jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Tag: Indigenous Australians

Vale Bobbi Sykes

by anzya

Aboriginal activist, poet and icon  Bobbi Sykes sadly passed away on Sunday.

In a small part of her interview with Wanda Cohen in 1985 Callaloo*, talking about her poetry, she said:

My poetry and that of other black Australians is not “fine art”. It verbalizes
the agony in which we live. Given how many we are, and how few writers
there are, it is surprising how many of our writers are poets. Kevin Gilbert spent
most of his adult life in prison where he taught himself to be literate and published
when he came out. Kath Walker is another well-known poet. Most of the women
poets don’t have a prison background, but most of the men do. That’s similar to
the black situation here in America.

I had no other way to cope with my emotions other than put them on
paper. I’d write things furtively in the middle of the night and shov~ them into
drawers. At the same time I was a political analyst, writing for newspapers all
around the world. For almost ten years I’d been known as a militant activist writer,
critical of the way institutions in our society operate. I published my book of
poetry, Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions, in 1979. The newspapers who
covered my book party wrote: “Activist turned poet.”

Her poem “Ambrose” was also published in the Callaloo article, and originally published in Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts, in 1979 :


They say you took your life/
with your
own hand.
But I been looking
at your life
these past
four years
and I see other
in the taking
of your life.
Your mother was
to die
your first breath.
You showed me
her picture
taken with you
as a babe.
You lay, pretty boy,
on a table.
Behind you she stood
your bottle in one hand
her bottle in the other/
symbol of your childhood.

Your father helped
by the hole
he left in your life
when he split
only seven months in

Teachers had a hand:
laying hands
upon you
(not in love)
in punishment

for your dirty clothes
& later
for your lies
(your survival kit, haha–

you told me later).
you lived more
a uniformed life
by uniformed men
than in the free air
of which you
often spoke.
I don’t like to talk
how the ‘helpers’

moving you closer
& closer
to your inevitable fall
(or were you pushed?).

Helpers who
let you know so soon
that vour best .
wasn’t good enough/
for them.
‘There is no place
for me here’
you told me/
already 17
and floating now
in the only space
you could see open.
There were handmarks
& fingerprints
all over you
when they found you;
but you died
by your own hand
they said.

* Callaloo, No. 24 (Spring – Summer, 1985), pp. 294-303


Yorta Yorta struggles for land justice and the Barmah National Park

by R.S.

‘How much compensation have we had? How much of our land has been paid for? Not one iota! Again, we state that we are the original owners of the country. We have been ejected and despoiled of our god-given right and our inheritance has been forcibly taken from us’

– William Cooper, Yorta Yorta, 1939
Previous blog entry on William Cooper can be read here

Since Yorta Yorta people lost their Native Title claim in 2002 I have been involved in various capacities of solidarity with them and environment groups in campaigning for a hand-back/lease-back arrangement of remnant State Forest in Victoria and New South Wales. Basically, the aim was for the land to be handed back to Yorta Yorta, and then Yorta Yorta would lease back the Barmah Forest (think Uluru or Kakadu), and this rent would not have strings attached to it, so Yorta Yorta would decide how this money is invested.

As tends to happen this got whittled down to getting Barmah State Forest, etc, turned into National Parks, cattle grazing and logging ceased, and some minor other restrictions. Yorta Yorta Nations will be on a joint board of management and already there are four Yorta Yorta rangers at work managing the forest.

The Barmah Forest officially became a National Park last week with Yorta Yorta joint management. This is a win. I think it is reasonable to say that this represents a pretty big compromise by Yorta Yorta. However, since, as one elder puts it, they “have always negotiated from the same position of nowhere”, this finally gives Yorta Yorta some negotiating leverage which will have a positive impact on local Koori community (and which hopefully will not be set up for failure through poor funding and bureacracy). But it is still a win.

Yorta Yorta and the Barmah-Millewa Collective have a pretty remarkable history, one that other enviro groups in settler societies could learn a lot from. Here is some history, but you should read the whole article:

Discussions of a coordinated campaign to protect Barmah-Millewa began in earnest in 1998 when the Yorta Yorta occupied the Dharnya Centre in Barmah Forest as a protest against the Kennett and Howard governments’ racist “10 point plan” to water down native title legislation. Many traditional owners and supporters such as FoE attended the occupation, and new alliances and campaigns were established.

Two in particular shaped the future of FoE’s – yet to be established – Barmah-Millewa Collective. Discussions between Traditional Owners led to the formation of Murray & Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), the federation that has become a driving force in the fight to protect the cultural and ecological integrity of the Murray-Darling system. And, FoE received a formal request from Yorta Yorta elders to join them in a campaign to protect Barmah-Millewa and re-establish their rights to manage the forest.

Independently of these happenings, other conservation groups – notably the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) – had long been interested in establishing a system of red gum protected areas. Victorian red gum forests were almost entirely unprotected, having missed out on even the minimal protection outcomes of a regional forest agreement. The only significant area, Barmah State Park, was a park in name only, as grazing and logging were allowed under an upper house deal secured by the National Party. The VNPA always refused to acknowledge it as a protected area.

Following the Dharnya occupation, the Yorta Yorta initiated dialogue with FoE, GVEG and the VNPA, seeking a formal campaign protocol detailing shared objectives and how the groups would work together. These discussions were challenging for some conservationists, as they were asked to commit equally to achieving majority management control and employment opportunities for the Yorta Yorta as to conservation goals such as removing logging and grazing. They felt it was unstrategic or even counter to their organisational mission to step outside the scope of pure nature conservation. To do so, it was argued, would risked damaging their credibility as it required engagement in what was seen as areas of social policy in which they had no expertise. For the Yorta Yorta, whose rights and country were daily trampled upon, this was a false separation, as social outcomes were intrinsically a consequence of environmental protection.

According to Monica, “the Elders were concerned about recovery and rejuvenation and protecting Barmah for future generations.” Issues of management control stemmed logically from that concern. Ultimately, all four groups were able to commit to the protection of the biodiversity and cultural integrity of Barmah-Millewa through joint management of a Barmah-Millewa Conservation Reserve. The Barmah-Millewa Campaign was born.

Yorta Yorta elder and Melbourne Uni academic Dr Wayne Atkinson has come up with the following time line of Yorta Yorta struggle for land justice:

  • Yorta Yorta Claim for Compensation for interference to Traditional Fishing Rights 1860.
  • Petition to NSW Governor for Land 1881.
  • Attempts by Matthews to Secure Land from Victorian Authorities 1881–87.
  • Application to Victorian Board for Land to Establish a Fishing Reserve at the Barmah Lakes 1887.
  • Petition to NSW Governor for Land 19 July 1887.
  • Matthews’ Final Attempts to get Land 1889–92.
  • Applications for Additional Cummera Land 1890 onwards
  • Formation of Aboriginal Political and Land Rights Movement 1930s.
  • Petition to King George V for Human Rights including Land 1935.
  • Efforts to get back Land 1959.
  • Further Deputations for Land 1959–66.
  • Campaign to get back Land 1966.
  • Land Rights Deputation to Canberra 1972.
  • Claim for Barmah/Moira Forests 1975.
  • Fight for Return of Cummera Land 1972–83.
  • Claim for Barmah Forest 1983.
  • Yorta Yorta v State of Victoria and Ors (1994–2002).
  • National Parks and Joint Management

I’m not sure anyone can say (and I hope no one is) this is the the end of a land rights struggle on Yorta Yorta country. For one, there is still the issue of water/river country and the need for “cultural flows” on the flood plain. With the drought and climate change, these issues are going to be more and more contested. I would say that in getting the flows for the forest, and in fighting for river country the same old protagonists will rear their heads: irrigators, governments on ALL levels, fishermen, apiarists, fat cat corporations, shooters and golf clubs. It truly is a thing to encounter seeing all these different groups working together whenever Indigenous people south of the tropic of capricorn ask politely for simple recognition.

I’m not sure if it is because I have been out of the loop for a little bit, but this seems to have passed without much notice among non-Indigenous solidarity folk. In any case, I am glad that after such a long campaign there are Yorta Yorta people on the ground taking care and responsibility for their country.

bryan Andy (program coordinator), Des Morgan (ranger), Mark Atkinson (team leader), Carl Blow (ranger). Photo Ray Sizer, Shepp News

Educate yourself, educate the community (or, aural learning)

by R.S.

So I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time walking for the last 6 months or so – I’m talking anything from 6-18km a day. This has mostly been for health reasons (seriously, endorphins rock) but also because I have been listening to, mostly, ABC Radio National podcasts. I found that with a whole bunch of these on my mp3 player I’d just keep walking and walking being totally distracted. Some programs are really interesting, some entirely dull, but I often get something out of them. There is a bit of a preponderance for Phillip Adams here (who I like, sometimes despite myself)

I am running out of the more interesting podcasts on the ABC and am having trouble finding websites that have similar well produced, interesting radio docos and interviews and the like, so I’d appreciate any suggestions. If there is an interest in the following programs I will look forward to posting more suggestions for your listening pleasure.

You should also check out Radio613: “Diasporic tones find auditory homes through featured interviews, music, readings, discussion, and documentaries. Each week radio613 presents Jewish perspectives on religious/spiritual thought and practice, race and racism, gender and feminisms, anti-semitism, identity politics, colonialism and resistance… and more! ”

Try these (vaguely categorised) out for size:

Colonialism today

One Blood: the story of William Cooper Anzya has already posted this, but I thought it worth posting again.

Peter T. Ferguson is the great grandson of Uncle William. Ferg wrote recently, “My entire family takes pride in being Yorta Yorta and is extremely proud of the work that was done by William Cooper. William Cooper was such a humanitarian that in 1939 he led a delegation to the German embassy in Melbourne to protest the treatment of Jews in Europe. He was the only political leader of any ilk in the world who had the courage to stand up for what he believed in – a fair go.“ Ferg has been a good friend to student activists for years, along with Wayne Atkinson (who runs the legendary On Country Learning course at Melbourne Uni) who shares Uncle Williams’ mother with Ferg. Uncle Wayne, Ferg and many Yorta Yorta people have done an excellent job over recruiting activists over the years – including, it should be said, many Jews.

RN writes “William Cooper is counted among the righteous who saved Jews during the Holocaust. In late 1938, this elder statesman of the Aboriginal rights movement delivered a letter of protest to the German consulate in Melbourne as synagogues burned across Germany in the aftermath of the infamous Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht.”

You can also read Gary Foley’s essay Australia and the Holocaust: A Koori Perspective. Gary writes: “It is probable that the ironies of the deputation’s visit to the German Consulate were part of the group’s strategy to draw attention to the similarities between what was happening in Germany and how Aborigines were being dealt with in Australia. If that was the case it must be said that their remarkable action achieved little in mobilising the conscience of mainstream Australia either in terms of the situation of Germany’s Jews or that of Aboriginal Australia. Indeed, their gesture has been almost completely forgotten in Australian history.”

Phillip Adams interviews Bain Attwood here on William Cooper (but read the above essay first).

Blue Mud Bay – “After 30 years of fighting for sea rights and almost a year after their historic win in the High Court, the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land have celebrated their victory in the Blue Mud Bay case. The long-awaited decision recognises traditional owners’ exclusive rights over commercial and recreational fishing in tidal waters on Aboriginal-owned land in the Northern Territory.”

This decision is really important in helping to overturn such on going, persistent belief in mare nullius – sea without laws/owners. (Also contains interviews from an exhibition at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, and a Dreaming story from the Jarlmadangah community in the Kimberley.)

A Bastard Life.Regular readers might remember anzya’s great post here about the doco Bastardy, which, if you get the chance, you must watch. For those folk who have lived around Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond, you will probably recognise Jack Charles and his bro.

“Jack Charles reckons he’s had a bastard of a life but throughout his 66 years and despite the plunging lows, he’s kept a sense of humour and a wicked laugh. Uncle Jack has been many things – professional actor, heroin user, thief, jail inmate and one of the homeless parkies who live on the streets of Fitzroy and Collingwood in inner Melbourne. He’s also a survivor of the stolen generations and the subject of the documentary film, Bastardy, directed by his creative ally Amiel Courtin-Wilson.”

The Murray – The Great Red Gum ForestYorta Yorta woman Monica Morgan speaking strong, as always, on the history of the Barmah forest, struggles with local cattlemen and others in the  non-Indigenous community and looking after country.

“Phillip visits the world’s largest river red gum forest, the Barmah Forest, where he speaks with Yorta Yorta woman, Monica Morgan, about the historical and contemporary significance of the forest to indigenous people. There are up to ten distinct language groups along the Murray River and they have recently formed a confederacy to promote indigenous interests.”

Nitmiluk, the third Jewell – “Twenty years ago a land rights claim threatened to split apart a town already heavily divided along racial lines. The Jawoyn claim over Katherine Gorge was met with angry rallies by the ‘Rights for Whites’ and with much vocal opposition in Territory parliament.”

Ampilatwatja Protest – “A conversation about the protest by elders and others from the Ampilatwatja community in central Australia. Three months ago over a hundred people walked out of the small community and refused to go back until the federal government responded to their complaints about the lack of consultation and restrictions placed on them under the Northern Territory Emergency Response.”

This is an ongoing struggle. You can find out more here.

Truganini, bushranger – Most people involved in any kind of solidarity with Indigenous peoples in Australia have probably have had to deal with the lie that “Truganini was the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines”. This explores this myth, but also looks at how kick-arse she was.

“One of the most familiar names in the story of Australian colonisation is that of the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman ‘Truganini’. But for most people the story begins and ends with a single, very famous photo, along with a label describing her simply as the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines. Not only was that label deeply misleading, we now know that Truganini’s life is one of the most significant foundation stories of European settlement in Australia. But there’s still one story that few people know about and about which little has been written—it’s the extraordinary tale of Truganini’s time as a bushranger.”

Lefty Jews

Emancipation: How Liberating Europe´s Jews from the Ghetto led to Revolution and Renaissance – “For almost a half a millennium, the Jews of Europe were segregated from the rest of the population. Confined to ghettos in towns and cities and to small villages in the countryside their lives were restricted by curfews, employment bans and a complete lack of political rights. But all that changed with the French Revolution – which brought democracy and the idea of the nation state to the modern world; and emancipated the Jews as part of the project. These changes brought us some of the great intellects of the last century and a half -Einstein, Freud, Mahler, Proust and Marx, as well as many less famous minds.”

Hans and Gina – “Hans Post grew up in Nazi Germany and became an SS officer in the latter stages of World War Two. Gina Behrens was born in England to Jewish parents; her early life was donimated by the war and its aftermath. So what would two such different people have in common? In this program Hans and Gina discuss their early lives, how they met, and their relationship together over the last 25 years.

Norman Rothfield – “Norman has devoted sixty of his ninety-three years to the struggle for peace and justice. In this program he talks about his early childhood in Britain, his Jewishness, and his leading role in the Australian Jewish community.”

william cooper

by anzya

Last week, radio national had a program about William Cooper – the Yorta Yorta elder who was one of the few people in Australia, and indeed the world, who protested against fascism, the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jewish people in Europe in 1938.  That year, during the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Cooper delivered a letter of protest to the German consulate in Melbourne.

“One Blood: The Story of William Cooper” is available to hear online and download on the radio national website.

What I find so moving, and inspiring about this act of Cooper’s is that it shows a commitment to human rights, and humanity that extends beyond his own people who, at that time, were themselves stripped of their rights and persecuted on their own lands. In 1937, only a year prior, Cooper sent a petition to the Prime Minister, Jospeh Lyons,  in the hope that he would forward it to the King. The petition read:

“Dear Mr. Lyons, … I am forwarding you the petition, signed by 1814 people of the Aboriginal race, praying His Majesty the King to exercise the Royal Prerogative by intervening for the preservation of our race from extinction and to grant representation to our race in the Federal Parliament.

In requesting that you forward the petition to His Majesty…” ³

Lyons never forwarded on the petition, but the move lead to Cooper establishing the first “Day of Mourning” on 26 January 1938.

Cooper is such a stirring and admirable example of solidarity.  And it’s a powerful reminder that Jewish people in Australia have, I would think, a deep obligation to return this solidarity by speaking out against the ongoing discrimination towards Indigenous Australians.

Thanks so much to LN for sending me the link to this!

Australian Genocide

by tobybee

For those in Sydney, or who will be in Sydney at the beginning of October, there’s going to be a Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House. There’s numerous good people speaking – including Germaine Greer, Jeff Sparrow, Larissa Behrendt, Ien Ang – and some interesting topics (as well as some kinda annoying topics – ‘Bring Back Conscription’ anyone? hmmm). The one I wanted to point out is by Gary Foley entitled ‘By 2075 the Aboriginal Genocide will be Complete’:

“Gary Foley, one of Australia’s most provocative and respected Aboriginal leaders and intellectuals, identifies some of the key problems with our approach to Indigenous policy, by both the Howard and Rudd Governments.
He argues that if Australian government policies continue in their present direction, Aboriginal people will be extinct by 2075.
Foley identifies key concerns with the influential politics of fellow Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson, particularly with Pearson’s assertion that ‘self-determination has failed’.
He is critical of the assumption that the Australian Labor Party has been an ally of Aboriginal people and argues that the Rudd apology to the Stolen Generations is an example of the duplicity and deceit of politicians.”

If you don’t know Foley, he’s an incredibly generous, interesting and inspiring Indigenous activist and academic, amongst many other pursuits. The website describes him as “an indigenous Australian activist, academic, writer and actor. He is best known for his role in establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 and for establishing an Aboriginal legal service in Redfern in the 1970s. He currently runs an Aboriginal history website and lectures and tutors at Victoria University.”

So if you’re in Sydney on October 4th, you should head along.

If you’re not, you should still think about the implications of what Foley is talking about – what part do those of us who are non-Indigenous have to play in continuing or ending this genocide?