What sovereignty are we really fighting for? What happens when First Nations people are drawn into extremist protests
Over the past few weeks, we have seen First Nations people demonstrating alongside alt-right ‘freedom’ protesters at the old parliament building in Canberra.
With this, we have seen a classic example of the alt-right trying to recruit disgruntled marginalized people for their own ends.
This is not only dangerous given what we know of the history of First Nations peoples’ interactions with the police, it also perpetuates a stereotype of First Nations peoples that we are dysfunctional, disunited and do not know what we want.
Read more: A brief history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – an indelible reminder of unceded sovereignty
White Supremacy and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra was established in 1972. The embassy is a permanent, heritage-listed site of protest representing the political rights of Australia’s Indigenous people. It is the oldest indigenous protest site in the world.
However, in recent months a clash of extremist white protesters alongside some indigenous people have attempted a hostile invasion of the site in an effort to co-opt the embassy’s cause. The group that descended on the area included key white supremacist figures, including members of the Proud Boys.
These alt-right extremist invaders are aligned with the global Sovereign Citizens (SovCits) movement, whose roots are racist and anti-Semitic. Sovereign citizens are anti-government and believe they are sovereign over the laws of the country where they live.
These extremists have appropriated the long-term struggle of First Nations peoples and created chaos and division.
These groups seem to find ways to recruit others by tapping into distrust of authority. They potentially exploited this to recruit Indigenous people into an alt-right cause.
The presence of Indigenous people in these protests further perpetuates the narrative that we are dysfunctional people who cannot get along – a stereotype that white people as a collective need not worry about.
Indigenous peoples perceived as dysfunctional stem from white deficit narratives about Indigenous communities. This deficit discourse represents our people in terms of incivility, discord and failure.
So who owns the sovereignty really to be fought for?
Sovereignty is one of the fundamental principles of international law. Unfortunately, sovereignty under traditional Eurocentric Western international law was deliberately designed and limited to what are considered “civilized” nations and Indigenous peoples were (and one could say still are) “objects”. ” under the law.
Indigenous sovereignty remains a distinct concept and means something completely different, but it is marginalized in Indigenous politics. It remains marginalized due to the history of Terra Nullius being applied to justify colonization and the refusal of contemporary politicians to argue the issue. Indigenous sovereignty has deep meaning in the struggle for recognition, and there are many models of what Indigenous sovereignty looks like.
However, sovereignty cannot simply exist, it can only be asserted, claimed or taken – which is the antithesis of Indigenous law and traditions.
Sovereignty and assertion of sovereignty is a core element of Indigenous activism in Australia – the only country in the Commonwealth without an agreement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Terra Nullius was enacted in Australia because colonial invaders believed that indigenous peoples were uncivilized and therefore possessed no sovereignty, therefore had no right to exclude invaders from their lands. Therefore, the notion of Indigenous sovereignty is closely linked to treaty activism and the pursuit of self-determination.
However, sovereignty has been hijacked by the alt-right and their version of sovereignty is about the rights of (white) individuals to do whatever they want without the subordination of outside authorities.
How does this affect indigenous peoples?
White protesters who co-opt Indigenous causes for their own “sovereignty” agenda are problematic on several counts.
First Nations people are often expected to educate those around us and freely give emotional and cultural work. Providing such a workforce when educating about systemic violence while facing disadvantage due to white privilege in the systems comes at a significant cost. However, speaking out and protesting has very real life and death consequences for Indigenous peoples that white people need not consider.
First Nations people in Australia are the most criminalized and incarcerated in the world, and face a higher risk of dying in custody.
White people also don’t need to deal with the same burdens, cultural encumbrances, or responsibilities, like being asked to be the representative of their entire race. Nor are they collectively condemned when a white person does something that is considered “wrong.”
The far right appropriating Indigenous causes is not new and is often used to justify acts of violence. The far right appropriates the language of “rights” and twists it to fuel its own propaganda. It has been an effective tool for recruiting all kinds of disenfranchised people.
Read more: Who are the ‘Original Sovereigns’ who camped at the Old Parliament and what are their goals?
In order to stop the momentum of these groups and their toxic way of thinking, we must ensure that white people are no longer unaware of the power of white privilege and the effect that dysfunctional discourse, deficit narratives and systemic racism have on indigenous peoples and communities.
Many people may feel that we live in uncertain times, and these protest groups might try to pretend they have the answers people are looking for. But they don’t. These groups promote a model of ignorance that maintains social inequality for marginalized groups.
Instead, these groups are fueling hate speech, creating new divisions in communities, and doing nothing to bring stability in these uncertain times.