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: issues and problems

Family-run dynasties

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].

Service providers renounce responsibility

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].

Clashing with the law

As more and more Aboriginal people work out what self-determination means for them in detail, some of their choices clash with the law of state and territory governments.

Murrumu Walubara Yidindji (formerly known as Jeremy Geia) has renounced his Australian citizenship and returned his passport, Medicare card and driver’s licence. He quit his job, gave away most possessions and walked away from his bank savings and a superannuation account built up over two decades. His car bears number plates “licensed to the sovereign Yidindji government” [12] (reading “Yidindji - YID-001 - Pursuant to Yidindji Tribal Law”), challenging police who have never seen such a situation.

Murrumu was subsequently charged with driving an unregistered and uninsured vehicle with false plates, driving without a licence while possessing “an article resembling a licence”. [13]

Gary Tomlinson, also known by his tribal name Wit Boooka, faced a week in jail after refusing to recognise state law that forced him to provide fingerprints and DNA evidence for a charge of trespass. [14]

Only after he was allowed to sign using his tribal name, and that his agreement to the bail conditions did not imply any concession that Queensland law had any legitimate power over him, was Boooka spared a week in jail.

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?

Definitions of sovereignty

Under current international law, sovereignty is defined as follows:

“Sovereignty in the sense of contemporary public international law denotes the basic international legal status of a state that is not subject, within its territorial jurisdiction, to the governmental, executive, legislative, or judicial jurisdiction of a foreign state or to foreign law other than public international law.” [16]

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].

Sovereignty cannot ‘exist’, it can only be asserted, claimed or taken. If it is taken, this can be through conquest by a sovereign entity (after a war and subsequent treaty of surrender or complete destruction), cession (a sovereign entity cedes, through a treaty, part or all of its power to another sovereign entity) or settlement (a territory is completely uninhabited by people). [17]

Sovereignty is recognised reciprocally, meaning that sovereign entities (usually nations) recognise each other’s sovereignty.

Sovereignty vs self-determination

It can be difficult to distinguish the two terms. ‘Self-determination’ is a more loose word for ‘sovereignty’. Sometimes, it is used as an alternative, while other times it is used to describe a form of ‘limited sovereignty’ under the sovereign power of someone else. In international law, sovereignty is a more precise term than self-determination.

Aboriginal definition

For Aboriginal people, sovereignty has three components: land, law and people.

Wiradjuri woman Jenny Munro explains how sovereignty is linked to 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]

Reverend Dr Djiniyini Goṉḏarra OAM, Senior Elder Dhurili Clan Nation and Chairman of Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, explains how law relates to sovereignty (Madayin = Yolngu law system):

“We believe we have never been conquered and we are not subject to the Australian or British law but still maintain our own sovereignty. We still have our language and practice our Madayin law and as one of the first peoples we assent to the Madayin law not Australian law. Still we want to find a way forward. So, if the Law we have always assented to is not recognised then there can never be a real rule of Law only lawlessness and true justice can never exist for our people and the communities we live in.” [15]

Sovereignty has been confirmed by Australian courts!

Michael Ghillar Anderson, Convener of Sovereign Union of First Nations and Peoples in Australia and Head of State of the Euahlayi Peoples Republic, has worked tirelessly for the sovereignty of his people. He has unearthed a judicial gem, a court decision that acknowledges Aboriginal peoples’ sovereignty in 1841.

At the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Melbourne in April 1841, Justice J. Willis ruled over the murder of an Aboriginal man [18]. The Justice made some remarkable statements in his judgement (my emphasis):

“...if this colony were acquired by occupying such lands as were uncultivated and unoccupied by the natives, and within the limits of the sovereignty asserted under the commission, the aborigines would have remained unconquered and free, but dependent tribes, dependent on the colonists as their superiors for protection; their rights as a distinct people cannot, from their peculiar situation, be considered to have been tacitly surrendered.  But the frequent conflicts that have occurred between the colonists and the Aborigines within the limits of the colony of New South Wales, make it, I think, sufficiently manifest that the Aboriginal tribes are neither a conquered people, nor have tacitly acquiesced in the supremacy of the settlers.”

“I repeat that I am not aware of any express enactment or treaty subjecting the Aborigines of this colony to the English colonial law, and I have shown that the Aborigines cannot be considered as Foreigners in a Kingdom which is their own.”

Justice Wills found that “the colonists and not the aborigines are the foreigners; the former are exotics, the latter indigenous, the latter the native sovereigns of the soil, the former uninvited intruders.”

Free book: Aboriginal Sovereignty - Justice, the Law and Land

Book: Aboriginal Sovereignty - Justice, the Law and Land The concept of treaty was presented in 1987 to draw attention to the fact that Aboriginal sovereignty has never been ceded to the British Crown or the Australian Commonwealth government.

Aboriginal Sovereignty - Justice, the Law and Land by Kevin Gilbert resonates in the contemporary era as a foundation stone to the Sovereignty Movement, by casting a web around the fundamental legal argument that sovereignty has never been ceded by First Nations and Peoples in the land now known as Australia.

There is a viable pathway for recovery from the ongoing genocidal onslaught. Kevin Gilbert’s well researched work provides an uncomplicated definitive legal argument based on international law and clarifies the concept of pre-existing and continuing sovereignty.

Download Aboriginal Sovereignty from iTunes.

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.


The Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements database (ATNS) offers a wealth of information relating to agreements between Aboriginal people and others in Australia and overseas.

It includes background information on each agreement; links to related agreements, organisations, signatories and events; a glossary of relevant terminology as well as direct access to published and on-line resources.

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 (18)

[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
[12] 'He renounced Australia and lives solely by tribal law. Now Murrumu is hitting the road', The Guardian 9/1/2015
[13] 'Murrumu charged after driving with licence issued by his Indigenous nation', The Guardian 27/5/2015
[14] 'Police praised on bail compromise in native title row', Gympie Times 18/8/2015
[15] 'The Assent Law of the First People: Principles of an Effective Legal System in Aboriginal Communities', Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and Richard Trudgen, 22/2/2011, in Galiwin'ku Constitution Consultation Meeting, submission no 3526
[16] ‘Sovereignty’, H Steinberger, in Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Encyclopedia for Public International Law, vol 10 (North Holland, 1987) p.414
[17] 'Sovereignty - General Principles', Alessandro-Pelizzon, nationalunitygovernment.org/pdf/Sovereignty-Guidelines-Alessandro-Pelizzon.pdf, retrieved 1/12/2016
[18] 'R. v. Bonjon', Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899, Macquarie University, http://www.law.mq.edu.au/research/colonial_case_law/nsw/cases/port_phillip_district/1841/r_v_bonjon/, retrieved 9/1/2017

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info, Aboriginal culture - Self-determination, retrieved 23 January 2017