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Activism / Global Resistance / Indigenous Experiences

Tarneen Onus Williams is Unapologetically Aboriginal

We want justice, and to live as First Nations people on our lands without the control of the settler colonial state — a world where our land is respected, and prisons, white supremacy, misogyny, sexism, transphobia, and ableism do not exist.

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Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Art by Kristel Brinshot.

Tarneen Onus Williams is a proud Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta and Torres Strait Islander person living on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples. They are a community organiser for Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, working on issues such as Black Deaths in Custody, Invasion Day, Justice for Elijah, and stopping the forced closures of Aboriginal Communities in WA. A filmmaker and writer, their work has been published in IndigenousX, The Saturday Paper, NITV and RightNow — but Onus Williams’ day job is working with Aboriginal women who’ve been incarcerated, and providing them with case management and transitional housing.

Tell us about the work of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, a “collective of young Aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism.”

Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) was founded in 2014 by a group of young Aboriginal people — Meriki Onus, Boe Spearim, Pekeri Ruska, and Callum Clayton-Dixon. We are a collective of Aboriginal people on the east coast of so-called Australia who work on campaigns relating to justice. The three themes we follow are: resisting the settler colonial state; reviving our culture and language; and decolonising the ongoing assimilation of Australia.  

We have been working on numerous campaigns you might have heard of: Abolish Australia Day, Invasion Day, Black Deaths in Custody, Justice for Elijah, Stop the Forced Closures, and land rights and sovereignty.

Every day, I am moving through the world with my sovereign body, being unapologetically Aboriginal, and not letting anything stop me from enacting my sovereignty.

What is something you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

I’m most proud of organising Invasion Day on my Gunditjmara country, in Portland, Victoria. We had a Welcome to Country smoking ceremony and speeches at the Town Square. The town is quite small. We marched to the only intersection with traffic lights in the town, and danced and chanted in front of the whole town with Gunditjmara dancers leading the men’s dancing group and young girls. It made me really proud my Nan was there at the town square, too, because that is where my grandmother had a Portland Tent Embassy for two years, from 2012 to 2013. White people in the town were so physically, verbally, and emotionally violent toward her. I’m glad that the Town Square has now been reclaimed by Gunditjmara people, much like Flinders Street intersections in Melbourne.

Prison abolition is another area of importance to you. What does the prison system represent?

I have been working with criminalized women for the last couple of years, but I have had family members who’ve been in prison and remember visiting prisons at the age of 6, so prisons have been part of my life. I can tell you that prisons have not helped my family members, but made them more vulnerable. Prisons are places of violence; places where victims of family and state violence go when society says their trauma is too much, so they want to hide them from society. Aboriginal people have been the people that this white country want to continue to hide and lock up, and rip away from our land like they did with missions/reserves/concentration camps in the beginning of colonisation.

What does a vision of society without prisons look like for you and others?

When we say we don’t want prisons, we are saying we want to imagine a world without violence, a world where we are not reliant on violent institutions to deal with issues that face our communities; that these violent institutions don’t exist and that we Aboriginal people are able to look after each other to prevent violence. We want justice, and to live as First Nations people on our lands without the control of the settler colonial state — a world where our land is respected, and prisons, white supremacy, misogyny, sexism, transphobia, and ableism do not exist.

You have experienced your own time in the harsh public limelight, after the press began a campaign to discredit you and your work after an Invasion Day protest. What was that experience like for you?

The campaign against me by right wing press was horrific. I was terrified to go to work after my workplace had been published in the Australian newspaper. I got death threats online and sent to me in the mail. In the days following the incident, I felt hopeless and didn’t want to continue to do the activism I was doing because I was terrified that I’d lose my credibility for my work. This event had affected my family particularly, because the media found out my brother was appearing on Married at First Sight and published stories about us both, so I was scared he was going to be attacked. He was, to a degree, but not as significantly violently as [I was].

This event made my role impossible, as my program had engagements with federal parliamentary politicians and my workplace refused to have me at Parliament, in case they came under attack for having me employed. This was extremely disheartening because the program was for amplifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, but I was scrutinised for raising my voice. I had to get approval for all of my writing and speaking events whilst employed. From this day on, I refuse to publish my workplace. I keep very quiet about my work, and limit it to only working with criminalised women because my safety is of serious concern.

But I am thankful for the support I got from allies around the country that started the #IStandWithTarneen hashtag. This support showed me that I need to continue and not let white supremacy affect the work that I do for my community. I am still doing the same work, organising rallies, campaigning for black deaths in custody, et cetera. It’s not a public-facing role, but they haven’t stopped me from getting people out on the streets, and that’s what matters to me.

First Nations communities often remind settlers that “sovereignty has never been ceded.” How does this reality impact you as a First Nations person?

It means that this land is Aboriginal and we haven’t given it up; even if a treaty is signed, that won’t change. Every day, I am moving through the world with my sovereign body, being unapologetically Aboriginal, and not letting anything stop me from enacting my sovereignty. I connect with the country, people, and animals whenever I am in so-called Australia, and ensure that I am respectful particularly where I live, on Wurundjeri country — I don’t litter, I listen to the birds, and I acknowledge the ancestors here. As Dr. Crystal McKinnon says, it’s not about decolonisation; it’s about bringing sovereignty to the forefront. That’s how I want to continue to live.

Prisons are places of violence; places where victims of family and state violence go when society says their trauma is too much, so they want to hide them from society.

How can people who are not based in Australia contribute to the resistance?

Support your local Indigenous movements if you’re in the U.S. Support native mobs like Idle No More. If you’re in the U.K., educate yourself on the hundreds of nations colonised by the British Empire. Keep updated by following First Nation groups like Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and Seed Mob.

Who do you look to for guidance in your work?

Malcolm X was/is an incredible activist who’s inspired me. Crystal McKinnon, Meriki Onus, and Nayuka Gorrie are my family and friends who’ve guided me and held me in my hardest moments. They really practice what they preach.

What brings you joy?

I love going home to Gunditjmara country, and going to the beach at sunrise when the water looks like mercury in my hands and I feel the strength of my ancestors with me.


About the Author

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.

Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016.  She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019.  Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa

Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.


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