Indigenous Churchill Fellows, Michelle Deshong, Cara Kirkwood, Hannah McGlade and Donisha Duff, share their views and experiences in the first Voices of Power podcast — Standing up for rights.
They talk about the turning points that have inspired them in the fight for First Nations’ rights in Australia.
And how events such as the 1936 maritime workers’ strike, the 1965 Freedom Ride and protests over Aboriginal deaths in custody have reshaped Australia’s history.
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AIATSIS: This is an AIATSIS podcast. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community. We pay our respects to elders past and present.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this podcast contains voices and names of deceased persons.
Host: Hello, I’m Craig Ritchie, a Dhunghutti man with connections to the Biripi nation.
I’m the CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Studies — or AIATSIS as we are more commonly known.
Welcome to our Voices of Power series — a joint production between AIATSIS and the Churchill Trust.
The trust supports Australians from all walks of life to travel abroad to explore issues of importance and to bring that knowledge back for the benefit of their communities.
Over six podcasts we’ll be hearing from Indigenous Churchill Fellows on the turning points that have inspired them in the fight for First Nations’ rights in Australia.
And, they’ll discuss creating a future in which First Nations values, cultures and voices are a strong and powerful part of Australia’s governance and identity.
I’m a Churchill Fellow myself and today we’ll be hearing from Indigenous Fellows—Cara Kirkwood, Hannah McGlade, Donisha Duff and Michelle Deshong.
In this first episode — Standing up for rights — we’ll be looking at the big moments in activism and the everyday acts of our people to pursue our rights as First Nations peoples.
So, let’s get started and enjoy listening!
Narrator: I’m Vic Simms, and I’m a Bidjigal man from Botany Bay on the Eastern side of this Sydney area in the Eastern suburbs.
And my people have been there since time immemorial, and were there not so much to greet the First Fleet but to oppose it.
And, I was born on that land, born on country. There was no delivery hospital for me, I was delivered by an old Aboriginal lady.
And, I’m sort of the last man standing who was actually born on my country.
Churchill Fellows: I think about terra nullius because it's those two words that have completely defined us in almost a kind of strange bubble. It's like this great lie, because we were here. / If you're talking about attempts to completely break down a culture and society, that's completely destructive. That has lasting legacies on communities now. / Old people are dying before they get to see whether they're allowed back on their country or not, the fences are holding you out. / When you kind of take off the layers, you realise that self-determination was really something that was guided by the government of the day, you know, ‘self-determination can look like this, but it can't go as far as that’. / It's a really difficult path that we have in this country because we understand these rights, we know what self-determination is, but our governments, many of them are not listening. / The governance that we learnt was from a superintendent, a singular person who is responsible for a mission. And then, that person was responsible to a state act so, Aboriginal people became inactive in the governance of the community. / We're just sick of talking about it, we want a commitment and we want to get on with it. We want to be at the table and we want obviously to improve the circumstances of our families and communities, that's what it comes down to.
Narrator: That puts into words some of the reasons why First Nations people have fought so hard for justice, from the moment the British first set foot on our lands.
We are the heirs of that fight today. We are looking forward but we also look back to the people and events of the past for inspiration and strength.
Churchill Fellow, Michelle Deshong, is a Kuku Yulanji woman from Far North Queensland.
She was drawn into the fight for rights as a young girl, as she listened to elders, such as her father and Eddie Mabo, discuss racism, discrimination and politics around the family’s kitchen table in Townsville in the 1980s.
Deshong: Even the mere fact of settlement itself and the perspectives around whether people saw evidence of a ‘civil society’ in itself speaks volumes about the disregard for the intrinsic nature of our culture.
What people were looking for was infrastructure and agriculture and things like that, without recognising that even within our tribal natIt's now 30 years ons there's a really complex level of knowledge and experiences and systems and processes that create the opportunity for nations to survive.
Narrator: Michelle says that ignorance and disregard had a far-reaching effect.
Deshong: Even growing up, I know that in my own family, there were times where there was an inclination to diminish your Indigenous heritage or Aboriginal heritage as a survival mechanism.
And so even in families, the implications of having that long history, having a period of time of where that was I guess silenced or marginalised. But now coming out the other side and seeing that people are really proud of that heritage and that connection I think is where I see us at the moment.
Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Cara Kirkwood agrees. Cara is a Mandandanji, Bidjara and Mithaka woman from Queensland.
She thinks Britain’s claim that Australia was terra nullius, implying this land was uninhabited before the occupation, was the most destructive aspect of the British takeover.
Kirkwood: To think about sovereignty brings me back to two words that I linger on intensely in my mind often and it's terra nullius.
And I think about terra nullius particularly because it's those two words that have completely defined us in almost a kind of strange bubble where we were here. It's like this great lie, because we were here.
But we were declared not to be here, so we can't have sovereignty now or then or whenever. After being here, for at least 60,000 years.
But you know, it's a very strange place to be. And it's a very um frustrating piece of policy that we somehow can't work around all the time.
Narrator: Our leaders, communities and families have been standing up for rights, equality and justice for over 200 years now.
Audio: Bobby Sykes / Charlie Perkins / Gary Foley
Narrator: It’s hard to single out particular individuals or events that have really made a difference.
But the Churchill Fellows say there are some events and developments that stand out as real turning points for our nation.
Michelle Deshong believes everyday racism against First Nations peoples, like in the sixties and seventies in Queensland, was big in keeping the fires of resistance burning.
She says the international civil rights movement in the sixties, and our mob establishing community organisations in the late seventies and eighties were breakthrough developments in our fight for justice.
Audio: First World Council of Indigenous People rally
Deshong: As First Nations peoples, we’ve got connections with First Nations people around the world. I think, the civil rights movement also helped us to make huge leaps in terms of the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were regarded and their involvement in the Australian society became really important in that 1960s period with things like, the electoral act being brought in so that Indigenous peoples could have a right to vote.
You know, the Freedom Rides, as we look at the Freedom Rides happening in the United States and Kumanji Perkins leading that similar kind of conversation here in Australia around segregation and discrimination.
And then in 1967, creating the momentum to actually change the position of Indigenous peoples and a rights-based approach around inclusivity and recognition.
I think that period was really important.
And then as you move through to the 1970s and early eighties, I think that was when we saw the evolution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that allowed us to take control of some of the business in our communities.
Narrator: Cara Kirkwood also sees Australia’s 1965 Freedom Ride as a big turning point.
Audio: ABC coverage/ comments from the public / Charlie Perkins / comment from George Roe
Kirkwood: You think about the Freedom Ride, what we had was a group of Aboriginal people and the fear held in people, but then conversely, the courage and bravery to get on a bus and head into towns you knew people were gunna hate your guts.
Audio: Charlie Perkins
Kirkwood: Imagine being confronted with that and how you'd have to like gee yourself up on the bus. That sense of purpose, that sense of strength is quite remarkable and the reason why actually, that's the turning point that I think is one of the biggest is because it showcases the collective travelling around, confronting people's fear in regional, primarily regional communities, this is where, that tension of communities versus communities has the power to change.
That freedom bus trip changed the capacity for white people to vote for the referendum in '67 and that was a massive swing.
Audio: ABC media coverage / public comment / Charles Perkins
Narrator: The success of the 1967 referendum campaign was testament to the power of change through collective action.
Audio: Faith Bandler / Chicka Dixon
Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Hannah McGlade, is a Western Australian Noongar woman.
She says Australia’s royal commission into deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations’ Bringing Them Home report were really important turning points for her in the fight for rights.
McGlade: In the early 1980s, I was a young high-school student and we witnessed the death of a young Aboriginal man in the country-town called Roebourne.
His name was John Pat and he was only 16-years-old and John Pat had been killed in an incident involving off-duty police officers, several involved who were charged with criminal offences.
They were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Audio: ABC media coverage / Michael Mansell
McGlade: This triggered a national ground swell across the country and a movement for a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Audio: Brewarrina man / Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke
It's now 30 years since the royal commission into deaths in custody and we're still seeing Aboriginal people die at horrific rates in this country.
And we know that most of those recommendations, important recommendations still haven't been implemented or given due respect by the governments.
There was also in the 1990s, we had a national inquiry by the Human Rights Commission looking at the removal of Aboriginal children under the past policies.
That was really historic, it was an absolute turning point. Before that national inquiry, there hadn't been recognition of what had been done to Aboriginal people under the colonial laws of government in relation to the removal of Aboriginal kids.
Narrator: The mass protests against the celebration of the 1988 bicentennial of the white settlement of Australia were another big turning point.
Audio: Metro Screen coverage / Gary Foley
McGlade: That was in 1988 and Aboriginal people were being told by governments that we should just celebrate the colonisation of Australia and the dispossession of Aboriginal people without a treaty or any form of real settlement.
So, Aboriginal people across the country, including from West Australia and Perth, we joined convoys and travelled across the nation to arrive at La Perouse in Sydney and to take part in protests.
And, I understand that they were the biggest protests Australia had seen since the Vietnam War.
Audio: ABC media coverage on bicentennial celebrations
McGlade: We protested the tall ships that were arriving in Botany Bay, re-enacting the colonial acquisition of Australia and attack on Aboriginal people's lands. That was really powerful.
Narrator: Hannah McGlade says while there has been big steps forward in our fight for rights, she also sees things not changing.
Like our legal system which she says is still turning a blind eye to violence and abuse against people and country.
McGlade: We know that the land has been damaged and we saw what happened to Juukan Gorge and that incredibly significant, sacred site in the Pilbara that was basically blown up by the Rio Tinto company in disregard of its international heritage significance. So, our land is suffering.
But if we talk about the people and what's been done, we know that Aboriginal people are experiencing very severe human rights abuse and are suffering as a result.
We know what intergenerational trauma is, we know what happened to people removed under the past policies which were found to be genocidal by the national human rights inquiry, in the Bringing Them Home review of Australia's past policies.
We know that they're suffering there, but even today, we're looking at systemic and structural discrimination and the impacts that is happening on Aboriginal people today.
I'm really, obviously concerned in my work about mass incarceration of Aboriginal people and child removal which is at such high levels, it exceeds the level of child removal under the history of the Stolen Generations by far and the experiences of great many children is quite painful and certainly not care.
Narrator: Hannah is particularly worried about violence against Aboriginal women, which she says is continuation of the horrific treatment of First Nations’ women during colonial and mission times.
McGlade: So, the response is not to support Aboriginal women on part of the Australian state, but to actually criminalise and punish women and it's been known for a long time now that Aboriginal women are the fastest-growing prison population in Australia and are the most over-represented group in the criminal justice system.
They generally all have histories of violence, abuse and victimisation from childhood, onwards. And we do nothing about that, we do nothing, but punish women and show a lack of care, re-traumatise and create disability in the inhumane treatment of them in prisons.
Narrator: The peoples of the Torres Strait have shared many turning points with Aboriginal people but they also have their own unique history.
Eddie Koiki Mabo, the celebrated Torres Strait Islander land rights campaigner, told this story of how his Mer, or Murray Island, was taken over by British colonisers in the 1880s.
Audio: Eddie Mabo
Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Donisha Duff, is from Thursday Island. She has family links to Moa and Badu islands and is a Yadhaigana-Wuthathi traditional owner of Cape York.
She says the inclusion of the Torres Strait Islands under Queensland’s Aboriginal protection act in 1904, was a devastating development — which forced many of the state’s First Nations peoples onto reserves.
Duff: The Aboriginal protection act here in Queensland, which actually moved people onto missions stopped people practicing culture and language.
So, if you're talking about attempts to completely break down a culture and society, that's completely destructive. That has lasting legacies on communities now in Queensland. You still have quite a few who, were previous missions and reserves that are large communities that are still living there.
And to some extent, they are self-governed by local governments now, but that's still the history and impact that they have to overcome.
Narrator: In a landmark action in 1936, Torres Strait Islander workers on pearling luggers, staged a nine-month general strike, challenging the control authorities had over their lives.
Voicer: Islanders built the company boats, but the local Queensland Government Protectors controlled them … which led to growing resentment among locals, especially against the local Protector J.D. McLean.
In the name of improving industry, J.D. McLean imposed an evening curfew, signaled by what was known as the ‘Bu’ whistle. He also directed recruitment of crew members and skippers for company boats and handled the financial books and personal earnings of Islanders.
At the beginning of January 1936, J.D. McLean visited the inhabited islands to sign men onto company boats. Just as McLean landed on Murray and Badu Islands, it was announced that all maritime workers of company boats, except for two, were on strike.
When McLean tried to recruit men in a hall at Badu Island, councillors and workers refused to join. One man read a statement listing reasons for his refusal.
He then convinced others to jump out of the hall windows with him as a sign of protest. Once outside, people whistled and called out ‘we will never sign back.’
Narrator: Like most Torres Strait Islander men in the 1930s, Donisha Duff’s grandfather was working on the pearl luggers at that time.
Duff: You had effectively Torres Strait Islanders who were working on the maritime industry pearling luggers who were going on strike because at that time, the Protector of Aborigines was taking control of affairs and the way luggers operated and the payment or non-payment of wages.
So effectively, you had a whole heap of Torres Strait Islanders who were on strike, and calling for better treatment and for payment of their wages and recognition of the work that they were doing.
So that was really a turning point in terms of recognising that wages needed to be paid for those that were doing the work, fair wages and it really was a collective action by Torres Strait Islanders to say, ‘No more.’ You know? ‘It's time for us to be actually treated and respected as working, as working people, who are contributing to an economy.’
And you know, it goes back to my family history as well too. My grandfather was actually a pearl diver during that period as well, so he would have been working on the luggers, so you know, it's a proud moment when you think that's a positive change for us as a family, to have been positively affected by it.
I think it should have happened a lot earlier in terms of recognition of people's rights. I mean we had Federation at 1901 and this is 35 years later we're actually recognising the physical labour and input of Torres Strait Islanders into the economy.
Audio: Eddie Mabo
Narrator: Eddie Mabo’s long campaign for recognition of land rights on Mer Island in the Torres Strait, eventually changed Australian law, overthrowing the myth of terra nullius.
Audio: ABC media coverage / Paul Coe
Narrator: In 1992, the High Court ruled in favour of the land claim by Eddie and four other Torres Strait Islander men.
In backing their claim, the High Court effectively recognised the rights of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to their land.
Audio: Gail Mabo / Alek Tupoti
Duff: That's still a landmark for Torres Strait Islanders in terms of recognising something we always knew. We always knew we had land rights. We always knew we had intergenerational recognition of land rights. That's how we lived.
And you know it was just the High Court recognising it served as legally, western systems of legal recognition, finally accepted that this was the way culture and practice and land, handing down of land happened in families.
I think there's a certain pride that Torres Strait Islanders have, that's their landmark decision which recognises family claims to land rights.
I was fortunate to actually have travelled to Mer, or Murray Island, for a really important celebration of Mabo and you could see the pride in people, there was a huge parade down the middle of the street.
There was a festival for the whole week, really in acknowledgment of that decision and the celebration of that decision.
Narrator: Donisha says the establishment of the Torres Strait Regional Authority in 1994, after hundreds of years of colonial and state rule, also paved the way for greater self-determination in the Torres Strait.
Duff: My third turning point is in 1994, the establishment of the TSRA, the Torres Strait Regional Authority. And that continues now where we have seen ATSIC dismantled, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, dismantled.
I think that structure and the elected representation of Torres Strait Islanders on that board gives really good authority and governance to Torres Strait Islander people to determine what their priorities are on their own country.
Narrator: While particular turning points have been critical in the fight for rights, it’s our culture and connection to country that’s given us the strength and resilience to keep fighting.
Cara Kirkwood puts it this way.
Kirkwood: I think that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people's capacity to get out of bed and keep fighting for policy relevance, for identity, for culture every day — that is significant every day.
I can think of all the families, the young ones, the middle-aged ones like me, and the older ones who, you know, everyone's had a different fight, but it’s actually, and, there's been huge disruptions, huge inequities in our survival and our resistance in this country, but still people get up and they get out of bed.
So, turning points for me is the fact that every Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person that I know that can get out of bed every day and go and fight for what we're always trying to do, the work, that to me is a turning point every day.
Narrator: As well as resilience, it’s our close relationships to each other that make us so strong as a people.
Kirkwood: The greatest I think impact of British kind of culture, western culture in our context is individualism.
Because it's meant that people see themselves as uniquely separate to everything around them. And when we see ourselves as completely inseparable which is the idea of the collective, then we all elevate, amplify and move forward together.
And we all kind of make sure we're okay. If you're working from an individualist construct, you just want to make sure you're okay.
In our way, we want to make sure everyone and everything is okay, because then it means we're okay.
I think about it as the notion of collectivity. That this collective, of which we're one part of as humankind, is only going to benefit if we're all benefiting.
Narrator: That brings us to the end of this first episode of Voices of Power.
Visit the AIATSIS website at aiatsis.gov.au
And to find out more about Churchill Fellowships or read the Fellow’s reports visit churchilltrust.com.au
The fellowships offer people from all walks of life, support to travel overseas to explore issues they’re passionate about; and that can make a difference.
If you would like to apply for a fellowship, or know anyone who does, now is your chance. Applications open in February and close at the end of April.
Our second and third episodes of Voices of Power are online now and ready for you to download — so get listening.
In the next episode, we look at how First Nations people here and overseas are rebuilding their tribal nations to create strong futures.
I’m Vic Simms — catch up with you then eh?
AIATSIS: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of AIATSIS or the Churchill Trust.
- Worried Man Blues song, composer Woodie Guthrie, performer unknown, 1966
- Yamaz Sibarud traditional song, performer ‘Maino of Yam’, 1898. Recording by Alfred Cort Haddon during the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait, 1898
- Aydiliya Na Nawpa song, composer Maza Samuel, 1960. Describes the pearl lugger ship the Idalia (pron. aideliya/aidiliya) sailing to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait in rough weather with children on board. The father watches his children as the lugger disappears to the west.
- Au Metalug BarkÌ song, composer unknown, recording by George Passi, 1987. The composer of this song is a Dauar Islander. He is observing the scenery from Mer (or Murray) Island and seeing his home across the water makes him sad.
- Torres Strait mariners’ strike report, Global Nonviolent Action Database
Comments / quotes
- Bobby Sykes
- Charles Perkins
- Gary Foley
- Bill Bird
- George Roe
- Faith Bandler
- Chicka Dixon
- Michael Mansell
- Gail Mabo
- Paul Coe
- Alick Tipoti
- Narration by Vic Simms, in collaboration with Koori Radio
- Voicers by Alfie Coolwell
- Series opening music by Jimblah
- Episode music by Fiona Lee Maynard
- Archival audio from the AIATSIS Collection and the ABC Archives