Indigenous Australians must develop and fund their own self-identity if they are to see real progress, a gathering at this week’s Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in east Arnhem Land was told.
Eminent Maori Treaty negotiator Sir Tipene O'Regan spoke at the Opening Plenary at the Key Forum of Australia’s most significant Indigenous festival, giving a wide ranging insight into the challenges facing Maori people.
His core discussion revolved around a notion he called a burden of disregard where indigenous culture was not relevant to wider social views of society.
And he said this disregard was fed, in part, by a lack of vision by indigenous peoples who themselves struggled to forge a long-term vision.
“One of the most precious things we have is our grievance and one of the greatest challenges we have had is ridding ourselves of the sense of grievance and to conceive ourselves in forward terms of what we want to be,” he said.
“Until we take control and own our own dreams, we will always be dependent on others to tell us what our dreams should be.”
Sir Tipene reflected on the struggles of Maori people that continued even after their momentous recognition within the New Zealand legal system.
“We were a bit like the dog racing down the road and barking,” he said. “The dog's great problem is what does he do with the car when he gets it?”
He spoke frankly about the challenge of Maori people to live up to their vision “for us and our myriad of descendents coming after us”, and to take better care of their wealth and future.
“From day to day, the debate almost always involves what I call the groceries and not the long-term future,” he said. “We were not conceiving ourselves as people with a future,” he said.
Sir Tipene also spoke of the huge disjunction between highly educated Maori people leaving their lands because they were excluded from the political process.
“They were dissatisfied with this and left for other career options so were left with ordinary Kiwis running political governance.”
He said common indigenous hostility against political elitism worked against future leadership of indigenous peoples and this had to change.
A merger of economic and traditional cultures would pave the way for true indigenous empowerment.
“If we are going to own our own culture, we have to pay for it ourselves otherwise we will be walking museums funded by well-meaning art councils and bureaucrats,” he said.
The Key Forum, coordinated by Charles Darwin University, is a central feature of the annual Garma Festival.