Radical Women hosts Indigenous rabble-rouser

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nellie and alison

Nellie Moore and Alison Thorne at Solidarity Salon.

On 17 April, Solidarity Salon was filled with Radical Women (RW) members, supporters and new friends eager to hear Nellie Moore, a veteran fighter for Aboriginal rights. RW decided to host the gathering to pay tribute to Moore and provide a platform for her to talk about the early days of the struggle. We knew the meeting would give inspiration to women of all races and ages. And this it did!

Born in Swan Hill, Moore is a longtime grassroots activist with no time for big wigs and bureaucrats. She advocates the unity of Aboriginal Nations and believes just as passionately in the rights of all people — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. This was the main theme of her presentation.

“We need everyone to come together as one — Black, white, Italian, Greek, Maori. We need everyone united under one umbrella.” Nellie speaks for multiracial unity based on respect and believes that we need to learn from each other. Recalling Camp Sovereignty, established last year to highlight Indigenous rights during the “Stolenwealth Games,” she argued that “It was in poor taste when a decision was made to ask all the white people to go. You’d never find views like this if you came up to Swan Hill,” she said. “We’d open our doors, invite you in and welcome you to stay.”

Moore spoke about her early experience of racism: “I was only allowed to go to school to learn to spell my name and then I was trained to be a housekeeper. Boys were trained to be labourers. This was the time when governments were imposing the assimilation policy.”

While working as a housekeeper on a farm, she experienced some multiracial solidarity: “The eldest daughter of the family I worked for taught me how to read, write and spell properly.”

It was during the 1960s, after Nellie had trained to be a nurse, that she became active: “I worked to get people to know their rights. I saw the conditions in Western Australia and the Northern Territory — in remote areas, they were terrible. When I came back to Sydney, I found there was a movement I could get involved with. It was called the Black Power movement.”

Moore was later involved in a campaign that led to the establishment of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: “I worked with the Committee to Defend Black Rights, and we got hearings going in Victoria.”

Nellie is as concerned as ever about the role of police: “In the country, they will pick you up and lay charges as soon as they see you.” She described a long history of problems in Swan Hill: “In the watch house, people got hosed down in the middle of winter. They used to call this the wet cell. This is what happened to my father, and he nearly died of pneumonia. We have tried to make changes by getting the Community Justice Panels (CJP) to work with the police, but the CJPs aren’t working.”

Nellie also spoke about the appalling difficulties that many Indigenous people face simply trying to get a job. The local government council comes to meet with the Indigenous community elders on a fortnightly basis: “We’ve had a good relationship with them over the last couple of years. But it is only on the surface. I said to the Mayor, ‘It is good that you are coming here to meet with us, but you are missing one thing. You haven’t got any Black faces in your office. They are all white faces!’”

Speaking of solutions, Nellie said: “We have to come together, and we have to lead people. Only a handful of people are active. We need more. There’s a fire and water festival coming up later this year. This may bring something good for my people living in rural areas. We’ll be lighting the sacred fire from Camp Sovereignty. But it won’t be called Camp Sovereignty. It’s called Billabong Beat, because it is right on the billabong. The elders are running it. Everyone is welcome!”

RW met Moore earlier this year. She recalled her many experiences as a fighter for Indigenous rights since the early 1970s. RW looks for inspiration to this period, when the movement for Aboriginal rights had a radical edge and drew on ideas from anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles around the world.

Alison Thorne, who coordinates Radical Women’s work in the battle to win justice for Indigenous Australians, chaired the gathering. She explained that RW supports the right of Indigenous Australians and all oppressed nations to self-determination. The Radical Women Manifesto enshrines the demand, “self-determination for all oppressed and Indigenous nations, including Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Maoris, the Kanaks of New Caledonia, Kurds. Puerto Ricans, and Palestinians.”

Thorne presented highlights of RW’s organising for Aboriginal rights, dating back to the founding of the Australian chapter in 1983. In 1988, RW sent a contingent to the anti-Bicentennial protest march in Sydney. The organisation participated in the Reconciliation walks, raising demands for reparations and a treaty. In 2006, when the Queen visited Australia to open the Stolenwealth Games, RW was part of the crowds who made sure that demands for sovereignty and a treaty were heard. Back in 1983, RW collaborated with the late Lisa Bellear to raise funds and campaign to stop the flooding of Waelatye Therre, an Aboriginal women’s sacred site near Alice Springs. In the 1990s, RW organised a rally which hosted Ngarrindjeri elders battling a sexist and racist witchhunt by developers who — advancing their own sacred profit business — dismissed sacred women’s business in their quest to build a bridge to Hindmarsh Island. [See tribute to Veronica Brodie on page 26] RW has campaigned for repayment in full of stolen wages; we successfully proposed that a Queensland campaigner speak at Melbourne’s 2004 International Women’s Day. Winning support in the union movement for Aboriginal asbestos miners from Baryulgil in northern New South Wales was another important contribution. RW has also campaigned continuously since the 1980s to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody and actively supports the Indigenous Social Justice Association.

RW was delighted to host Nellie Moore and hear her stories. She represents women who learn from life that there is no alternative but to fight. Nellie told the meeting: “I was born Black and I have been Black all my life!” RW’s publication, Women of Color: Front-runners for Freedom, analyses how these fighters are strategically placed to bring about working class unity. Author, Nancy Reiko Kato, explains: “We who get the least out of the system and have the least invested in it are destined to change it.”

Billabong Beat is a two-day cultural and music festival hosted by the Wamba Wamba Nation and family clan groups from Moulamein and surrounding areasfrom October 13 to 14, 2007. It is free and all are welcome. For further information, contact billabongbeat@hotmail.com or Jenni on 0422 672 892.

Women of Color: Front-runners for Freedom is available by mail for $7, including postage. Send a cheque payable to Radical Women, PO Box 266, West Brunswick Vic 3055.

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