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Denis Walker

Category: People
Date: 2 December 1947
Date To: 4 December 2017
Sub Category:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island)

State/Country:Queensland, Australia
Summary Information:

Denis Percy Arnold Walker (2 Dec 1947 - 4 Dec 2017), also known as Bejam Kunmunara Jarlow Nunukel Kabool, was an Australian Aboriginal rights activist who co-founded the Brisbane chapter of the Australian Black Panther Party (ABPP). Walker was a Murri man and citizen of the Noonuccal Nation from Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Queensland. His father was Bruce Walker and his mother was poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker).

Walker was a leader and pioneer of the civil rights and lands rights movements of the 1970s.

Fellow activist Les Collins says: 'My way of thinking is that many of the things we have now may well have taken much longer to have in place if Denis wasn't leading the way back then. That's the sort of visionary he was' (NITV). As Collins recalls, Walker was key in the creation of community services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders - legal, health, housing, childcare, pre-school; as well as in influencing government policy in these matters and matters such as education (NITV).

Timeline of Activism

  • 1970: Walker helped form the National Tribal Council and acted as its President for three years until it disbanded. This Council was the first national all-Indigenous political body. Its objectives were to promote the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, preserve their cultures, and promote the 'Aboriginalisation' of these peoples. Aboriginalisation refers to enabling Aboriginal people to take up positions in organisations, particularly those dealing with Aboriginal affairs. The ideology of the Council was 'black control of black affairs' (National Museum of Australia).
  • 8 January 1972: Walker and Sam Watson founded the Brisbane chapter of the Australian Black Panther Party (ABPP). Walker described the party as the 'vanguard for all depressed people, and in Australia the Aboriginals are the most depressed of all' (Cleaver & Katsiaficas, 2001).
  • January 26/27 1972: Walker participated in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protests against the government's approach to Indigenous Australian land rights. Tents were set up at Parliament House in Canberra as a political occupation and to represent an Aboriginal Embassy. The Aboriginal Embassy exists to this day with additional goals of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

    1988-1999: Walker was involved in several cases where he argued Commonwealth and State law did not apply to Aboriginal peoples as Aboriginal criminal law still existed and applied instead: Walker v R (1989); Walker v NSW (1994); and Walker v Speechley (1999). His arguments were unsuccessful in court but the cases remain influential in the fight for Indigenous sovereignty.
  • 1990s: Walker advocated for a treaty between the Federal Australian government and Aboriginal Nations. While a treaty with the Federal government has not, at the time of writing, been achieved, many States have begun the process of treaty. In 2018, Victoria became the first state to pass a legal framework for treaty negotiations.

Australian Black Panther Party

The ABPP had its headquarters in Brisbane and adapted the politics of the American Black Panther Party to advocate for equality in education, health services, and the law for Aboriginal  Australians. They did this by pioneering several community services including the Aboriginal Legal Service of New South Wales, the Aboriginal Medical Service, and the Aboriginal Housing Company.

The ABPP endorsed militant activism like the American Black Panther Party, but Walker stated that the main priority of the ABPP was land rights rather than urban issues and violent revolution. The ABPP suggested the threat of political violence was necessary to support activism for Aboriginal land rights and in the fight against police brutality. Walker said members of the ABPP should learn how to correctly use and service weapons. He also argued that Aboriginal Australians must have the right to carry guns for self-defence.

Walker v NSW [1994] HCA 64

In 1994, Walker submitted an application to the High Court of Australia for leave to appeal a criminal charge made against him by the State of New South Wales. Chief Justice Mason decided the application in chambers as a single judge.

Walker argued that NSW's laws did not apply to his actions as they occurred on the land of the Bundjalung Nation (at Nimbin) and therefore Bundjalung law applied. This concept is described as the sovereign immunity of Aboriginal people: state law only applying to the extent it is accepted by Aboriginal people on account of their own Nation's sovereignty.

The Court rejected this argument, stating that the laws of the Commonwealth and States or Territories apply to all Australian citizens equally where they reside, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders [5].

Chief Justice Mason said: 'the question which arose was whether customary Aboriginal criminal law is something which has been recognised by the common law and which continues to this day, in the same way that Mabo [No. 2] decided that the customary law of the Meriam people [in relation] to land tenure continues to exist. . . . That proposition must be rejected. It is a basic principle that all people should stand equal before the law' [4-5].

Related Entries

  • Australian Black Panther Party - Member
  • People
  • Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal)
  • Case Law
  • Walker v The State of New South Wales [1994] HCA 64 - Applicant

  • References

    General Reference
    National Museum Australia Denis Walker
    Kathleen Cleaver & George N. Katsiaficas (March 20 2001) Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party
    News Item
    Nakari Thorpe (11 December 2017) Denis Walker: Australia's Black Panther, a warrior until the end

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