Footprints leading to the Future: Bringing Indigenous Perspectives into the ANU

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At a meeting of Indigenous students, many argued that there aren’t enough Indigenous teachers in the university. There aren’t even that many in academic positions in general. For the country’s national university, built upon Ngunnawal and Ngambri land, they feel that the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in ANU’s academia is barely felt.

The number of Indigenous people in academic and teaching positions throughout the ANU is low, and a myriad of factors – systemic barriers in the education pipeline for Indigenous youth, lack of respect for Indigenous knowledges, and institutional racism, to name a few – prevent Indigenous people from reaching these higher rungs of academia.

In a collective statement provided to Woroni by ANUSA’s Indigenous Department, consulted students affirmed that “we understand the issue of there being a lack of Indigenous people in academia, but that this issue is multi-faceted and something that occurs in most Australian universities.”

Certainly, this issue is not unique in ANU, nor is it extremely severe – many academics Woroni spoke with were confident in ANU’s ability to change and become more inclusive.

The fact that the campus has an active pastoral care body for Indigenous students, Reconciliation Action Plans, and recently-opened positions for Indigenous postdoctorates is testament to this. Regardless, the current situation still speaks to a nationwide phenomenon of decreased Indigenous inclusion in tertiary institutions.

The official numbers from the ANU administration and Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre alone clearly paint the university’s efforts as a work-in-progress.

The 2015 Indigenous Education Statement from the Tjabal Centre reports on progress made towards the Government’s policy goal in increasing Indigenous participation in higher education. While it was able to show improvements from 2014, the numbers still signal the need for progress.

It states the ANU’s goal of reaching 52 Indigenous staff in 2016, corresponding to the 2.2% “relative population parity” needed for ANU’s Indigenous staff to be representative of nationwide demographics. In 2015, 46 staff identified as Indigenous.

Yet, the problem magnifies when the report states only 15 of these people were in academic positions in the university’s eight colleges. Furthermore, only three of these academics held lecturer positions.

Comparing these numbers to the publically available 2014 academic staff totals for each college provides a general picture of the issue. The College of Arts and Social Sciences had three Indigenous academics compared to a 2014 total of 240 academics. The College of Law had four Indigenous academics, compared to 87.

The College of Medicine, Biology and Environment had four Indigenous academics in 2015 but a total of 371 academics in 2014. The Colleges of Business and Economics, and Physical and Mathematical Sciences, had two Indigenous academics each, but 130 and 365 academics in 2014 respectively.

The Colleges of Asia and the Pacific, Engineering and Computer Science, and the Joint Colleges of Science did not employ a single Indigenous academic in 2015.

Painful Histories and a Broken Pipeline

When Woroni sat down with Dr Asmi Wood, renowned teacher in Indigenous perspectives on the law and winner of a national teaching award in Indigenous education, and the Vice-Chancellor’s award for Excellence in Education, he acknowledged the issue was complex.

The torment of a history of colonisation and eradication of Indigenous peoples and cultures was central to his understanding of the problem. He is one of the only Indigenous academics in the College of Law, but knew that the deeply rooted discrimination against Indigenous people brought on by this history made rapid change almost impossible.

“Youthful impatience” and activism from students was needed to push society forward, he said, but maintained that the current situation “won’t change for some time… keep in mind our first Indigenous university graduate was only in 1966.”

He felt that one of the best things Indigenous students could do was to keep on studying and get their degrees.

Institutional racism and intergenerational violence also factored in. According to Wood, blatant racism against Indigenous people is rare, but strains still persisted subliminally in teaching. “It’s confronting to be told, ‘there was no law on the continent until the English came here.’ But in exams you have to say that, even though you know it’s a lie.”

“The Constitution makes the government treat every race equally, except for Indigenous people.”

That was one of the reasons why Wood pushed for the inclusion of Indigenous content in law courses. He received the national Indigenous education award for his efforts, “[transforming] the ANU’s Indigenous Law Program,” according to the citation.

He also spoke of systemic barriers in the “pipeline” of Indigenous youths coming into tertiary education, and knew first-hand the difficulties. Wood, a Torres Strait Islander, grew up in rural North Queensland where there were no well-resourced schools. He won a scholarship to study at a high school in the city, and proceeded to tertiary education from there.

Financial issues, cultural alienation, and language barriers were a problem for him, but Wood recognised that the scholarship had nonetheless opened doors.

Wood also felt that many Indigenous people coming to ANU were from relatively high SES backgrounds – the real challenge is drawing the rural youth into university. For these Indigenous youths living in rural areas, access to education is particularly difficult, compounded by problems of intergenerational violence and unemployment.

How could the numbers of Indigenous people in tertiary institutions increase when children in regional Australia struggle to access secondary education? Is it reasonable to expect Indigenous people to get PhDs “in a system that makes getting your first degree hard”?

Indigenous Knowledge

However, not everyone Woroni spoke with agreed that other colleges in ANU were as accommodating of Indigenous perspectives as the College of Law was.

Dr Sean Kerins was one such academic. As a lecturer in Indigenous studies for the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), and former advisor to treaty negotiations in New Zealand, Kerins was well aware of the importance of Indigenous presence in teaching.

In fact, what surprised him most in his nine years at ANU was its failure to adequately incorporate Indigenous knowledge into its academic practice. He narrated that in New Zealand he was trained to work with and study from Maori peoples, “but no one draws on that [Indigenous] experience here.”

Kerins also stressed “there are no Indigenous teachers at CAEPR. None at all.”

He also felt that most of the ANU’s Indigenous Studies program does not sufficiently work with Indigenous people. Anthropology courses on Indigenous subjects were noted as particularly concerning, and some students who Woroni spoke with agreed.

Even tutors were hard to come by. Kerins recalled a story of an Indigenous Master’s student who helped design the first-year course “Indigenous Peoples, Populations, and Communities.” Yet, the student had to move to Canada to teach, as there were no opportunities at CAEPR.

Kerins also related a story of how one tutor had to begin the semester by breaking down stereotypes and informing first-year students of correct language use.

“Non-Indigenous struggle with the language” describing Indigenous students, Kerins told Woroni. “Schooling hasn’t prepared them… when you ask people, ‘Can you name an Indigenous people?’ they can’t do it.”

He continued, “It’s not an Indigenous problem, it’s a Whitefella problem… [they] don’t know anything.”

The university’s failure to engage with Indigenous knowledge, and certain academics’ insistence on seeing Indigenous people as a problem, appeared to trouble him most in his interview with Woroni.

Kerins tried to solve the problem in his own course by bringing in 16 Aboriginal experts, none of whom had PhDs, but were all well versed in Indigenous approaches to land care, law, and other fields. His SELT reviews reflected positively on the strategy.

“If you’re going to talk about a group I feel it can easily become skewed and patronising. Engaging with Indigenous Australians lets them tell their own story on their terms,” one student wrote, praising the inclusion of the Indigenous experts.

“[The course] has expanded my understanding enormously, especially getting insights into Indigenous methods from an Aboriginal perspective,” wrote another.

Nevertheless, Kerins lamented the wider absence of Indigenous people in teaching, emphasising that it made university more difficult for ATSI students – “they’re not seeing their own role models [in coursework and teaching].”

Hope and Waiting 

The relative scarcity of Indigenous people in ANU’s academia is a real issue. Everyone Woroni spoke to acknowledged that. However, many also recognised that ANU had the potential to change for the better, especially with sympathetic people in positions of authority.

Furthermore, it should be noted that ANU’s situation was regarded as not particularly or uniquely severe, but rather a symptom of nationwide patterns.

Wood told Woroni that new positions for Indigenous postdoctorate scholars were a step forward, and felt positively about the growing inclusion of Indigenous perspectives into Law teaching.

Mary Spiers Williams is also a lecturer in the College of Law and descended from Darkenjung people. She believes that the internationally-renowned ANU is well positioned to lead a national conversation about our past and present relationships.

She takes heart from the aspirational statements of the Vice Chancellor, that as a national university the ANU has an obligation to include Indigenous people and their perspectives in the ANU.

Williams sees this not only in terms of creating a space for including Indigenous staff and students, but for inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in ANU’s scholarship, teaching and governance.

“Australians generally remain remarkably ignorant about who Indigenous people are and our perspectives … the ANU is in a position to really significantly contribute to this national ‘growing up’ we need to go through,” she said. The ANU should be leading the national conversation about Australia’s need to desist in colonising practices against Indigenous people.

“There needs to be clear leadership from the top of ANU,” she continued, “but it needs to be replicated through all of the colleges, and a willingness to introduce Indigenous perspectives into our curriculum, research and management.”

Williams sees that the solution in building capacity by training and recruiting early career academics and then fostering and supporting their potential. Indigenous staff and students would then be able to influence their colleagues and their environment.

This is important as Indigenous people’s perspectives are often erased and this is alienating and leads to staff and student attrition. Other Indigenous students Woroni contacted agreed.

Being led by clear messages from the Chancelry, the ANU would need to increase targeted Indigenous positions in teaching and research, for example, by introducing an affirmative action practices. Indigenous perspectives in course content could be expanded into every field of scholarship and teaching, she continued.

Williams also said that she was confounded by statements like “there is not enough time to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into curricula.” She found this excuse as problematic as failing to incorporate gender perspectives into general coursework.

She stressed that we are poised to have as radical a revolution in perspectives now as we were during the rise and influence of the feminist movement.

While objects are no substitute for action and attitude, the absence of tangible objects such as Indigenous artefacts around campus is remarkable and would help increase the visibility of Indigenous perspectives and enhance respect at the ANU, countering what she argued was a problem of “erasure” of Indigenous peoples in the wider society.

Ultimately, she was optimistic about ANU’s ability to tackle the problem. Looking around the university, she felt this was signified by the growing body of talented Indigenous students and scholars on campus, and many others who are well-informed and engaged in this important issue.

“If ANU can’t, then who else can? We really need to be a model for the rest of our society,” she told Woroni.

Furthermore, teaching on Indigenous topics was not criticised universally, and the statement provided to Woroni by the Indigenous Department stressed this. They too were hopeful for change.

“Acknowledging that members of the Indigenous Department have had a variety of experiences with teaching staff at the ANU, both positive and negative, we as a collective are working to improve our relations and the experiences of all Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.”

They continued, “We also understand that the ANU is taking steps to improve the Indigenous experience at the ANU and we are looking forward to seeing more progress in the future and how we can be a part of this.”

Aunty Anne Martin, director of the Tjabal Centre, told Woroni that under ANU’s current leadership, there was a great opportunity to push for greater inclusion of Indigenous people into the academic body.

She mentioned that a lot of the work Tjabal has done for Indigenous students has been supported by the Chancelry.

While she felt that the current lack of Aboriginal pedagogies in ANU was a problem, Martin felt that change was possible, and was indeed coming. This diversity in teaching would not only benefit Indigenous students in ANU, but also non-Indigenous, preparing a new generation of leaders with greater sensitivity to the original owners of the land.

Regardless, the Tjabal director remained committed to gradual change, which would only be effective once “embedded” into the fabric of the ANU.

“Sometimes we want something, and we want it now. But from the wisdom of an older Aboriginal woman, I’ve always taken the notion that it is good planning and working together with people that we actually make the changes that will benefit the next generation coming through.”

“And I’ve lived that, and I’ve seen it,” Martin said.

She described herself as “battle-scarred” from the struggle for Aboriginal rights in previous decades. Yet, she stressed that the methods of struggle changed over the years – activism in the 1960s differed from that in the 1990s, and would differ again today.

For Martin, Indigenous people were well and truly at the stage where they could go through the education system and have a myriad of opportunities opened to them after graduation.

“It’s when we work together that we change the footprints that we’re going to leave from the past into the future. We’re not going to be moving back and forth. There are clear footprints leading into the future – that’s what I see, and that’s what I want.”

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