Aboriginal Organisation

An Aboriginal family (AOT, PH30/1/427)

Tasmanian Aboriginal people have always organised socially around extended families. Early attempts to document their ethnography by GA Robinson, H Ling Roth and others consistently observed that the family-based clan, or hearth group, was the basic building block of larger groupings variously described as tribes or nations.

It is not surprising that this culture has continued into the period since Europeans arrival. Family and cultural practice are elements that have provided cohesion and continuity for the Aboriginal community. These bound community together on the Furneaux Islands, the north-west coast and the Channel area in the late nineteenth century and continue to provide the foundation of key Aboriginal organisations today.

The precedents for contemporary Aboriginal organisations are to be found in the social restructuring that occurred as a result of British invasion. Displacement of Palawa nations from their traditional lands by Europeans led to members of a number of nations banding together in the late 1820s in order to maintain a war of resistance. This brought tribes and families together in new configurations for the political purpose of defending Aboriginal culture and land. Later, when Aborigines were deported to the Furneaux Islands, this new structure was instrumental in forcing the closure of the internment camp at Wybalenna, and later arguing for rights to land on Chappell and Cape Barren Islands.

In 1971, inspired by the growing Aboriginal political movements in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, and the impact of the Black Panther Movement in the United States, the Aboriginal Information Service was formed. The AIS, which went on to become the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, formed branches in Burnie, Hobart and Launceston as a means of giving grass roots community members a direct voice in the management and delivery of a range of services. These included legal, health, housing, and a range of family and cultural support programmes. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre continues to be the Aboriginal community's most significant organisation, and a vanguard for political struggles relating to social and criminal justice, Aboriginal identity, land and cultural rights.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, a range of other organisations were established in response to localised community needs. These include the Flinders Island Community Association, Cape Barren Islanders Community Inc, Mersey Leven Aboriginal Corporation (Devonport), Southeast Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (Cygnet), Tasmanian Aboriginal Child Care Association (Launceston) and Wayee Radio Aboriginal Corporation. These organisations came together on a number of occasions under an umbrella group called the Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations. This provided a unified political voice on issues of statewide or national significance.

All of these original organisations were set up by, and serviced the needs of, Aboriginal people from families who were held at Wybalenna as part of the government's attempt to complete the dispossession of Aborigines in Tasmania from their land. It is a lasting consequence of this policy that all of these organisations continue to work for return of land and self-determination for Tasmanian Aborigines.

Greg Lehman