9.1 What is nation rebuilding?
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Australia continue with their work of rebuilding systems of governance and look for new governing tools to assist them, they are faced with fundamental questions about their own collective cultural identities, such as:
- Who are the members of the group, clan, tribe or community that we might now call our nation?
- What do we value and what are we trying to protect?
- What kind of laws, relationships and behaviours do we want to foster among ourselves?
- What kind of future do we want to create for our grandchildren?
- What kind of relationship do we want to have with other Indigenous nations, and with Australian governments?
- What kind of governing arrangements will we need to achieve those goals?
In other words, how do we constitute ourselves as an effective polity (that is, an organised form or process of governing or government) in contemporary times?
These questions deal with the very practical tasks of self-determination and nation rebuilding.
Definition: A nation refers to a group or community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent or history. A nation may share a single common territory with physical boundaries and government, or it may be located as a nation within another lager nation.
The concept of ‘nation’ in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia can include:
- a small clan or tribal unit
- a native title–holder or traditional land-owning group
- people who are dispersed across a wide region or city, but see themselves as a single cultural unit
- a discrete community whose differently related residents share the desire to collectively govern themselves.
A nation does not rely on legislated or treaty recognition, although that greatly enhances its jurisdictional and decision-making power:
“Understood as a human right, the essential idea of self-determination is that human beings, individually and as groups, are equally entitled to be in control of their own destinies, and to live within governing institutional orders that are devised accordingly.”
(James Anaya, quoted in conference report on ‘Common Roots, Common Futures: Different Paths to Self-determination—An international Conversation’,
University of Arizona, 2012)
Definition: Self-determination refers to genuine decision-making power and responsibility about what happens on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lands, in their affairs, in their governing systems, and in their development strategies. It means having meaningful control over one’s own life and cultural wellbeing.
As decision-making power and responsibility moves from external authorities into the hands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, self-determination grows.
Governance of this kind does not refer to self-administration or self-management of programs and services that are controlled by outside authorities.
Definition: Nation rebuilding thus “refers to the processes by which a Native [Indigenous] nation enhances its own foundational capacity for effective self-governance and for self-determined community and economic development” (Miriam Jorgensen, Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development, Editor’s Foreword, University of Arizona Press, 2007).
Nation rebuilding is really about how Indigenous peoples can pull together the tools they need to build the futures that they want—and put them into place.
By tools, we mean the rules, processes, checks and balances, and structures of governance.