In recognising that it has responsibility as a leading research institution, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) launches its Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies.
Led by the principles that include Indigenous peoples rights to full and fair participation in any processes, projects and activities that impact on them and the right to control and maintain their culture and heritage.
The guideline embodies the best standards of ethical research and that at every stage, research with and about Indigenous peoples must be founded on a process of meaningful engagement and reciprocity between the researcher and the Indigenous people.
Mick Dodson, Chair of the AIATSIS Council
Around the middle of last year, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC, established a Treaty Advisory Group under s.13 of the ATSIC legislation. At about the same time they established a think-tank to advise the Treaty Advisory Group and, in turn, the board of ATSIC. I am a member of that think-tank which is made up of Indigenous community members, lawyers and academics and scholars. It is hoped that the think-tank will provide some philosophical and intellectual underpinning to the treaty process.
So where do you start with the treaty or treaties? I guess it is useful to try to define what you are talking about, in other words, what is a treaty? A treaty is essentially a settlement or an agreement arrived at by treating or negotiation. It always gets me that, when you look at the simplest definitions of these things, you find that, 'Oh, it's what you arrive at by treating a topic, or to treat with people'. This doesn't really take you very far, because a treaty, of course, gives rise to binding obligations between the parties who make it. It acts to formalise a relationship between the parties to the agreement.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples did have recognised customs and power structures, and still do, that recognise treaties in a variety of forms. This was clearly noted by Augustus Robinson, who answered an advertisement in the local newspaper to negotiate with the Tasmanian Aborigines. Clearly this establishes a link to the type of relationship that existed at the time of first contact between Aboriginal people and the foreign settlers. It drew attention to the need for defining the relationship between Aboriginal people and settlers. The settlers recognised as early as 1820 that a treaty might have been of value to the relationship because they believed that in Tasmania a treaty would stem the violence and deprivation that Aboriginal people there were suffering through first contact.
As I said, the basis of our rights have never been formally recognised by the settlers or past governments. Worse, our rights have been affected by this one-sided relationship. History shows that Aboriginal people have been painted in a certain light, often portrayed as native savages with no concept of civilised customs or societies or governments. This, I think, has been misleading both to Indigenous people of the past and those of the present. History, in a sense, has been the victimiser, for want of a better word, of Aboriginal people simply by maintaining the notion of Aboriginal people as native savages. Arguably a treaty could have recognised and protected Indigenous rights and led to a just constitutional basis for the Australian federation.
The involvement of AIATSIS as a core partner in the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Aboriginal Health builds upon the Institute's long-standing commitment to this area. AIATSIS is represented on the Board of Management of the CRC by the Principal, Mr Steve Larkin.
The AIATSIS Library holds the collection of 461 Sorry Books.
The books were an initiative of a group called Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), which was formed in June 1997. This group worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and leaders on rights and reconciliation and has grown into an independent influential national network across Australia.
The Sorry Books were seen as an opportunity for ordinary Australians who wanted to do something in response to the Federal Government's refusal to make a formal apology to the Stolen Generations.
Each 'Sorry Book' is different in its content. Some pages are covered with rows of signatures without any messages, some have simply written 'I am sorry' while others have written extensive apologies, often on behalf of families and previous generations. Many people have expressed disappointment with the Government and the Prime Minister for their lack of apology. Some point out that this failure prompted them to apologise as individuals.
Many migrants and refugees have signed the books and referred to similar problems with Indigenous peoples in their country of origin. Included here are survivors of the 'Holocaust' in WWII who have made similar apologies. Overseas tourists who have signed the books have also expressed similar sentiments.
Other comments have come from women and mothers who have expressed their feelings about the loss of a child and how they would feel if something similar happened to them. A number of adopted children who have gone through a similar process of displacement and loss of identity have added their comments to the books.
There are a small number of negative statements from those who felt that they could not apologise or saw no reason for an apology. However, their comments are greatly outnumbered by an overwhelming positive response to the books.
On 10 August 2004 the collection of 461 Sorry Books held by the AIATSIS Library was inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.