Tall gum trees on a stretch of sandy dirt alongside impossibly blue water. A fluffy kangaroo posing amongst shallow reeds. A line of stoic-faced mounted police. A cloud of smoke billowing behind the vivid black, red and yellow of the Nyoongar flag. A sea of technicolour tents covered in protest graffiti.
These are just some of the conflicting images that have come to be how we understand Heirisson Island, and a large part of the reason that the site has become the source of so much contention in Western Australia.
Matagarup, a small island in Perth’s Swan River is more commonly known as Heirisson Island. It has a standing history of being a base for native refuge and protest. A registered Aboriginal Heritage site, Heirisson Island has been the home to a series of different native protests over the last few years that have left many people confused.
Just this April WA police removed a camp of around sixty from their permanent dwelling site at Heirisson Island.
In this case the residents claimed their presence at the site was in objection to the government’s decision to provide financial aid to international refugees rather than providing aid to Western Australia’s homeless population.
However, Australia’s homeless population accounts for only 0.5 per cent of the total population, and of this amount 25 per cent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, but a further 30 per cent were born overseas.
In 2014 the site became the home of a large group of Aboriginal people who were opposing the potential closure of remote Aboriginal communities. The move followed the announcement, in September of the same year, by the federal government that it would no longer take responsibility for providing funding to the communities that covered the costs of services such as power and water supply and the upkeep of infrastructure.
The state government was forced to take on financial responsibility for these communities and announced that while they would commit $90 million until June 2016, beyond this time they would need to close between 100 and 150 of the remote communities.
Heirisson Island became home to a group of native protestors, calling themselves a refugee camp, who wanted the government to continue to provide the funding necessary to the communities, the closure of which they believed would signal the end of not only a way of life for many but also lead to the loss of much of the Aboriginal culture.
Following the uproar that came of the decision to close the communities, the Barnett government backtracked on their initial decision and faltered on the decision to close any communities.
Twelve months on the Barnett government is yet to announce any official closures of remote communities, leaving Aboriginal protesters uncertain of the future of a large part of their heritage.
In 2012 as a form of protest over the Barnett government’s proposed Native Title Deal with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC), Heirisson Island became the base of the Nyoongar Tent Embassy. The embassy, many of who’s participants did not agree with what they considered to be the selling of Aboriginal culture, established the camping ground as a peaceful protest, but were forced to disband by police within weeks.
Despite these protests the Native Title Deal was signed within three years. The Barnett government struck a deal with six indigenous claim groups that saw the Nyoongar people gain $1.3 million in land, assets and benefits, in exchange for the surrender of the native claims of over 200,000 sq km of land in the south-west.
The leaders of the refugee camp have said that they do not recognize any non-Aboriginal governments but believe they retain sovereignty within Australia, while state government has argued that a permanent dwelling, as many the refugee camp at Heirisson Island became, is not a legal use of a heritage site.
Although the cultural issues often fought at the Heirisson Island site are not clear-cut, the site has also raised other issues that are simpler to understand. During the raids and forced closures of the various camps, questions have been raised regarding the treatment of a group of homeless people and the rights they are entitled to.
With the federal election looming it is understandable that indigenous voters are questioning what they will be promised in response to these various protests. Many of these voters feel uncertain about their futures, and the future of their culture, and untrustworthy of politicians who nave yet to make any concrete promises.