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Activism and Representation

The modern movement for Indigenous rights in Australia began in the 1920s when the first Aboriginal political organisations were formed. Fred Maynard founded the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in 1924 in New South Wales, inspired by Marcus Garvey, the first president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the USA. The AAPA organised street rallies, held well-publicised regional and metropolitan meetings and showed great skill in using newspaper coverage, letter-writing campaigns and petitions. Under a banner of self-determination, the AAPA fought for issues rights that are still being fought for today: Aboriginal rights to land, an end to children being removed from families, and a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity.

Strikes and protests

Our history is punctuated by strikes and protests, resisting unfair treatment and inequality. The creation of the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939, recognising Torres Strait Islanders as a separate people, was the result of a four month maritime strike protesting islanders’ right to control wages and their own affairs under the Protection Acts. The Queensland government also allowed the creation of an inter-island organisation, known since 1984 as the Island Co-ordinating Council, however, in reality the government still retained enormous control over the lives of Islanders.

Later, encouraged by the success of the non-violent 1936 strike, Torres Strait soldiers staged sit-down strikes in 1943 and 1944 to demand full pay and an end to discriminatory treatment by the army.

Two years after the Torres Strait maritime strike, on 26 January 1938, while the rest of Australia was celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet we observed the first ‘Day of Mourning’. William Cooper encouraged John Patten and William Ferguson, leaders of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), to organise a protest. About 100 Aboriginal people, and a few non-Aboriginal people, attended a conference on the day.

A later delegation presented the Prime Minister with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people but this was rejected. We now remember 26 January as ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’.


Government policies of protection shifted to assimilation in the 1930s. In 1939, John McEwen, the Commonwealth Minister for the Interior, announced assimilation as a Commonwealth government policy. The previous policy had been one of biological absorption — where children of mixed descent were taken away and raised as white, and it was thought that the rest of us would die out.

Assimilation policies were adopted by the Australian states after Paul Hasluck, Commonwealth Minister for Territories introduced a new policy of assimilation in 1951.

By the mid-1960s, opposition to assimilation was strengthening and new policies, aimed more at integration, were being introduced. In December 1972, the Whitlam government cast aside assimilation as Commonwealth government policy. Self-determination was introduced. This completed the shift in policy development — from protection to assimilation to self-determination.


After the 1940s various state governments gave citizenship rights to some of us, on condition that we gave up our traditional lives and stayed away from other Aboriginal people. People who received citizenship papers were no longer considered to be Aboriginal.

The 1967 Referendum

In 1967 a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution in the hope that the federal government would be able to better protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 90.77 per cent of eligible Australians voted ‘Yes’ to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the national census of the population and to give the Commonwealth Government power to make specific laws for Indigenous people. The referendum was passed in all six states. It remains one of the most successful national campaigns in the nation’s history.

The referendum was a culmination of a valiant campaign fought by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), previously known as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines. FCAATSI, which included supportive non-Indigenous people in its early years, became an all-Indigenous body after the referendum.

Right to vote

Before Federation in 1901, some of us were allowed to vote, depending on where we lived, and retained that right if our names were on electoral roles before 1901. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 gave us the right to register and vote, but voting was not compulsory. Full voting rights were granted federally when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were required to register on the electoral roll in 1984.

New protests and the move towards land rights

By the late 1950s and early 1960s sporadic activism and resistance had solidified into a movement of Indigenous activism. In 1965, Charles Perkins, one of our first university graduates, led a group of our people and supporters on a ‘Freedom Ride’, a bus tour of outback New South Wales. The action was based on the US Freedom Rides, and sought to highlight blatant racism in Australia. At that time, we were barred from using public swimming pools in many Australian country communities. The Freedom Riders caused an enormous controversy across the nation as Australians were shown the true nature of race relations.

The Aboriginal political movement was not just occurring in the south. In 1963 the Yolgnu people of Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land presented a bark petition combining traditional bark painting with text typed on paper to the Commonwealth Parliament.

The petition was a response to the threat to their country posed by bauxite mining and led to the first native title litigation in Australia’s history. When the petitions failed to stop the mine, the Yolngu turned to the Northern Territory Supreme court where hearings of the Gove Land Rights Case began in 1968.

Although the case failed in the supreme court, the Yirrkala community helped pave the way for the recognition of Indigenous rights in Australian law.

The Tent Embassy

Tired of having legitimate claims denied, on Australia Day 1972 a number of Indigenous activists erected a tent known as the ‘Aboriginal Embassy’ on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra and told the police they would stay until the government granted Aboriginal land rights. The Embassy’s petition addressed Aboriginal ownership of existing reserves and settlements (including rights to mineral deposits), ownership of land in the capital cities (including mineral rights), preservation of all sacred sites in all parts of the continent, six million dollars in compensation, and full rights of statehood for the Northern Territory.

Despite attempts to dismantle it, the Embassy remains on the lawns of Old Parliament House and is a centre of protest and the starting point for marches to Parliament. It remains as a thorn in the side of the Australian conscience, reminding Australians that the work of forging a treaty has hardly begun. In 2012 the Tent Embassy celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Deaths in custody

In 1987, in response to growing public concern, a Royal Commission investigating Indigenous deaths in police custody and prison was launched. At that time, Aboriginal people made up 14 per cent of the total prison population and were up to fifteen times more likely to be in prison than non-Aboriginal Australians. The commission examined each death in custody that had taken place between 1980 and May 1989 and a final report, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, was released in 1991.

Few of the report’s recommendations were implemented and Aboriginal deaths in custody are still alarmingly high today.

Working through organisations

The gradual establishment of Indigenous-run organisations such as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI, the organisation that campaigned heavily for the 1967 referendum — see above), began to give us formal ways of representing ourselves and was another strand in the movements towards land rights.

In 1987, the federal government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission or ATSIC, with little input from our communities). ATSIC was meant to represent different regions through elections, but it was also responsible for delivering programs and funding was generally inadequate for the organisation’s needs. ATSIC was disbanded in March 2004 without consultation with Aboriginal leaders. While it had its flaws, ATSIC was blamed for failures that were outside its responsibilities and obligations. In its place, the federal government established the National Indigenous Council (NIC) that had a purely advisory function and no representative role.

After the Labor electoral win in November 2007, the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd scrapped the NIC and began consultations to establish a new organisation to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the federal level. A steering committee, chaired by Australian Human Rights Commissioner, recommended the formation of a new independent body, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. This congress commenced operations in 2010 and is representative, but it does not run programs the way ATSIC did, nor is it answerable to government.

Land councils

Aboriginal Land Councils are regional organisations made up of people elected from the communities who represent and provide a strong voice for their communities. The first land councils were established in the Northern Territory under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. Now Australia-wide, land councils have a long history of representing Indigenous interests: helping people get back on country, consult with landowners on mining, employment and development, resolve land disputes and protect Aboriginal culture and sacred sites. Community councils had been established on most islands in the Torres Strait early in 1899. Although they had limited powers, uniquely for the time they were made up of local people.

The Mabo case and the Native Title Act

One of the best-known land rights cases in Australia is the Mabo case, which led to native title being officially recognised in Australia for the first time. In 1982, Edward Koiki Mabo and fellow Mer Islanders (the Reverend Dave Passi, Celuia Salee and James Rice) launched a case in the High Court. In an historic judgment ten years later, the Court held that Meriam people possess rights to their traditional lands and that these rights should be recognised and protected by Australian law. The Mer Islander action followed the earlier unsuccessful legal action taken in the 1971 Gove land rights case (see above — ‘New protests and the move towards land rights’) in the Northern Territory.

After the Mabo decision and much negotiation and parliamentary debate, the Commonwealth government passed a new law dealing with land rights called the Native Title Act 1993. Since the Mabo case, decisions made by judges in native title cases and amendments to the law have considerably reduced the potential of the native title law to recognise the rights of all Indigenous people. This has led both Indigenous groups and governments to look for alternative ways of resolving these outstanding issues of land justice. Other methods — rather than court cases — for reaching decisions about land, such as using Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs), have emerged as a strong basis for developing ongoing relationships with government and industry.

Link-Up is one of several organisations that now provide support to people searching for their families. However, much of the pain continues long after we have been reunited with our families, as a result of the length of separation, sometimes as much as forty and fifty years.

Stolen wages

From the late 1800s and through much of the twentieth century, governments controlled most aspects of our lives including wages, pensions and endowments. Often we received only a portion of what was due to us, with the remainder kept in various trust funds. Much of that money was mismanaged or diverted to other government programs, a fact pointed out to various governments at the time, but ignored. Our families were never shown what money was being held and what was owed them. This practice is now called ‘stolen wages’ and while the Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australian state governments are taking action, for many families it will be a case of ‘too little, too late’. In mid-2006, the Commonwealth Parliament set up a Senate inquiry, which provided a report and recommendations. To date, no action has been taken.

A Treaty?

Australia is the only Commonwealth country colonised without consent of its Indigenous peoples. There has never been a negotiated settlement, or treaty, to transfer lands and sovereignty from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the British, now Australian colonial state. Some say this puts a legal question mark over Australia’s sovereignty.

Various models of regional approaches to a treaty have been investigated in Australia. A treaty framework would go beyond constitutional recognition and would be expected to involve a settlement of land and governance issues, potentially resulting in greater involvement of some Indigenous communities in their regions’ governance. It would also be likely to involve a more broad-based approach to settling land issues than the current native title process. This would include compensation.

Torres Strait Treaty

The Torres Strait Treaty is an agreement signed in 1978 between Australia and Papua New Guinea. It was established in order to remove all doubts about the boundaries between Australia and Papua New Guinea and defines how the sea area in the Torres Strait may be used. Besides defining the seabed boundary, it allocates rights over fish between the two countries and protects customary rights, including fishing and free movement across the border, in an area called the ‘Protected Zone’, which covers about two-thirds of the Torres Strait.

group of people marching in the street

Students from Kaurna Plains School lead a Reconciliation Rally march in King William Street, Adelaide on 27 May 2007. Photo Jenny Scott© State Library of South Australia.

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Wave Hill Walk-off

Albert Namatjira and citizenship

How much has changed?

Compensation for Stolen Generations

Caring for Country

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Little G’s hip hop track, Invasion Day, protesting against the nation’s Australia Day celebrations. © Little G.

Little G AKA Gina Chrisanthopoulos, draws inspiration from her Aboriginal and Greek backgrounds when rapping, dancing and performing, confronting issues of friendship, violence, racism and love. In 2010 she won the award for Best Female Artist 2010 at the National Indigenous RnB &Hip Hop Bump Music Awards.

Little G juggles performing with extensive community work. She has been the Koori liaison officer at Northlands Secondary College in Melbourne, taught hip hop writing and MC’ing in several juvenile justice institutions, and is currently the hip hop trainer for the youth organisation Community Prophets.

Charles Perkins talking about the 1965 Freedom Ride (video clip). © Screen Australia, clip courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive (

Charles Perkins – Freedom Ride is an excerpt from the program Charles Perkins (26 mins), an episode of Australian Biography Series 7 (7×26 mins), produced in 1999. A third-year student at the University of Sydney, Charles Perkins was elected president of the group Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA). SAFA was formed around the plan of likeminded students from the university to travel around western and coastal New South Wales towns, highlighting the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing and encouraging Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination. At that time Indigenous people were often denied service in shops, separated from whites in cinemas, banned from hotels and clubs, and excluded from swimming pools.

Further information:

Excerpt from the film 'Mabo – Life of an Island Man', produced in 1997 (video clip). Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, clip © Yarra Bank Films. (

a map

The route taken by the Freedom Riders in 1965, a tour protesting against racial discrimination. Photo © Ann Curthoys.

a poster proclaiming the day of mourning and protest

Poster announcing details of the Day of Mourning in 1938. Creator unknown; possibly William Ferguson, trade unionist and Aboriginal politician.

This Aboriginal-only protest meeting in Sydney was a response to the 150th anniversary of the non-Indigenous colonisation of Australia. At that time repressive government policies severely limited the movement and rights of Aboriginal people. They chose Australia Day for its symbolism. Many later activists involved were inspired by the Day of Mourning.

police man in front of a group of people

Anti-Bicentenary demonstration, Sydney, January 1988. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an22716062).

cover of the bringing them home report

Cover of the Bringing Them Home report. Photo © Heide Smith,

On 26 May 1997 the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was tabled in Federal Parliament. The Bringing Them Home Report revealed the extent of forced removal policies, which went on for more that 150 years and into the 1980s. It documented numerous case studies, and outlines the impacts of child removal policies on Indigenous individuals, their families and communities. The Inquiry made fifty-four recommendations on a wide range of issues which were directed to governments, churches, and other community groups.

Bringing Them Home: Admitting that generations were stolen

The forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families took place under both protection and assimilation policies of the government. The institutions and church missions where most ‘stolen’ children were placed suppressed their knowledge about their own families, language and culture and in some places discipline was enforced with heartless and brutal punishments. The exact number of children who were removed may never be known, but the impact of the removals has traumatised our communities and few families have been left unaffected.

In 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from their families was published in the Bringing Them Home report. The report detailed the laws, policies and practices that allowed our children to be taken from their families, and included many case studies that contest the claim made by many non-Indigenous Australians that the removal of our children was in their own interests.

Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER)

Despite our seemingly endless efforts towards reaching equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we are still treated differently to most Australians.

In 2007, the Commonwealth government staged the ‘Northern Territory Emergence Response (NTER)’ or ‘the Intervention’ in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The Intervention was a response to the Little Children are Sacred report which investigated allegations of serious child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

The report made ninety-seven recommendations, including specific references to local, as opposed to centralised, beaureaucratic, control. However, these were largely ignored by the government and to give effect to the new legislation introduced the Racial Discimination Act was suspended.

The Intervention has received bi-partisan political support but there have been strong criticisms of all or parts of it, including from the Social Justice Commission and the UN Rappoteur. The Gillard government published an independent review of the NTER in October 2008 and consulted with Aboriginal people, bringing legislated changes, including the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act, into effect on 1 July 2010. Despite these changes, some people have compared the Intervention as little different to the Protection Acts of the early twentieth century.

In 2012 the Gillard government passed the Stronger Futures laws, replacing, but essentially continuing the government’s intervention powers in the NT.


The Northern Land Council, one of several Aboriginal Land Councils around the country, began work in 1973. Its role is to represent traditional Aboriginal landowners and Aboriginal people in the Top End of the Northern Territory.

Consulting with traditional landowners and other Aboriginal people with an interest in land is one of the Council’s most important responsibilities. This process allows landowners to express their views and provide informed consent as a group before the Land Council or a Land Trust makes arrangements that affect the land. This principle is fundamental to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The Northern Land Council also acts as a representative body for native title claimants under the Native Title Act 1993.

In 1995 the Northern Land Council created the ‘A Caring for Country’ unit and it is now one of the Council’s largest units. Setting up groups of Aboriginal rangers is an important part of the unit’s work. The unit’s role in managing both land and sea includes controlling fire, feral weeds and animals, and monitoring endangered special, like turtle and dugong. It also takes an active role in preserving traditional knowledge for future generations. Similar land and sea management units are being established all around the country.

Source: Northern Land Council, NT.


Aged 50, Bruce Trevorrow, whose Ngarrindjeri parents put him into hospital as a child, only to have him fostered out without their knowledge, was awarded compensation, ten years after the Bringing Them Home report was tabled.

As a baby, Bruce Trevorrow lived with his parents, Thora Karpany and Joseph Trevorrow, and their family at One Mile Camp, about 150 kilometres from Adelaide. When he was ill, his father sought help from the police and neighbours to get him to hospital.

Despite Trevorrow’s recovery, the hospital records declared him a ‘neglected child without parents’ and he was put in foster care. No one asked his parents for permission. They were not told when or where he was taken and their enquiries about their child were ignored. Bruce Trevorrow did not meet his natural mother and siblings until he was ten years old, when he was taken to visit them. By then, his behaviour had deteriorated to the point that he was institutionalised. Bruce’s life as an adult included unemployment, heavy drinking and unhappy family relationships.

In 1994 Bruce began to ask questions: ‘I was just moving from institution to institution. I thought I’d just ask why I ended up in there’.

In August 2007 Justice Gray found that Bruce Trevorrow had been wrongfully removed from his family: ‘It was this conduct that ruptured the bond between the plaintiff and his mother and natural family’.

Whereas Bruce Trevorrow had to endure the stress of his case to obtain compensation in South Australia, in 2006 the Tasmanian state government created a $5 million fund to provide payments to eligible members of the Stolen Generations and their children.

Bruce Trevorrow passed away on 20 June 2008, aged 51.


'The position of the remnant of the original owners of this land . . . is a blot on State and Church alike. The fact that certain aborigines are camped under petrol tins and without certain knowledge of where their next meal is coming from is a reflection of our boastful civilization. We may claim that we are not responsible for the actions of the original British invaders who violated their homes, shot, poisoned, burned and mutilated the natives; but we cannot claim immunity from the conditions existing at the present time, and what should not be tolerated for one moment longer than it will take to rectify matters.'

Elizabeth McKenzie Hatton, non-Indigenous activist, Daylight on 30 October 1926.


Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s best-known artists, whose landscape paintings made him famous in Australia and overseas.

Namatjira was baptised when his parents adopted Christianity. He lived a mission life in his early years, but was later taught traditional Aranda laws and customs by his elders.

Namatjira’s introduction to painting came when he volunteered to show painter Rex Batterbee good places to paint. In exchange, Rex taught Albert how to paint in watercolours. He was a gifted and swift learner whose landscapes, closer to a Western style than one of the more traditional Indigenous artforms, quickly became popular.

Although famous, Namatjira was subject to the discriminatory laws faced by his people and his plans to lease a cattle station and build a house in Alice Springs were blocked. Public outrage pushed the government to grant both he and his wife full citizenship in 1957.

Unfortunately, the inconsistency in the treatment of Aboriginal people caught up with Namatjira. In 1958, he was charged by the police with supplying alcohol to Aboriginal people. As a citizen he was allowed to drink, but he wasn’t allowed to share alcohol with his friends and family. After being jailed for two months, he was released in poor health and died a year later.

Besides the legacy of his painting, Namatjira contributed much to the cause of Aboriginal people. Members of his family now carry on the tradition of painting.


The Gurindji people (Aboriginal stockmen and their families) took part in one of the most protracted industrial disputes in Australian history. They walked off Wave Hill station, 700 kilometres south of Darwin in the Northern Territory, in 1966, and captured national media attention. The land was leased by Lord Vestey of London but the Gurindji, in seeking better pay and conditions — with the support of unions and many private citizens, writers and politicians — defied the laws that treated them unfairly. Their cause was taken up around the country and it grew into a fight for land rights, which resulted in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976. Every state except Tasmania and Western Australia then passed some form of land rights legislation. Vincent Lingiari and his people had focused public attention on Indigenous working conditions and the restrictions that the vast private landholdings placed upon the lives of Aboriginal people. The walk-off and strike were landmark events in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights and a large celebration, Freedom Day, is held at Kalkaringi (Wave Hill) to remember the event.

Source: ©Northern Territory Library, NT.