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  • Tim Muirhead

Colonisation or Dispossession? The difference matters

What happened?

We use various words to describe the take-over of these lands that we now call Australia. Most commonly: ‘settlement’, ‘colonisation’, ‘dispossession’ ‘invasion’.  We tend to choose the word according to how much, or little, we want to invoke a sense of injustice. (They rank, I think, in that order, from least to most perceived ‘injustice’.  Even though, if we pause to reflect, invasion on its own can be vastly less damaging than the settlement that follows.)

But the terms are not interchangeable. They describe different processes. And, most importantly, the pathways to recovery from each of them are different.  

So let me offer working definitions, as objectively as I’m able. I will do them in the rough chronological order that they usually begin.

Invasion:  a group enters – without invitation – space that is occupied by others.  (Levels of violence involved in this vary widely according to levels and types of resistance.)

Colonisation:  the new group establishes itself as the controlling authority, imposing systems of taxes, control and, sometimes, cultural assumptions.  (Colonisation can occur simply by replacing or co-opting existing leadership structures.) The natural and often human wealth is extracted for the benefit of the invading group and their relations ‘back home’.

Settlement:  members of the new group establish their lives in the new space, using the local resources (though often not the local technologies or practices) to feed and shelter themselves.

Dispossession:  Important ‘possessions’ that people have are taken from them by the invaders/settlers. This might include, for example, land, home and, food sources, but also culture, family, children and social structures.

Key methods for achieving this fourth—dispossession—include:

  • Assimilationthe conscious absorption of one group by another, either genetically (‘breeding out the black’) or culturally.

  • Genocide attempts to get rid of an identifiable group of people through, for example, a) systematic killing of that group or b) removal of children from that group. (These are just two of the five forms of genocide recognised by the United nations.)

  • Exclusion from both the original and the invading economic, social and educational systems.'

These distinctions are not mere semantics. In Australia we will continue to fail to ‘close the gap’ between Aboriginal Australians and others if we don’t understand the particular root causes of that gap. The issue is not how bad or how unjust it was; the issue is the particular form that it took.

It goes without saying, (notwithstanding the fragile sensitivities of some commentators) that Aboriginal people experienced invasion, as well as colonisation and settlement. However, they also experienced profound dispossession.  Therefore, the pathways to recovery will be different for them than for groups where invasion was followed by different processes, and by less complete dispossession.

Different solutions

Let me elaborate by focussing on two of the terms that are most often conflated: colonisation and dispossession.

Ireland, India and many, many other countries were colonised (including the land now known as England, in 1066). A foreign power came and took control. In taking control, the foreign power ripped wealth from the land and its people. The injustice of it is both breathtaking and a fact of history.

A key solution to colonisation is independence from the coloniser, and thereby sovereignty. India and Ireland, that both experienced terrible famines after colonisation, have experienced none since independence. Both have vibrant economies and cultures today.

Independence often ushers in a period of power struggles and even chaos, but, in the longer term it is the pathway to recovery from colonisation.

That pathway—independence— is not open to Australian Aboriginal people. Neither you nor I are willing to leave. They were not just colonised, they were dispossessed. They had everything taken from them: land, food and water sources, religion (and religious sites), authority, language and culture, families, children, parents, freedom to associate with loved ones, freedom to move, access to the economy. (It is possible, with a good understanding of history, to argue about the ‘justifications’ for this dispossession; but it’s not possible to argue whether it occurred.)

The policies and practices that enabled this dispossession created, through the human dynamics of community-wide and intergenerational  trauma, untold damage, measured today in our world-leading rates of mortality, ill-health,  suicidality, incarceration, substance use, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, welfare dependency. ( Click here for a more detailed explanation of this)

Recovery is still possible, as is proven by the fact that so many Aboriginal Australians are, today, strong and resilient, and leading rich lives of their own choosing. But we will speed that recovery if we understand that it needs different solutions (at both individual and collective levels) to those that have worked in places and for people where the dispossession was less complete.

That's because dispossession can break the spirit of people and families and structures and cultures in a way that mere invasion and  colonisation cannot. It is urgent and essential that we open up the space for Aboriginal people to recover that spirit and to lead themselves out of the intergenerational impacts of dispossession.

Pathways to recovery from dispossession

I do not presume, here, to outline what the appropriate pathways to recovery look like.. These are for Aboriginal people to name; the challenge for the rest of us is to avoid blocking those pathways with our ignorance or our opposition.  But those pathways will only be found and followed if we understand the particular context that our nation has created. Some existing pathways to recovery seem self-evident:

  • The Uluru Statement from the Heart (a moderate proposal, but uniquely important for the only British colony that had no treaty) will be part of the solution (update: we said No. sigh.);

  • Genuine self-determination will be part of the solution (including putting the design and delivery of efforts in relation to mental health, family safety, arts, economic development, education into the hands of Aboriginal people, – families, communities, practitioners , researchers, policy makers etc). This should not be mistaken for mere ‘consultation’ or ‘engagement’ in government driven programs.  Notwithstanding the referendum outcome, this can still happen in all sectors.

  • Understanding and acknowledging, the particular processes of dispossession will be part of the solution. Not so we can all share a confected guilt or outrage at how bad it was, but so that we can understand the particular pathways to recovery that are being called for by Aboriginal people.  And also, because recovery from trauma is made dramatically more difficult when others refuse to acknowledge that trauma. (This is why Reconciliation has never been possible without truth-telling.)

  • Bringing real power and voice to young Aboriginal leaders – a generation on from the experience of legislative exclusion from economic and social structures – is part of the solution.

Solutions will be different to those that have led to success in Ireland, or New Zealand, or America because their historic context has been different – not easier; different.

We must commit to recovery, together. And we will only achieve it if we become clear and articulate in understanding what we are recovering from. Only then will we find the right pathways to recovery, rather than expending so much energy on the wrong ones.

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