Aborigines in Vanuatu living as second-class citizens, says South Sea islander

PORT VILA – Hundreds of South Sea Islanders living in Vanuatu complain they are being discriminated against because they have Aboriginal ­ancestry, and say they want official Australian recognition.

One, Vanuatu policeman Pakoa Rudy Rolland, says the problem has become so bad that more than 480 Aboriginal people on the island of Tongariki are fringe dwellers, living as second-class citizens with restricted access to land or proper education.

“My father told me since I was a boy we were Australian Aborigines living here,” Mr Rolland said. “I have Vanuatu ID but still in my heart I know I don’t belong here. I want the recognition from our government in Canberra that we have the rights all Australian citizens have.”

According to family legend, “blackbirded” New Hebrides sugar plantation workers returning from Tweed Heads soon after 1901 took home with them two Aboriginal children, a brother and a sister named Willie Tutukan and Rossie. Circumstances around the pair being snatched are murky, but by various ­accounts their parents had either been killed or had disappeared.

Rolland, who belongs to the Tongariki Australian Aborigines Association and is Willie Tutukan’s great-great-grandson, said he had been brought up with the story of the journey by his mother’s brother, who is still alive and is the grandson of one of the children’s abductors.

Willie Tutukan and Rossie went on to marry and raise families, with the details of their Aboriginal past told and retold among their descendants.

But Rolland said that whenever “a small issue arises … the native people of Tongariki ­always criticised us and always told us that we are not from Tongariki but we are black Australian Aborigines and we have no right over land in this island”.

He said he grew up “just ­accepting it” to be true that he did not have full status in the eyes of the indigenous Ni-Vanuatu.

A forum this weekend at the University of South Australia will examine the issue and ­revive an apology made six years ago in Queensland by Vanuatu Chief Richard David Fandanumata for historic wrongs.

Chief Richard told Aboriginal people in Bundaberg during a 2012 visit that his ancestors had been forced by their white captors to “terrorise and kill” the ­indigenous landowners of the area in order to open it up for agriculture.

Although the removal of the two siblings probably came several decades after this atrocity — and far to the south — their Vanuatu descendants believe the kidnappings came from some sense of responsibility for the children’s welfare because of wrongs done to Aboriginal people.

The Australian has been shown official Vanuatu government documentation establishing descendants of “Rossie who is a pure Aboriginal bloodline from Australia”. While some blackbirded returnees took adult partners home, the abduction of Aboriginal children was rarer.

South Sea islanders have only in recent years been officially recognised as a distinct group in Australia. However, there are no ­reciprocal rights or recognition for those who, like Mr Rolland and his family, claim an Australian connection from abroad……PACNEWS