First International Indigenous Women's Conference Report Back

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Andrea attended the historic First International Indigenous Women’s Conference. The Conference ran for six days from July 7 to July 12 1989 at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

The Conference began with a two day ceremony. On the first day we started with a parade through the Adelaide streets. Many women carried banners and flags representing their indigenous countries. As to be expected their was a large representation of Koori women. Mary Williams, a fourth generation elder of the Ghana tribe welcomed us at the beginning of the march. She explained how her tribal territory has been taken over by the City of Adelaide and that where we stood, in the centre of the City of Adelaide, was where her ancestors’ bare feet once walked. We stood in a minute’s silence to show respect for the Ghana tribe members who have fought and died for their land, and for those who continue to do so. With this in mind we marched on defiantly to the Living Arts Centre. Onlookers stared curiously at this long line of women. It was obvious that many had no idea what our purpose was, or what our flags represented. But Joanne Wilmot, one of the organisers of the conference, brandishing a megaphone, soon let them know that we were indigenous women united in solidarity to fight against our oppression. When we gathered at the Living Arts Centre we were treated with a feast of cultural exchange. Women danced, sang and read poems freely. It was a safe and happy and solid atmosphere to be in.

After our two days of festivity we began the “sit down and talk business.” Natasha McNamara opened the keynote address by saying that, “we’ve learnt to survive, but now we must learn to thrive”. She stated that while the Australian Aboriginal flag and possibly many other indigenous flags have come to symbolise defiance and protest, she also stressed that indigenous flags must also represent tradition, survival, change and celebration.

We were introduced to the International Indigenous Panel. This panel consisted of sisters from Samiland, the Philippines, Ireland, Palestine, Native America, Canada, Bolivia, Chile, Japan and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

A very notable speaker from this panel was Gloria Marshall, a Native American who, together with her two sisters, formed a theatre company called Spider Woman Theatre, which performed a play throughout the conference called  ‘Sun, Moon and Feather.’ During her introduction she made a very strong statement from the Native American Movement, “a heart of a nation is not dead until a woman’s heart is on the ground. Our hearts are not on the ground.”

We then began a forum titled. ‘How we define ourselves’ and it was at this point that the chair person asked. “whether we though non indigenous women should leave so as to allow the indigenous women some space to discuss how we define ourselves.” This caused great controversy. Many women stated that the non indigenous women had come to support the cause and that we should therefore unite and not separate. The Pitjanjatjara women wanted their non-indigenous supporters to stay because they were translating for them. After much debate and unsuccessful decision making by voting, it was decided to drop the subject and not to waste our very precious time.

During this day I attended a workshop entitled ‘Aboriginality and Identity.’ This was an inspirational workshop for me to attend and it was so relieving to hear that other women were experiencing the same identity problems as myself. We discussed the general ignorance of the majority of the non-indigenous population which manifests itself in the presumption that Aborigines should look stereotypically Aboriginal. In this workshop we identified our Aboriginality by names and genealogy. We also discussed the problem of insincere identity where people termed “Johnny-come-lately’s”, opportunistically identify their Aboriginality solely to obtain affirmative action benefits.

During the plenary and resolution session a representative from the Torres Strait Islands asked that the conference, “recognise the Torres Strait Islanders as a separate race of indigenous people in Australia” and she also requested support for their fight for sovereignty and independence. They were thereafter regarded by the conference as a separate nation.

On the second day discussion panels centred around Land Rights issues. A representative from each state in Australia discussed their situation concerning land rights. Irene Watson, the South Australian representative, particularly stressed their concern for environmental issues, that many non-indigenous Australians are destroying the land that they for centuries so carefully nurtured. She stated that the law relating to land rights comes from while male legislation and that we should no longer accept what they dish out. She talked about the Maralinga and Pitjanjatjara land rights claims and while she recognised that these claims were major victories she also noted that the land which was handed back was, in the case of Maralinga, still contaminated and in the Pitjanjatjara claim very harsh desert country. As well as this land, they want better land. She also described the Aboriginal Heritage Act currently operating in South Australia and argued that it is extremely inadequate. At the moment that act states that anyone found desecrating a sacred site will be fined. But first the person or persons must be found. Also a $1,000 or even a $10,000 fine will not punish a capitalistic, profit hungry corporation.

The NSW representative spoke about their frustration in battling against the Greiner Government. She explained how sometimes land claims are held up for two years because they must first ask if people around the area object to their claim! She stated that land is most easy to claim when it is wasted and no one else wants it. She said that the Greiner government is almost going back to an assimilation mentality whereby community groups and councils are being phased out.

Beryl Waters, the Queensland representative, stated that land claims are extremely hard to make in Queensland due to the capitalist and tourist enterprises which constantly beat them. She stated that they find it extremely hard to even buy land or buildings because, in many cases, non-indigenous people sign petitions objecting.

Another speaker, Barbara Flick, suggested that we should go about asserting our land rights claims by using strategy and process. She stated “get off the white man’s bus…do you want to be a passenger all your life…no way! I want to be the driver.” She argued that we should not fool around with states and territories anymore because they are not our boundaries. A resolution which came from these discussions was that we should have a national land rights policy.

On this day I also attended the ‘Indigenous Histories’ workshop where representatives from each nation were able to tell us about their history and the implication they now face due to oppressive colonisation.

There was a woman from Sápmiland in this workshop who explained that their territory runs through Sweden, Norway and Finland, and that they were originally called the Lapps from Lapland. They however reject this term because it isn’t their term and they prefer to be called the Sápmi from Sápmiland.

A Japanese woman represented the Ainu tribe from the northernmost island of Japan. She said there are about 50,000 Ainus in Japan but the government has chosen to completely ignore their existence as indigenous people. At the Geneva Conference for minority groups the Ainu people were not recognised. The Ainu language is banned in schools, but there is a movement to try to introduce the teaching of this language.

A woman from Bolivia told us that their territory was colonised by the Spanish and the dilemma faced there now is the cocaine and crack crisis. In traditional society the cocoa leaves were chewed to alleviate hunger, but now US drug dealers have gone berserk and many of the indigenous people are being employed by them and paid with crack, to produce the drug .

A representative from Chile who is a Mapuche Indian described that at the moment Chile is being exploited by US and British companies. It is illegal for them to speak the Mapuche language in public and therefore it is almost extinct. Both the Bolivian and Chilean sisters — who were extradited from their country — explained how they felt ashamed to be Indians in their own country.

It was the same colonisation terror everywhere and in this workshop we certainly found common ground. Whether the colonisers were British, Spanish or French, they all used the same method. They came with the bible in one hand and took the land with the other.

Some particular resolutions came from the ‘Conservation and Nuclear Issues’ workshop: “We must fight against multi-national companies and US satellite bases”. “We should recognise sovereignty of Kanaki [New Caledonia] and write a letter to the French Government supporting the Kanaks in their fight for independence and demanding that the government withdraw.”

On the third day we discussed education and employment issues. A woman who is a student at Queensland University spoke about the rife racism occurring there. She described how Aborigines had to contend with Ku Klux Klan propaganda during their Bicentennial demonstrations. Another forum was entitled.’Working With Governments’ and the main theme here was that too often we criticise the government but indigenous people should work with and pressure the government for their own purposes.

A woman from Aotearoa who is a senior advisor in the New Zealand government talked about the attempts by the government to improve that status of women by setting up a Ministry of Women’s Affairs which has section devoted to indigenous women.

We then heard the resolutions from the previous days workshops. The resolutions made in the “Indigenous Histories” workshop were that: “the treaties in Aotearoa should not be redefined”. “The South Sea Islanders in Australia be recognised as a separate identity.” “Studies about indigenous cultures and histories should be made compulsory in all schools”.

There was also a report back from a lesbian workshop. Forty-five women attended this workshop and they also received messages from other lesbians who did not attend the workshop in fear of being discriminated against by other women at the conference.

A Human Rights Panel was formed and many issues were discussed. A sister from the Philippines made a resolution that we should stop all military aid being given to oppressive governments.

A woman from Portugal spoke about the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon. She described how gold prospectors are destroying the forest. The Yanomami Indians believe that if the trees are cut the sky will fall down. The gold prospectors in the Amazon are armed, they are raping the women and they have introduced alcohol to the Indians. She asked that we give the Yanomami Indians support to remove the prospectors from the land.

It was then decided that we should vote as to whether a statement should be sent to support our Palestinian sister in her fight for peace and Israeli withdrawal. This caused much controversy. Many women abstained from voting because they felt they didn’t know enough about the issues. Other women argued that “we should not support her because of the PLO’s terrorist activities and the fact that we did not hear from our Israeli sisters”. However I, along with the majority of women, chose to support the statement of our Palestinian sister for recognition and for peace in her land.

On the fourth and last day the main discussion centred around health issues.

Edie Carter, a woman from South Australia who works in a rape crisis centre spoke about child abuse and rape. She stated that child abuse and rape has been occurring ever since colonisation and continues to do so. She argued that many women do not report to the police if they’ve been physically abused because they are well aware that the majority of police have a discriminatory attitude. Some recommendations made were that: “More funding should be made available for Kooris to work in this area and that police departments be made more aware about these issues”. She pleaded that women must speak out.

On this day I attended a workshop entitled “Domestic Violence and Women’s Refuges.” A woman from Northern Territory spoke about how they asked traditional women what they thought should be done about the domestic violence issue. She listed five types of abuse: physical, economical, mental, sexual and social abuse. She explained how concessions have been made in traditional society whereby women can be punished for particular reasons, but that this concession has been totally abused, especially when the men are drunk. She argued that we’re not going to listen to “I was drunk and out of control” anymore. She said this is a poor excuse.

She described a very positive awareness campaign now taking place in Northern Territory where TV advertisements for Imparja Aboriginal Television have been produced and are to be aired shortly. She expressed her concern that the children growing up in such a violent environment are prone to reciprocate their parents’ actions and so the awareness programme is also geared towards children as well as adults. The slogan to the campaign is “Our Women say Wrong Way!” It was also discussed in the workshop that men must also be counselled in relation to this issue.

Another woman from Darwin spoke about their Women’s Centres in the Northern Territory. They have a drop in centre where women can shower, watch videos, have a cup of tea and talk. There are also welfare referrals. Hunting trips are also organised. The centres do outreach work for women in remote communities.

The recommendations made by this workshop were that:

Refuges should be set up in country towns throughout the whole nation.

Funding should be made available for similar awareness campaigns in all states.

Women from North Queensland asked that they should be allowed birth rights to bear their children wherever they wish.

Recommendations from the Deaths in Custody workshop were that:

That Kooris be given a medical examination before being taken into custody. 

That the Aboriginal Legal and Health service be called in to assist in coronal inquiries. 

That the 31 May 1989 cut off day for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody is not acceptable. 

That Aboriginal studies must be included in custodial and police training programmes.

Recommendations from the Survival of Our Children workshop were that:

Aboriginal Childcare Agencies recognise the cultural differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and that the possibility of having two programmes be investigated. 

More funding be made available to train Kooris to deal with child abuse, incest and rape.

Recommendations from the Working with Governments workshop were that:


Government should make firmer commitments to the employment of Kooris. 

Stress should be acknowledged as an illness. 

Entry requirements for government jobs should be changed to allow Aborigines easier access. 

Discrimination in employment based on criminal convictions to be ended.

The Sovereignty workshop resolved to:


Oppose the Greiner Government’s attempts to crush the 1983 Land Rights Act. 

Support women in the Gibson Desert in their fight to save their sacred sites. 

Aboriginal people to be recognised as sovereign owners of the land. 

It was also recommended that Aboriginal people have the right to make agreements with other international nations.

The Pitjanjatjara and Coober Pedy women recommended that they be supported in their struggle for self determination and that the conference support their attempts to obtain more funding to quell the serious petrol sniffing and alcohol problems in their communities.

The International work recommended that Indigenous women network internationally. The proposed the establishment of an International Women’s Council and agreed to apply to the UN for the status of a Non Government Organisation. They also resolved to support the women from Sápmiland and their association who agreed to hold the Second International Indigenous Women’s Conference in 1990.

On this note the conference was almost coming to an end. All of the women in the room cleared the chairs and we held hands for solidarity and sang songs for freedom. We then had the honour to witness the Pitjanjatjara secret women’s dances. The media and all men were asked to leave and the doors were closed. It was a fantastic event.

The conference allowed the women a platform to express their frustration and anger, but most of all, their survival. Never have I been a part of such a large group of strong, strong women. It was an absolutely inspirational event to be a part of.

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