Growing up on an Aboriginal reserve which was still my mother’s country, attending school and interacting with mainstream Australia, it didn’t take long to realise how differently you are treated by non-Aboriginal people in their society.
I come from a very strong political minded family, and as a child I was dragged to many Land Rights marches and Aboriginal political protests by my mother Colleen Perry. So from a young age my siblings and I understood what the Aboriginal political struggle was all about from our participation.
The current loss of the great Aboriginal activist and community man Tiga Bayles, as well as the anniversary of the death of Ray Jackson, reinforces that these losses need to be remembered and nurtured so that the immeasurable strength of these individuals, who devoted and sacrificed so much of their lives in the fight for the rights of Aboriginal peoples, are not forgotten.
These extraordinary people, like so many who have gone before them, have assisted in changing the landscape of Aboriginal affairs and policy development in this country: their voices in the media and about Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are milestones for us to gauge our political tracks towards reclaiming our humanity and our cultural integrity.
Every time we lose great warriors, such as these men, it means current and future activism for our rights and equity becomes that little bit harder to achieve.
Although many battles have been won, there are so many more socio-economic, legal, educational and sovereign issues to address in the political struggle until Aboriginal peoples stand strong and healthy on a level playing field with other Australians, who understand and respect our culture beliefs as the first Australians.
In the midst of a globalised, digitalised world, we cannot forget that sustainable physical and spiritual knowledge grows from the grassroots. We held in our hands and hearts, ways of knowing Country that sustained all life, animate and inanimate, for thousands and thousands of years, yet Aboriginal peoples are still at the top of the list as the group with the poorest social determinants/indicators in Australian society.
Without the voices of people such as Tiga and Ray, who will challenge Western society’s bias and apathy, and who will stand-up on our behalf? Where are the new warriors with the same strength and passion of these activists, who will hold the Australian government accountable for closing the Aboriginal health and life expectancy gap?
Without the emergence of new energy from young activists how will we combat the overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in the criminal justice system, and why there is a higher than ever number of deaths in custody 25 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody?
Who now fills the shoes of our aging and slowly vanishing activists who created Aboriginal pathways for us to follow in the fight for Aboriginal rights in this colonial hegemonic capitalist consciousness? Who will fight for Country?
Many years ago, as a young man searching for some direction in my life I heard a native Hawaiian woman, Mililani Trask (Hawaiian sovereignty movement), speak at a human rights forum. She spoke about the need for us to encourage our young people to take up the political fight as those who come before us grow older.
She said that as leaders, when we speak to our youth about political struggles that lay ahead, we need to look into their eyes and find the warrior within. Because we need to have warriors, men and women, to accept every challenge and fight the battles that we need to win.
And this fight is not just for Aboriginal peoples, but it is one we must fight in this country, this fight is for the earth and everything on it. It is for our sacred land and to maintain a cultural inheritance for our children before it is all gone.
Dr Joe (Lawrence) Perry is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. He is a Worimi man who grew up on an Aboriginal Mission in the small New South Wales coastal town of Karuah.