In our latest article, Deakin University PhD Candidate Angie Sassano reviews a new collection about the history of Indigenous self-determination edited by Laura Rademaker and Tim Rowse.


By Angie Sassano

Uluru Statement from the Heart,

Despite the shift to self-determination in Indigenous policy making in 1973, Australia has faltered, with critics such as Megan Davis (2016) claiming self-determination has always been ultimately rejected by governments. The recent refusal to adopt the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart by the Turnbull Government demonstrates the inherent paradox of state-centric strategies of self-determination. It is within this conflicting space, and the context of a ‘failure’ rhetoric, that Laura Rademaker and Tim Rowse have edited a compelling volume on self-determination. If self-determination has been rejected by governments, Rademaker and Rowse’s edited volume attempts to discover what policy philosophy has taken its place. Their task is not to prescribe what self-determination ought to be, they explain, but to encourage historical inquiry into how histories of self-determination should be written, when the very existence of the policy is contested.

The editors have collected several contributions to examine the discourses and practices of self-determination before and after the Whitlam government. Although varied in their approach, the editors and contributing authors have a dual focus on the normative divide between government and Indigenous conceptions of self-determination. The volume urges the reader to consider whether self-determination is a (dis)continuation of the broader assimilationist policies it attempted to depart from, and how diverse interpretations across government and Indigenous communities can be woven into neat historiographies. The editors structure the book in three sections to tackle this task by shaping self-determination as (1) a project of colonial authority, (2) an Indigenous project, and (3) a principle and concept of international law and political theory. Rather than offering a singular vision of self-determination, Rademaker and Rowse remain agnostic in their collection of histories; what emerges is a patchwork of ‘competing histories’ which demonstrate what ‘self-determination is and could be’ (p. 2).

A considerable tension navigated across this book is the question of who confers, and who is served by, self-determination (p. 12). Self-determination has presented itself in the non-Indigenous political consciousness as a marker of liberal multiculturalism. However, patterns of neo-protectionism persist by enforcing Western governance norms through the ‘professionalisation’ of an Indigenous sector, which undermines Indigenous self-governance (p. 177). Elizabeth Ganter argues that whilst the Indigenous sector is an important product of self-determination in offering opportunities for representation, it simultaneously determines forms of ‘good governance’, which exclude Indigenous forms of communality. Ganter writes that, although self-determination improved the ‘politics of [Indigenous] presence’ in the public sector, fears of tokenizing such presence persist. This pattern of undermining Indigenous governance is present in the chapters authored by Charlie Ward and Mike Dillon. Both authors identify the systemic issues of the land rights regime as enforcing accountability to ministerial expectations of economic development and commercial enterprise, which did not always overlay with Indigenous interests of self-determination. Dillon specifically alludes to this politicisation and tokenization of Indigenous affairs through the capital funds sector, where inappropriate ministerial influence manipulated board appointments, and thus the ‘practice’ of self-determination. These histories bring to focus the limits of the state as a conduit for self-determination. Government successes are simultaneously shaped by an overbearing shadow of guardianship, causing temporal ambiguity of the assimilation and self-determination eras.

This ‘politics of presence’ becomes an indicator of the limits of state-based strategies dominant in Australian self-determination rhetoric. Katherine Curchin and Tim Rowse investigate this, arguing that Aboriginal communality was expected to bend ‘for governance’ rather than governance being bent for communality (p. 162). We see these conditions across virtually all spheres of the state-centered strategies explored in the book. Curchin and Rowse explain this phenomenon by conceiving self-determination as simultaneously enabling and constraining: enabling the presence of Indigenous political representation, while constraining forms of accountability to fit settler norms of governance by enforcing paternalistic audits of the sector to ensure the ‘proper’ use of public money. The systemic challenge of self-determination through the state becomes a clear contestation between policy representation and autonomous governance.

Radio Redfern, Cope Street, (formerly Botany Street), Redfern. 046\046861, City of Sydney Archives.

Although the book offers important historical insights into government policies of self-determination, it has compelling contributions in the histories of insurgence and resurgence, which ‘counter state-based strategies’ through Indigenous resistance (Corntassel & Holder 2008). Johanna Perheentupa’s chapter on urban spaces for self-determination demonstrates the decentering of self-determination from statist assumptions. Perheentupa refers to the suburb of Redfern in Sydney, whose activists never sought self-determination as a pathway for mainstream equality as determined by government, but rather as an act of self-governance, which resists the powerlessness embodied by the settler state. Importantly, Perheentupa draws upon the active defiance of audits by Redfern community services, treating public funding as colonial compensation. Where policy instruments on education, land rights and health had been instituted by the state, the book demonstrates that any semblance of success in self-determination, emerged in community-controlled spaces of self-governance. Bob Boughton and Maria John’s respective chapters on education and health recognise the importance of community-controlled services as essential to self-determination. For Boughton, the inclusion of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy simply worked to favour state-education systems, whilst failing to fund independent Aboriginal-controlled adult education services that were essential to resisting the mainstreaming and neoliberalisation of education – processes that excluded critical narratives that were vital to the land rights work that emerged in the Aboriginal-controlled Tranby College. Likewise, Maria John’s focus on the importance of community-controlled health clinics in urban settings demonstrates the need to problematise statist assumptions that anchor land rights as the sole determinant of self-determination, ignoring the assimilation of the body. Thus, we can see community-controlled groups and services as an essential element to de-territorialising self-determination. They situate themselves in opposition to the state, and as an active challenge to the ‘cult of denial’ (Porter 2018), which persists in the continued attempts to colonise the city and render Indigeneity invisible. The editors are wary of the assumption that the liberal settler state is fundamentally limited, and thus self-determination may only ever exist in opposition to the state (p. 26). However, it becomes clear in the later historiographies, which see self-determination as an Indigenous project, that the state hinders, manipulates, and overlooks Indigenous aspirations to maintain the colonial fiction of the state.

Entangled within these questions is the politicisation of the Indigenous self as a target of colonial governmentality through self-determination discourses. Sana Nakata’s closing chapter offers a compelling and necessary reading of self-determination and recognition discourses, asking how the ‘self’ has become a site for both political and personal contestation. Nakata refers to the sustained discourses around self-determination, and now recognition, as being shaped by the “incomprehensibility” of Indigeneity, which is evoked across the historiographical accounts of policy actions. While the book tends to overlook micro and oral histories, Nakata fuses political theory to draw upon the complex experiences of Indigeneity in everyday spaces of the ‘self’. Nakata’s chapter urges a problematisation of current discourses, offering tools to reconsider self-determination beyond subjectivities with the state. Although, as Asmi Wood explores in her chapter, there are international legal instruments that can improve the provision of state-strategies through diverse and regionally differentiated negotiations, such instruments are argued elsewhere in the book by John to be superseded by broad human rights frameworks, which make claims to ‘legal’ self-determination ambiguous. This returns us to the complexity of self-determination and understandings of how it could and should be practised. Regardless, Nakata’s chapter urges a consideration of whether the essence of self-determination must move beyond these instruments embedding the surveillance of Indigenous identity as necessary for self-determination. Nakata’s closing chapter poses an important question, which is revealing of the historiographical task of this book: are we as Australians ready to hear the diverse voices of Indigenous selves that have been entangled and constrained by the state through supposed practices of self-determination?

This book would perhaps be served by the inclusion of more Indigenous research that focuses on the acts of decolonisation and resistance in more recent histories. Here, the book could begin to unravel the colonial dominance of the current reconciliation paradigm which Nakata begins alluding to, and as done in other settler contexts (Corntassel & Holder 2008). Nonetheless, the book presents a compelling history that begins untangling the tensions of the self-determination era, balancing narratives of success, failure, and limitations in a cohesive collection. While the editors seek to understand how to weave conflicting dimensions of self-determination into one history, they do so by presenting the inherent competition of state-based and community-centred practices. Although targeted to academics and activists, Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia can serve a broader audience, in order to begin the important task of reconsidering Indigenous-settler relations, by encountering the dangerous sentiments in non-Indigenous consciousness that we have ‘done enough’. We can take from the collection an enrichment of political narratives that allows us to reconsider how we might achieve true self-determination by problematising the discourses – both spoken and unspoken – at play.

Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia is available via ANU.


Corntassel, J and Holder, C 2008. ‘Who’s Sorry Now? Government Apologies, Truth Commissions, and Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia, Canada, Guatemala, and Peru’, Human Rights Review, vol. 9, pp. 465 – 489.

Davis, M 2016. ‘Listening but not hearing: process has trumped substance in Indigenous affairs’, The Conversation, 22 June 2016,

Porter, L 2018. ‘From an urban country to urban Country: confronting the cult of denial in Australian cities’. Australian Geographer, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 239 – 246.


Review of Laura Rademaker and Tim Rowse (eds), Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia: Histories and Historiography, ANU Press, 2020, hardcopy $60, or free download here.

Angie Sassano
Angie Sassano

Angie Sassano is a PhD Candidate at Deakin University, Burwood, currently living on Wurundjeri Country. She is a settler researcher examining the politics of exclusion, unsettling and decolonisation within Australia’s alternative food movements. Her research interests lie in understanding what constitutes, and how to foster, a praxis of unsettling within the everyday practices of settler-Indigenous relations