Changing Misconceptions on Indigenous Governance
Tue 12 Jan 2021
“We might not have invented or built any monumental architecture, like the Great Wall of China, and like the Pyramids, but what we developed in this country was a monumental system of governance; a monumental system of how to run a country without the need for armies, without the need for prisons, and without the need for police.
“We had a stable, efficient society that lasted us tens of thousands of years, and I think that people forget – we are owners and runners of country – we ran an entire country, not that long ago, with no outside interference, and we didn’t invade our neighbours.”
Mundanara Bayles, host of the Black Magic Woman Podcast, and AIGI CEO Michelle Deshong started 2021 with a bang – calling out the misconceptions colonisation had wrought on Indigenous governance.
For those not readily familiar with AIGI’s CEO, Michelle began the podcast by yarning about her formative years and the strong influence of her father in developing her interest in Indigenous politics.
Later, events in Michelle’s personal life led her to become strongly engaged in women’s rights advocacy, particularly the support and acceleration of Indigenous women to leadership positions and political roles; or as Michelle eloquently termed “supporting Indigenous women as change agents”.
In the second half of the podcast, the conversation turned to leadership and Indigenous governance – with discussion around lateral versus hierarchical systems of governance.
While Colonisers operate a hierarchical structure (with a clear leader, defined roles and onus on a “individuals”) and many other First Nations peoples operate similar chieftain structures, Indigenous Australian’s developed a unique “lateral” system – a society based on the collective, and decision-making amongst groups.
Michelle and Mundanara spoke about how the lateral structure was interrupted by colonisation and the Western misconceptions about Indigenous organisation and culture.
“This imposed position of hierarchy is really interesting, because what we [Indigenous Nations] might’ve had is moreso “knowledge holders”, or a process of consensus decision making, or smaller groups of people that would be consulted on particular issues,” Michelle explained with reference to the Indigenous lateral or “collective” system.
“Even the concept of “terra nullius” itself, as perceived by others [colonisers], suggests that there was a society without rules, or a society without civilisation.
“And yet, if you unpack our own [Indigenous] systems and structures, we know that it’s a very complex system that keeps our society functioning, that limits chaos, that talks about roles and responsibilities,” Michelle said.
“So ultimately, that’s what governance is – it’s the systems and processes that help to guide and navigate either an organisation or a community,” she said.
Mundanara pointed out that years of colonisers’ misconceptions had created a space in which Indigenous Peoples were now forced to “describe” themselves or define themselves, in a bid to set the record straight.
Michelle and Mundanara agreed it was also a chance for Indigenous people to reconnect with their cultural foundations and recognise how important and effective their original lateral governance structure was.
“The opportunity for change now, is for us to define for ourselves, who we are, for each other,” Michelle said.
“That includes some of the stuff around the nation building conversation; refocusing on the collective, connecting back into tribal governance, thinking about what suits our communities and our own future sustainability.
“But also, priority setting – to not constantly be compromised by what other people think we should and shouldn’t do.
“We’ve done what we’ve had to do in order to survive under that [imposed] regime. But I think we’re also mature enough to have a conversation that says, this doesn’t have to be our way.
“But, for us to build a sustainable future around that, we’ve got to set the foundations of our own leadership and governance models, we’ve got to set the priorities, and we’ve got to set our own terms of reference.”