What First Nations people said about invasion, the Frontier Wars and sovereignty: extracts from the Referendum Council report 2017

What First Nations people said about invasion, the Frontier Wars and sovereignty: extracts from the Referendum Council report 2017

Recent controversy about what was or was not included in the Uluru Statement somewhat missed an important point: the strength and passion of the evidence contained in section 2.2 of the Final Report of the Referendum Council (June 2017). These were the words of delegates to the Uluru Dialogue meetings held around the country leading up to the First Nations Constitutional Convention at Uluru, May 2017, whose work was distilled into the Statement.

Some of these Dialogue words were collected in the Report at pages 16 to 32, under the heading ‘Our Story’. The following are extracts relevant to invasion, the Frontier Wars and sovereignty. The locations of the Regional Dialogue meetings quoted are in parentheses.

Numbered notes can be found in the Report. Selected notes are appended to this article.

David Stephens

27 August 2023

Honest History researcher Steve Flora contributed to this post. HH


2.2 National Constitutional Convention

The National Constitutional Convention was held at Uluru between 23 and 26 May 2017.

2.2.1 Process

A synthesis of the Records of Meetings of the First Nations Regional Dialogues was produced by the Referendum Council. This synthesis, entitled ‘Our Story’, recounted the themes that emerged in the Dialogues and is reproduced below.


Our First Nations are extraordinarily diverse cultures, living in an astounding array of environments, multi-lingual across many hundreds of languages and dialects. The continent was occupied by our people and the footprints of our ancestors traversed the entire landscape. Our songlines covered vast distances, uniting peoples in shared stories and religion. The entire land and seascape is named, and the cultural memory of our old people is written there.

This rich diversity of our origins was eventually ruptured by colonisation. Violent dispossession and the struggle to survive a relentless inhumanity has marked our common history. The First Nations Regional Dialogues on constitutional reform bore witness to our shared stories.

All stories start with our Law.

The Law

We have coexisted as First Nations on this land for at least 60,000 years. Our sovereignty pre-existed the Australian state and has survived it. (7)

‘We have never, ever ceded our sovereignty.’ (Sydney) (8)

The unfinished business of Australia’s nationhood includes recognising the ancient jurisdictions of First Nations law. (9)

‘The connection between language, the culture, the land and the enduring nature of Aboriginal law is fundamental to any consideration of constitutional recognition.’ (Ross River) (10)

Every First Nation has its own word for The Law. Tjukurrpa is the Anangu word for The Law. The Meriam people of Mer refer to Malo’s Law. (11) With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this surviving and underlying First Nation sovereignty can more effectively and powerfully shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood. (12)

The Law was violated by the coming of the British to Australia. This truth needs to be told.


Australia was not a settlement and it was not a discovery. It was an invasion. (13)

‘Cook did not discover us, because we saw him. We were telling each other with smoke, yet in his diary, he said “discovered”.’ (Torres Strait) (14)

‘Australia must acknowledge its history, its true history. Not Captain Cook. What happened all across Australia: the massacres and the wars. If that were taught in schools, we might have one nation, where we are all together.’ (Darwin) (15)

The invasion that started at Botany Bay is the origin of the fundamental grievance between the old and new Australians: that Australia was colonised without the consent of its rightful owners. (16) Now is an opportunity for the First Nations to tell the truth about history in our own voices and from our own point of view. (17) And for mainstream Australians to hear those voices and to reconsider what they know and understand about their nation’s history. This will be challenging, but the truth about invasion needs to be told.

‘In order for meaningful change to happen, Australian society generally needs to “work on itself” and to know the truth of its own history.’ (Brisbane) (18)

‘People repeatedly emphasised the need for truth and justice, and for non-Aboriginal Australians to take responsibility for that history and this legacy it has created: “Government needs to be told the truth of how people got to there. They need to admit to that and sort it out.”’ (Melbourne) (19)

Invasion was met with resistance.


This is the time of the Frontier Wars, when massacres, disease and poison decimated First Nations, even as they fought a guerrilla war of resistance. (20) The Tasmanian Genocide and the Black War waged by the colonists reveals the truth about this evil time. We acknowledge the resistance of the remaining First Nations people in Tasmania who survived the onslaught.

‘A statement should recognise “the fights of our old people”.’ (Hobart) (21)

Everywhere across Australia, great warriors like Pemulwuy and Jandamarra led resistance against the British. First Nations refused to acquiesce to dispossession and fought for their sovereign rights and their land.

‘The people who worked as stockmen for no pay, who have survived a history full of massacres and pain. We deserve respect.’ (Broome) (22)

The Crown had made promises when it colonised Australia. In 1768, Captain Cook was instructed to take possession ‘with the consent of the natives’. In 1787, Governor Phillip was instructed to treat the First Nations with ‘amity and kindness’. But there was a lack of good faith. The frontier continued to move outwards and the promises were broken in the refusal to negotiate and the violence of colonisation.

‘We were already recognised through the Letters Patent and the Imperial statutes that should be adhered to under their law. Because it’s their law.’ (Adelaide) (23)

‘Participants expressed disgust about a statue of John McDouall Stuart being erected in Alice Springs following the 150th anniversary of his successful attempt to reach the top end. This expedition led to the opening up of the “South Australian frontier” which lead to massacres as the telegraph line was established and white settlers moved into the region. People feel sad whenever they see the statue; its presence and the fact that Stuart is holding a gun is disrespectful to the Aboriginal community who are descendants of the families slaughtered during the massacres throughout central Australia.’ (Ross River) (24)


Eventually the Frontier Wars came to an end. As the violence subsided, governments employed new policies of control and discrimination. (25) We were herded to missions and reserves on the fringes of white society. (26) Our Stolen Generations were taken from their families. (27)

‘The Stolen Generations represented an example of the many and continued attempts to assimilate people and breed Aboriginality out of people, after the era of frontier killing was over.’ (Melbourne) (28)

But First Nations also re-gathered themselves. We remember the early heroes of our movement such as William Cooper, Fred Maynard, Margaret Tucker, Pearl Gibbs, Jack Patten and Doug Nicholls, who organised to deal with new realities. The Annual Day of Mourning was declared on 26 January 1938. It reflected on the pain and injustice of colonisation, and the necessity of continued resistance in defence of First Nations. There is much to mourn: the loss of land, the loss of culture and language, the loss of leaders who led our struggle in generations past.

‘Delegates spoke of the spiritual and cultural things that have been stolen. Delegates spoke of the destruction of boundaries because of the forced movement of people, the loss of First Peoples and Sovereign First Nations spirituality, and the destruction of language.’ (Dubbo) (29)

‘The burning of Mapoon in 1963 was remembered: “Mapoon people have remained strong, we are still living at Mapoon. Mapoon still exists in western Cape York but a lot of our grandfathers have died at New Mapoon. That isn’t where their spirits need to be.”’ (Cairns) (30)

But as we mourn, we can also celebrate those who have gone before us. (31) In a hostile Australia, with discrimination and persecution, out of their mourning they started a movement – the modern movement for rights, equality and self-determination.

‘We have learnt through the leaders of the Pilbara Strike, we have learnt from the stories of our big sisters, our mothers, how to be proud of who we are.’ (Perth) (32)

‘The old men and women were carrying fire. … Let’s get that fire up and running again.’ (Darwin) (33)

[Sections follow on Activism, Land Rights and Makarrata]

2.2.2 Assessment

Prior to the National Constitutional Convention, a set of Guiding Principles were distilled from the First Nations Regional Dialogues, which provided a framework for the assessment and deliberation on reform proposals. The National Convention did not reopen the work that had been done in the Dialogues. Rather, the task of the National Convention was to bring together the outcomes from the Dialogues in order to arrive at a consensus.

The Guiding Principles adopted at Uluru are reproduced below:


The following guiding principles have been distilled from the Dialogues. These principles have historically underpinned declarations and calls for reform by First Nations. They are reflected, for example, in the Bark Petitions of 1963, the Barunga Statement of 1988, the Eva Valley Statement of 1993, the Kalkaringi Statement of 1998, the report on the Social Justice Package by ATSIC in 1995 and the Kirribilli Statement of 2015. They are supported by international standards pertaining to Indigenous peoples’ rights and international human rights law.

[Guiding principle no. 5 is ‘Tells the truth of history’]

  1. Tells the truth of history

The Dialogues raised truth-telling as important for the relationship between First Nations and the country. Many delegates at the First Nations Regional Dialogues recalled significant historical moments including the history of the Frontier Wars and massacres. Dialogues that stressed the importance of truth-telling include: Melbourne, Broome, Darwin, Perth, Sydney, Cairns, Ross River, Adelaide, Brisbane, Torres Strait. (103-112)

The importance of truth-telling as a guiding principle draws on previous statements such as the ATSIC report for the Social Justice Package. (113) The Eva Valley Statement said that a lasting settlement process must recognise and address historical truths.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples enshrines the importance of truth-telling (114), as does the United Nations General Assembly resolution on the basic principles on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law. (115)

In its Resolution on the Right to the Truth in 2009, the Human Rights Council stressed that the victims of gross violations of human rights should know the truth about those violations to the greatest extent practicable, in particular the identity of the perpetrators, the causes and facts of such violations, and the circumstances under which they occurred. And that States should provide effective mechanisms to make that truth known, for society as a whole and in particular for relatives of the victims. (116) In 2010, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. (117) In 2012, the Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. (118) In 2013, the UN General Assembly passed the Resolution on the right to the truth. (119)

2.2.3 Outcomes

The following analysis of the three propositions that subsequently emerged in the Uluru Statement of the Heart was presented to the National Constitutional Convention and approved.

[The first two propositions relate to ‘Voice to Parliament’ and ‘Treaty’. The third relates to ‘Truth-telling’]


The need for the truth to be told as part of the process of reform emerged from many of the Dialogues. (177) The Dialogues emphasised that the true history of colonisation must be told: the genocides, the massacres, the wars and the ongoing injustices and discrimination. (178) This truth also needed to include the stories of how First Nations Peoples have contributed to protecting and building this country. (179) A truth commission could be established as part of any reform, for example, prior to a constitutional reform or as part of a Treaty negotiation. (180)


Selected notes

11 Perth ROM, p2: ‘We’ve got to continue the fight for the unwritten constitutions. We know there were 260 language groups, and in each language group there were unwritten constitutions. … Prior to white man coming, there were 260 unwritten constitutions, rules, policies, procedures governing Aboriginal People and their lands.’

12 Cairns ROM, p2: ‘No one gives you sovereignty, you go out there and practice it and go out there and enforce it. But we are in a position that there are certain laws that mean we can’t go out and practise our sovereignty.’

13 Dubbo ROM, p4: ‘Delegates spoke of the need to acknowledge the illegality of everything done since colonization, the first act aggression on first contact, the extreme cruelty and violence of the government, and the impact of the forced removals.’


20 Perth ROM, p4: ‘A number of delegates expressed the importance of remembering and honouring First Nations people who had fought in wars, including frontier wars, but had not been recognised.’

Ross River ROM, p1: ‘[We] recall the Coniston massacre, and the many other massacres throughout the region. [We] remember the Aboriginal people involved in fighting in the frontier wars…If the government wants to speak about ‘recognition’ they need to recognise the true history, recognise the frontier wars.’

Melbourne ROM, p1: ‘People spoke of the mass slaughter of Aboriginal people during colonisation and how genocide had been committed on over 180 clans in Victoria.’

Torres Strait ROM, p1: The meeting ‘remembered the massacres of the Kaurareg nation, and that the hurt and pain this had continues to this day, unresolved.’


26 Ross River ROM, p1: ‘Some of us can’t speak our language. Some of us went to school and it was bashed out of us. There are psychological reasons why we can’t speak our language.’

27 Perth ROM, p1: ‘There’s a lot of sad stories from the Stolen Generations: genocide, abuse. And none of the people will be brought before the justice system for the abuse of those children.


31 Adelaide ROM, p2: ‘[We] want the history of Aboriginal people taught in schools, including the truth about murders and the theft of land, Maralinga, and the Stolen Generations, as well the the story of all the Aboriginal fighters for reform. Healing can only begin when this true history is taught.


34 Darwin ROM, p2: ‘The government will always try to find a way to break you or beat you down. That doesn’t mean that we’re any weaker as Indigenous people because we lost. We’ve only lost in their eyes, they don’t know what we have underneath.


41 Darwin ROM, p2: ‘We have to fight for black and white. Mabo said to his son – let’s fight for black and white. His son asked, but why are we fighting for whitefellas? And Mabo said, because they are blindfolded, we need to open their eyes and let them recognise that we were in this country before them.



177 Sydney: One group also suggested that dealing with question of ‘truth and justice’ had to be part of the process of constitutional reform.

Melbourne: People repeatedly emphasised the need for truth and justice, and for non-Aboriginal Australians to take responsibility for that history and this legacy it has created. The group believed that there needed to be a truth and reconciliation process as part of the larger process.

Cairns: This history and the suffering needed to be acknowledged before progress could be made with constitutional reform.

Ross River: The meeting recalled the Coniston massacre, and the many other massacres throughout the region. The meeting remembered the Aboriginal people who had been involved in fighting in the frontier wars. They also spoke of the Aboriginal people who fought in the wars, such as in the Vietnam war, but have not been recognised. If the government want to speak about ‘recognition’ they need to recognise the true history, recognise the frontier wars. They need to recognise the atrocity of Maralinga.

178 Broome: The need to generate greater understanding of our people and our history across Australia. The massacres were referred to many times across the Dialogue.

Dubbo: One group stated that it was important to correct the record. Delegates spoke of the need to acknowledge the illegality of everything done since colonization, the first act of aggression of first contact, the extreme cruelty and violence of the government, and the impact of the forced removals.

179 Darwin: There was a very strong feeling that the true history of Australia, the massacres and frontier killings, the stolen generations and other stories of how First Nations peoples have contributed to protecting and building this country are not taught in Australian education institutions.



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