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Voices of Power - Episode 2: Building our nations

Building our nations, the second podcast in the Voices of Power series, looks at how First Nations peoples in Australia and overseas are creating new futures by building on their own governance and leadership models.

Indigenous Churchill Fellows, Parry Agius, Michelle Deshong, Cara Kirkwood, and Hannah McGlade, share their views and experiences on native title, nation building and what self-determination really means.

It has been more than ten years since Australia ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Building our nations looks at what Australia needs to do to make sure the declaration has a real impact. 

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Churchill fellows

Episode 2

Parry Agius

Michelle Deshong

Cara Kirkwood

Hannah McGlade

  • Show notes
  • Transcript

    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 and CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, or AIATSIS.

    Welcome to the second episode of our Voices of Power series — a joint production between AIATSIS and the Churchill Trust.

    The Churchill 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’re hearing from Indigenous Churchill Fellows from around Australia. 

    They share their ideas and experiences on the fight for First Nations’ rights in Australia. 

    And, discuss how First Nations peoples can have stronger representation and voice in Australia’s places of power.

    I’m a Churchill Fellow myself and today we’ll be hearing from Indigenous Fellows— Parry Agius, Michelle Deshong, Cara Kirkwood and Hannah McGlade and in this second episode of Voices of Power

    In this episode, Building our nations, we’ll be delving into what nation building and self-determination look like.

    So, enjoy listening!

    Narrator: Land is at the core of our culture and the return of land remains at the heart of our fight for recognition and justice. 

    Audio: Vincent Lingiari

    Narrator: That was land rights campaigner, Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari on a trip to Parliament House in Canberra in the early seventies.

    I’m Vic Simms, a Bidjigal man of Botany Bay.

    Gurindji people sparked a showdown on land rights when they walked off the Vestey-owned Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory in 1966, calling for fair wages and conditions.

    Audio: ABC media coverage / Jim Sheridan Northern Territory station manager / Peter Morrison Vestey spokesperson / Dexter Daniels Aboriginal stockman 

    Narrator: Gurindji people won their long fight.

    Audio: ABC media coverage / Gurindji cattlemen

    Narrator: The Federal Government negotiated with Vestey’s for the return of some of their land with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handing over the deed and title. 

    Audio: Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam 

    Narrator: The fight for the return of land continued to build through the seventies, eighties and nineties.

    In a landmark moment, four Aboriginal men set-up the Tent Embassy outside Old Parliament House in Canberra in 1972.
    Audio: Tent Embassy protestors / unidentified Aboriginal woman / Chicka Dixon / Gary Williams

    Narrator: In the seventies and eighties, land rights laws were passed in Victoria, New South Wales and by the Commonwealth.

    And, in 1993 Eddie Mabo’s successful land claim led to the passage of the Native Title Act

    The land rights granted have raised doubts and brought failures and disappointments.

    Audio: Pastor Albrecht / Delegate from First World Council of Indigenous Peoples

    Narrator: As well as a fight for justice the call for land rights has also always been about a desire for economic independence. 

    Audio: Gary Foley / community spokesperson at land rights meeting in Queensland

    Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Parry Agius, is of the Ngarrindjeri, Narungga, Adnyamathanha, Ngadjuri and Far West Coast Wirangu nations of South Australia.

    He seen the failures of land rights first-hand but he believes native title law has strengthened South Australia’s tribal nations and given back a sense of belonging.

    Agius: Now the community of Port Augusta has a dozen different traditional groups from different places, but they are called the Aboriginal community of Port Augusta.

    So, when you think about it, from 1970s onwards, till 1994 when native title came into play, I was looking at the concept of traditional Aboriginal people for a particular piece of land had the same significance as the Navajo nations, the Cree nation, the nations of the First Nations People of America and Canada.

    Here we were stepping into that framing.

    We've been the Aboriginal community of Port Augusta, we're now the, for example, the Narungga people of the Yorke Peninsula. We are the traditional group of the Yorke Peninsula. 

    And regardless of whether there were other traditional owners from other different countries in there, Aboriginal people then had the ability to stand up and say, ‘We are this, we are that’.

    So, here then, we could see Aboriginal people, traditional groups taking responsibility for themselves in this particular framing of using the Native Title Act to actually say, ‘We live in Port Augusta. We enjoy Port Augusta because that's our nearest place of work or so on, but our traditional lands are elsewhere and we've got our own decision-making group and we've got our boundaries and we've got our rights and interests for that area.’ 

    Narrator: With the backing of land rights and native title, First Nations peoples have been able to take more control of their lives and country. 

    Agius: It was a new learning space for people who were now running their tribal group business and their tribal group affairs and their tribal group arrangements. So, for example, they had to look after their heritage, especially if somebody wanted to use their country, to mine on it or to do things. 

    So, they had to think about heritage and the significance of heritage. They had to think about how to deal with the mining companies and what sort of financial strategies that they were going to use and then what type of financial institutions they needed to create to actually manage their money.

    Narrator: For Parry, native title has made walking on his country a more powerful experience. 

    Agius: Walking on there is pretty powerful, because when I went to those places, I could understand, I could feel the difference. When I went to somebody else's country, I could feel the back of my hair standing up because I wasn't quite sure whether I'm going through places of significance or whether I'm going through places that I shouldn't be.

    And if I did go through the places I shouldn't be, how was I going to deal with the spiritual impact of that?

    Narrator: Parry says native title has created new relationships in communities where different tribal groups live together, and for individuals who’ve been separated from their country and peoples.   

    Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Hannah McGlade is a Noongar woman from Perth. 

    She says, because Western Australian governments had resisted introducing land rights, the Mabo decision and introduction of Native Title Law were important in the west.

    McGlade: We in West Australia didn't really have secure rights to land. That was absolutely a turning point for us and for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

    I saw the case going through law school, I watched it closely. It was amazing and the Federal Government decided of course to enact the Native Title Act and to ensure those rights were reflected in legislation. 

    There were some winding back of the rights and certainly, native title has not provided justice as it should have for all Aboriginal people. 

    It's been a response that's been based within the non-Indigenous legal system and Aboriginal people have been at a disadvantage. And many Aboriginal people actually have seen inherent rights to their land extinguished under this process. 

    We're very fortunate in Noongar country, in Bibbulmun country, where I am, that there has been a recognition. It's been by way of a settlement, though, an Indigenous Land Use Agreement and it's a historic settlement for the lands in Noongar countries. 

    Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Michelle Deshong is a Kuku Yalanji woman from the Far North Queensland, and like many of us, she does not live on her traditional country. 

    She thinks the process of having to prove native title has disadvantaged First Nations peoples who are not able to live on their country. 

    And that it’s created tensions between and within some nations

    But she says native title has been positive for her Kuku Yalanji nation. 

    Deshong: Kuku Yalanji is one of those nations that has moved a long way from those early days and is a really strong nation around its identity, around its governance, about the alliances that it builds with neighbouring nations. 

    And that's where I think we're seeing native title take hold now as people utilising the opportunity whether they see it as symbolic or not to assert a position, and to negotiate on our own terms.

    And I think that that post-native title determination opportunity is one that we'll continue to see change and adapt over time, and that's where things like the legal cases, advocating for policy change, Indigenous Land Use Agreements, putting on that self-determination lens on our terms becomes a really important part of native title into the future. 

    Narrator: Churchill Fellow, Cara Kirkwood, is a Mandandanji, Bidjara and Mithaka woman from Queensland.  

    She saw the parliamentary debates that raged over native title following the Mabo High Court decision — which were some of the longest in Australian parliamentary history — as a disappointing signal.

    Adopted by non-Indigenous parents she didn’t grow up on country and views native title through that lens. 

    Kirkwood: Identity is inseparable to country, right? 

    So, if you didn't grow up in your place, your identity is disconnected in some way. 

    I don't think I could fairly say I've got anywhere near the kinds of cultural knowledge that I wish I had. 

    But what I find that we can see as patterns over time is that we have communities and elders going back to seek reconnection, recompense, acknowledgement of their ownership of their cultural continuum of these countries. 

    Old people are dying before they get to see whether it's even handed back or not or whether they're allowed back on their country or not. With the freedom of which culturally you feel on the inside, you see it, but the fences are holding you out. 

    That is the story for me about native title that I it doesn't make me want to go in there, deep on it, cos it's utterly heartbreaking. And it's butting up against a system of which will tell us every time we're in a strange terra nullius bubble, that we never existed here.

    Narrator: With her 2017 Churchill Fellowship, Michelle Deshong travelled to meet First Nations peoples in New Zealand, Canada and the US, to learn more about governance and leadership.

    She came away with a new understanding of what self-determination was and how it could be achieved. 

    Deshong: One of the particular things that I observed through the Churchill Fellowship and through the different nations was this idea of self-determination and what does it actually look like. 

    I remember many years ago, in the 1990s particularly when ATSIC was established, there was lots of conversations about self-determination, but when you kind of take off the layers, you'd realise that self-determination was really something that was guided by the government of the day. 

    And so, it was putting parameters around, you know, ‘self-determination can look like this, but it can't go as far as that’. And, so for me, thinking about that international perspective, what I've really seen is an opportunity for people to prioritise from a tribal nation perspective, or an individual perspective, what self-determination means to them.

    And it doesn't have to suit for everybody, but it's really important that there's some really fundamental parts to it that enable people to feel like they get to set the priorities and that they get to be in control of the decision-making for those priorities that enable them to enact a self-governance approach.

    Similarly, often words like sovereignty get thrown up, and I learned this over in the United States where they talked about sovereignty by stealth. 

    What does sovereignty mean? Well, to me, what sovereignty means is being in control of your own destinies and being able to set your own priorities, have decision-making power over those priorities and not deviating from those priorities on the basis of third-party intervention.

    And if you think about that in an Australian context, we certainly see many times, whilst we might want something particularly for our nations, the government of the day, the reliance on funding and the intent of a government policy position means that we kind of moved too far from what we’d set as our own priority. 

    Narrator: She saw the importance of tribal nations setting their own goals and priorities and sticking to them. 

    Deshong: So that was one of the things that I saw as really important about the sovereignty by stealth idea is ‘Get our stuff organised’. 

    Be strong internally, create our own institutions, our own leaders, our own processes and systems to enable us to act as if we are a sovereign state. And then we get to a position where we don't have to rely on others to determine for us what our outcomes are, but we stand really strong in that power and that place as self-determined people. 

    Narrator: Michelle believes the structure of the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission — ATSIC, which was set up in 1990, 
    and the 2009 National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, did not allow us to truly set our own agendas. 

    Deshong: We do need to remind ourselves sometimes that we have the power. We've often lost that level of power because other people have come in and influenced and changed our way of working.

    We need to get back to rebuilding and reclaiming the way that we used to do this work so that we can lead our communities forward.

    Narrator: Michelle says that the focus on tribal nations in the US and Canada is just as important here in Australia.

    Deshong: It makes sense that if we want to move forward, we have to start working from a different collaboration point. And we know, we talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but what we really, when we talk about ourselves, we're talking about being Kuku Yalanji, or Ngarrindjeri or Noongar. 

    And that means that those nations can create their own leadership, they can build their own institutions, have their own processes in place, hold each other to account. And to work from a position of ‘anything is possible’, rather than the limitations of a reliance on a government or a funding partner to create this opportunity. 

    Narrator: Overseas, as well as in Australia, land rights have allowed us to be more self-sufficient and run our own lives.

    Michelle saw First Nations peoples overseas rebuilding their tribal nations through independent income generation.

    Deshong: Even looking at the way that they were creating their own economic sustainability really changes the way that you get to do business and to prioritise, right? 

    So, if you're creating your own money, you can do whatever you want with your own money. 

    But, as long as you have to keep going to others for that source of income and resourcing, then you're always going to have to make some compromises. 

    Narrator: Native American nations were rebuilding their strength, starting with a small core of people and developing that into a critical mass of leaders and active members. 

    Audio: Citizen Potawatomi prayer – Gary Mitchell

    Deshong: So, one of the things in the United States, that was run out of the Native Nations Institute, at the University of Arizona was this idea of rebuilding native nations. 

    So, you know, not saying that things were lost, it's just about reclaiming. Like you know that quote from Chief Oren Lyons [of the Onondaga] who says, ‘The task is now to rebuild our nations, to re-establish those foundations and to put them back into practice.’ 

    So, what that process is showing evidence of is working with younger people, engaging them early in those conversations and then you know, from that small cohort, when everybody is talking from that same kind of standpoint, you start to create the masses. You start to get more people involved. 

    Narrator: At the heart of every tribal nation are its members, and their kinship and relationships — whether they live on or off their lands. 

    Michelle says she learnt a lot from how the Citizen Potawatomi Nation worked to make sure all its people — even those who were not living on country — were able to contribute.

    Audio: Forest County Potawatomi spokesman Mike Alloway Sr.

    Deshong: At the heart of nation-building, one of the things is to say, ‘who are your members or your citizens of your nation and what’s their role?’ whether they live on country or off country. I think is really important. 

    Citizen Potawatomi is one of those nations that had worked really hard to make sure there was continual engagement by its citizens from all over the United States, not just those living on reservations.

    Audio: Prairie Band Potawatomi spokesman Jim McKinney.

    Deshong: In Australia we have a very similar situation where people don't live on- country, but are very well-educated, have great skills and knowledge and should be making contributions to their nation. So, there's an important opportunity for us to re-engage in that space.

    Narrator: While our leaders and communities were working on rebuilding nations and self-governance from the ground up, in 2007, after two decades of lobbying, the United Nations passed a landmark declaration on Indigenous rights.

    Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand were the only countries to vote against the declaration in the UN in 2007 —but later all adopted it — with the Australian Government endorsing the declaration in 2009.

    A hundred and forty-eight nations have now backed the declaration, which sets important global standards. 

    Voicer: Articles three and four of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples say, Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination to ‘freely determine their political status’ and have ‘the right to autonomy or self-government’ of their affairs

    Article 18 says, ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making’ on matters which affect their rights, ‘through representatives chosen by themselves using their own procedures.’

    And, that Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their own decision-making institutions.

    Article 19 says, states must ‘consult and cooperate with Indigenous peoples through their own representative institutions’ to get their informed consent before passing and implementing laws or policies that may affect them.

    Narrator: But, the UN declaration is not legally binding, so has it had any real impact on how First Nations people live? 

    Hannah McGlade, who’s a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, sees the UN declaration and Australia’s endorsement of it as big turning points.

    McGlade: It's a framework that exists that is just so important because our inherent rights as Indigenous people, inherent fundamental human rights simply aren't recognised without the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, that our advocates and leaders worked so hard for over a decade, to develop those standards in Geneva, in the Human Rights Council processes there. 

    And the governments are a little aware now that you can't do whatever you want and oppress Aboriginal people so freely. But they're still doing it and sadly, West Australia has always been a very difficult state, a very racist state when it comes to Aboriginal people. 

    And this is something that Aboriginal people know, so we are dealing with governments and non-Indigenous people in government and positions of power and all through society that really actually don't know or respect our rights as Indigenous people. 

    We have a UN declaration now that is very clear about what those rights are and our government says it supports them. It certainly does support them in the international UN forum. 

    And it's a mechanism of accountability now that we draw upon to hold governments to account and to increase our dialogue to improve the recognition of those rights and the protection of them. 

    Narrator: Hannah is calling for the Australian Government to develop a national action plan to make sure the UN declaration is followed in Australia.

    McGlade: So, we believe a national action plan will direct government attention to working with Aboriginal people about how we can improve the realisation of those rights, particularly in law and justice, particularly in relationship to our children and families and our land as well. 

    In British Columbia, Canada, they've actually passed a legislation to protect the rights of Indigenous people based on respecting the UN declaration. 

    Narrator: Today, elders and other First Nations peoples are referring to the declaration, using its language in their negotiations with governments. 

    But like Hannah, Michelle Deshong believes more First Nations people need to be aware of the rights and obligations contained in the declaration.

    Deshong: The declaration is only as solid as the arguments that we place on it. So, you know, we've got to continue to reiterate the intentions of that declaration for the betterment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

    I find that it's a really important and pivotal document for us to continue to refer back to because while our nation state has said, ‘Yes, we endorse and we support this approach.’ What we're actually seeing is decisions that are in contradiction to that.

    So, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people I think we need to continually remind ourselves about the declaration and to use its language and to use its intent to try and influence change. 

    Narrator: Hannah McGlade sees the protection of children and cultural heritage as two areas where the self-determination promised by the UN declaration has not been delivered in Australia.

    As First Nations’ child removals continue to rise, she wants the West Australian government to include Aboriginal decision-making in law, so our families have a say in how our children are cared for and by whom.

    McGlade: 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 and there’s a lack of commitment unfortunately. 

    This is evident also in regards to the Aboriginal heritage legislation in West Australia as well. We've seen so many ministers approve destruction of Aboriginal heritage sites for over 30 years now. 

    We want a different law that can give more respect to the rights of traditional owners, to protect Aboriginal heritage and land. 

    Narrator: That ends our second Voices of Power podcast.

    I hope you've enjoyed listening. 

    Visit the AIATSIS website at to find out more about the issues we’ve been discussing. 

    And to find out more about Churchill Fellowships or read the Fellow’s reports visit   

    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 someone who does, now is your chance. Applications open in February and close at the end of April. 

    Our third episode of Voices of Power is online now. 

    In that episode we’ll be talking more with our Churchill Fellows, about treaties, representation in parliaments and how to create a meaningful First Nations voice to the nation — so start listening.

    I’m Vic Simms — see you next time, 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.


  • Episode credits
    • Gurindji Blues song, composer Ted Egan, performer Galarrwuy Yunupingu, 1971
    • Old Rugged Hills, performer Jimmy Little, 1964. Recorded for A Changing Race, ABC TV documentary, 1964
    • A creation story, No Fixed Address, 1982. Performed with traditional instruments, Rock Against Racism concert, Brisbane.
    Comments / quotes
    • Vincent Lingiari
    • Dexter Daniels
    • Chicka Dixon
    • Gary Williams
    • Gary Foley
    • Gary Mitchell (Prairie Band Potawatomi)
    • Mike Alloway Sr. (Forest County Potawatomi)
    • Jim McKinney (Prairie Band Potawatomi)
  • Series credits
Last updated: 28 June 2024