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Moments of Decolonization: Indigenous Australia in the Here and Now

  • Sarah Keenan (a1)


This article traces some of the ways in which Australian law in the post-Mabo era has functioned to discursively historicize Indigenous Australia, that is, to construct Indigenous Australia as a historical relic. I argue that despite law’s continual historicization of Indigenous Australia, there have nonetheless been “moments of decolonization,” as there have been since the colonization of Australia began, in which Indigenous Australia asserts its contemporary presence in opposition to and outside of colonial Australia. Drawing on Doreen Massey’s conceptualization of place and space and three examples, I argue that in these moments, Indigenous activists do not only resist the ongoing project that is settler Australia, they also create an elsewhere to it.

Cet article examine quelques-unes des façons dont l’Australie indigène a été historicisée, sur le plan discursif, par la législation australienne dans l’ère après-Mabo, c’est-à-dire représentée comme un vestige historique. Malgré le fait que l’Australie indigène est continuellement historicisée par la législation, je soutiens qu’il y a tout de même eu des « moments de décolonisation », tel qu’il y en a eu depuis le début de la colonisation en Australie, où l’Australie indigène affirmait sa présence contemporaine, à l’extérieur de l’Australie coloniale et opposée à celle-ci. M’appuyant sur la conceptualisation de lieu et d’espace de Doreen Massey ainsi que sur trois exemples, je soutiens que dans ces moments, non seulement les militants autochtones résistent au projet en cours de l’Australie coloniale, mais ils créent également un « ailleurs ».



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1 Mabo v Queensland [No 2] (1992) 175 CLR 1.

2 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “Indigenous Life Expectancy” (Canberra: Australian Government, 2013), accessed 22 May 2013,

3 Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Prisoner Snapshot” (Canberra: Australian Government, 2013), accessed 22 May 2013,

4 Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Poverty and Deprivation in Australia” (Canberra: Australian Government, 2013), accessed 22 May 2013,

5 See for example Motha, Stewart, “The Failure of ‘Postcolonial’ Sovereignty in Australia,” Australian Feminist Law Journal 22 (2005): 107–25; Watson, Irene, “Buried Alive,” Law and Critique 13 (2002): 253–69.

6 Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 1985).

7 Pahuja, Sundhya, “Decolonization and the Eventness of International Law,” in Events: The Force of International Law, edited by Johns, Fleur, Joyce, Richard, and Pahuja, Sundhya (New York: Routledge, 2011), 91.

8 Mabo v Queensland [No 2] (1992) 175 CLR 1; [1992] HCA 23 at paragraph [66] per Brennan J.

9 Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), 146.

10 Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2006), 139.

11 Massey, Doreen, “Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place,” in Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change, edited by Curtis, Barry, Bird, Jon, Putnam, Tim, Robertson, George, and Tickner, Lisa (New York: Routledge, 1993), 66.

12 Ibid.

13 Massey, For Space, 140.

14 As discussed above, there is a level of conceptual ambiguity here, as “process” and “event” are not interchangeable terms. Massey uses various temporal terms to explain her understanding of place, all of which emphasize that place is not fixed in time.

15 Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387409.

16 Macoun, Alissa and Strakosch, Elizabeth, “The Ethical Demands of Settler Colonial Theory,” Settler Colonial Studies 3, no. 3–4 (November 2013): 426–43.

17 Ibid., 434.

18 Tuck, Eve and Wayne Yang, K., “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 36.

19 Ibid., 21.

20 See for example Ivison, Duncan, “Decolonizing the Rule of Law: Mabo’s Case and Postcolonial Constitutionalism,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 17, no. 2 (1997): 253–79; Detmold, M. J., “Law and Difference: Reflections on Mabo’s Case,” Sydney Law Review 15 (1993): 159; Sharp, Nonie, No Ordinary Judgment: Mabo, the Murray Islanders’ Land Case (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1996).

21 Watson, “Buried Alive,” offers a particularly compelling critique.

22 For a full summary of the formula for native title set out in Mabo, see chapter 1 of Strelein, Compromised Jurisprudence: Native Title Cases Since Mabo (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009).

23 Paragraph [66] per Brennan J.

24 Paragraphs [73] – [97] per Brennan J.

25 Per Deane and Gaudron JJ at paragraph [58].

26 Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “tradition,” June 12, 2013,

27 Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.”

28 Valerie Kerruish and Jeannine Purdy, “He ‘Look’ Honest—Big White Thief,” Law/Text/Culture (1998): 146–71.

29 Greenhouse, Carol J., A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures (London: Cornell University Press, 1996), 20.

30 Engel, David M., “Law, Time, and Community,” Law and Society Review 21, no. 4 (1987): 605.

31 Douglas, Stacy, “The Time that Binds: Constitutionalism, Museums and the Production of Political Community,” Australian Feminist Law Journal 38 (2013): 7879.

32 Native Title Act 1993 div 3.

33 (187) CLR 1; [1996] HCA 40

34 See Toohey J at paragraphs [70]–[76].

35 Russell, Peter H., Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 279314.

36 Ibid., 325.

37 See Toohey J at paragraphs [50]–[52].

38 Kirby J at paragraph [216].

39 214 CLR 422.

40 Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria and Others [1998] FCA 1606

41 Buchan, Bruce, “Withstanding the Tide of History: The Yorta Yorta Case and Indigenous Sovereignty,” Borderlands E-journal 1, no. 2 (2002),

42 See Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “The Possessive Logic of Patriarchal White Sovereignty: The High Court and the Yorta Yorta Decision,” borderlands e-journal 3, no. 2 (2004),

43 Bodney v Bennell [2008] FCAFC 63.

44 Strelein, Compromised Jurisprudence, 135.

45 For an in-depth discussion of one group’s preparation for a native-title claim, see chapter 5 of Povinelli, Elizabeth A., The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism, Politics, History, and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

46 Watson, Nicole, “What Do We Want? Not Native Title, That’s for Bloody Sure,” in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State, edited by Foley, Gary, Schaap, Andrew, and Howell, Edwina (New York: Routledge, 2013).

47 Hokari, Minoru, “From Wattie Creek to Wattie Creek: An Oral Historical Approach to the Gurindji Walkoff,” Aboriginal History 24 (2000): 98115.

48 Ibid., 113.

49 Muldoon, Paul and Schaap, Andrew, “The Constitutional Politics of the Aboriginal Embassy,” in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State, edited by Foley, Gary, Schaap, Andrew, and Howell, Edwina (New York: Routledge, 2013).

50 Robinson, Scott, “The Aboriginal Embassy: An Account of the Protests of 1972,” in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State, edited by Foley, Gary, Schaap, Andrew, and Howell, Edwina (New York: Routledge, 2013), 5.

51 Ibid.

52 The initial demands were (1) Aboriginal ownership of all existing reserves and settlements (including rights to mineral deposits); (2) ownership of areas of land in the capital cities including mineral rights; (3) preservation of all sacred sites in all parts of the continent; (4) six billion dollars in compensation; and (5) full rights of statehood for the Northern Territory: Newfong, John, “Camping Indefinitely at the Embassy (February–June 1972),” in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State, edited by Foley, Gary, Schaap, Andrew, and Howell, Edwina (New York: Routledge, 2013), 139.

53 Watson, “What Do We Want?”

54 Ibid., 293.

55 Ibid.; Gilbert, Kevin, “The Continuing Presence of the Embassy Since 1992,” in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State, edited by Foley, Gary, Schaap, Andrew, and Howell, Edwina (New York: Routledge, 2013), 190210.

56 “Aboriginal Tent Embassy,” accessed 11 June 2013,

57 P. Anderson and R. Wild, “Little Children are Sacred: Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse,” Northern Territory Government (Northern Territory, 2007).

58 “A Statistical Overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia,” Australian Human Rights Commission (Sydney, 2008), accessed 15 February 2010,

59 “Northern Territory,” National Native Title Tribunal (Canberra, 2010), accessed 15 February 2010,

60 West, B. A. and Murphy, F. T., A Brief History of Australia (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010), 85.

61 This Commonwealth power to override territory laws is enabled by section 122 of the Australian Constitution.

62 That is, land held on trust under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth).

63 NTNERA s 4.

64 Based on a search of all legislative instruments passed under NTNERA as of 15 February 2011.

65 NTNERA s 12.

66 Ibid., s 126.

67 Ibid., pt 3.

68 Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007 (Cth) Schedule 4.

69 NTNERA pt 5 div 4; pt 7.

70 Ibid., ss 90, 91.

71 Ibid., pt 4 div 1.

72 Ibid., s 132.

73 Behrendt, L., Cunneen, C., and Libesman, T., Indigenous Legal Relations in Australia (Sydney: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8182.

74 See for example J. Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People “Observations on the Northern Territory Emergency Response in Australia” (2010); Amnesty International, “Discriminatory Aspects of the NTER Yet to Be Addressed” (Sydney, 4 February 2009), (last visited 15 August 2011); Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG), “Rollback the Intervention” (Alice Springs, 2009), (last visited 18 August 2011).

75 West and Murphy, A Brief History of Australia, 232.

76 Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, “Closing the Gap: Monitoring Report July–December 2010” (2010), section 6.7.

77 Blagg, Harry and Valuri, Giulietta, An Overview of Night Patrol Services in Australia (Canberra: Attorney-General’s Department, Commonwealth of Australia, 2003).

78 NTNERA s 6.

79 Hussain, Nasser, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 108.

80 Ibid., 112–20.

81 Macoun, Alissa, “Aboriginality and the Northern Territory Intervention,” Australian Journal of Political Science 46, no. 3 (September 2011): 519–34, doi:10.1080/10361146.2011.595700.

82 Ibid., 528.

83 J. C. Altman, “Fresh Water in the Maningrida Region’s Hybrid Economy: Intercultural Contestation over Values and Property Rights” (Canberra: Australian National University, 2008), 1.

84 Ibid.

85 “History,” Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (Darwin, 2007); Sarah Keenan, “Blue Wristband View of History: The Death of Mulrunji Doomadgee and the Illusion of Postcolonial Australia,” Alternative Law Journal 34 (2009): 248.

86 Wurridjal v The Commonwealth of Australia [2009] HCA 2.

87 Shaw v Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs [2009] FCA 844 and [2009] FCA 1397.

88 Frances Coughlan, “Aboriginal Town Camps and Tangentyere Council: The Battle for Self-Determination in Alice Springs” (Melbourne: La Trobe, 1991), 22.

89 Ibid.

90 As the land was leasehold, these were in fact subleases, but the principles remain the same. For a full exploration of the legal characteristics of the subleases, see Sarah Keenan “Property as Governance: Time, Space and Belonging in Australia’s Northern Territory Intervention,” Modern Law Review 76, no. 3 (2013): 464–93.

91 Shaw No 1 at paragraphs [75]–[99].

92 IRAG, “Rollback the Intervention,” accessed 14 June 2013,

93 “Rebuilding from the Ground Up: An Alternative to the Northern Territory Intervention” (Sydney: Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, 2011), accessed 13 June 2013,

94 “Ampilatwatja,” accessed 12 December 2011, Barkly Regional Council,

95 “About,” Intervention Walkoff’s Blog, 23 July 2009, accessed 23 March 2010,; J. Dheerasekara, “Back to Country: Alyawarr Resistance,” 2009, accessed 12 December 2011,

96 “Ampilatwatja Walkoff—Aboriginal Australia Today,” The Juice Media, uploaded 25 October 2009, accessed 12 December 2011,

97 Downs, R., “NT Aboriginal Leaders Condemn Intervention, Housing Program Failure,” Intervention Walkoff’s Blog, 7 October 2009, accessed 12 December 2011,

98 Hartley, J., “Message from John Hartley,” Intervention Walkoff’s Blog, 2010, accessed 12 December 2011,

99 The minister has not released an official statement on the walk-off but is clearly aware of its presence. This video shows public servants from the Commonwealth government driving out to the walk-off site in order to inspect it, looking somewhat shocked at what was taking place, and being asked to leave by the residents. “Intervention Agents Evicted,” ForNowVision, 17 February 2010, accessed 31 August 2011,

100 Murdoch, L., “A Community with Its Own Intervention,” Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2010, accessed 19 December 2012,

101 Povinelli, Elizabeth A., Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

102 Massey, “Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place,” 66.

* Thanks to Alissa Macoun, Terese Jonsson, Mel Evans, anonymous reviews and the editors for valuable feedback on earlier drafts. Thanks also to my Indigenous Land Rights students, particularly Kayla Gebeck, for insightful conversations on decolonization.

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