Voice of Conscience: Mick Dodson’s Place Amidst Australia’s Unfinished Business
Mick Dodson has held wide-ranging positions since becoming the first Indigenous Australian to receive a law degree in 1974, most recently serving as Reconciliation Australia’s co-chair and Pacific region representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He directs the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at Australian National University, and is currently a visiting professor at Harvard University. In 2009, he received the Australian of the Year award in recognition of his contributions to Indigenous Australians and his country.
Dispossession. Discrimination. The struggle for self-determination. These are the issues that weigh most heavily on Mick Dodson’s mind.
He is, first and foremost, a Yawuru with traditional ties to Broome in Western Australia. It is through this identity that he understands his place in aboriginal society,and it in turn connects him to the land of his heritage, the plants and the animals in its midst, to the sea, and to his spirit or essence, his rai. His life, in contrast to the calm and constant rhythms of nature so valued by his people, has been marked by extraordinary twists and turns, conspiring to make him one of Australia’s most recognized voices on Indigenous issues.
When asked to consider how childhood events inspired his work, he laughs gently. “I don’t know what inspired that, or whether it was inspired.” His smile fades. “I lost my parents at a young age. I was 10. And from then on pretty much, I had to look after myself, be independent.” Mick soon found himself over 2,000 miles from his birthplace, but he would not forget the suffering that existed there. “I saw people who were subjugated and dispossessed, people who were marginalized, isolated, people who were discriminated against and still are,” he recalls of his formative years. As he adjusted to life in a predominantly white boarding school with its share of racism, he drew the greatest strength from his own ability to be independent. It’s this same capacity for independence and self-determination—both individually and collectively—that he has championed so vigorously on behalf of his people and all Indigenous Australians.
“The colonization hasn’t ended, it’s ongoing, it’s constant,” Mick stresses. A review of Australian Indigenous history reveals a shameful legacy in which repair efforts have only recently been made. Aboriginal groups occupied the Australian mainland for tens of thousands of years before British settlers laid claim to the continent in the late eighteenth century. Those who survived the ravage of European disease and gunfire were, with few exceptions, dispossessed of their land, and with it the nutritional, cultural, and spiritual resources that had ensured their individual and collective sustenance. Laws soon obstructed their right to marry, permitted the forced removal and assimilation of their children (the aptly-named stolen generations), and created reservations that Aborigines lived on and at times were transported between against their will. These policies continued into the 1960s. The ensuing period ushered in some hopeful signs, including the first Aboriginal university graduates and legislation providing Mick Dodson has held wide-ranging positions since becoming the first Indigenous Australian to receive a law degree in 1974, most recently serving as Reconciliation Australia’s co-chair and Pacific region representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He directs the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at Australian National University, and is currently a visiting professor at Harvard. In 2009, he received the Australian of the Year award in recognition of his contributions to Indigenous Australians and his country.
Aboriginal groups with varying degrees of reservation ownership. Most recently, Indigenous Australians have witnessed successes in ongoing reconciliation efforts, passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, and the advent of Australia’s Indigenous elected body in 2011.But they have so much farther to go. Mick, who was heavily involved in the Declaration’s 20-year drafting process, notes that its passage “gave and still gives me some hope.” His country was one of only four to vote against it, but, Mick recalls, “we kept running at Australia in various ways.” Australia finally yielded in 2009, but, Mick emphasizes, “it’s [still] not comprehensively implemented, particularly with respect to rights of self-determination and free, prior, and informed consent . . . [which form its] . . . pillars.” Reflecting on Australia’s most immediate motivation for rejecting it, Mick is blunt. “They don’t want Aboriginal groups with the power to weed out development proposals. The mining industry generate[s] enormous income. . . . And they’re protecting them because they’re very powerful people.’ Mick acknowledges that the post-WWII rights movement has led to significant local breakthroughs around land rights, particularly the 1993 Native Title Act that enables Indigenous Australians to negotiate about the future of their traditional lands. But, Mick explains, “if we can’t agree we get arbitrated [and] there have only been two arbitrations in the history of native title . . . that have favored the Indigenous group [over] . . . the developer. Because the developers don’t respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent, they don’t respect our right to self-determination.”
What use is the Declaration for Indigenous Australians to date, then? “Well,” he laughs, “there’s something you can use to beat the government over the head with. . . . It’s another weapon you have to use against them.” He also notes that Australia’s newly-elected Indigenous body is very focused on the human rights outlined in the Declaration. “The First National Congress workshopped various policy issues a few months back,” he reports. “I led one about self-determination and what that meant. They’re developing policy approaches to a broad range of issues and will advocate around them.”
Mick also believes its plan to examine and apply the best practices of worldwide Indigenous groups to Australia will benefit from one of the Declaration’s “greatest achievements”— the unification of the international Indigenous caucus during its drafting. Just as the Congress is embarking on an exciting new path, so too is Mick taking up a new project that is especially close to his heart. “My own people, the Yawuru, we’ve had some satisfaction because we recently won a drawn-out court battle to win back a substantial portion of our traditional lands. . . . So that’s filled an emptiness for us in a way. . . . It doesn’t give us any . . . real self-determination. [But] [i]t’s going to help us.’ This is a chance, he says, to “become independent again and not have to rely on the government for anything, get our people off welfare . . . [and out of] government housing.” “We have been forced to sell some of the land to get sufficient money to operate,” Mick continues. “We’ve done some deals . . . to help develop the [rest of it]. Now our plan in 20 years is to be the major landlord . . . in Broome. There are two cattle stations, [and one of them] . . . is probably the best [in the region]. . . . If we build the [right] foundations . . . we’ll be able to make use of the land as our economic base.” Mick is using much of his time at Harvard to examine how their plans comply with existing development principles and whether they’re the right foundation for their economic future and cultural development.
While Australian policies have progressively given Indigenous Australians more opportunities, the healing process has really just begun. Australia is only now working to recognize Indigenous Australians in its Constitution and, hopefully, eliminate discriminatory clauses to which they’re still vulnerable. Similarly, the stolen generations waited eleven years for a formal apology following a 1997 National Inquiry report (co-authored by Mick) concluding that their forced removal and assimilation constituted genocide. Australia received international criticism for its inadequate response in 2000.
Mick calls the 2008 apology “a step” in the process of confronting what many consider “unfinished business.” The other unfinished business is “a treaty that puts the modern sovereignty of Australia on a proper footing that respects . . .Aboriginal sovereignty.” “[T]he British . . . took the land away from us without our consent,” he says. “And that was wrong. . . . [T]hat issue has to be addressed, in a way that is satisfactory to both parties. Otherwise there will be no reconciliation.”
In 1988, the Australian government affirmed its commitment to establishing a treaty. Yet two decades into reconciliation and over two centuries since their dispossession, a treaty has still failed to surface. “[We] deserve compensation for our dispossession and the two hundred plus years of colonization and the impact it’s had on us,” Mick asserts. “These are difficult truths but we need to deal with them. You can’t bury it in the sand and say, well, that’s all in the past. We’ve got to deal with it because it’s very much part of our lives and it’s being handed down through the generations. And like the stolen generations, the intergenerational impact is something you’ve got to sever.”
Reflecting on these obstacles and the progress made in past years, Mick concludes generously, “I think most democratic nations strive to be better in just about anything they do, including how they treat their Indigenous populations. I think the pace with which they do that can be questioned, but I don’t think they’re deaf to the pleas we make.”
— Erica Jaffe Redner is a research assistant at Harvard University and an intern at Cultural Survival.