Principles of self-determination

Which principles support Aboriginal self-determination? You'll be surprised what's beyond the obvious.

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Principles of self-determination

To be successful in self-determination Aboriginal people need

  • Freedom. They can exercise of the same rights as all citizens. They can choose where they want to live and how their time will be occupied. They can be ambitious and creative, and express themselves. They do not have to trade their inalienable human rights for supports or services. Freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes.
  • Support. They can autonomously determine how to organise their resources. This means that people do not receive “supervision” and prescriptions. Rather, they may seek partners for support and contract for any number of tasks for which they need assistance.
  • Knowledge. Knowledge of what has and hasn't worked elsewhere helps avoid mistakes or going the wrong way. This means also allowing Aboriginal people build their own knowledge base rather than prescribing what is 'best' for them.
  • Financial responsibility. They control their budget, including re-prioritising monies when necessary. Monies are used as an investment and not to purchase services other people get for free.
  • Stable policies. Government policies should encourage and support Aboriginal solutions and be reliable.

In 1995 the Australian government put to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, that they object to the use of the term ‘the right of self-determination’. The government wanted Aboriginal people to be limited to asking ‘how they should be governed’.

Principles beyond the obvious

Waltja Tjutangku is a successful Aboriginal community-based family service assisting communities to develop self-management and self-determination. They defined the following principles for Aboriginal self-determination which extend those mentioned above.

  • Family. The family is the foundation of the Aboriginal community and identity. Service delivery is most effective when it occurs in the context of the broad family as understood by Aboriginal people.
  • Community. Partnerships with Aboriginal communities are the most effective way of providing services to respond to identified needs.
  • Proximity. The most effective services are provided by local community people who have access to training and support.

Activities that support self-determination

Some of the work that successfully supports self-determination includes

  • Succession planning. Leaders prepare a younger generation to take over at some time, but also sponsor younger people to attend conferences.
  • Investment strategies. Groups design investment strategies to look after future generations as well as the current needs of Aboriginal people.
  • Business agreements. Clans and nations negotiate agreements with the private sector or governments.
  • Aboriginal programs. Programs that build on the practical capacity of Aboriginal people in communities to run education, policing and health systems themselves will be more successful than if prescribed by external parties.

Self-determination and land rights is not just the power to say no, it's the power to say yes as well. Otherwise what we own is only half of what we're entitled to.

— Noel Pearson, Aboriginal lawyer and elder


Definition: Decolonisation

Decolonisation occurs when Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people reverse impacts of colonisation.

Aboriginal people can decolonise through self-determination (i.e. taking care of their own affairs) while non-Aboriginal people can make a conscious effort to prioritise and learn about Aboriginal culture and values over views from the dominant (and usually Western) culture.

In theory there are three main ways to decolonise:

  • Surrender. Aboriginal people surrender their right to self-determination and submit to become part of the dominant culture. (The UN call this option "Integration".)
  • Compromise. Aboriginal people and the dominant culture form a compromise where Aboriginal people retain some freedom to govern their own affairs but are still subject to the administration and/or laws of the dominant culture. ("Association")
  • Independence. Aboriginal people are free of any control of the dominant culture and empowered to introduce their own (often pre-colonial) systems of governance.

These options exist since the 1960s when the UN adopted the Declaration on Decolonization and "proclaimed the necessity of bringing colonialism in all its forms and manifestations to a speedy and unconditional end".

Decolonisation means also revisiting and rewriting the past, and understanding colonisation as "unfinished business". It involves assessing how colonisation has affected Aboriginal culture and business, and starting to tell Aboriginal rather than non-Aboriginal stories and doing things the Aboriginal way.

For Aboriginal people, colonisation is not confined to history. Decolonisation recognises that colonisation is "an ongoing project of domination, control and assimilation perpetrated by non-Indigenous authorities" and also "the many ways Indigenous Australians have resisted oppression and fought for sovereign rights".

If we deeply understand not just the history but the evolution of how colonisation still exists, then we’re able to chart a different path towards what we want to see instead.

— Alicia Garza, Co-founder, Black Lives Matter movement

Colonisation has caused all the known social disadvantages and trauma. One can colonise both directly (e.g. by imposing blanket approaches) and indirectly (e.g. by rejecting Aboriginal knowledge and practices).

Decolonisation, on the other hand, supports Aboriginal culture, identity and health. This can be achieved by emphasising

Previously historians and anthropologists have described and defined Aboriginal people and culture from their Western perspectives. Decolonisation means to challenge these imposed representations, and replace them with Aboriginal voices, experiences and representations.

Decolonising practices include turning away from seeing Aboriginal people as a 'problem' and focussing on strengths, capacity and resilience, and stress the importance of proper process, including allowing the time and opportunity to develop relationships and trust.

Several Aboriginal nations have already made unilateral declarations of independence, triggering the United Nations to consider adding Australia to its list of non-self-governing territories (also called the decolonisation list).

    Throughout the process of colonisation Aboriginal people have found ways to maintain their culture. This, in effect, is decolonisation through resistance.

    Video: Decolonisation means renaming towns

    Watch Michael Ghillar Anderson, Conveyor of the Sovereign Nation, give examples of towns that have been named after white people and why they have to be renamed for decolonisation.

    Example: Decolonising in journalism

    If you applied decolonisation principles to journalism it would mean:

    • Awareness of racism. Journalists need to increase their awareness of institutionalised racism.
    • Greater representation. Efforts are required to ensure greater representation of Aboriginal people in newsrooms and media management, or as sources in stories, including and beyond those directly related to Aboriginal affairs.
    • Solutions-focused reporting. Rather than reporting about Aboriginal culture only if there are problems, journalistic work emphasis solutions.
    • Equal, not other. Media coverage humanises, rather than separates, Aboriginal people. It stops portraying them as 'the other'.

    At least since 2012 students can study decolonising methods at university.


    The United Nations have a Special Committee of Decolonisation (also known as Committee of 24, or C-24). It annually reviews the list of territories to which the Declaration on the Granting of Independence of Colonial Countries and Peoples is applicable and makes recommendations as to its implementation. It also makes recommendations to mobilise public opinion in support of the decolonisation process.


    You can "decolonise your bookshelf" by reading books written by Aboriginal authors and learning about the Aboriginal perspective.

    Clare Land's book Decolonizing Solidarity – Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles offers a thorough examination of the problems that can arise when activists from colonial backgrounds seek to be politically supportive of Aboriginal struggles.

    Homework: Colonised too many times

    During a native title case, Aboriginal woman Carol Martin said:

    "Aboriginal people need to take control of their own destiny … Aboriginal people have been colonised so many bloody times: first, by the British; second, by the do-gooders; third, by the missionaries; fourth, by industry; and now, by the bloody greenies!"


    • What does Carol mean when she says Aboriginal people have been colonised more than once?
    • Who are the "do-gooders" and what was their agenda?
    • Make a table comparing each group of "colonisers": Who were they, what were their intentions, how did they influence Aboriginal culture?
    • Which group do you think had Aboriginal people's interests at heart? Has this changed today?


    View article sources (11)

    [1] 'Sovereign Union and Our Political Future',, retrieved 27/1/2014
    [2] 'Celebrating Indigenous success stories', ANTaR flyer 10/2010
    [3] 'The Indigenous governance and development challenge: an international conversation', Reconciliation News 23, May 2012 p.10
    [4] 'Cape crusader', Koori Mail 487 p.11
    [5] [5a] 'United Nations and decolonization', United Nations, undated, available at
    [6] [6a] 'Beyond Bandaids - Exploring the Underlying Social Determinants of Aboriginal Health', Chapter 2: 'Indigenous Insights into Oral History, Social Determinants and Decolonisation',, retrieved 14/2/2015
    [7] [7a] 'We Need To Talk Much Less About Andrew Bolt And Much More About Treaty', New Matilda 8/10/2016
    [8] [8a] 'Decolonising Australian Psychology: Discourses, Strategies, and Practice', Pat Dudgeon, Roz Walker, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2015, Vol. 3(1), 276–297
    [9] [9a] [9b] 'Decolonising practices: can journalism learn from health care to improve Indigenous health outcomes?', Melissa A Sweet, Patricia Dudgeon, Kerry McCallum and Matthew D Ricketson, The Medical Journal of Australia, 2014; 200 (11): 626-627
    [10] 'Dare to be wise: Decolonisation underpins the Sovereign Treaties processes', Sovereign Union - First Nations Asserting Sovereignty 17/6/2016
    [11] 'James Price Point: Victory or Loss?', Arena Magazine 7/2013

    Harvard citation

    Korff, J 2020, Principles of self-determination, <>, retrieved 8 May 2021

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