Aboriginal self-determination and autonomy

Self-determination is a term used to describe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people take matters into their own hands.

List of linked articles

List of short articles

What is “self-determination”?

Self-determination involves a substantive transfer of decision-making power from government to Indigenous peoples. It requires programs and resources that can assist them in rebuilding their own decision-making capabilities [1].

Self-determination can include everything from being actively involved in policy formulation to providing services from cultural peers (rather than outside of Aboriginal culture).

Self-determination is something you take, not something a government gives you.—Gary Foley, Aboriginal activist [4]

Self-determination and self-government are essential bases for making sustained improvements in the social and economic conditions of Aboriginal people.

If governance is executed the right way, for example in a culturally responsive way, data shows that Aboriginal people are “in the driving seat” of their own development [7].

Self-determination encompasses both land rights and self-governance, as land is understood to be the economic (and in some cases spiritual) basis for Aboriginal communities to be self-governing [14].

It is one of the strongest contributors towards Aboriginal health.

What unites Indigenous leaders around the world is a burning desire for their people to be respected, resourced properly and then left to make their own share of mistakes and their own progress.—Jeff McMullen, journalist [8]

Priciples of self-determination

To be successful in self-determination Aboriginal people need

  • support,
  • the freedom to be ambitious and creative, and to be themselves,
  • knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked elsewhere,
  • permission to make mistakes, and
  • a stable policy environment that encourages and supports Aboriginal solutions.

Some of the work that successfully supports self-determination includes [7]

  • leaders building succession planning into their work, i.e. preparing a younger generation to take over at some time, but also sponsoring younger people to attend conferences;
  • groups designing investment strategies to look after future generations as well as the needs of current Aboriginal people;
  • clans and nations negotiating complex agreements with the private sector or governments; and
  • Aboriginal programs that build the practical capacity of Aboriginal people in communities to run education, policing and health systems.

Waltja Tjutangku is a successful Aboriginal community-based family service assisting communities to develop self-management and self-determination.
They defined the following principles for Aboriginal self-determination [2].

  • Family. The family is the foundation of the Aboriginal community and identity. Service delivery is most effective when it occurs in the context of the broad family as understood by Aboriginal people.
  • Community. Partnerships with Aboriginal communities are the most effective way of providing services to respond to identified needs.
  • Proximity. The most effective services are provided by local community people who have access to training and support.

Self-determination and land rights is not just the power to say no, it's the power to say yes as well. Otherwise what we own is only half of what we're entitled to.—Noel Pearson, Aboriginal lawyer and elder [3]

Fact In 1995 the Australian government put to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, that they object to the use of the term ‘the right of self-determination’. The government wanted Aboriginal people to be limited to asking ‘how they should be governed’. [13]

Homework: Colonised too many times

During a native title case, Aboriginal woman Carol Martin said:

Aboriginal people need to take control of their own destiny … Aboriginal people have been colonised so many bloody times: first, by the British; second, by the do-gooders; third, by the missionaries; fourth, by industry; and now, by the bloody greenies!—Carol Martin [9]


  • What does Carol mean when she says Aboriginal people have been colonised more than once?
  • Who are the “do-gooders” and what was their agenda?
  • Make a table comparing each group of “colonisers”: Who were they, what were their intentions, how did they influence Aboriginal culture?
  • Which group do you think had Aboriginal people’s interests at heart? Has this changed today?

Self-determination can backfire

Family-run dynasties within some Aboriginal communities can weaken Aboriginal self-determination. They pretend to be community-controlled but are not operating within the strict community-controlled organisation guidelines [5].

Some Aboriginal communities have established a two-class system in health, housing and education where the preferred class gets quick access to programs and services while the other class has to join a waiting list [5].

Some service providers misuse the push for self-determination as their way out of responsibility. They took self-determination as ‘permission’ to either abandon or ignore their responsibilities, arguing that under self-determination it was ‘inappropriate’ for them to be involved. Aboriginal health became an ‘Aboriginal problem’ that mainstream services appeared to be absolved from [15].

When started Aboriginal self-determination in Australia?

The first expression of Aboriginal self-determination is usually said to be in 1972 when the Whitlam government abolished the White Australia Policy and introduced a policy of self-determination.

But 50 years before that Aboriginal activists already lobbied for self-determination when they formed the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in April 1925 [6].

The AAPA drew inspiration from the ideology and tactics of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association [14], founded 1914 in Africa and 1917 in the US.

Presided by Fred Maynard, the AAPA made front page news with headlines like “Aborigines In Conference—Self Determination Is Their Aim—To Help A People”.

The AAPA attracted widespread support from Aboriginal communities and established 11 branches with a membership of more than 500 at a time when the Aboriginal Protection Board reported the total Aboriginal population of NSW as less than 7,000 [6].

In its manifesto the AAPA demanded [6]

  • 40 acres of land to be granted to each and every Aboriginal family in Australia,
  • to end the policy of child removal from their families by the Aboriginal Protection Board,
  • to replace the Aboriginal Protection Board by an all-Aboriginal body to oversee Aboriginal affairs,
  • citizenship for Aboriginal people within their own country,
  • a Royal Commission into Aboriginal affairs,
  • the federal government to take control of Aboriginal affairs, and
  • the right to protect a strong Aboriginal cultural identity.

Aboriginal nations declaring independence

The Sovereign Union of First Nations and Peoples, formed in June 1999, provides the umbrella organisation for Aboriginal nations that have declared their independence, and assists other nations in the process of becoming independent.

To become an independent state, a nation must have a land base, population, the ability to develop an economy and be sustainable, be able to govern, and be able to trade, treaty and enter into international agreements.

Nations which have already declared independence include:

  • Murrawarri Republic: On 30th March 2013, Murrawarri people from the Culgoa River region of northern New South Wales declared their sovereignty of their lands under the name of the Murrawarri Republic, made up of eight clan groups. The Republic covers an area of about 82,000 square kilometres, bordered by Bourke and Brewarrina in the south and Cunnamulla in the north.
  • Euahlayi Peoples Republic: On 3 August 2013 in Dirranbandi, Queensland, key Euahlayi family members and Elders asserted their pre-existing and continuing statehood for the People of the Euahlayi. Ghillar, elected Head of State, had asked Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II if she could provide them with documents where war was declared against his people or where they voluntarily ceded their sovereignty to Great Britain. Neither was confirmed by the Queen [11].
  • Republic of Mbarbaram: This nation west of the Atherton Tablelands, far north Queensland, declared independence in November 2013.
  • Wiradjuri Central West Republic: On 10th January 2014 Aboriginal people of central west NSW around Wellington declared their independence and statehood and the Wiradjuri Central West Republic. On 22 January 2014 the Wellington Council raised the Wiradjiri Central West Republic flag [12].

Video: Eddie Turpin (Mbarbaram people) shares the journey of becoming independent

Video: Flying the Wiradjuri Central West Republic flag for the first time

Self-determination in the USA

There is “ample evidence” that the US policy of self-determination, formally adopted in the 1970s, is the only US Indian policy ever linked to sustained improvements in socioeconomic conditions in Indian communities [1].

The North American experience shows that self-determination pays off, provided that Aboriginal tribes not only assume responsibility for their own affairs but invest time and energy in building governing institutions that can capably exercise decision-making power and that have the support of their own peoples. Non-Aboriginal governments must then take self-determination seriously.

Dozens of treaties have been signed in the United States and Canada which afford First Nations communities varying degrees of genuine self-determination, from controlling their own schooling to giving them a real capacity to generate an economic base [10].

There are more than 250 Native American tribal courts across at least 32 states in the US, which handle everything from criminal matters to family court.

Native American corporations and individuals are exempt from various state and federal taxes, including state income tax for people living on reservations.


Reconciliation Australia has a section on Aboriginal governance called the Indigenous Governance Tookit.

It is Australia’s only comprehensive online resource aimed at strengthening Aboriginal community and organisational governance. The toolkit provides stories about what works,  case studies, resources, videos and templates.

How to start a successful Aboriginal business.

Australia’s first Aboriginal business book

Check out Neil Willmett’s book How to Start a Successful Aboriginal Business in Australia which is Australia’s first Aboriginal business book. A guide for every Aboriginal small business starter and owner.


View article sources (15)

[1] 'Can Australia follow Obama's lead?', Reconciliation News 5/2010 p.19
[2] 'Celebrating Indigenous success stories', ANTaR flyer 10/2010
[3] 'Cape crusader', Koori Mail 487 p.11
[4] 'Tent Embassy and Identity', talk, Message Sticks 2012
[5] 'Equal and fair access for all', readers letter, Koori Mail 524 p.23
[6] 'In the footsteps of Fred Maynard', Koori Mail 393 p.34
[7] 'The Indigenous governance and development challenge: an international conversation', Reconciliation News 23, May 2012 p.10
[8] 'The Search for Common Ground', Jeff McMullen, address in Parramatta Town Hall, 8/9/2010
[9] 'James Price Point: Victory or Loss?', Arena Magazine 7/2013
[10] 'The case for Indigenous self-determination', The Stringer 21/10/2013
[11] 'Euahlayi Nation Media Release', 12/8/2013, http://www.euahlayipeoplesrepublic.mobi/node/2 retri,eved 27/1/2014
[12] http://www.facebook.com/MurrawarriRepublic/posts/10201325560929681 retri,eved 27/1/2014
[13] 'Sovereign Union and Our Political Future', nationalunitygovernment.org, retrieved 27/1/2014
[14] 'Pyning for Indigenous rights in the Australian Curriculum', The Conversation 15/8/2014
[15] 'It’s Time to End Indigenous Health’s Apartheid', indigihealth.com 8/10/2014

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info, Aboriginal culture - Self-determination, retrieved 2 February 2015