Australian Aboriginal Council delegation visits CSKT Council and both find we’re not that different
PABLO — When Americans think of Australia, they think of Crocodile Dundee or the late Steve Irwin. Sydney’s famous half-shelled styled Opera House is iconic as is Uluru, a large mound of sandstone that mysteriously rises from the arid Outback.
Not often seen, however, are the Aboriginal people who lived on the continent for more than 60,000 years. Vibrant and rich cultures that flourished freely for several millennia were subjugated, corralled and diminished by English colonizers who metastasized throughout their land.
Beginning in the 1800s, Aboriginal people were not considered citizens by the Australian government. However, in 1967, The Australian Parliament passed the Yes Referendum, which recognized the Aboriginal people and granted them Australian citizenship. In 1983, parliament agreed to provide Aboriginal people 7.5 percent of non-residential land taxes for fifteen years; half was to be used for land acquisition and administration, the other would be placed in statutory account to build capital for future use. In 1998, The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council had $268.5 million.
On May 2, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council visited the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tribal Council as part of a tour through Western Montana. Their travels took them to the NÂusm Salish Language Revitalization School and the Séliš-Ql̓ispéCulture Committee Elders Committee. Before lunching at Three Wolves at Salish Kootenai College, the NSWALC brought friendship, history and gifts.
NSWALC Chairman Roy Ah-See, who led the delegation, said nine members serving four-year terms comprise their Council that governs 25,000 members. Since the Yes Referendum, NSWALC built up their political standing where they have a voice in Australia’s Parliament, and holds special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, where they spoke last month at a UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Ah-See told the UN that they traveled to New York after an 18-hour flight to speak for three minutes about the devastation left by the Murray-Darling River crisis, a waterway important to the Aboriginal People. Over-irrigation and climate change dried out the river and remaining pockets of standing river water could not sustain the cod, which would grow up to 90 years old; the fish died from the loss of oxygen. Remaining stagnant and dirty water is unsuitable for drinking. “We have elders who have to use baby wipes to bathe because there isn’t any more water,” Ah-See told the CSKT Council.
In addition to the water issue, NSWALC spend resources on land acquisition. Land purchasing is ongoing, and they make claims for Crown land – land once owned by a monarchy and is now considered public land – with certain restrictions. Stephen Hynd, Policy and Programs Manager for NSWALC, is over seeing 33,000 land claims. Ah-See said land purchases depend on the value of the land; much of the coastal property values are higher than inland, which is dryer.
CSKT Arlee Representative Shelly Fyant told the Australian visitors that we know how important water issues are to tribal people, and that CSKT has been working with the state and federal government to pass the water compact. CSKT sympathized with NSWALC’s fight to have the water ecology honored by the Australian government.
Ronan District Tribal Council Rep. Carole Lankford told the NSWALC delegation that the forest and mountains along the reservation border is the first tribal wilderness in nation, and that land issues were also vital in spirit and culture to the CSKT people.
NSWALC Deputy Chair Anne Dennis said that in addition to the land issues, the Aboriginal people increased efforts to revitalize their language and culture. In her address to the UN forum, Dennis said 700 native languages were spoken; today, only 1 in 10 Aboriginal people speak the language at home. Only 145 Aboriginal languages are spoken, with 110 of them in critical danger of being lost; and 69 of those languages have less than 100 speakers. Like America’s efforts to destroy Indigenous people’s culture and language in the past, Australian laws forbade Aboriginal people to speak their language. Since the creation of the NSWALC, they have funded and created programs to revitalize their language and cultural practices.
These two councils, both on opposite sides of the Mother Earth, found they share much in common, if not culturally, then in the practice of flexing political muscle and having a voice in the government which at one time tried to wipe away the uniqueness of the Aboriginal and Indigenous people.
However, NSWALC connection to CSKT is even more direct than just legal and political machinations. CSKT member Mark Dupuis has worked as a Principal Legal Officer for the NSWALC for10 years and has lived in Australia for 37 years.
Lankford suggested that Dupuis’ connection to CSKT could help NSWALC with advice from the Legal Department on how to approach water rights issues.
Councilor of the Wiradjuri Region Craig Cromelin told CSKT Council that water is human right. NSWALC and its people held demonstrations in Australia to alert the government and its citizens that the rivers are sick, and that its health is affecting the culture and traditions of the Aboriginal people. They were pushing Parliament to hold accountable the water users who are causing the problems.
Cromelin also said that the best way for governments and politicians to prioritize water rights, climate change and cultural revitalization is to get out and vote. “Politicians are in denial about these issues,” Cromelin said. “We need to use our voice to vote in the people who will take these issues seriously.”
The message and spirit of friendship extended through gifts exchanged between the council members as NSWALC readied to leave. Words from both parties wished for a continued relationship, even if to remain friends with common goals, as both came to understand that our histories and struggles shared similarities, and both strived to overcome them and strengthen the people, culture and language.
However, there is also one difference that Ah-See, whose Aboriginal land is hot and dry, noted about the Flathead Reservation: “I have to say, these mountains are just beautiful. But it’s frickin’ cold here.”