A model Aboriginal state
As well as supporting the 'uplift' of Indigenous Australians, humanitarian opinion feared further frontier disasters in the remote north and centre of the continent. Advocating reserves, they sought to prevent the characteristic tragedies of the longer colonised regions. In the 1920s, some colonists considered how the Commonwealth could give leadership through humane policies in the Northern Territory. Humanitarians petitioned the Commonwealth in 1927 to get together with the States to consider establishing a 'model Aboriginal State'.
Bearing 7,113 signatures, the petition for a 'model Aboriginal State' argued: 'If we regard the native races as our spiritual equals, if we recognise their rights and do not treat them merely as chattels, if we assist them to accommodate their methods to new conditions, if we return to them areas of country on which they may work out their own salvation safeguarded from the envious eyes of encroaching white population, we shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that even at the eleventh hour we have endeavoured to redeem any neglect, indifference or maladministration in the past and to do substantial justice. And the aboriginal will pay us back. We shall assuredly find that we have races of people who will be of immense help in developing our empty Northern Estate particularly in the more torrid zones. And we shall find that, relieved of so much attention to material affairs, the self-sacrificing spiritual work of missionaries will be greatly accelerated.'
The petition then outlined its proposals, including: '...a model Aboriginal State to be ultimately managed by a native tribunal as far as possible according to their own laws and customs but prohibiting cannibalism and cruel rites...The Constitution to prohibit, under a very severe penalty, any persons, other than aborigines, except Federal Government officials and duly authorised missionaries, teachers and agricultural instructors from entering this State. The governing tribunal to decide the extent to which control shall be exercised over such natives still in their wild conditions as are within the State. No native to be detained in the State against his own will but upon his leaving any land allotted to him to revert to the Crown...'
Rather than have a Royal Commission investigate the proposal's feasibility, the Commonwealth Government commissioned J.W.Bleakley to report on the conditions of Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. Bleakley's report supported the idea that the Northern Territory should include some large remote reserves, into which only missionaries and government officers could intrude. In 1931, the Commonwealth declared the Arnhem Land Reserve - an action of enormous significance in the twentieth century history of land rights.
Keywords: activism, Arnhem Land, coexistence, dispossession, Gove, humanitarians, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, reserves, Yirrkala, 1920-1927
Michael, Roe 1986, 'A Model Aboriginal state', Aboriginal History', v.10, pp 40-4.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor