20. What is it in Your Law?

What is it in your Law?

The Law of the Land


Aboriginal Law has always been passed on through the Elders. The spearing of McEntire and change this caused in Governor Phillip led to war. Many people see it as the beginning of the Aboroginal struggle for justice.

Later, Governor Macquarie established a school called ‘The Native Institution’. a school for Aboriginal children. A Darug chief, Yarramundi of Burraberongal, placed his daughter there. She was named Maria Lock. In 1819 she topped the colony in in the Anniversary Schools Examination. When she married a convict carpenter, Macquarie released him in her charge and promised them a cow and a grant of land. Years later Maria wrote letters in the most eloquent English, requesting the land that the Governor had promised.

From the 1860s, Aboriginal people around the state squatted on vacant land in their country and applied to the Government for title. The Government declared the land reserves for Aboriginal people rather than grant the people title rights. At the same time the squatters’ holdings were being broken up to provide land for settlers. All Aboriginal reserve land came under Government control. Many reserves were closed down with whole communities  relocated.

The struggle for justice has taken many forms over the last 200 years. It is only now that the Australian legal system has acknowledged that Terra Nullius was wrong. Australians are just beginning to accept that Aboriginal people have a very unique and different Law.

“Our story is in the land…

It is written in those sacred places.

My children will look after those places,

that’s the Law.

Dreaming place…

you can’t change it,

no matter who you are.

No matter you rich man,

no matter you king.

You can’t change it.”

Bill Neidjie  “Kakadu Man”

A far away King


Aboriginal society had no idea of a ‘king’ or of a leader by birthright as in Europe. The Europeans had no idea of Aboriginal Law and when a person appeared to be ‘on side’ they would be declared ‘King of the Tribe’ or ‘King Billy’ and given an inscribed breast plate to wear. This continued throughout the ‘contact’ period along with frontier massacres which were politely called “dispersals”.

Who is it really for?


Until recently, the Australian legal system did not consider Aboriginal property rights or Aboriginal law. The law tended to work against Aboriginal people. Policies and laws often had names that sounded caring – such as ‘protection’ – but their real effects were devastating and are still being felt today.



“now you primly say you’re justified,

And sing of a nation’s glory,

But I think of a people crucified –

The real Australian story.”

Excerpt from Jack Davis, 1978

‘Aboriginal Australia – To The Others’

In New South Wales the Aborigines Protection Board was set up in 1883. Aboriginal people called it the ‘Persecution Board’. Its agents were the police. The Board created reserves for Aboriginal people, but nearly half of NSW reserve land was originally claimed by Aboriginal groups. Reserves under the control of the Board were run by non-Aboriginal managers who had absolute power. Aboriginal men on reserves could be made to work up to 32 hours per week without pay. In 1909 the Aborigines Protection Act gave the Board more powers, including the right to take Aboriginal children from their families and ‘bring them up white’. This was ‘for their own good’ but families were never consulted. Boys and girls were sent out to work as labourers and domestic servants, but rarely received the wages that were supposed to be paid them. All over the State reserves were ‘rationalised’ and closed down, often to provide land for soldier settlers. Whole communities were moved from their own country.



In 1937 Commonwealth policy became Assimilation. This has been seen as an improvement on ‘dispersal’ and ‘protection’, but it meant that Aboriginal culture was worthless and had to be discarded so that Aboriginal people could be like other Australians. Aboriginal people, and many other Australians, now see assimilation as cultural genocide. In 1940 the Protection Board was abolished and replaced by the Aborigines Welfare Board. More Aboriginal children were taken away to be assimilated ‘for their own good’. In the 1960s assimilation changed to integration, meaning Aboriginal people joining Australian society on their own terms, keeping as much of their culture as they liked. The Welfare Board was finally abolished in 1969.

Self Determination


In 1972 Commonwealth policy changed to self determination, an advance on self-management. Aboriginal people were to make their own decisions. In 1990 ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, replaced the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Elected regional councils and a Board of Commissioners aim to allow Aboriginal people to shape their own future. The Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended the recognition of Aboriginal law, but there is much to be resolved for all Australians. This is to be achieved through Reconciliation.

What is it in Your Law?


What is it in your law?

Who is it really meant for?

How can it mean a thing

When it’s written by one far away king?

What is it in your law?

Who is it really for!

What is it in your law?

We have the law of our Fathers

And our Mother the Earth all around

You come here – you destroy her ground!

What is it in your law?

Who is it really for!

We know the law – the law of the land

We know the law of the sky

You break every law that we’ve ever known

And we just can’t understand why

What is it in your law?

Who is it really for!

What is it in your law

That’s taken us from our homeland?

And taken away our lives?

We’ll have to make some changes!