Tish King, left.
Tish King, left.
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'There will be no climate justice while we celebrate January 26'

OPINION: Torres Strait Islander Tish King doesn’t think January 26 is a time for celebration. Instead, she writes, Australia should be recognising the connection of First Nations people to the land, islands and sea, and working together to protect them.

Published Saturday 23 January 2021
By Tish King
Source: SBS News
There’s a popular motto in the global climate movement, but it is particularly salient in Australia: “No climate justice without First Nations justice”.

First Nations people have lived in harmony with this country for more than 100,000 years, but on 26 January 1788, our ability to care for our Country widely and freely, ended. Our self-determination was severed and our voices silenced. 

Each year on , I find myself mentally and emotionally taxed. It took years for me to understand it; to understand the anxiety. I know this is especially true for mob in urban environments, where they are so dispossessed from their traditional lands. 

Tish King
Tish King, right. Source: Supplied

I don’t think anything should be celebrated on January 26. It’s a day of mourning. It’s a reminder of trauma, that our brothers and sisters die in custody, that children are taken from their families and far away from Country. January 26 is a symbol of continued First Nations oppression, and as long as we celebrate it, there will be no climate justice. 

Each year on January 26, I find myself mentally and emotionally taxed. It took years for me to understand it; to understand the anxiety.
Our allies often ask “How do we fix this? What’s the solution?” and the answer isn't simple. It's about educating yourself on the black history of white Australia. It's about supporting First Nations businesses and organisations, it's about listening. I believe we need to stand together at moments like this because First Nations people are not a trend to support, not a passing movement. It is our lives. 

Tish with her mother.
Tish with her mother. Source: Supplied

The journey towards environmental revitalisation and protection in Australia needs a committed effort towards reconciliation and genuine self-determination with First Nations people. A recognition that First Nations people are deeply connected to the land, islands and sea. Country is in our blood, and we are in Country.

First Nations people are not a trend to support, not a passing movement. It is our lives.
I travelled back to the Torres Strait in 2020. I went to Masig Island. This is my Country; my island home. It’d been 22 years since I’d been there, and my Athe (grandpa) met me at the plane. Being there, my heart was so full it hurt. The seawater was like silk. When I swam in it I felt like I belonged to it. It was so nice to breathe in that air, that family, that honour. I heard our spirit stories. It was a reminder of why I fight. 

Tish King
'When I swam in it I felt like I belonged to it.' Source: Tish King

But I also saw how the Torres Strait Islands have changed. It was a reminder that those who contribute the least to climate change are often the most impacted. I saw the erosion, the sea level rise, and how global warming has exacerbated weather events like monsoons and king tides. The fish have left our coral seas, and when we can’t fish, we can’t practice culture. The dugongs have left because the seagrass is dying. Our totems and ancestors are leaving us, and our food security hangs in the balance. I’m scared about what will happen to my old people.

These feelings of both love and absence with the natural world are essential to understanding why we must protect it. They are essential not just for First Nations survival, but for our collective futures. 

Masig Island.
Masig Island. Source: Supplied

At SEED, Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network, where I am Organiser Coordinator, we work to build the capacity of all young First Nations people to fight for Country. But we can’t do it alone.

Effective environmental policy is required and First Nations people must have a seat at the table. It must be place-based, deliberative and culturally safe. Our involvement must be sincere, and if we are to achieve real First Nations justice we must be able to lead. This extends to respecting our sacred sites and enshrining a First Nations voice to parliament. It means reconciliation and it means Treaty. It means changing the date.

If we change the date, we will change the landscape of this country for the better. Of that I’m sure.

Tish King is a 33-year-old Torres Strait Islander with strong connections to Masig and Badu Islands, and Organiser Coordinator at SEED. She is based in Melbourne (Naarm).

Each year ahead of January 26,  presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe

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