Living on Country represents more than a ‘lifestyle choice’

The current discussion on the closure of remote Aboriginal communities and the reference of remote living being a ‘lifestyle choice’ reflects a deep misunderstanding of Aboriginal culture. 

The simplistic comments demonstrate a lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture and the importance and responsibility many Aboriginal people have to live on Country.

It is not purely an economic equation.

Inferring that Aboriginal people simply choose to live in remote locations misrepresents and undermines the cultural and social accountabilities Aboriginal people often hold. There are many factors that contribute to the complexity of these decisions—Aboriginal peoples have deep responsibilities, developed over 40,000 years, to live on and care for their traditional Countries.

Land connects Aboriginal peoples to their sense of self and wellbeing, and represents part of their identity that has carried through generations.

It is crucial that any policies which affect the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are only implemented as the result of deep and respectful engagement with those in communities. Only through meaningful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, can governments fully understand the tensions Aboriginal Australians face in today’s society.

Aboriginal people negotiate daily the terrain between the requirements of non-Indigenous Australia and the requirements of their own communities, cultures and laws. This is not a simple task, and requires respect and support of Australian governments to ensure a healthy and prosperous future for all Australians.

Aboriginal organisations and communities have raised strong concerns about the impact community closures will have, including social disadvantage, poverty and unemployment. These concerns are well-founded, as history has shown us that there are inherent dangers in closing remote communities, and removing people from their traditional lands.

Oombulgurri community, near Wyndham in Western Australia was closed in 2011 after being deemed ‘unviable’. The government’s actions disempowered the Oombulgurri community, and many of those who were displaced suffered long-term homelessness and social disengagement. If we are to once again remove Aboriginal people from traditional lands with no consultation, we would be repeating poor policies of the past.

All Australians, including governments, must work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to create effective and sustainable outcomes regarding health, education and employment. Research and practice has shown that having a strong connection to land and culture drastically improves the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In Arnhem Land, those who took part in Indigenous Cultural and Natural Resource Management (ICNRM), exercised more frequently, had lower rates of obesity, diabetes, renal disease, cardio-vascular disease, and less psychological stress. Similarly, through encouraging a strong connection to land, the Yiriman project in Fitzroy Crossing curbs suicide, self-harm and substance abuse amongst young Aboriginal people.

These are only two examples of communities that have shown how a strong connection to traditional land can ultimately lead to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

While the Government has shown commitment towards closing the gaps between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians, forcibly removing people from their traditional lands will not help these goals. Removal from land both near Wyndham in 2011, and throughout Australia after colonisation, resulted in severe disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Closing communities without consultation ignores the reality that forcible removal from land is harmful. More importantly, evaluating Indigenous lifestyles through a Western lens overlooks the importance that land holds for many Aboriginal people. To pass off this significance as a simple lifestyle choice does a disservice to the centuries of culture and knowledge Aboriginal people hold—and that all Australians should be proud of.

The suggestion that Aboriginal people be removed from traditional lands reflects past discriminatory policies. Closing the divide between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians is not easy.

We have a long way to go—but we have a responsibility to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are granted the same rights and respect afforded to all other Australians. We can begin this by listening to the Aboriginal people who will be affected by community closures in Western Australia.

Justin Mohamed, Chief Executive Officer Reconciliation Australia

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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