“It’s a natural human reaction to FEAR WHAT YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND and what you do not know…”

What is ‘sovereignty’ and what does it mean to First Nations people in Australia?

The Oxford Dictionary, defines sovereignty as “supreme power or authority, a self-governing state”.

The First Nations sovereignty movement is often portrayed as the push for a separate black state and anti-white, failing to acknowledge the diverse views that exist in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities about this issue.  LISTEN to the interviews below to hear some perspectives of First Nations people on what sovereignty means to them:

Philosopher & Academic MARY GRAHAM (Kombumerri & Waka Waka)

Aboriginal sovereignty has nothing to do with a hierarchical idea of a sovereign [i.e. Western world] and would be more of a lateral system.


We are entitled to full independence from any of the political processes that Australia has in place.

Creative Producer MERINDAH DONNELLY (Wiradjuri)

LAND, KINSHIP, LAW, CEREMONY and LANGUAGE – if I have access to all of those things, and I can live by them, that is what it means to be a sovereign First Nations woman.

Poet LORNA MUNRO (Wiradjuri)

Why is being pro-Black considered anti-White? To uphold one’s own identity, why do people think it has to put down another’s? This society is so pro-White and anti-Black. Therefore, to affirm my own identity, I think we need to flip the script a little bit.

Activist PETER SKUTHORPE (Gamilaraay)

The word ‘sovereignty’ means to me, a sense of belonging, ownership and connection to country – it’s my birthright.

Veteran KOOMA activist Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton  says another point of confusion is the comparison made with African Americans and their struggle for equality and civil rights.  He says the question about sovereignty in this country is not about equal rights.  “You can’t look at Aboriginal Australia the same way as the rest of the world looks at a Black man in Mississippi.  We didn’t come from anywhere else.  Our question here in Australia is not about equality, it’s about our rightful place.”  The predicament Native Americans currently find themselves in is far more comparable, as they are the ORIGINAL people of what is now known to the world as the United States of America.

For the past two centuries, First Nations people have been subject to large scale dispossession, genocide and systematic discrimination.  The push for sovereignty is an ongoing attempt to reverse this devastating process and establish a revived dignity for First Nations people and their communities.

Talk of and calls for First Nations sovereignty is not something new and ‘radical’.  The movement in this country emerged from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne in the late 1960s alongside the Gurindji Strike in the Northern Territory, leading up to the emergence of the Aboriginal Embassy in 1972, the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests demanding Land Rights for Aboriginal people and the call for a Treaty towards the start of the new millennium.

Why is this concept so alien to Australia?

Other Indigenous peoples around the world have varying degrees of tribal sovereignty, recognised by colonial society and governments.  The Treaty of Waitangi in Aotearoa (New Zealand), signed in 1840 between more than 500 Maori chiefs and the British Crown, established the principle of partnership between Maori and non-Maori.  As well as the Treaty in New Zealand, similar agreements exist in both Canada and the United States of America.

Former US President George W Bush (2004) responded to a question from a Native American journalist with the following – “The relationship between the Federal Government and the Tribes [Native Americans] is one between sovereign entities.”

Activist & radio producer ROBBIE THORPE (Gunnai)

“There’s no proper legal foundation here.  That comes with a Treaty.  Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a Treaty.  Otherwise, we allow ourselves as Aboriginal people to be forced to adopt another law.  There’s been no consent, so the Australian government have no jurisdiction.”

“Go back to where YOU came from!”

Many people seem to shun the idea of First Nations sovereignty, deeming it to be a form of separatism and segregation, fear mongering about being kicked out of the country or evicted from their homes by the local tribe.  The question of First Nations sovereignty is far more akin to the concept of coexistence.  Below are some of the lyrics from Yothu Yindi’s 1991 hit TREATY:

            Now two rivers run their course

            Separated for so long

            I’m dreaming of a brighter day

            When the waters will be one!