Hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people marched to Western Australia’s Parliament House on Thursday morning to protest the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021, proposed legislation Traditional Owners have described as a “disgrace” and “a form of cultural genocide”.
Led by the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and gathering at Perth’s Kaarta Gar-up/Kings Park and Botanic Garden, protesters came together despite wet weather to march along Fraser Avenue and down to Parliament House in a unified call for change.
Nyikina Traditional Owner Sara Bergmann, who spoke at the rally, told NIT it “doesn’t make sense for Aboriginal people to not be the experts on their heritage and their culture”.
“If you go overseas, who is the authority on culture in Italy? Who is the authority on culture in China? It’s the Italian people, it’s the Chinese people. It’s not someone speaking on behalf of someone else — and that’s where the government’s heritage [bill] is flawed,” she said.
“The final sign-off on how we do our heritage is held by the Government and by the Minister, and not by the Aboriginal people that actually know and understand the culture.”
Bergmann said she wants to see significant change sooner rather than later.
“I want to see true co-design. I don’t want Aboriginal people to be a verification and a review at the end of the government’s proposal.
“I want Aboriginal people to be sitting in the room designing the laws with the government because we should be part of the conversation that decides our future and protects our culture and heritage.”
Incoming Greens Senator and proud Noongar/Yamatji woman Dorinda Cox also spoke to protesters before the march, letting them know she plans to advocate for Traditional Owners once the Juukan Gorge inquiry’s final report is published.
“When the Senate inquiry hands down the final report in October I will be marching into [Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen] Dawson’s office … and demand that this Government listen; listen to the Traditional Owners, listen to the people,” she said.
“This current Bill doesn’t enact us to be active participants in our future.”
Newly instated KLC chief executive Tyronne Garstone wrapped up the pre-march speeches, uniting Traditional Owners and non-Indigenous people as they prepared to march.
“We’ve seen how this legislation hasn’t protected our culture and it hasn’t protected our heritage,” Garstone said.
“We stand together as a collective … We want to show the Government, we want to work with you. Put us front and square with this Bill … Our Aboriginal heritage needs to be put first.
“This is a real opportunity for the WA Government to make a difference, to set a standard that they haven’t seen anywhere else.
“We urge Minister Dawson, we urge the Premier [Mark] McGowan] … let us be a part of the negotiation around the final draft of this heritage bill.
“Stop drafting this bill behind closed doors. Let the people who are going to be impacted the most have the biggest say.”
Marching down the tree-lined Fraser Avenue, banners, posters and flashes of red, black and yellow could be seen throughout the line of protesters.
Upon reaching Parliament House, well-respected Elders Gordon Marshall, John Watson and Annie Milgin sung traditional songs as Traditional Owners holding feather-tipped spears danced around them. Feathers topping the spears represented Traditional Owners coming to Parliament House in an act of peace and friendship — and not an act of aggression or war.
Protesters were invited to join in on the cultural dancing, with many joining as the Elders continued to sing.
Speakers on the steps of Parliament House included respected Banjima Elder Slim Parker, Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation Chair Halloway Smirke, Clayton Lewis of the Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance, KLC Chair Anthony Watson, young up-and-coming Aboriginal leaders Sara Bergmann and Hozaus Claire, and KLC Director Wayne Bergmann.
Throughout the speeches, the overwhelming feeling toward the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill was one of discontentment, with one Traditional Owner even describing it as a “disgrace”.
Mr Watson said he felt the laws were “putting tape over our mouths to [make us] stay quiet about our heritage”.
“The details that we’re stuck on … the details within this proposal, it’s going nowhere. It’s going to make it worse for us,” he said.
“This is why we’re here on these footsteps. To tell this Government that’s not good enough.”
Mr Bergmann read out a letter to the McGowan Government, asking the Premier and his Cabinet to urgently reconsider the draft Bill and to work with Aboriginal people to make legislation that makes a difference.
He then presented the letter alongside a framed painting of the Creation story of Woonyoomboo, painted on paperbark from along the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River, to Minister Dawson.
Minister Dawson and Kimberley MP Divina D’Anna attended the rally and listened to speeches but did not make any statements during the protest.
Speaking to NIT after the protest, KLC Director Robert Watson said he hopes to see the current process halted to allow Traditional Owners, industry and government to “come back to the drawing board”.
“This provides an opportunity for us to be able to be part of making this … Aboriginal Heritage [Bill] work properly if we weren’t so marginalised from the development process,” he told NIT.
“Historically, that’s how all laws pertaining to Aboriginal people have been developed. The result is paternalistic laws … and here we are, experiencing the same old laws.
“What we’re witnessing in Western Australia is nothing less than a form of cultural genocide through acts of Parliament.”
KLC Chair Anthony Watson echoed Robert Watson’s sentiments, saying he hopes the McGowan Government will now take the time to reach out and speak to Traditional Owners about the Bill.
“There is no rush towards pushing this Bill. We need to be at the forefront of decision-making,” he said.
“We’re telling the Government that they need to respect our culture, our heritage, and we’re a major player within this State and we need real engagement.”
He said this is the McGowan Government’s opportunity to create a legacy of Reconciliation with the State’s First Nations peoples, after a landslide election victory which left them with control of both the Lower and Upper Houses of Government.
“Over the years … [the WA Labor Party] always wanted the numbers to pass things — this is the opportunity to actually do that and work with Traditional Owners of this region.”
By Hannah Cross
*Editor’s note: Wayne Bergmann is part-owner of the National Indigenous Times.