What is self determination, and what does it mean when we talk about Indigenous human rights? These discussions are covered in this supplementary section from the Indigeneous Rights in Australia Today resource.

We have listed the table of contents from this chapter below. To give you an idea of what you can find in the resource, we have provided sample text, images and activities from each content section.

The materials are designed for students at middle and senior secondary level around Australia. They will be useful for History, English, Legal Studies, Aboriginal Studies, Civics and Citizenship, Politics and Legal Studies.

Table of contents

Indigenous self determination

"There is a lot of misinformation about what self-determination means. At its core, it involves people making decisions about policies and programs that directly affect their lives, and having those decisions respected and supported..."

Indigenous leader Professor Mick Dodson

Self-determination is a key right for all people. It is about people being able to determine their own destiny and future without interference or control from outside.

There are a lot of misconceptions about self-determination for Indigenous Peoples. Some people mistakenly identify it with the formation of a separate state. In reality, self-determination relates to issues such as:

  • Indigenous participation in decisions that affect them.
  • Protection of cultural identity.
  • Decision-making on issues affecting traditional lands and resources, and economic activities.

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Success stories

Student learning activities

  • Discuss how important the ability to determine your own actions and identity is. What helps you determine your own future. How do you feel when something stands in the way and how do you resolve this?
  • Based on the opinions above about self determination and your own life, what do you think you have in common with the goals described by these Indigenous leaders?
    - Why do these Indigenous leaders believe that self-determination is important?
    - What are the consequences when self-determination is denied?
  • Talk of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples often generates strong negative reactions from non-Indigenous people. Why might this be the case?
  • Thinking about key features of the intervention, fill out a table with two headings:
    a. Intervention: government actions
    b. Do these support self determination? If so, how? If not, in what way?
  • In areas where the intervention conflicts with self-determination, discuss what choices the government has – are there ways to achieve the same goals while supporting self-determination for Indigenous people as well?
  • Create a poster about self-determination in action, drawing on one or more of the examples mentioned in the success stories section or use the links which appear in this section. How do these examples show self-determination in action?

The government and the media regularly portray the view that outside 'intervention' is needed to fix problems that Indigenous Peoples are failing to solve for themselves.

How often do you hear about successful Indigenous-led programs and how improvements in Indigenous communities have been achieved?

In reality, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have survived and thrived here for at least 40,000 years without external interference. As the world's oldest continuous living cultures, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have successfully overcome obstacles, faced environmental challenges and developed a sophisticated and deep-rooted spiritual connection to the natural world and to each other. More recently, Indigenous Peoples in Australia have worked hard to overcome problems resulting from colonisation, which has robbed them of their land, their economy, their language, culture and families. There are many success stories relating to the issues the Federal Government said it was addressing with the intervention.

These case studies illustrate how Indigenous-run programs can successfully address urgent community needs; show the role of Indigenous leadership and culture; and highlight the value of consultation and partnership between Indigenous Peoples, the government and the wider Australian community.


  • What's working: a series of case studies compiled by Women for Wik of programs that are working in education, health, law and more.
  • Success stories in Indigenous health: The Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) website details Indigenous-led healthcare initiatives that have achieved great results. It focuses on engagement with Indigenous communities and healthcare funding and support.
  • Annual NAIDOC awards: Each year Aboriginal and Islander community leaders are recognised in the NAIDOC awards. NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to commemorate the history, culture and achievements of Indigenous Peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life. The week is a great opportunity to participate in a range of activities and to support your local Indigenous community.
  • Indigenous governance awards: The awards were created by Reconciliation Australia in partnership with BHP Billiton to identify, celebrate and promote effective Indigenous governance. The national awards highlight success in Indigenous Australia – strong leadership, good management, effective partnerships and brave, creative thinking.

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Where to from here?

aboriginal woman

Extract from Little children are sacred report:

It is critical that...governments commit to genuine consultation with Indigenous Peoples in designing initiatives for Indigenous communities. What is required is a determined, coordinated effort to break the cycle and provide the necessary strength, power and appropriate support and services to local communities, so they can lead themselves out of the malaise: in a word, empowerment! [The task of] the not merely to follow the dictates of the electorate but to lead it. It should accept its responsibility to protect our kids. They are sacred. There is now sufficient evidence to show that well-resourced programs that are owned and run by the community are more successful than generic, short term, and sometimes inflexible programs imposed on communities... This is because community-based and community-owned initiatives inherently respond to the problems faced by the community and are culturally appropriate to that community. They are driven by real community need rather than divorced governmental ideology. In essence, the inquiry believes there needs to be a process of 'de-colonising' attitudes...and developing new policies that recognise both Indigenous strengths and deficiencies and work to support the former and provide substitutes for the latter. Ultimately government has to show confidence and faith in Indigenous communities to take ownership of these issues and support them to protect and nurture their children. This has been the expressed desire of Indigenous communities since the earliest days of colonisation. There can be no genuine and lasting success in dealing with the dysfunction in Indigenous communities...unless Indigenous law is utilised and incorporated as an integral part of the solution.

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Related chapters

Read about or directly download the other chapters of Indigenous Rights in Australia Today.


Additional sections

Download entire package

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