In Conversation

Listening to the Elders

Wisdom, knowledge, institutions and the need for change

With Acknowledgements of Country and Welcomes to Country becoming a more frequent element of institutional practice in Australia, where next with respect to honouring and integrating the broad spectrum of knowledges that First Nations Elders and Indigenous peoples more generally bring to the work of institutions and organisations? While a Welcome to Country must always be delivered by Elders or traditional owners of the country upon and to which the welcome is being extended, an Acknowledgement of Country can be offered by anyone. Western institutions and the individuals working within them must look beyond the most easily received cultural knowledge that is re-­created through romanticised or deficit discourses that ignore more than 230 years of colonialism and its ongoing impact on all peoples in Australia.

Late in January 2020, Jay Phillips (a Wakka Wakka educator from South-­East Queensland), Mayrah Dreise (a Yeeralaraay and Gamilaraay woman from country spanning South-­West Queensland and North-­West New South Wales) and Ruth Ross (a Wakka Wakka educator, community Elder and Murri Court Elder) explored these issues with Griffith Review editor Ashley Hay.

JAY: I’m currently working on Wiradjuri country. When working off-­country, it is important to understand your position with respect to local Elders and community. It is also critical to recognise the distinction between your institutional role and how knowledge and experience of that institution positions you and your commitment to working to (re)form the colonial structures that operate to marginalise Indigenous peoples.

When we speak about ‘Acknowledgement of Country’, it signals our acknowledgement and responsibility to the First Nations custodians of the places upon and across which we work and speak. This creates a respectful interactional space from which to renegotiate actions within an institution or organisation – in my case, a university – where limited value and recognition are given to Indigenous peoples’ contributions beyond the colonising discourses of post-invasion. Without that self and organisational critique and reflexivity, particular unhelpful notions about what constitutes an Aboriginal community or authorities within Aboriginal communities are contaminated by deficit discourses that are fairly common and taken for granted by institutions. An example we see all the time – not just related to Elders and the inclusion of Elders, but to all Aboriginal people – is this notion that one person speaks for all, that one or a group of Aboriginal peoples can be an authority to speak on behalf of all First Nations peoples.

I’m generalising here. There are always exceptions, and in some cases institutions have to be aware of these exceptions as they develop protocols of critical self-reflection and organisational reflexivity prior to entering into a space in which they reinforce the authority of Elders or any Aboriginal people who come in.

If they do this without sufficient knowledge or sufficient negotiation or understanding of their position in relation to black people, then steps may be taken that actually contradict what a community or a nation might want or might have already done in terms of authorising particular people to speak on their behalf.

The construction of Aboriginal Elders as naive about the operation and persistence of colonial history or non-­Indigenous experiences of history – and the privilege that stems from that – is both enduring and counterintuitive to goals for respecting Elders’ knowledges. In my experience, when inclusion of Aboriginal Elders is sought by institutions, it revolves around limited definitions of culture, cultural knowledge and the knowledge of the institution: it’s captured as, ‘Come speak about culture’…and the other stuff is left at the door. There are also instances where the institutions authorise particular individuals as knowledge holders in contradiction to whom the Aboriginal community may have authorised.

ASHLEY: Do you think that institutions have more awareness now of what is in play in the first place, and of the complexity of those dimensions?

JAY: We are referring here to contexts where individuals are very attached to and comforted by their inherited worldviews around the place of Indigenous peoples, so it’s all relative. There may be change, but the starting point will always be a willingness to be challenged and, more importantly, to take action. It’s not a linear process where learning and change goes from one phase to another without default. When a point of discomfort or cognitive dissonance is reached, institutions and/or individuals can default back to a very, very limited understanding that often leaves it up to Aboriginal people working in those organisations to fix the fallout of an even more complex space created by institutions that don’t understand those boundaries.

RUTH: One of the things that I find is…oh, how can I say this? When somebody gets up and speaks, and they’re speaking on behalf of the local First Nations community, the institution that has invited them to speak has a responsibility to find out what country that person comes from and their relationship to the country that they are speaking on. I can disengage from the Welcome to Country if I have knowledge of an individual’s lack of connection to my country. You don’t want the Aboriginal community to do that; you want the community to be involved. It’s important for Aboriginal people to position themselves, but with the acknowledgement of commonality: we are speaking on country, but we can speak about things that are significant across all countries for all Aboriginal people.

JAY: And that’s such an important point in terms of the real responsibility for institutions and individuals to interrogate how they may be transgressing boundaries. A key responsibility here is to facilitate space for Welcomes and Acknowledgements. Aboriginal peoples will always retain responsibility for maintaining the cultural traditions that authorise who their Elders and traditional owners are. And these processes will be different across the continent.

In the university I work in, there are policies and formal protocols for Acknowledgements and Welcomes. Even so, individuals must also be responsive and proactive in ensuring this recognition is not token. This is where it’s challenging. Individuals – and by extension institutions – must first acknowledge the impact of particular colonial discourses, and how these may normalise tokenistic approaches to Acknowledgements. Aboriginal Elders have this incredible cultural knowledge base and wisdom borne from leadership and connection to communities, but also through earning university degrees and from extended leadership in Western institutions. The greater challenge is to find something beyond a ‘top-­n-­tail’ approach that positions Acknowledgements of Country as an introductory statement rather than an integrated process where the full scope of the knowledge of Elders and other Indigenous people working in institutions is understood – and, more critically, that understands how to facilitate policy that responds to more than knowledge and viewpoints made palatable to an institution because they have been made most familiar by colonisation.

ASHLEY: There’s something powerful in this idea of boundaries and of needing to be cognisant of limits or delineations. There may also be a kind of misplaced respect in wanting or expecting Indigenous Australians to take on a role of educating non-­Indigenous people. But does this put all the onus in the wrong place, rather than institutions taking responsibility in a way – and taking responsibility for making mistakes, which you necessarily do when you’re trying to work something out?

JAY: Yeah, and it can happen both ways. Just having an Aboriginal person in the room challenges assumptions right from the get-­go. This is a combined responsibility, and the thing about boundaries – organisational or individual – is the assumption that they are concrete. But new boundaries can consistently be negotiated through conversation – and old boundaries are being reshaped. That’s kind of what you’d want in the first instance, for people to reflect on the limitations of their knowledge and worldviews. And that’s why social change is so difficult, as we know; that’s why it takes a long time.

RUTH: The Acknowledgement of Country could be such a great learning tool for the people who deliver them and those who witness them. Just say I’m acknowledging country, I would say, ‘I’m a Wakka Wakka person but this country belongs, for example, to Yuwaalayaay peoples.’ So I say, ‘this country doesn’t belong to me’, and people there know that I’m not from that country. Yes, people are learning that, in a room filled with Aboriginal people, we all don’t come from the same area or the same place – but they do understand the feeling that the people from that country would have.

JAY: And that’s a good example… So I’m thinking if Elders tell a story about themselves and their history when they get up to Welcome to Country, there’s not a relational aspect to this. In a sense, it’s like people in the room are just witnessing Aboriginal people telling their story again without any investment in what that story means for them or for that institution or for the work that they do in that organisation.

Acknowledgments of Country can be done by anyone, so it would be more significant for non-­Indigenous people to contextualise their own experiences of living and working on Aboriginal countries to acknowledge the histories of those lands and what it means for them, instead of romanticising a past devoid of the impacts of colonial history for them. It’s the difference between recognitive and restorative justice. Acknowledgement must be integrated into the way an institution does its work. Starting at the foundation is key: this generates a path or paths and processes for negotiation that generate new agreements about what it means to acknowledge country.

ASHLEY: The Welcome to Country and the Acknowledgement of Country tend to sit at an institutional level. In the context of starting small and thinking about the layers of complexity, does that make it even more important that beyond institutional spaces it comes down to personal conversations, to intellectual work at an individual level – as much as or before an institutional level in a way?

JAY: Absolutely before. The institution is made up of the individuals, of course. But having said that, I’ve worked at an institution where there were no inclusive policies, which meant that change became reliant on individual goodwill. As this change wasn’t structural, it’s hard to see any long-­term effects of that work today.

MAYRAH: In thinking from an individual level and taking it out of the organisational level completely, conversations have been going on that allow our community to understand organisations – and that’s a big thing. Previously, historically, we’ve been locked out of organisations and out of institutions – not able to have a voice. Particularly in some of the work that I’ve done, we’ve been able to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a voice around language and home language and around traditional languages in institutions – how that fits within Welcome to Country but also within the framework of the institutions. And it’s not glazed over and not ignored: that’s one big area that’s seen a big change – particularly in the last ten years.

And another big area that we’ve been locked out of is around repatriation, around our community being able to access our sacred and ancestral remains. Now, our Elders have actually been able to meet on country and been able to then negotiate with museums and other organisations – not just in Australia but overseas as well – to get those remains back on to country and have repatriation ceremonies, and have them their way and in a traditional way. Not in a public forum the way in which other media might want that to occur. Having that in a private setting for the community – that is a big thing as well.

That conversation has opened up and allowed our Elders and other community members to make larger decisions, quite powerful decisions, in our institutions: over the last twenty years we’ve actually seen Elders and community members making larger decisions within institutions like universities – that just didn’t occur previously.

ASHLEY: Does that also mean that, in talking about institutions, the institution that sits at the top of all this is at a government level and at a federal level. Something that I’ve found fascinating across the responses to the 2020 bushfires has been the kind of growing consciousness that if there isn’t leadership at one level there are ways of doing things around that, getting on with important work. And in talking about the change in the last twenty years and the power of seeing Elders making decisions in those institutional frameworks like universities, does that work as a model of creating power that doesn’t exist in that government space?

MAYRAH: A lot of change needs to occur within our Australian population, really, and some rethinking from our Australian population needs to occur to create the space for more Aboriginal people to come in to government. That’s a big thing. You mention the bushfires, and there is a big push for more Aboriginal people to be involved with traditional burning techniques and that’s a very significant action that can be taken on board and can be looked at by the government. But in terms of election to parliament, we’ve got a big shift, a mind shift, that really needs to happen across the nation, and unfortunately I don’t know if that’s going to happen in the next ten or twenty years. But we’d like to hope for that.

JAY: Institutions facilitate space for Elders’ voices and even in the example given, the inclusion of Aboriginal people becomes contingent on there being this external-­to-­community purpose.

RUTH: And I just wonder sometimes if once that purpose for non-­Indigenous people has been served, Aboriginal people are then just put back into the box. This is a conversation that hopefully in ten years’ time you’ll remember and say, ‘Mmm, I can see what they were talking about.’ Or hopefully you’re going to say, ‘Okay, we have moved forward.’

JAY: And that box sounds like something that is really concrete and visible, but the unfortunate thing is it isn’t. It is contoured by a social and historical consciousness that guides institutions, and allows the majority of the community to normalise this marginalisation. Popular discourses about Aboriginal peoples and cultures pivot back to a default understanding that Aboriginal people are only useful when they have something to contribute to a colonial problem – when we are not being positioned as the problem.

ASHLEY: Does it make it more important, then, to look at boundaries and to look at conversations with the people who are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to the Elders? To look at conversations with children and the way we start to map a different awareness of the complexities of the world that they’re growing up in rather than a world that they already have a fixed idea about?

JAY: Absolutely. That’s been the theory too behind education, Indigenous education. We look at the successes – if you’d like to call them that – of integrating new ways of understanding the world and new ways of including marginalised peoples in the dominant narrative through curriculum development in schools. You are relying on individuals who have been able to challenge themselves and as a consequence will understand the way in which colonial boundaries operate on them to create an ideological comfort zone. This comfort zone does not allow for the kind of thinking and practice that will engage children to think beyond the boundaries of popularised discourses about Indigenous and non-­Indigenous peoples. Universities have a particular role to play in that and, again, what we are seeing are multiple dimensions within complex spaces. The process is not linear.

MAYRAH: If we look at the Australian curriculum at the moment, there’s a limited space for all students across Australia to identify with any really good Indigenous studies. The national curriculum doesn’t provide enough shared Australian history for all students to be able to understand the complexity of our colonial past – let alone the current context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. So there’s no way in which children, who we would like to have had some of these really important discussions with, are going to actually have them within a school context. They’re left to university level – and that’s depending on what subjects they’re choosing and who they’ve got and how they’re being challenged.

JAY: You’re actually leaving it up to an individual pre-­service teacher to take responsibility to find their own investment in that process of unlearning if subjects do not challenge assumptions and encourage self-­reflexivity.

Also as Aboriginal people we have not all experienced colonisation in the same way. If institutions don’t understand that – or the different socialisation and acculturation afforded by ‘growing up’ in culture – then…

RUTH: …and people may have the appearance expected by non-­Indigenous people, but the knowledge that they have is not from being Aboriginal. It’s from being socialised White, finding out that they’ve had a grandfather who was Black and starting to identify as Black. But they can’t step out of what they’ve been raised with.

JAY: And in some cases, this can re-­authorise or authorise a voice that may not have been validated through connection to country and mob. This is another layered, complex thing that cannot be addressed right now because institutions and individuals aren’t ready for it.

ASHLEY: What are the critical things that need to fall in to place – apart from decolonising this sense of an ‘us and them’ two-­part history – in terms of changing definitions and possibilities?

JAY: Well, that’s the starting point and it can be a very lengthy process for individuals taking responsibility to firstly acknowledge, then recognise and challenge, their own assumptions about Aboriginal people, their own investments in the Australian national narrative, their current position in the world as a consequence and also their relationship to Aboriginal peoples (or not).

In a sense, another major challenge is to acknowledge gaps in knowledge and reset the space before you invite Aboriginal people/Aboriginal Elders in… If you’re looking for someone just to reinforce romanticised ideas that Aboriginal people are for entertainment or sympathy, then it’s a very difficult border or boundary – to first even recognise the ignorance underpinning the assumptions through which your expectations are grounded. It’s obviously a lot more complex than can be expressed in this brief conversation.

There are no steps to share now about how to facilitate the ‘adventure’ – let’s call it – from Acknowledgement of Country to true respect and integration of Aboriginal cultural knowledges and Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledges into organisations. However, we have all worked with non-­Indigenous people in an education context where words can be misconstrued and the fear of being seen as a ‘racist’ arises. Before protocols are set up, institutions and organisations can do that hard work without even involving Indigenous people – or they can have Indigenous people come in and take leadership over that process of education in tandem with non-­Indigenous people. But I think the key first steps are acknowledging that First Nations Elders have significant and critical knowledge, and that a one-­to-­five-­minute Welcome to Country only scratches the surface of the knowledge base of most Elders… An Acknowledgement of Country can be so much more than a brief opportunity to name Aboriginal countries and acknowledge Elders – it is also an opportunity for non-­Indigenous people to acknowledge the benefits of colonisation for non-­Indigenous people as a prelude to and for more critical institutional change.

Given that the theme of this edition is ageing, I might just leave it to Ruth to talk through the notion that ageing in white communities is very different. We value Elders who are authorised by our Aboriginal communities, not externally authorised by institutions. And this respect for Elders can be neutralised or reshaped by dominant ideas that we shuffle our old people off, that there’s a use-by date for the knowledge that Elders or older people have, and that once someone’s gone past a particular age, they’re no longer useful.

RUTH: I’ll just give you the thought that went through my mind, which I’m hoping no one’s going to feel uncomfortable with. The point is, as an Elder, I have had very similar conversations with non-­Indigenous people about these issues and more over decades. It gets frustrating and tiring to keep repeating the same thing. But we need non-­Indigenous people as allies and for them to be aware of how we feel and where we’re coming from.

ASHLEY: It’s very generous of you to have this conversation for us and certainly to have it this way with me. When you talked about not wanting anyone to be uncomfortable – part of it has to be that they might be.

RUTH: That gives you a good understanding of somebody who is my generation and my age, and other Aboriginal people who are a younger age: it is so good to see them coming forward.

ASHLEY: And with different generations too. Ruth’s point is important, going back to that beautiful image of the complexity of layers and different things in play: those different generations are the next layer of that complexity. And hopefully of opportunity.

JAY: Yeah, and there are old people in non-­Indigenous communities too who could engage in difficult conversations with First Nations Elders…

ASHLEY: We’re not very good at complexity, are we? We seem determined to try to make everything as simple and divided as possible, which doesn’t really match what’s going on.

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