In 2001, Australia celebrated the Centenary of Federation since 1901, in a year of commemorative events that crossed the country with building projects, parades, road shows, conferences, exhibitions and publications. As part of the celebrations the three south-eastern states, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales conceived an event, Source to Sea that would symbolise the ideals of Federation by celebrating the role of the Murray River in connecting the three states and their communities. A series of events were devised as a ‘celebration of the river’s past and its future and (to) point to the need for contemporary Australia to acknowledge the Murray as one of our most precious natural resources.’ (Source to Sea, 2001 p2).
One of projects initiated by the South Australian Centenary of Federation Committee and commissioned as part of Source to Sea was Weaving the Murray. The project was originally conceived as ‘a celebration of democracy’ through ‘two artists (working) with communities along the river to weave a cultural map of the river from source to sea which will be given to the people of Australia as a lasting reminder of the Centenary of Federation’ (Centenary of Federation, 2001 p3, p15)
Australia’s ‘first one hundred years as a democratic nation’ was in fact a democracy based on the exclusion of ‘non- whites’ ie. Indigenous Australians and ‘coloured aliens.’ This was a key issue for Indigenous Australians invited to participate in the Centenary. The process of developing a federation of eight states and territories at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries revoked any rights they had as citizens, consolidating their exclusion from national life.
Prior to 1901 Indigenous Australians, as British subjects, had the right to vote in all colonies except Queensland and Western Australia where they had been specifically excluded. This right to vote was more of an oversight than the recognition of their rights as citizens. In 1896 more than 100 Indigenous Australians were listed on the South Australian electoral roll in Point McLeay (now known as Raukkan) on Njarrindjeri land near the mouth of the Murray River. During the invasion of South Australia by the British in 1836 and subsequent colonisation, many clans of the lower Murray region were dispossessed of their land and moved to mission settlements like Raukkan. In the 1896 election 70% of the Njarrindjeri men and women listed on the electoral roll voted. (South Australian women had been granted the vote in 1894)
However, in a process that began during the Federation of Australia and continued for years afterwards, Indigenous Australians were deliberately excluded from the vote through a series of legislative acts that removed them from being counted in the census and excluded their names from electoral rolls. (Stretton & Finnimore, 1991) It was only during the 1960s that Commonwealth and State governments extended the franchise to all Indigenous Australians, enabling them to vote in all State and Federal elections.
For many Njarrindjeri people living and working in South Australia, any celebration of Federation was an implicit celebration of their systematic exclusion from their rights as citizens. They were understandably reluctant to participate in celebratory events.