Stolenwealth Games – First nations protests show divisions endure

Many Australians see the Commonwealth Games as a sporting celebration, but for some indigenous activists they symbolise invasion, dispossession and a culture shunted to the sidelines.

Hundreds of protesters have already made their presence felt at the Games’ host city, Gold Coast, where three people were arrested in scuffles just before Wednesday’s opening ceremony.

Demonstrators also disrupted the baton relay and more action is planned during the tournament, which was hit by angry protests when it was held in nearby Brisbane in 1982.

This time around, the Games are taking place during a period of heightened awareness for indigenous rights following large-scale protests on Australia Day in January.

“We call this the ‘Stolenwealth Games’ because we deserve more,” protest leader Wayne Wharton told demonstrators Tuesday.

“We deserve more and our kids deserve more than what we get.”

At the 1982 Games, about 2 000 people marched through Brisbane demanding recognition of Aboriginal land rights and an end to discriminatory government policy.

Three decades later, they say little has changed.

“What we are saying to the Commonwealth countries that are coming here is that it is a damn shame that they are willing to share in the crime scene of Australia,” Wharton told AFP.

“The whole goal of it (British settlement in Australia) was for the colonial powers to be able to suck the wealth out of our country. Now our people are the most impoverished people in the whole of Australia,” he added.

Aboriginal culture stretches back tens of thousands of years before the British began colonising Australia in the late 1700s.

Nowadays they are the most disadvantaged Australians, with higher rates of poverty, ill-health and imprisonment than any other community.

‘Invasion Day’ 

Aboriginals were believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement, but now make up only about three percent of the national population of 24-million – meaning there are now fewer Aboriginals now than when the first Britons arrived.

Thousands of indigenous children were taken from their homes and put in foster care with white families or institutions under assimilation policies that ended only in the early 1970s.

Many of this “Stolen Generation” never saw their parents or siblings again.

While their cause often struggles for attention, indigenous grievances are being met with an increasingly sympathetic ear from pockets of the public.

Tens of thousands of people marched on this year’s Australia Day, January 26, in “Invasion Day” protests calling for a rethink of the national commemoration.

Australia Day marks the arrival of the first British settlers in 1788 which, protesters say, heralded the beginning of colonial oppression.

Consitutional reform to properly recognise First Nations people is a burning issue at the national parliament in Canberra, while the government has consistently missed targets to reduce Aboriginal disadvantage in health, education and employment.

According to Tony Corbett, an Aboriginal rights researcher at Griffith University in Queensland, indigenous issues still lack genuine political support.

“We need to approach indigenous issues with genuine good will and good faith, but that is not happening,” he told AFP.

Ted Williams, an elder from the Yugambeh people, whose ancestral land is in the Gold Coast area, has chosen to promote Aboriginal culture rather than protest during the Games.

“We can talk about the deaths in custody, we can talk about the stolen generation – all those at times quite upsetting things that need to be discussed and have the world know about them,” Williams told AFP.

“But the reconciliation movement also has many wonderful things happening with it, and our involvement with the Games I believe exemplifies it in many ways.”

However, “Stolenwealth” protestors disagree.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Aboriginal activist Ruby Wharton told AFP, adding: “We want progress and we want change.”

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Daniel De Carteret
Daniel De Carteret
Journalist covering Australia and the South Pacific for Agence France-Presse. Formerly in SE Asia.
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