The Intertwining of Archaeology and Aboriginal Heritage

Interview with Rob Williams by Makayla-May Brinckley

Rob Williams was by no means a stranger to me; we came to know each other through the Tjabal Centre, a meeting place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at ANU. Rob was always working at Tjabal when I’d see him, but never failed to stop what he was doing to have a yarn about university, life, and of course, his projects in archaeology.

Would you like to tell us who you are, who’s your mob, and how you came to be in Canberra?

I’m Robert Williams. I identify as a Ngambri/Ngunnawal man. Ngambri is my family group, and Ngunnawal is my language group, as is spoken around Canberra. I also have Wiradjuri ancestry, based around Cowra, Yass, Brungle and Tumut areas. I was born in Canberra and have always lived in Queanbeyan, where a lot of my family still is, but I’ve spent my entire primary, high school and university studies in Canberra.

Can you tell us what your undergraduate degree and Masters degree at ANU were like?

I started university here in 2010, and finished with my graduation in 2016. My undergraduate degree was in a Bachelor of Archaeological Practice. From there, I went into a Grad Certificate, and then my Masters in Archaeological Science (Advanced), which is Master’s coursework, with the ’advanced’ part adding on a visitation at the end. This is kind of treated like an Honours year, where you are assigned a supervisor, but given a bigger project to complete, which seems overly ambitious.

Have you found differences between yourself as a local student, and other Indigenous students who have moved to Canberra for university?

I’ve seen quite a few students that have come from further afield to study at ANU, whereas I’m lucky to be local and have my family support. Those other students who don’t have that seem to struggle to connect to this place – it’s not their home country, it’s not where they’ve grown up, and they struggle to connect and find comfort here. Often that leads to them giving up, or dropping out of university. And these are students who are sometimes more brilliant than me, but I guess it wasn’t the right time, or moving away was hard for them. And I think that’s one of the biggest issues for Indigenous students – it’s the travelling away and leaving their home and their community. They need to be well supported to try and overcome those obstacles.

What sparked your interest in archaeology?

I had a unique experience when I was growing up – privileged really. My father worked at the Ngunnawal-Ngambri Aboriginal Land Council in Queanbeyan, as a representative of the local land council, but also as the original owners of the Canberra and Queanbeyan region. He would be asked to go out and monitor sites when they were being developed, walk through national parks if they were building fire trails, or to walk the roads and tracks and check for any Aboriginal and cultural heritage. He provided a voice for any type of cultural significance around these places. When I was younger, I’d ask my mum – who decided whether I could have the day off school or not – if I could join Dad and visit these amazing places. So these were really my first experiences of archaeology, starting when I was probably eight or nine.

It’s interesting because one of my first memories was going out and having these experiences as a kid, and one of the archaeologists that was working on this project was Dave Johnson. That’s when I first met Dave and started to aspire to be him. And those memories have always been there; even when I think they haven’t been that influential, they’ve always been in the background. And in some way, even if I wasn’t quite conscious of it, they have always directed me into a degree in archaeology.

You then start to realise the responsibility we have when we get these degrees. We’re privileged to have this experience, and now I have a responsibility to community, to country, and I hope to invest and to give back to my family and my community. Hopefully I can bring about a different approach or discussion about heritage and why it’s important; more than just a protection of sites. It’s important as who we are in our identities as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Country and culture are fundamental.

Another thing is the unfortunate circumstances of Australia’s history: what has been done to our ancestors and [our] being dispossessed of culture. I’ve grown up with part of some knowledge missing, in not being able to speak the language, and not knowing the stories that are associated with this land that I walk through, even though I still try and imagine them. So I started doing archaeology realising that it could bring back some of those stories and understandings of our history. It’s about bringing together a fractured identity; it’s part of a healing process. It’s funny that a very Western, colonial discipline is allowing that.

During your undergraduate and Masters work at ANU did you face any setbacks and how did you overcome these?

Something I’m more aware of now as I’ve progressed through my university experience is the extreme absence of an Indigenous voice and culture within the university. There are pockets, but it’s something that should be throughout the university. And it’s not just an Indigenous issue – it’s something that needs to be addressed throughout the whole university to develop a more inclusive culture. When you think of how important heritage is to our story and our history, and you have non-Indigenous lecturers and consultants out in the field, there’s a huge absence and a huge problem in these academic areas.

They say that one reason there aren’t any Aboriginal lecturers in Archaeology and Anthropology is because there’s no one who’s qualified – and that’s rubbish. There are people out there. How ANU approaches recruitment at academic levels clearly has to change. Another issue in archaeology is that there’s so many non-Indigenous students who don’t learn about Australian or Aboriginal archaeology – but they graduate, and work in jobs in Australian communities when they haven’t studied this field. There’s a long way to go in certain areas where there needs to be more input from the community, from Elders and knowledge-holders, to ultimately produce better students.

Do you have any advice to undergraduate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students?

Take advantage of the scholarships and the facilities that are there – for me it was really beneficial. Make friends in high places: get to know your lecturers and tutors and the people in the tops of your departments. Get to know the VC even! Squeeze out everything they have to give you – that’s what it’s there for. Utilise the libraries for all they have. And get involved with Tjabal. It’s a great community and you can make lifelong friends there.

I was lucky that I knew what I wanted to do. Some students come to university and have no idea. It’s cool to just float around and find what you’re passionate about, something you can pursue a career in and something you can see long-term benefits in. I think once you’ve found that, just go for it. I found something I was passionate about and just kept pushing. If there’s something I can tell other budding first years that don’t see themselves as academics – just wait and see.

Rob Williams will be starting his PhD at the University of Sydney this year. From all of us at Tjabal, and the other students you’ve met on this six year path: we wish you well. ANU was lucky to have you!