Mini-Mini VoC Conference Eora Nation (colonizer’s Sydney, Australia)
Hosted on January 27th, 2019
Acknowledgment of County by Carolyn Ienna
I would like to acknowledge the Kadigal People of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respects to elders both past and present. The Kadigal inhabited the area that they call Gadigal that lies south of Port Jackson covering today’s Sydney Central Business District and stretches from South Head to Petersham, with part of the southern boundary lying on the Cooks River.
The Kadigal were coastal people who were dependent on the harbour for providing most of their food. They were one of seven clans living along the coastal Sydney who spoke a common language and have been known as Eora People. Eora simply means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’ in their language. The occupation of the Sydney area by the British and the subsequent introduction of European diseases including smallpox nearly wiped out the Eora people and their neighbours. The disastrous 1789 smallpox epidemic was estimated to have killed about 53% of Sydney’s indigenous population, and it was claimed that only three Kadigal people were left alive, sometime in 1791. Although archaeological evidence suggests that the Kadigal people may have escaped to the Concord area and settled there. This information was copied from the net and I know that Kadigal people exist because a friend is Kadigal, as well as Wiradjuri like me. As a Wiradjuri person living on someone else’s country or nation, I can only give an acknowledgement. Not welcome to country as, that, because I’m not allowed to do that. The Kadigal still exist today and several generations live in what white people call Sydney. We must always resist our illegal occupation, we never ceded this continent and are not interested in recognition in a constitution of a country that does not exist in the Aboriginal indigenous mind or experience. Always was and always will be Aboriginal land. I acknowledge our indigenous visitor here today [gestures to Julia] from Puerto Rico and appreciate their solidarity in the indigenous struggle here. For also putting on this conference and inviting other Persons of Colour and those watching hopefully online, it’s vital that we unite against the oppressors wherever they are in whatever way our elders direct us. Thank you.
Introduction – Julia Feliz
Hi, my name is Julia Feliz, and I am the founder of Sanctuary Publishers and the website VeganismOfColor.com. I am attempting to hold meetings and conferences in as many countries as I can to help connect Vegans of Colour to decentre whiteness, because nonhuman rights and rejecting their oppression is not defined by whiteness. We exist and acknowledge that our liberation is tied to theirs because they are used as a tool to oppress us and have since the time of colonialism.
My goal is to bring vegans of colour together to raise their voices, learn from one another, as well as to have a safe space where to tell the movement what we need to make sure we are the most efficient.
Veganism has a problem, which is its insistence on centring itself on the most privileged members (typically white, male, and cis, as well as neurotypical) and refusing to acknowledge root issues faced by oppressed communities.
This has resulted in many People of Colour turning away from veganism or being put off by it as part of the social justice movement because mainstream veganism is unsafe and in essence, an extension of white supremacy. This means that mainstream vegan spaces, led by majority privileged white vegans, are rife with racism, xenophobia, and many other “isms”.
Ignoring human oppressions and adding to them means that veganism adds to the problem.
When white vegans refuse to recognize that it is vital that they embrace a veganism that is consistently anti-oppression against all forms of exploitation, nonhuman animals suffer. A veganism and animal rights movement that stands against all exploitation while centring nonhuman animals is possible and is key towards raising the voices of nonhuman animals. The first step is listening and learning what this all means, as well as following the lead of vegans from marginalized communities.
Today, we are here to speak to vegans of colour living in what colonialism and white supremacy has established as Australia.
We want to centre Indigenous people native to this land above all, so this mini-mini-mini conference will centre around issues affecting vegan Aboriginal people and the Aboriginal community.
We are grateful to welcome Carolyn Ienna for her time and labour today.
Carolyn is an Aboriginal person from Wiradjuri Nation. She is a well-known MC known as “Rap Attack” and a professional dancer. Carolyn has been vegan for over three decades. [To Carolyn-] Thank you for being here.
Questions – Carolyn Ienna & Julia Feliz
[Julia] So, I’m going to ask you some questions, so we can be sure to get what we need…what you want people to know….so…. Can you tell us what it means to be vegan and an indigenous person in a continent tainted by whiteness?
[Carolyn] I feel the oppressiveness of the coloniser all the time. It’s very hard to be free of it. My totem animal is the goanna and they are animals just like me that are struggling for survival. I haven’t seen a goanna since I was a child and that was in a petting zoo maybe. It’s very sad. They are like a relative of a Wiradjuri woman. When I see TV advertisements about wildlife parks, and I see a goanna…….and I feel we all need to be free at the same time. I am also bombarded with messages that I should eat animals because I am indigenous and this message I think is reinforced or brainwashed into our people. I don’t believe that we were such big animal killers before colonisation. I feel we are perpetuating a myth that to be indigenous is to eat animals. There is so much internalised racism we have yet to unpack and that includes myself. This takes up too much time and I can’t relax.
[Julia] So what are some struggles and oppressions currently affecting Aboriginal people on this continent?
[Carolyn] There is a system imposed on the Northern Territory called ‘The Intervention’ and that’s been around for about 11 years, but now they’ve renamed it ‘Stronger Futures’. I guess they’ve tried to make it sound more lovely to the rest of the population, and they’ve imposed a set of restrictions for people on welfare. It’s no accident that a majority of that community are Aboriginal. This came about after a government enquiry looked into paedophilia in Aboriginal communities. A majority of residents in that area are indigenous. They get a ‘basics card’ and told where they can spend their welfare money, so if that shop is 50km away and the car broke down then bad luck for them.
Alcohol is banned, pornography is banned. If you don’t send your kids to school welfare is cut. Mandatory inspections happened whether there had been an accusation of wrong doing by the parents or not which traumatised the parents and children. Not one paedophile was arrested during this time and Aboriginal men are made to look like they are all paedophiles.
We are still the most incarcerated peoples in the world. I say peoples as we are not one people in this one continent. 100% of children in detention in the Don Dale facility are Aboriginal.
We die 15-20 years younger than the rest of the population. There is a campaign out there called ‘Close the Gap’ to lessen the gap of Aboriginal death and it has done nothing in a decade despite money being put into it. I have had this assessment done at my doctor’s office and I see nothing in it to change my health or lack of health situation. And these are just some examples.
[Julia] And to add to all this, to make it really clear for people that aren’t aware of all this information, and all these struggles, what do you think are some root issues that prevent some Aboriginal people from even considering something like plant-based eating and veganism?
[Carolyn] For some Aboriginal people they are living in remote communities that are cut off from the city and access to fruit and vegetables is hard. The government is even trying to close down many remote communities because they say they are not ‘sustainable’. They cut of the water supply, electricity, and stop food trucks from getting in.
City Aboriginal people come here because they want to escape the abject poverty and it’s a constant struggle to get work. If you are the rare person that gets a scholarship in a good school, you are alone. For Aboriginal people, you need to have family there otherwise suicide happens a lot. Because of a disconnection where we haven’t learned how to navigate western foods most of us eat very badly no matter where we live. Trying to just survive and look after your family is a primary focus. To try and look at other marginalised persons’ struggles is almost impossible. To have access to even plant-based food is also a very difficult task. I believe the coloniser is oppressing us through food as well. They keep us distracted so that we don’t look at veganism or plant-based living.
[Julia] Yeah, because you’re basically in survival mode?
[Julia] So, what do you think are some ways in which white mainstream veganism makes it that much more difficult for Aboriginal vegans to speak about animal rights in your own community?
[Carolyn] Because white vegans here centre themselves constantly and will not consider other social justice issues we are left behind just like with the general population. Most white people and migrants never meet an Aboriginal person here. Mainstream media and the education system perpetuate negative stereotypes. That we are drunks and we don’t want to work.
One friend who is from the Yuin nation and vegan did an acknowledgement of country before an action we used to do called ‘1000 Eyes’ a couple of years ago and it was received with giggles. My friend was always treated badly also because they are queer and non-binary. Even other vegans of colour that were there have internalised racism. They tow the white line a lot
[Julia] I came upon a project published by a local vegan organization actually asking the government to research on Aboriginal bodies in an effort to reduce health problems in Aboriginal communities. As someone from a community that was studied on without consent by our colonial government, I was horrified that a vegan organisation would even propose something like this. This was clearly an example of white settlers not knowing the history of colonialism, how Aboriginal people have been mistreated and are mistreated, and why our health issues are the worst.
[Julia] So, apart from educating themselves on the history, how can white vegans and non-indigenous vegans help support Aboriginal vegans without intruding in their/your communities?
[Carolyn] Yes, I remember when I was made aware of the vegan organisation writing that letter to the government to recommend a plant-based or vegan diet in order to combat the gap in health outcomes for Aboriginal peoples here. I was offended for those very reasons. In all the time I have had dealings with that organisation I found that [it] had not spoken about or interacted with Aboriginal peoples. I felt that they had no right to do what they did as they were being very white saviour-ish.
It’s the same as the governments ‘Close the Gap’ campaign [in] that they….that had not worked in the over 10 years it’s been implemented. It was meant to address the lifespan gap between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of the population, which, I think there is a roughly 20 years difference. I think support would be welcome if there were programs set up where Aboriginal people take control. Like I had an idea that the single mums in my area could each learn to grow bush foods in their backyards. Aboriginal vegans can lead this, and non-indigenous vegans can take direction from us. The Aboriginal vegans that I know have a strong need to give back to communities and even though we are clever and innovative we often don’t have the energy or resources to get projects off the ground. Maybe regular meetings where we have open dialogue about the issues and are being heard would help too.
[Julia] Is there anything else that you want to add?
[Carolyn] Not that I can think of.
[Julia] I think that it’s pretty clear and I just hope that more and more white vegans take note and listen, stop what you’re doing! Stop, listen, this is not the time for you to lead.
[Carolyn] Yes, listening is very important. I mean, people try this sort of exercise, we had a recent thing two days ago at Barangaroo Reserve, where that was the goal, that Aboriginal people were speaking, telling stories, sharing…. And there was a whole lot of white people there on the lawn listening. Honestly, I thought that it was a very feel-good exercise, it was run by the Festival of Sydney. There were lots of people treating it like a night picnic with their kids and I didn’t see a lot of people actually listening to the people that were speaking. I thought that they were toning it down as well but that’s something that Aboriginal people have to dialogue amongst ourselves before we’re able to communicate with others. Because we’ve been colonised about 231 years I think it is now, so we’ve yet to unravel quite a lot and I think that if white people learnt to just wait -they tend to be over-anxious….
[Julia] Yeah, they need to stop! [Hand gesture to ‘stop’]
[Carolyn] I was even at a treaty or a discussion about a treaty on the same night and this white lady got up and she was like “Oh, um, why don’t you all agree on the same thing, there’s too much division” and I felt like getting up but there was a couple of elders there that were answering back anyway, but I felt like getting up and saying “well, you do realise that when white people came here that we were over 400 nations, that means 400 languages, we were doing things long before that need to be resolved too, and different people have different opinions about different things, we are not a mono-culture, we don’t all fit the same, and for you as a white person, that’s not your lane, you should not be telling us how to do things. It’s disturbing for us, but we’re the ones who should sort that out, not you. Yanno, take direction, and shush.
[Julia] And I also want to remind vegans that are addressing root issues and letting communities discuss amongst yourselves, amongst ourselves, is not de-centring non-humans.
[Carolyn] Yes, exactly.
[Julia] It’s like a vital part of the process. Non-humans are hurt most when we ignore those root issues, when we disrespect other communities and when we don’t listen, because how can we reach those communities and say “you need be doing this and this and this” when you’re not even aware of the needs of those communities? And why they don’t have access to certain things.
[Carolyn] And stop saying to me that Aboriginal vegans don’t exist. How does that work? I get that a lot. Because it does, here I am, and it’s 34 years of veganism!
[Julia] Yeah, African indigenous person right here too! But we need to work on our own and I feel like white vegans need to work on your own because your own need a LOT of work! And together we can do this while centring non-humans in their own movement but making sure that we make a movement safe so we can have these conversations. We’re not even from the same continent and we’re speaking to one another and discussing this, yanno?
[Carolyn] Facebook has a use after all! Ya know, I remember first getting on it, and I was like “what the heck is this for?” and at first the conversations were extremely superficial but then I started with connecting with people like yourself and Dani, and I was like “oh, yeah!” Ya know? And I was being called out for things I didn’t realise were problematic, and I thought “ohhh, yeah, yeah, yeah” and instead of feeling sensitive about it, for a moment of course, but then, I realised I call out people all the time for all sorts of problematic language, I’ve done it for a long time, and I thought, well, ya know, I need a little bit of brushing up myself!
[Julia] And we’re all constantly learning. That’s how we get where we need to be, by listening to one another, learning, and it yeah it hurts when someone says “oh you did this” but….
[Carolyn] It’s not about me. It’s not about me. And the more we do these sorts of things we come up with solutions how to help all marginalised persons including non-humans.
[Julia] Does anybody here have any questions?
[Audience member] So you mentioned that there was an event at Barangaroo Reserve. I wanted to ask if you’re considering…. So if you’re not an Indigenous person living here and you want to host an event in the Barangaroo area, which kind of has a pretty bad history, and I think a lot of the areas around here are generally not what they used to be, they aren’t what they could be, they aren’t what was intended out of them, and so, like when we can see Bennelong Point over there it’s not what it used to be. What can we do to hold events in a space in a way that’s respectful when every event space is a white supremacist event space?
[Carolyn] That’s a really good question… That event at Barangaroo was run by an Aboriginal person. He’s actually taken over from… He’s the person that is the CEO of, oh now what do they call it? Festival of Sydney. He runs Festival of Sydney every year, I think it’s the third year, that’s Wesley Enoch. And he had people doing an acknowledgement and things like that, but one of the things that happens within our communities is that a lot of people are perpetuating a myth that all Kadigal people have been wiped out, they do exist, my friend Nadeena Dixon is one of them, she’s also Wiradjuri like myself, so I contact her if it’s about this area. I contact her constantly now. Before I used to look to other people in Aboriginal communities but the problem is we have rather a lot of difficulty… Aboriginal Land Council is the people that you usually ask for advice and also send someone out to your event to do an acknowledgement or welcome to country. The trouble is that myth that there is no Kadigal people, we’re getting other peoples within our communities that are perpetuating that as well. So, it can be quite difficult and the space Barangaroo is in and of itself, well, that’s a cursed space and a lot of people don’t realise that if you are going to do something there, then get someone to do a smoking ceremony. A smoking ceremony from my understanding, but I could be wrong, is a temporary way to, sort of ‘appease’ if you will, the spirits if you will of our ancestors, in other words, can we at this space and time do something. So, it’s kind of not something I know that well about, but I’m mindful every time I go to Barangaroo that this is a cursed space. People have died there during the construction of Barangaroo, like the buildings because people paid no attention…the developers paid no attention that it’s a cursed space. So, it was named after a person that was killed there. And there’s a lot of massacre sites around as well. I’ve heard that there’s even a website that actually lists all the massacres on this continent, I don’t think it’s complete, but it’s worth always researching the area. It is difficult to get the information….
[Julia] But even where the Sydney Opera House is, I didn’t know that, it’s really awful that it’s built on sacred land and so many tourists come here and take their photos….
[Carolyn]…have weddings…yeah. People actually pay to, what do you call it? After the wedding… Take wedding photos. So, they’ve had the ceremony, they go there, they pay money, in their wedding dress and a groom and all the bridesmaids, etc…
[Julia] Oh, the reception?
[Carolyn] I don’t think it’s just the reception, it’s just for photos. And there’s lots of spaces around Sydney…. And City of Sydney Council charges people to do that.
[Julia] And the money goes back to the communities….? [Gestures finger meaning ‘nope’]
[Carolyn] Only back into rich, white, organisation coloniser…yeah. I’m not sure if that answers [the question]….!
[Julia] I think from what I’ve learned is…. I’m a visitor but even for the people who live here it’s important to be respectful, to learn the history, not have your wedding on sacred land!
[Carolyn] Did you want to say something?
[to audience member]
[Audience member] I was actually going to ask this later because I wasn’t sure if it was relevant to this or not, but you mentioned something about the scholarships, like at schools, private schools sort of stuff? Well, actually, I was thinking about that because I went to a private girls’ school in the north shore and they did that, they had indigenous scholarships, and this year they had the first indigenous girl who was a head girl and what I’m trying to remember is whether…. Well actually my point is what do you think of this? What do you think of these sorts of scholarships? We’ve had like garden parties where they were raising money to pay off these scholarships for these girls and I was just curious what your thoughts were on this?
[Julia] Sounds like white saviourism?
[Carolyn] Yeah, it can be, but the thing is sometimes the lack of education, like the physical schools in remote communities, they’re just not there, and the trouble is that when you separate Aboriginal people, especially that live in remote communities, from their families, there’s a very high suicide rate with a lot of young Aboriginal people that are separated from their families, because they’re used to that unity. They’re used what they’re fed out there which is more than just here (gestures to face/head) it’s the food…. It depends where you live, I mean in some communities there’s a lack of good, fresh, healthy food, but some communities live where you can gather native foods. So they come here, they haven’t got their elders with them or their family, and they’re eating all the crap that city life offers, which is like McDonalds and like, bleurgh, a whole load of rubbish, and they become very unhealthy, very depressed, because they haven’t got their family there, and then you’ve obviously got other people there that are probably racist, and then why are they there? Is it because they were forced to be there by someone? Were they truly given the choice? Can they after a couple of weeks go back? There’s so many things that can go wrong.
[Julia] But even applying that to veganism, imagine you’re an Aboriginal person and this vegan decides “oh, I’m gonna feed these people, I don’t know anything about them, but here’s a fruit basket or a vegetable basket”, vegetables that you probably don’t know what to do with! “But there you go! Go vegan! Woo!”
[Carolyn] Yeah, it just adds to a lot more mistrust.
[Julia] What are you supposed to do with that?
[Carolyn] Oh and here’s the other perspective on that that I just thought of: because, since colonisation it’s very common that lots of foodstuffs were actually poisoned, like white flour and sugar and stuff like that. The coloniser would put, sort of, all different chemicals into food that they gave Aboriginal people which were actually, a lot of it was actually vegan/plant-based, whatever, and people died. So, even though that young person who’s come here to get an education and a scholarship, that very history is…even if your family told you that, you would have that fear within you. “This white person’s given me something, is it poisoned?” Even if it’s plant-based. Because still a lot people forget that, yes, there’s quite a large amount of Aboriginal people living in the city environment, probably even born here, but the remote communities, there’s a much larger amount of them that sometimes even English is not their first language…So you come here and there’s a whole lot of people telling you how to live, when to bathe, what to eat, and then on top you get a pesky white vegan saying “oh no, no, no, you should do this, that, and the other”. And it’s like, why? And without your family there to back you up, your self-esteem is non-existent.
[Julia] Which goes back to why vegans need to let Vegans of Colour work with their own communities. And, what white vegans can do is raise our voices.
[Carolyn] Absolutely. Centre us. Everywhere, everyhow. I’ve had to pretty much fight to get to speak at things. I’ve been told over a period of time “yes, we’ll get you to speak at this, that, and the other” and then I find out about problematic behaviour and I’ve had to pull out as well. I was supposed to [appear at] …some regular vegan event and I’ve performed at a couple of things, but then I’ve thought “oh shit, I’ve been tokenised here”. I thought “okay, don’t do that again”, I’ve had to learn from experience. But for me, it’s not as difficult because I’m a city person and I’ve worked on myself, I’ve lived a long amount of time, I’m turning 56 this year, and I’ve realised a lot of things, and I stand up for myself a lot.
[Julia] But for a lot of people who don’t realise, tokenisation is basically like, “oh, we’re good, we have an indigenous person! That means we’re diverse and we’re inclusive!” But then you don’t have power in your own country, or in this organisation. So, you’re not being allowed to make decisions.
[Carolyn] Yeah, there’s so many other people out there that fall through the cracks, and I’ve been trying to…. It’s a difficult conversation with veganism as well, within our communities, because of internalised racism, and the perpetuation of myths that we must be hunters and gatherers. But I live in the city, I’ve got a refrigerator, I have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, if I can’t afford to shop in this place, I’ve got Paddy’s. it’s very, very cheap. But I will not……
[Julia] But that’s a conversation for you to have with [your own community]. That’s not a conversation for white vegans or vegans from other communities to have with your community.
[Carolyn] And also the Aboriginal community in Sydney is transient, so it changes constantly. You’ll get people that have come from country areas to spend time with relatives here, and then they’ll go back. Some people are here because of specific things like “Australia Day” (which is Invasion Day) and then they’ll go back, they’re not staying here. They just can’t stand the oppressiveness of being here, they are so judged and can’t ‘be’. People constantly complain “oh, they’re so loud, they’re always begging on the street, they’re always fighting, and the thing is Aboriginal people are quite boisterous and we play around and we wrestle each other a little bit, it’s more the men that tend to do that, but yeah some of the women. And we have specific types of…even if we speak English there is a lingo that we use that most people don’t understand, and they think that it’s horrible. One friend was getting upset on Facebook and she was like “why are you using that word ‘deadly’? That’s horrible, it’s like you’re disrespecting the dead or something like that” and I said “no, that’s not the meaning of why we say deadly, deadly is a good thing, something that’s deadly is cool, and it’s a fun word, we laugh when we hear it. But people judge us constantly for those types of things because I do talk differently when I talk with mob, and I’m only around them. My language changes, I think they call that switching, is it something like that? Yeah, I do switch. But I grew up here, so the thing is that I used to work in office environments for 12 years so I was even a receptionist, I was a switchboard operator, I’ve run the accounts section of some small companies, debt collection, I ran a conference centre at one point, called the Science Center Foundation, I used to organise all their conferences, and I learned to speak in a particular way in order to get further, and money, and live amongst white people…
[Julia] Just being here, the segregation is really obvious….
[Off camera – “I wanna hear more about this….”]
[Carolyn] Well, like with Redfern for example, most people will gather in Redfern, it’s known as a gathering place amongst Aboriginal people and it’s known all over the continent. So even though a lot of us feel a lot safer in that area, and it was actually the first place I felt safe when I first came to Sydney, because I grew up in the western suburbs, I didn’t feel safe, and then I discovered that there was this place called Redfern, and everybody was like “sis! Hey sis!” honestly at that point I just thought people were the kindest people ever, I was just so excited, I didn’t understand this whole unity thing and that people weren’t saying to me that there was something wrong with me. And it was like “come to this party! Go over here!” and Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre was born in Sydney, and that became Bangarra which is the most famous Aboriginal dance company on the entire continent, and I partied with all the original founding members….
[Julia] But imagine all these complexities just within yourself, your life experiences, plus you add the history and the 400 tribes on this continent, and then imagine a white vegan [saying] “I am here. Go vegan.” without knowing all this information and I think that’s why it’s so important to not just assume that you know or they know……. Learn history, listen.
[Carolyn] Yes, it’s a complex thing we’re going through, then you get someone trying to interrupt and judge because it is judgemental to say automatically “just go vegan”. It upsets me a lot.
[Julia] And you’re vegan! For over three decades!
[Carolyn] Yeah! But the thing is people don’t see the small changes because they’re not in our community. Like, I’ve been…the last three events that I’ve been to at Redfern Community Centre for example, there’s these two ladies, they’re not vegan, but they realise, they understand, that in order to, what’s the word…. Be more inclusive about people’s diets, because I’m not the only Aboriginal vegan, let’s make all the food that we make for this event vegan so everybody can eat. They make this bean soup, they’re quite famous for this bean soup, no-one questions it because it’s within our communities, it’s our people doing this. No-one questions it. And it’s a fabulous soup! Everybody eats it, and they’re happy. And that’s what I’ve noticed, there’s no…I don’t know, I’ve noticed this at a few events anyway. I don’t know whether it’s because maybe people overheard me and several other people, and they’re like “yeah, that’s not difficult, let’s do that, it’s food”. And in the process people might open up conversations, might realise more, plus people do come up to me. But I’m also mindful, I don’t wear my vegan t-shirts to the events, I’ve only got this small little necklace here and that’s enough. That does open conversations. So I don’t know, my mere presence could have caused other people… But they’re just not as vocal and out there, but they might be vegan and I don’t even realise.
[Julia] They wouldn’t respond in the same way, ya know, if it was someone from the outside their community.
[Carolyn] Yes, exactly.
[Julia] Any more questions? No, okay.
Closing statement – Julia Feliz
[Julia] So, with this we conclude this meeting. We ask that you please share this with others in order to help raise the voices of vegans of colour that are all too often silenced.
These conversations are important for white vegans and for vegans of colour from other communities because we have to work together in a way that does not cause harm if we are going to achieve our end goal of liberation for all, and especially for non-human animals.
(Transcript available thanks to Jenny Marie – thank you!)