we have found a way to improve regional development possibilities from Aboriginal Tasmanian leadership. There is an excitement in the Tasmanian air as to the future potential and freedom to work together and explore new worlds of respectful and loving relationships. Our future generations of Aboriginal and other Tasmanians will be able to pinpoint the moment that we began to heal our relationships with each other and continue the message of love, love, love.
Top featured image: Aboriginal Encampment by Skinner Prout, from Australia (1876), CC license