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WA State Library Commemorates Indigenous Struggle

Labour Day procession, Perth, 1966. State Library of Western Australia, 381895PD.

Labour Day procession, Perth, 1966. State Library of Western Australia, 381895PD.

Labour Day procession, Perth, 1966. State Library of Western Australia, 381895PD.

Blair Jackson

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The WA State Library is holding an exhibition to commemorate 50 years since the historic 1967 citizenship referendum for Indigenous Australians.

The referendum changed the constitution to count Aboriginal people as full citizens.

Damien Webb, Indigenous Special Curator at the State Library, told ECU Daily the exhibit is to commemorate the referendum, but also tell the stories of indigenous trailblazers in WA.

“The idea was to use the 1967 referendum as a starting point to explore a handful of key stories which illustrate the journey from invasion to present day,” said Mr Webb.

“In this way we are able to broaden the understanding of what the referendum meant and just how much has changed in the last 50 years.”

Research for the exhibit began 12 months ago. Mr Webb said it is a chance to celebrate the library’s collection and acknowledge the work of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs does within the community.

Similar exhibits tended to neglect Western Australia’s historic events, Mr Webb told ECU Daily.

“The experience of the referendum and our fight for rights in WA was unique,” said Mr Webb.

“Our heroes have gone unrecognised for too long.

“It has been incredibly powerful to help bring these stories to the fore, and to challenge the often depressing and deeply colonial narrative of Western Australian history.”

Janetia Knapp, a Koreng woman born in Gnowangerup, was 16 years old in 1967 and vividly remembers the feeling of political change at the time.

In 1972, Ms Knapp hopped on a bus convoy of UWA students headed across the Nullabor.

She visited the tent embassy at the Old Parliament House.

“There was an air of change at the time with indigenous workers finding a voice and striking over poor conditions at home in WA, but also around the country,” said Ms Knapp.

Ms Knapp told ECU Daily, she felt empowered at the time, because pathways for indigenous Australians to get a degree were opening up, whilst they could still “keep their indigenous culture.”

“We heard about the referendum in high school; it gave me an insight into possible careers. We were fully domesticated at the time.

“Because of the rallies, we were able to go out of our boundaries on excursions.”

Ms Knapp was part of the stolen generation and grew up on a mission outside of Bunbury.

“When I first saw my mother again she didn’t know who I was.

“I was 21 and had a small child. I had just started teaching at East Narrogin High School.

“My family were like strangers,” she said.

Ms Knapp wants the State Library exhibition to educate all Australian’s about the past.

“It is the shared history of all Australians.

“From colonistaion, our names changed, our bloodlines changed.

“I hope educating people on the past will lead to constitutional recognition,” she said.

The state library exhibit also marks 25 years since Eddie Mabo’s landmark high court victory of 1992.

In the Federal High Court the Torres Strait islander overturned “Terra Nullius” or “Nobody’s Land” classification of Australia during colonisation.

The decision was the first legal acknowledgement of native title ownership for indigenous people in Australia.

Mr Webb said WA’s “greatest activists and revolutionaries” will have their stories told at the exhibit.

“Frontier warriors like Fanny Balbuk, Tommy Dower, Ken Colbung, Daisy Bindi and the Bropho family.

“The journey towards equality and self-determination has been a long one and the 1967 referendum is just one aspect of it.

“The Pilbara Strike remains one of the largest industrial actions in Australian history and predates even the Wave Hill Walk-off by almost 20 years.”

Mr Webb, himself of the Palawa people from Tasmania, highlighted the story of one women in particular.

“Daisy Bindi was instrumental in agitating for workers’ rights, particularly those of Aboriginal women,” he said.

“I find it incredible that her story is not more widely known and her fierce dedication to fighting for equality and human rights is an inspiration to me.”

The free exhibit opened Saturday 27 May and concludes on September 3.

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WA State Library Commemorates Indigenous Struggle