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 [11].

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]

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 [9].

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 [11], 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 sovereignty

Sovereignty is a word that’s used a lot in discussions about Aboriginal issues. But what does it mean?

Wikipedia definition

The Wikipedia defines sovereignty as “a state or a governing body [that] has the full right and power to govern itself without any interference from outside sources or bodies” [3].

Aboriginal definition

For Wiradjuri woman Jenny Munro sovereignty is all about land:

“It means we have right to this land. It is our land. We never ceded the right to the land, the sea and the air. We have never given that right away. We never told white people in any way that we had given them this country. There are no contracts of any sort, no treaties. It is still our land.

“White people keep perpetuating nationhood on a lie. They said the country was terra nullius and Mabo was supposed to have knocked that on the head but in every school they still talk about Captain Cook, and explorers discovering country.

“This year [2015] for example, they will celebrate the two- hundred year so-called discovery of the path across the Blue Mountains. They didn’t discover anything. They followed a Blackfella up the path. That was our trading track with the Sydney people, the Eora and Wiradjuri trading track. Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth were not the first people to cross the Blue Mountains.” [2]

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 (11)

[1] 'Can Australia follow Obama's lead?', Reconciliation News 5/2010 p.19
[2] 'An Interview With Jenny Munro', Gaele Sobott, 25/1/2015, gaelesobott.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/an-interview-with-jenny-munro/, retrieved 2/2/2015
[3] Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereignty, retrieved 2/2/2015
[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] 'It’s Time to End Indigenous Health’s Apartheid', indigihealth.com 8/10/2014
[10] 'The case for Indigenous self-determination', The Stringer 21/10/2013
[11] 'Pyning for Indigenous rights in the Australian Curriculum', The Conversation 15/8/2014

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info, Aboriginal culture - Self-determination, retrieved 1 April 2015