The Violence of the Frontier Wars Has Never Really Ended

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Deaths in custody

Two police officers entered the home of a First Nations family in the remote NT community of Yuendumu in early November. One of them allegedly shot an unarmed 19-year-old Warlpiri man. This incident is now classed as one of the over 420 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991.

Straight after the teenager’s death, locals were likening the tragedy to the 1928 Coniston Massacre that took place at a cattle station not far Yuendumu. That slaughter involved the deaths of over 60 Aboriginal people at the hands of mounted Europeans led by police constable George Murray.

Coniston is said to be the last massacre of the Indigenous people of this continent as part of what is now referred to as the Frontier Wars. The conflict between the British and the people of around 500 nations that existed on this land prior to occupation began in 1788.

And just as it’s asserted that the stolen generations have never ended, but simply continue under a different guise – community services – it could be posited that a state-sponsored frontier violence continues in the form of mass incarceration, deaths in custody, and police violence.

Intent to defraud

Yuendumu locals see a direct link to the recent killing and the NT Intervention, which is a draconian policy implemented by the Howard government over what has since been shown to be false pretences. It began in 2007 with the deployment of 600 troops into remote Aboriginal communities.

When Britain declared it was taking over the continent now referred to as Australia, it claimed it was terra nullius, meaning it was uninhabited. However, the takeover involved the Brits killing tens of thousands of First Nations people that somehow their government maintained weren’t there.

Then it took a decade-long battle for land rights led by Meriam man Eddie Mabo to have the High Court of Australia overturn the legal fiction of terra nullius in 1992. Although, in the meantime, the settler colonial state had set up a whole system of control based on this initial false pretence.

The Intervention in the Northern Territory continues to this day and has involved an intensification of the policing of remote First Nations communities, along with their surveillance and control. Now, has this been done for the protection of Aboriginal children, or is it a form of neo-colonisation?

Systemic violence

If we could call the brutality towards First Nations peoples today a continuation of frontier violence, in no way is it confined to remote areas of the Territory. Indeed, this sort of violence occurs around the nation in various forms, which are often not overtly physical in nature.

The mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the disproportionate forcible removal of their children, and perpetuating a system that leads to a despicable suicide rate can all be classed as being caused by systemic racism or a destructive force.

The economic Division of Cook

Murri activist Ken Canning told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that the first act of British violence was when one of captain James Cook’s landing party shot a Gweagal man in the leg. And since then, “not one single person in authority has been found guilty of the killing of an Aboriginal person,” he added.

Scott Morrison announced back in January that he wants to allocate $7 million to replicate Cook’s voyage. This was after he already promised, as treasurer, $3 million to erect a statue of the captain, who basically set the British invasion of this continent on its path.

Now, while it might be nice for the PM to erect something, if spending this amount of money on these proposals isn’t a form of economic violence, when many First Peoples are continuing to live in impoverished circumstances, then what sort of false pretence can we put it down to? A fair go?

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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