s Kairos 24.2: Tye et al., Weaving and Yarning Sovereign Relationships – Re-framing Sovereignty

Re-framing Sovereignty

While the term "sovereignty" may be confusing or contested, we use this term to position ourselves and speak to our own geo-politics. Our work is undertaken in Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have never ceded their land, rights, or identity. This reinstates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as sovereign nations with distinct language, laws, culture, knowledge, and governing systems long before colonisation. We learn from Larissa Behrendt and Mark McMillan (Behrendt, 2003), our Aboriginal colleagues of prominence in law, that Indigenous sovereignty is the foundation for recognition and self-determination, to build mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The notion of sovereignty that has lineage from monarchical rule comes from a desire to protect private property to "construct the nation-state through the act of making coercive laws, and subsequently as 'sovereign' coerce through them as a nation" (Lyons, 2000, p. 454). Reframing such colonial notions of sovereignty that emphasize state, authority, borders, and ownership, referred to by another significant Aboriginal professor, Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015), as "white sovereignty", is a necessary starting point to avoid being caught or claimed within a colonial construct (Behrendt, 2003).

Elsewhere in rhetorical studies, Ojibwe/Dakota professor of English Scott Richard Lyons (2000) argued for rhetorical sovereignty and the exercise of "countersentences to colonialism" through the presence of many Indian voices, employing Native language, and locate this on land, place, and peoples so that self-determination and sovereignty is premised in textual representations (p. 463). We are inspired by his compelling proposal to carve out spaces for such discussions alongside, not separate from, histories, rhetorics, and struggles of "othered" groups as a way to "continually examine one's relationship to Indian sovereignty, as well as expand our canons and current knowledge in ways that would hopefully make them more relevant and reflective of actual populations of this land" (p. 465). From this we learn that the continual efforts to recognizing plurality and geo-politics of inhabiting Indigenous lands are centred on examining our own relationships to Indigenous sovereignty.

Following these arguments by Indigenous scholars, reframing the colonial construct of sovereignty is also central to our argument here to crystalise another layer of difference. Again, Ojibwe/Dakota professor Lyons (2000) explained that "[t]he sovereignty of individuals and the privileging of procedure are less important in the logic of a nation-people, which takes as its supreme change the sovereignty of the group through a privileging of its traditions and culture and continuity" (p. 456). He further added that sovereignty for First Nations peoples, "is concerned not only with political procedures or individual rights but with a whole way of life" and "an adamant refusal to disassociate culture, identity, and power from the land" (pp. 456–457). He argued that the "twin pillars" of sovereignty is not self-governance alone, but also has a "holistic people-oriented emphasis" (p. 456). This is significant for us to reframe sovereignty; for Indigenous peoples, self-determination and governance cannot be disconnected from ontology (way of being and becoming). This understanding is echoed here in Australia by Moreton-Robinson (2015) that "Indigenous sovereignty continues through the presence of Indigenous people and their land" (p. 31) and she explained, "Our ontological relationship to land, the ways that country is constitutive of us, and therefore the inalienable nature of our relation to land, marks a radical, indeed incommensurable, difference between us and the non-Indigenous" (p. 11). Building on Moreton-Robinson's work, non-Indigenous design researcher and co-author Peter West explained that Indigenous sovereignty cannot be known, defined, or understood through western knowledge frameworks and languages for this reason (West & Vaughan, 2017). However, we learn from West that when an Indigenous sovereign offers an invitation to a non-Indigenous person to share place, knowledges, and to be on Country (for example, through "Welcome to Country"), this obliges a non-Indigenous person to continually attend to the condition of this relationship. This is called a lawful relationship, in the words of Behrendt and McMillan (Behrendt, 2003), that can only exist through respecting the sovereign activities of Indigenous peoples—by acting sovereign with them and alongside them, not on behalf of them. In other words, respecting Indigenous sovereignty and acting sovereign with them is the premise of sovereign relationships.

From these pioneering Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, we discover that while an understanding of Indigenous sovereignty may not be offered or even possible for non-Indigenous people, relationships with Indigenous sovereigns are welcomed. This also means that our discussion here to describe the collaboration between Wiradjuri and non-Indigenous team is also our way of attending to our consciousness of our relationships with Indigenous and Wiradjuri sovereigns as the premise of sovereign relationships. In this discussion, we pursue the notion of relationships that have a co-ontological meaning where the "we" precedes the "I" (Kasulis, 2002; Nancy, 2000; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012). Co-ontology means being-with-many, where we are always in the "middle of things" (Bhaba, 1984), which resonates with many Aboriginal, Wiradjuri, and First Nations American Indian worldviews (Arola, 2017; Moreton-Robinson 2015; Sheehan 2011). In other words, relationships are based upon inter-relatedness, rather than seeing them as purely systemic, epistemic, or structural constructs. This co-ontological framing is particularly salient to hold on to for non-Indigenous people who live and work in Australia to consider what sovereign relationships might mean and how they are invited to work with Indigenous sovereigns.

To give personal textures to what sovereign relationships might mean, we share poly-vocal quotes from a Wiradjuri Elder, Aunty Lorraine Tye, and two non-Indigenous collaborators, Yoko Akama and Linda Elliott, who are co-authors of this webtext. They draw upon a Wiradjuri-led gathering called Dabaamalang Waybarra Miya: Sovereign Weaving. This event was chosen as one of the most memorable celebrations of Wiradjuri sovereignty, and also to speak to the sovereign relationships that underpinned this event and the enduring collaboration among Wiradjuri and non-Indigenous members. In particular, these collaborators speak to how sovereign relations are strengthened through weaving and yarning for the Wiradjuri guests, and in turn, explain how the invitation to weave and yarn holds significance for Linda and Yoko to be in sovereign relationships with Wiradjuri. We hear, in the stories shared by the non-Indigenous co-authors, their own ways to co-exist respectfully together on shared land as a way of being with many within broader ecologies and communities. Here, continual self-reflexivity and learning is glimpsed as a form of ethical vigilance of colonial legacies.