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Engagement with Indigenous Australia

The National Institutes Grant enables ANU to support the development of Australia’s national unity and identity, including by improving Australia’s understanding of itself and the history and culture of its Indigenous peoples.

First Nations Treaty Forum

The 2019 First Nations Treaty Forum, convened on Ngunnawal/Ngambri Country in November, was a central and significant event in a fortnight at ANU celebrating Indigenous Australia, starting with Indigenous diplomacy and concluding with Archie Roach at Llewellyn Hall. Building on the First Nations Governance Forum hosted by ANU in 2018, the 2019 Treaty Forum explored the significance of treaty for Indigenous peoples and communities. Facilitated yarning circles for Indigenous Elders and for Indigenous youth complemented talks, lectures and panel discussions over the Treaty Forum. The yarning circles gave all participants a chance to share opinions and ask questions in a harmonious and collaborative space. More than 100 participants, with links to more than 30 individual First Nations, included people who had travelled from remote communities all over Australia, joining Indigenous students, academics, lawyers and policymakers.

The conversations were Indigenous-led, rich, varied and respectful. Delegates discussed and debated different views and conceptions of what treaty means and what it could bring. No single view emerged from discussion on the role treaty could play, but the need for patience, time, space and resources to properly consider the issues, was acknowledged. A highly valuable dialogue did take place on the range of issues any consideration of treaty would need to address. Four areas of discussion – sovereignty, land, self-determination and truth telling – stood out as signposts for the future. The fact that sovereignty has never been ceded by Australia’s First Nations was emphasised. Treaty could clarify the shared sovereignty that common law already recognises. Either way, questions arose around how to balance the sovereignty held by individual First Nations versus that held by Australia’s First Peoples as a whole. Land remains a critical issue. Dispossession and its consequences were highlighted by many, as was the uneven legacy left by Native Title laws. Broader issues of what self-determination and sovereignty entail were also raised. Truth telling emerged as a critical issue and many emphasised the importance of investing in an understanding of history at all levels including the local.

The National Centre for Indigenous Studies and Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub collaborated to host the 2019 First Nations Treaty Forum.

Returning Indigenous cultural heritage

The vast task of identifying and returning Indigenous artefacts and material culture held in national and international collections is beyond physically achievable. But the joint efforts of National Institutes Grant-funded researchers across the Research School of Humanities and the Arts in a digital imaging and linked data project is bringing it well into the realms of possibility. The project is a collaborative partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to trace items to the communities from which they originate. Significant theoretical work on intangible heritage, cultural production, linked data methodologies and digital tools, and relevance and significance, underscore the process. Collaboration with international cultural collecting institutions, such as the British Museum, has begun the process of populating the database and developing a reliable, transferable digital tool (or tools) to facilitate the recognition of Indigenous objects by scanning and collecting them into a global repository, effectively a virtual museum of distributed Indigenous collections.

Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography

The Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography project was boosted in 2019 with extra National Institutes Grant investment to fund a part-time Indigenous research editor. The researcher, the only Australian Dictionary of Biography Indigenous scholar employed at ANU, allowed the project to reach more deeply into the biographical and Indigenous communities. The project drew on national networks of Indigenous knowledge and expertise to contribute to global conversations on the historical research and public presentation of the lives of Indigenous people. The representation and recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples in the project is being built on an understanding informed by historical perspectives at several time scales, from the ‘deep history’ of human occupation of the continent to the more recent history of colonisation since the 18th Century, and the continuing negotiation of interests and identities.

Engaging with south coast custodians

Kioloa, an ANU off-campus resource and accommodation hub on the south coast of New South Wales, is well used and loved by ANU staff, students, researchers and visitors. The land is on the traditional Country of the south coast custodians, sometimes collectively called the Yuin, and that ownership has not been fully considered until now. An engagement program with south coast Elders is building expertise for engaging with local Indigenous Elders and organisations. ANU can thus give the custodians long overdue thanks for using their lands for research and teaching, and consult and negotiate future permission for research on this Country. In workshops, Elders have expressed a desire for acknowledgement of their existence, history, heritage and custodianship of Kioloa and this region. They aspire to become partners in the educational and economic opportunities that the Kioloa Campus presents. This important, and welcomed, case study will help develop the ANU Indigenous Engagement Strategy and can inform the national approach to Indigenous engagement. All parties want to be involved in developing a world-class educational facility and research hub that partners ANU with the Yuin, not only in teaching and educational programs but also in a meaningful partnership that enables local economic aspirations.

Indigenous diplomacy

Indigenous diplomacy systems maintained broadly peaceful governance between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clans and nations, and with overseas traders, for millennia in Australia before colonisation. They can teach us much that could enable progress in national reconciliation, treaty and truth-telling processes. A new intensive postgraduate course on Indigenous Diplomacy, the first of its kind in Australia and designed with the help of Yolŋu, Torres Strait and Ngunnawal Elders, was launched in November 2019, by the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. The research-led teaching approach by a group of Indigenous Elders and university-based scholars, focuses on the principles and practices governing dialogue and peace-building between groups. The six-day course was developed in partnership with the College of Indigenous Futures, Charles Darwin University, and has generated a partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and interest from other organisations.

Blood samples returned home to Arnhem Land

After 50 years away, more than 200 manggu (Yolŋu word for blood) samples from people who have passed away are now on Country at a memorial site in the Galiwin’ku community of Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land. The samples were collected from everyone on Elcho Island after a typhoid outbreak in 1968 and 1969, and formed part of the 7,000-strong collection in the John Curtin School of Medical Research. They are the largest sample-set from a single community and have the most detailed information about the original study participants. The samples have been pivotal in advancing health and medical discoveries and their sequencing will deliver important health and medical benefits for all Indigenous Australians. The Galiwin’ku gave permission for the deceased’s samples to be sequenced from a small amount of the sample. The remaining material was dried and combined in family groups and stored in timber boxes specially created by artists at the ANU School of Art. Blood samples from those who are still alive (around 400) will be disposed of in Canberra after sequencing. Mrs Azure Hermes, National Centre for Indigenous Genomics’ Indigenous Engagement Coordinator, who led the consultation and repatriation process, said: “Our shared ability to bring to realisation a research model that respects Indigenous cultural practices and genomic discovery is a remarkable achievement, and a gift from each of us to the other.”

Launch of Deep History Research Centre

Launch of Deep History Research Centre
Professor Ann McGrath, ANU School of History, sits within the Acton Grassy Woodlands at the ANU.
The new Research Centre for Deep History explores the deep human past, which on the Australian continent extends back about 65,000 years. Deep history adopts transdisciplinary and community collaborative approaches to examine humanity’s past. This ANU-based research centre is partnering with international groups such as those at Harvard University and Linnaeus University in Sweden to help drive a new global understanding of history and expand the scope of the history discipline. The centre is associated with Professor Ann McGrath’s ARC Laureate Project (Rediscovering the deep human past: global networks, future opportunities), and was formed with the support of the National Institutes Grant and the School of History. The centre promises national benefits from a greater understanding of the full span of global human history.

Decolonising the academy

The university system was not made for Indigenous peoples; yet, it can challenge and critique ways of marginalising Indigenous voices and experiences. Thus, the Indigenous Remix flagship workshop, in October 2019 hosted by the CHL. The gathering of visiting Aboriginal, Pacific Islander and Taiwanese scholars and artists workshopped Indigenous remix approaches and discussed ways of creating an educational and research environment that is a genuine mix of learning with and from Indigenous peoples, and promotes creative education and research. The aims of the workshop were to foster trans-Indigenous Australian and Oceanic conversations across ANU and more broadly to share de-colonial ways of thinking and doing Indigenous teaching, research and outreach; to strengthen the potential of trans-disciplinary Indigenous studies; and to emphasise the central importance of Indigenous wellbeing within the academy and devise strategies of collective care. A session on the last day was dedicated to participants sharing their plans for how to incorporate observations and solutions discussed into collective practice.

Promoting early screening for cardiovascular disease

One in six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults is at high risk of a major cardiovascular disease (CVD) event, such as a heart attack, in the next five years. Researchers from the ANU Research School of Population Health – in close partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health researchers, community groups, Australian Department of Health and CVD guideline developers – are improving prevention of CVD for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The researchers’ contributions to this body of knowledge includes identifying the early onset of CVD risk in these adults. Building on these findings, the researchers worked with guideline developers to lower the age for starting heart health screening in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to 18 years, more than 15 years lower than previously recommended. This evidence-based care improvement will have significant and long-lasting impacts on health, saving lives and reducing suffering in the short- and long-term.