Indigenous Leaders Say They're Sick Of Being "Experimented On"

"We are not experiments".

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Yingiya Guyula, a senior Yolngu elder from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, has called for a greater focus on a treaty between Indigenous people and the federal government, dismissing constitutional recognition as a toothless tiger.

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"We Aboriginal people have the solutions. We just need [the federal government] to invest in that. I'm travelling around the country talking about a treaty, about recognition of our sovereignty. We were here before the British and we need it to be recognised that our law and our system of government is valid," Guyula tells BuzzFeed News.

Guyula has been travelling the country lobbying for a treaty on behalf of the Yolngu Nations Assembly (YNA), a grassroots organisation that was formed in 2011.

"We want real decision-making responsibilities when it comes to our people, our children. Treaty needs to come before recognition," he says.

The YNA is a formidable voice within Indigenous affairs, it represents several clan groups across north-east Arnhem Land and has a mandate to ensure that their traditional Madayin law and governance is practiced alongside Australian law.

For the Yolngu, life without Madayin law would mean the extinction of culture in an area where everyday life is still governed by ancient traditions and familial structures. English is, for many, a second language.

The assembly includes several high profile family groups and members who've been involved with consulting different federal governments over several decades.

Guyula wants a treaty that will give power to the Yolngu people to make decisions over what happens on their land, including education, employment and housing.

He points to past policies like former Prime Minister John Howard's Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), known as The Intervention, along with Labor's Stronger Futures, as failures because they were forced onto people.

"We were hit by 'The Intervention', then Stronger Futures. We are still feeling the effects of those policies," Guyula says.

"Those policies took powers off our senior elders. Funding was cut for our homelands. Our legs were cut off. Enough, we are not to be experimented on".

The backlash against the push for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people is gaining momentum across the country.

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Despite having bipartisan support from both sides of parliament, a large-scale media campaign to garner support from the public, and the recruitment of Indigenous leaders to consult on the process, there is still no consensus on what form recognition would take.

Meetings between the government and Indigenous leaders have failed to break the impasse over the past year, with those talks failing to come up with a question to put to the public in a referendum, making Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's hope of having a referendum by next year unlikely.

While support for constitutional recognition stagnates, the talk around treaties has gotten louder. Last month the Victorian government announced it would begin talks with the Koorie community to work out Australia's first treaty.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

"At the end of the day it's pretty disappointing that we, in the year 2016, don't have a treaty or a national arrangement with our First Peoples," Victoria's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins recently told the ABC.

"In fact, Canada have been doing it for a long time, New Zealand has successfully done it, so it's time for Australia to step up," Hutchins said.

Guyula tells BuzzFeed News that Victoria's willingness to enter into talks has buoyed the Yolngu hopes of a treaty, saying that the time for symbolism is over.

"The treaty I am talking about gives real power to our people, it's not Kevin Rudd's one time say 'we are sorry'".

"Lots of politicians say 'we are sorry, we recognise you', but a treaty needs to be sitting down with the people and giving them the power to govern and fix their own problems," he says.

With the endorsement of the YNA, Guyula will be running as in an Independent for the seat of Nhulunbuy in August at the Northern Territory election, he says constitutional recognition should come after a treaty.

"Stop putting money in Recognise, we should be working with Indigenous people first to make a treaty, then after that, we can talk about changing the constitution".

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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