65,000 years of occupation deserves recognition

Relations betweenProfessor Irene Watson Aboriginal people and white settlers have been founded on the principle of terra nullius – the land belongs to no-one – but is it time this principle was challenged?

That’s the question University of South Australia (UniSA) Professor Irene Watson will pose when she delivers the 2018 David Unaipon Lecture at the Menzies Australia Institute, King’s College London (KCL) on 28 November.

Prof Watson, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Aboriginal Leadership and Strategy at UniSA and an Aboriginal law expert, says the terra nullius principle is a racist one and no longer applicable to the modern world, yet is still applied as the foundational principle of the Australian state.

“It is time we recognised that Aboriginal peoples inhabited Australia first – 65,000 years ago in fact – and managed this land extremely well until the invasion of the continent,” Prof Watson says.

“Acknowledging that truth is the first step towards addressing the power imbalance between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginals, which continues to be shaped by the dynamics of colonial power.”

Prof Watson’s lecture, “Aboriginalising Australian Centres of Power,” follows on the heels of Professor Irabinna Rigney’s inaugural David Unaipon Lecture at KCL in September 2017.

Her talk will focus on the failure of Australia to recognise Indigenous peoples, despite a 2007 United Nations declaration (UNDRIP) setting out minimum standards for Indigenous nights.

“A new approach which re-centres Aboriginal knowledge and ways of being could become a way forward,” she says.

Prof Watson, who is also a Professor of Law in UniSA’s Business School, belongs to the Tanganekald, Meintangk Boandik First Nations Peoples, of the Coorong and south east of South Australia.

She has served on numerous Aboriginal bodies across Australia primarily concerned with advancing Aboriginal rights. In 2013 she was awarded an ARC Indigenous Discovery Fellowship which enabled her to work on a three-year project titled: Indigenous Knowledge: Law, Society and the State.

The David Unaipon Lecture is part of the Aboriginal and Contemporary Australian Studies Fellowship Program, a collaboration between UniSA and the Menzies Australia Institute, KCL.

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