Sacred Treaty Circles and the Indigenous Research Agenda

The following is a resource document of the “Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal, Custodian of the land Minjerribah, Peace Prosperity and Healing, Sacred Treaty Circles”, written by Dr. Jocelyn Davies.

Ontology and Sacred Treaty Circles Framework
The concept of worldview, ontology or science of being, enables people to make sense of their world and explain it through an epistemology, or knowledge system. The epistemology determines what is true or false, and establishes a theory of values or ethics.

In terms of the Sacred Treaty Circle business, its ontology provides a strategic framework within which to operate. This ontological framework goes beyond the hierarchical understanding and provides a lateral sense of absolute truths and spiritual onenesses in its structure. The framework seeks to manifest from the spiritual oneness of the ancestors and the absolute truths of the unborn children in balance without egoic manifestations, to create peace, prosperity and healing. The Sacred Treaty Circle knowledge system, provides an explanation of the framework but also facilitates the tactical implementation of the framework’s agenda. This is achieved through establishment of the correct authorities and disciplines (i.e. elders), through which programs are then created. Recognition of the appropriate authorities and disciplines is essential as they establish the connections of bloodlines back to territory. In an environmental/ecological context this connection is imperative in understanding how natural law and country move.

However, the natural environment has been damaged extensively since white invasion, so although customary Law connects the people to land, it is necessary to understand hierarchical law to identify the damage and interference that has occurred to the natural system. In this way it is through the Treaty that the white people can be on an equal footing, bringing together the hierarchical and lateral structures. Thus, it is possible to see the problems created through the hierarchies and identify how a lateral framework can set about healing them.

Indigenous Research Projects
Research methodologies currently employed by academic and other bureaucratic organizations are inadequate for many reasons when it comes to serving the needs of indigenous people in particular and society in general.

From an historical perspective, it is evident that western methodologies were used to genocide indigenous people and subjugate their culture, values , and knowledge systems, and include the policies used by Government such as the removal of people from country onto missions and the removal of children from families. These methodologies were used in the attempted genocide of Aboriginal people over the past two centuries and are still employed today in increasingly subtler ways. The western based methodologies privilege the western voice and fail to recognise traditional authorities and disciplines in their own right. The right to speak with authority is viewed as the exclusive territory of the white bureaucracy. In this way knowledge and power is mediated through the Western system, the indigenous voice is validated by the white bureaucracy. Yet it is often the case that the white bureaucracy are not supported by traditional authorities and that in fact information and knowledge offered as ‘authoritative accounts from traditional owners’ is misrepresented or incorrect. Most recently it has been documented (Davies and others) that the Native Title process in Australia provides such an example. This process has been supported by the indigenous and white communities in promise of recognition of traditional rights to land. The results have not only fallen short of Aboriginal people’s hopes for rights to land, they continue to contribute to the genocidal processes. The point here, is that it is the underlying framework itself, which is essentially divisive and genocidal towards the very people who it is designed to give rights. In this way it can be seen that a reframing of the structures used to advance indigenous rights and authorities needs to occur. Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her book “Decolonising Methodologies” addresses these issues, and in particular targets academic research methodologies. She says, “the west has extracted and claimed ownership of indigenous ways of knowing, imagery and cultural products while simultaneously rejecting the people who created these ideas. Furthermore, practices linked to the past are still used to deny the validity of indigenous people’s claims.”

Tuhiwai Smith, points out that the need exists to pursue a new framework for research and projects which privilege indigenous concerns, practices and participation. This new research agenda is oriented in an indigenous centred viewpoint or worldview, where discourse and the constructions of truth are based on indigenous knowledge and value systems. In this way the processes are owned by the people using them, and the indigenous research agenda is advanced without the requirement for validation within the western structures. 25 projects are covered in Tuhiwai Smith’s book. They canvas themes such as cultural survival, self-determination, healing, restoration and social justice which engage communities in a diverse array of activities. The new research agenda has come out of the social movement of indigenous people which occurred in the 60’s and onwards, and is punctuated by major events in Australia such as petitions, the tent embassy, protests during the bicentenary of ‘settlement’/invasion and challenges through both the courts and state governments, especially Mabo.

The social movement of indigenous people enabled the new indigenous research agenda to gain recognition yet lasting change has proven difficult because hierarchical structures remain the dominant framework employed. The Mabo decision is a good example for the need of indigenous owned frameworks. This legal decision is subject to political retrenchment by the present conservative Commonwealth government aiming to contain native title and appease the powerful non-indigenous interests of groups such as the pastoralists and mining companies thereby backgrounding once again the indigenous agenda in favour of that of the state. Furthermore, where the indigenous agenda is foregrounded, the black bureaucracies supposed to represent indigenous interests are in fact continuing the genocidal processes. Tuhiwai smith highlights how this is so;

“A new generation of indigenous elites also walk across the landscape with their cell phones, briefcases and assets. Corporate chiefs and corporate warriors attempt to make deals with the new broker of power and money. In developing countries these elites still protect the interests of the big Western power blocs. Many such leaders, though totally corrupted and evil are kept in power by the very states which espouse democracy and human rights. Other indigenous leaders have become separated from their own indigenous value system and have swept up into the games and machinations of a world they only partly understand. Divide and rule still operates as a basic strategy for dealing with indigenous peoples. It still operates because unfortunately it still works.” (Tuhiwai Smith,2001:99)

Thus the black bureaucracies actually facilitate the continued genocide of Aboriginal people as they participate in the pursuit of material gain over the central aims of traditional Customary Law. They are sucked into the adversarial, win-lose situations created by hierarchical organizations

Sacred Treaty Circles
The Sacred Treaty Circle business, provides a structure/framework as highlighted by Tuhiwai Smith, discussed above. It is described as ‘a framework for learning and empowerment leading to restoration of social order and ecological health’. As Tuhiwai Smith points out (113), the indigenous research projects intersect with each other in various ways, so too does the Sacred Treaty Circle framework, linking agendas for political action (treaty, recognition of customary law), to spiritual healing, mental health and social dysfunction.” (Davies,2001:1). Thus the Sacred Treaty Circle business manifests in a wide variety of projects which differ significantly to those of other frameworks, in that they are fundamentally based in the traditional authorities and disciplines of the sacred circles.

The framework develops an awareness and commitment to natural law as pathways for action in healing conflicts in contemporary society. The foundation is based in Aboriginal customary Law and its pathways continue to operate also in urbanised socieities and at multiple levels (Davies). It also is based in natural law which draws on forms of the law from both the hierarchical processes of modern societies and the lateral processes of Aboriginal customary law. Thus the framework consists of five circles of authority, discipline and learning; treaty, elders, men’s, women’s, and initiation circles. The Treaty circle provides a pathway for white people to engage in a respectful and right relationship with traditional owners within traditional authority structures. The Treaty Circle acknowledges the realities of past injustices and work towards spiritual learning, and social and environmental justice and connection to country through recognition of this authority. The elders circle is comprised of elders whose bloodlines and authority tracks back to local territory, they set down the law locally and set policy and direction, decision making. Information and guidance comes through the elders circles to the men’s, women’s and initiation circles and with their authority, discipline, learning and healing occurs through the appropriate pathways. Thus the framework builds from a basic principle of ‘culturally authorised access to knowledge and power/authority’ (as opposed to the ‘as of right’ access to knowledge and the protection of knowledge for material ends which are the dual though conflicting philosophies of mainstream hierarchical society).” (Davies,2001;1).

Through utilising the Sacred Treaty Circle processes, we can begin to operate within a framework based truly in indigenous systems and worldview. In addition an appropriate relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people in this country can be established and the work of peace prosperity and healing for all people can be pursued in an achievable manner. This framework is the most realistic approach at present given the continuing failure of hierarchical frameworks to adequately address issues such as native title and land rights, the role of customary law, incarceration rates for indigenous people as well as other social justice issues like health, poverty and cultural survival. The Sacred Treaty Circle framework can achieve real and lasting peace, healing and prosperity because it is based in the tradtitional authorities and disciplines which differ from hierarchical structures, in that they are inclusive, co-operative system rather than exclusive and competitive thereby providing win-win solutions within the circles. As elders authority is re-established we are pursuing many of the 25 indigenous projects outlined by Tuhiwai Smith. Some examples include, claiming (rights, to knowledge, to speak, to authority), testimonies which intersect with claiming and provide space and protection to the voice of a ‘witness’ (for example the treaty and lease documents of Denis Walker). Storytelling, revitalising, celebrating survival, remembering, reframing, intervening, connecting, restoring, returning envisioning etc….are amongst many others which are projects specifically targeted by the sacred treaty circle framework.
These projects seek an alternative centre of power, authority and truth to the white hierarchical structures and in so doing act to truly decolonise the minds and lived experience of indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. They will act to privilege and nurture the indigenous world-view and value systems in order that they gain recognition and legitimacy in their own right. Recognition of this alternative viewpoint is the key to understanding the failure of previous efforts by white academics and politicians to achieve social justice for indigenous people. They were not centred in an indigenised viewpoint but attempt to superimpose white structures over traditional ones thereby not seeing the lived truths and viewpoints of indigenous people. The resolution of conflict and injustice must originate from within the circles themselves rather than hierarchical structures. Therefore the operation of the circles must take precedence before effective and sustained results in favour of social and environmental justice for all people can be achieved.


One response to “Sacred Treaty Circles and the Indigenous Research Agenda

  1. Beautifully written. I could not agree more. Based on my experience working with indigenous peoples, Western methodologies and ontology specifically is just not capable of grasping indigenous worldviews and science. A more plural methodology and ontology needs to be developed. This looks like a good step in that direction. Thank you for sharing.

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