Rebuilding the Jawoyn Nation: Regional Agreements, Spatial Politics and Aboriginal Self-Determination in Katherine, Northern Territory

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Since the High Court's 1992 `Mabo' decision, and the passing of the Native Title Act 1993, many Indigenous groups in Australia have sought the means by which more holistic approaches to self-determination can be pursued. Aboriginal organisations in areas such as the Kimberley, Cape York, the Torres Strait and Arnhem Land have developed strategies which involve direct negotiations with Australian governments in an attempt to `recognise Indigenous rights and to protect them in a contemporary legal system' (Coombs 1994; Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation 1994; Craig and Jull 1994, 3; Pearce 1994; Toussaint 1992; Yu 1994). Many proposals for negotiations between the state and Indigenous groups are based on the experiences of indigenous people in Canada, including the formation of the Nunavut agreement between the Inuit of the former North West Territories and the Canadian government (Jull 1994a and 1994b; Pearson and Sanders 1995; Richardson et al 1995). The Canadian government has based its resolution of outstanding indigenous land tenure issues on a principle of approaching indigenous groups in a case-by-case fashion, negotiating `settlements' or `agreements' on a regional basis across a range of concerns. For some, land tenure may be of prime importance; in other contexts, access to mineral wealth, structures for the provision of services or, alternatively, environmental protection may figure highly in settlements (Bartlett 1991). Importantly, this approach relies on the presence of treaties signed between colonists and indigenous communities in Canada throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that imply a sovereign status of `First Nations' communities (McNeil 1997). Prospects for regional agreements in Australia, where such recognition is absent, were enhanced by the inclusion of provisions in the Commonwealth's Native Title Act 1993 (Section 21 (1)b), for the possibility of comprehensive negotiations between groups based on a recognition of Indigenous rights (French 1995 and 1996).

Subsequently, regional agreements have been integrated into many Indigenous strategies for self-determination, a common component of which is the resolution of Indigenous rights to land title within the nation-state--a `settlement' of disparate knowledge systems and `geopolitical' paradigms (see Verran 1995). The terms `geopolitics' and `geopolitical' are used here to describe political strategies that are articulated in spatial ways--that rely heavily not only on ideological or ethical principles, but on the exercise of these principles in and across real, physical localities. Because of the importance of `territory' in Aboriginal land rights issues, I will argue here that regional agreements are therefore inherently `geopolitical' in their application. Yet potential agreements between Indigenous people and governments could also integrate resolution of other relevant issues beyond ownership, including uses of traditional land and seas; resource management; control of the nature and/or delivery of services; the recognition of Indigenous law and governing structures; and other social and cultural issues (Crough 1995). As Crough (1992) demonstrates, possibilities for financially autonomous Aboriginal self-government as part of negotiated regional agreements should also be explored. Structures of Aboriginal governance could be guaranteed recurrent funding for the control and/or delivery of services through the Commonwealth Grants Commission's present mechanisms of fiscal equalisation. Other scholars, meanwhile, have considered the economic potential for such agreements being generated through negotiations with resource developers and a range of other actors (Courchene 1993). However, optimism surrounding resource-based regional agreements is somewhat tempered by previous experiences, in the Top End of the Northern Territory and elsewhere, where dealing with large international mining companies and issues of royalties, access and environmental management have remained consistent problems (Altman 1994a and 1994b; O'Faircheallaigh 1995a and 1995b; Pritchard and Gibson 1996). …