As a kid growing up in Derby, my parents told me how my great-great-grandmothers and grandfathers hunted and gathered on our lands and waters before non-Indigenous people arrived in our Country.
I was taught about our culture and our way of life, and the importance about when to take food from the land and to only take what you need. The rules and customs of my people are still practised today and continue to hold our people together.
These rules and values protect what is important to us in looking after Country. These rules are part of the living culture we practice, our song and dance, and our law.
The culture we practice every year is strong in the Kimberley and throughout Western Australia. It is a continuation of a heritage that existed well before non-Indigenous people arrived and established the Swan River Colony in Western Australia in 1829.
The oral stories passed down by our people taught me about the darkest periods of colonisation, where my people were mustered up like animals, chained to trees and shot.
Our great-grandmothers were taken from their husbands by pastoralists as slaves and wives to be used at their discretion. As a young Aboriginal person, it was clear that we have never been equal before the law.
The laws supposedly created to “protect” Aboriginal people during and after the colonial period were designed to control us. These laws also blocked us from creating intergenerational wealth and have entrenched the socioeconomic wealth gap that endures today.
Despite these past wrongs, the last half-century has seen many battles that have been won for the rights of Aboriginal people. From the 1967 referendum where more than 90 per cent of Australians supported our right to vote, to the Noonkanbah land rights dispute which led to my Dad helping establish the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), and now, 93.5 per cent of the Kimberley being determined Native Title land through the work of the KLC — there has been much to celebrate.
However, there is still much unfinished business. Despite Western Australia being one of the wealthiest regions in the world thanks to its immense resource wealth, Aboriginal people are still disadvantaged. The past laws discriminate against us and hold us back in creating our own intergenerational wealth.
The current Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act gives power to a government or his/her delegate to destroy our history, Australia’s history and living culture, without our consent.
We know one way to address the disadvantages our people face is for us to be responsible for our future under fair laws that respect us as Australians. We can create our own enterprises and generate our own wealth and economic opportunities that respects our values and Country.
This is why the KLC recently called on the WA Government to raise its procurement targets for the percentage of contracts awarded to Aboriginal businesses from three to four per cent, and to bring a balance to the Aboriginal Heritage Act with a spirit of justice and fairness.
But the McGowan Government can go much further than this. It now has a once in a lifetime opportunity to address the wrongs of the past.
After Mark McGowan’s landslide election win in March delivered him a record majority and control of both Houses of Parliament, the Premier declared: “We are a government for all Western Australians.” This, I hope, includes my people.
For McGowan to fix the wrongs of the past and put us on the path to true Reconciliation, his first step should be to introduce laws related to Aboriginal people that are not imposed on our people.
McGowan has an opportunity to include us as key decision makers and include us in the economic opportunities presented by this State. This will involve the Government tearing up its proposed Aboriginal Cultural Heritage legislation.
The Government says the new law will “establish a modern approach to protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage”. But for our people, the law is still stuck in the past as it fails to recognise Aboriginal people as the primary decision makers about our cultural heritage and grants this authority to proponents such as mining companies.
The proposed laws will not prevent the ongoing destruction of Aboriginal cultural heritage. They will not prevent a repeat of what happened at Juukan Gorge or the Serpent Dreaming site in the East Kimberley. The Government says the new law will have stricter penalties.
But what do stricter penalties mean when you aren’t willing to prosecute mining companies that desecrate Aboriginal Cultural Heritage — such as Kimberley Granite Holdings, which went unprosecuted last year for destroying the Serpent Dreaming site.
What our people are asking for, as the keepers of the world’s oldest surviving culture, is for the WA Government to recognise our right to protect our own culture.
Later this month, I will meet with the Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson, who will tell me the 100 amendments he will make to the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill before the Government passes them into law. That does not feel like partnership or a Government for all Western Australians.
I ask the McGowan Government to turn a new page. Rather than make a law about us, please make a law with us.
By Anthony Watson
Anthony Watson is a Nyikina, Karajarri, Mangala, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr Traditional Owner and Chair of the Kimberley Land Council.