Songlines

Songlines

This keynote was given at the Songlines Symposium, October 2016, Western Sydney University

I acknowledge the Elders past and present, and members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community here today. 

I give my thanks to Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver for the kind introduction, and Lisa's hardworking team for making the Symposium possible.

I also extend my thanks to those here today who are engaged in research concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities or simply interested in such research. This is an excellent opportunity to put the principles of collaborative research into practice.

I live in Neutral Bay, but I am from Newcastle, and have lived there most of my life. Some of my family lives with me at Neutral Bay, my wife, son and eldest daughter; my youngest daughter is studying in Newcastle; and my middle daughter will soon return to us from Alice Springs.

Most weeks I drive up the M1 to Newcastle late on Friday and back to Sydney again late on Sunday.

I am fortunate to have a choice of places I can call home. I am fortunate to choose when I leave, to return when I can.

None of us in this room need reminding that these simple choices have frequently been denied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Through government policy, through racism, through colonisation, these communities have been denied the choices afforded to other Australians.

Research has not been neutral in this denial. 

It is important that we understand the legacy of research practices that have affected the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This from a recent article titled: 'Singing the old people home from indignity' (I will make reference to deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the following quote):

'Thirteen old people are returning home this weekend. They are the remains of Aborigines believed to have been plundered from their graves in Victorian times and found in boxes in the storage cupboards of two British universities and a museum'

'In Victorian times the skulls were used for comparative anatomy and the measurements were used to show how different ethnic groups had different facial characteristics'.

The repatriation of the remains of these ancestors is the responsibility of the Committee for Indigenous Repatriation—a Committee operating out of the Federal Department of Communication and the Arts. For three decades, Aboriginal people have been returning their people home. There are, on the Committee's estimates, thousands more remains in overseas museums and universities.

Think of the work it takes. Patient, careful research underpins these repatriations: tracing the remains; determining their 'provenance'; hours and hours in the archives. But also, engagement with community concerning the right way to return the ancestors to their care. Alongside this research there is consistent and open consultation with those affected.

I want to contrast those two approaches to research: the Victorian practice that removed people from their homes as objects of study and the open, sensitive practices that are returning them.

I realise the contrast is easy to make; perhaps heavy handed. These ways of doing research are hundreds of years apart. Society has changed, in whole or part, for the better. The social Darwinism that underpinned Victorian ethnography has been exposed and discredited. As an academic community we now understand that research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people leads to practices that harm communities.

But I don't think, for a number of reasons, we have moved as far as we should to research withAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The problem of research on and research with is a broader problem for the university. In many ways, it is this problem that we talk about when we worry about increasing 'research impact'. In fact, the term 'research impact' may be an example of the problem. Put simply, when we say 'research impact' we are talking about research and researchers moving into the community to create positive change.

I am proud to say that this is an area in which we already have active researchers. Housing security, for example, is a crucial issue facing urban and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Louise Crabtree's work on housing trusts—an alternative ownership and tenancy model for affordable and social housing—is beginning to have a significant impact on the way banks and builders think about housing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

Of course, that's an example of an outstanding individual researcher. As a University and large bureaucracy, often we spend our time preparing for and measuring impact rather than doing it. We prepare for the nation-wide assessment of impact in 2018; we roll out researcher development programs to teach our researchers how to engage with their communities; we worry about our funding. Should our researchers focus on increasing their publication volume? The quality of those publications? Working with industry?

Putting policy and funding aside, for me improving the use of our research in the world outside the academy is really about culture. How do we see ourselves as academics? What kind of values do we hold? Why do we do what we do?

The truth is, we are selfish. The university sector has failed to keep the bargain we struck with the community. Our research is publicly funded. We need to make sure that we return more of it to the community.

In changing the culture of our research, we have much to learn from the approaches taken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engaged researchers: respectful, collaborative, strengths-based research. Research that, in its best form, engages community in identifying the issues, consults community during the research, and returns the research to the community in forms that tackle issues in practical ways. 

In many ways it is about accepting—as obvious as this sounds—that there is knowledge outside the university that needs to be valued, respected and nurtured.

I was reminded of this recently when I read of the transfer of the ownership of Daintree National Park to the Yalanji—the Aboriginal people of the Daintree. In the eighties, the Hawke government nominated the Daintree for a World Heritage listing without even notifying the traditional owners, much less consulting with them. What followed was a thirty year battle for the Yalanji just to exercise custodianship over their own country—a custodianship they are better suited to than any others through close relationship with and knowledge of the Daintree. As one of the Yalanji owners described it:

"Our elders knew it wasn't right, that we had to fight to bring back our country, to ensure that it is protected, that our cultural areas are managed with integrity."

Returning the Daintree to the Yalanji is not just the right outcome; it is the best outcome. The historical failure to acknowledge what we have to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture just gets in the road. As academics we have to learn not to repeat the failure—not only because it is right; but because it results in the best research.

I started by describing my home and my family. I said that my middle daughter will soon be returning from Alice Springs. She has been working there as a solicitor helping domestic violence victims in the Aboriginal community. When she returns to Sydney she will work with the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern.

She has taught me a lot.

We visited her in Alice a few months ago. We took a trip to Ellery Big Hole.

As she and I were standing there, looking at this big waterhole in a dry place, I overheard a grandmother speaking to her grandchild. The grandmother was telling—passing on—the story of the Frog or Tiddalik.

It's a simple story. A selfish frog swallows up all the water, and there is none left for the other animals. The other animals make the frog laugh and the water spills out, creating places like the Ellery Big Hole. Then they steal the frog's voice. From that day, he can only croak.

It's a good story to share—a story that is, really, about sharing. As academics we should share more of our stories with each other—and with the communities we serve as academics.

I hope you find many opportunities to do this over the course of the Symposium.

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