Decoloyarning: How to weave a Circle

Top-down or bottom-up? Universities across the globe, including ANU, are grappling with their responsibility to Indigenous peoples and thinking about what this means in practice. Emphasis is often placed on the development of Reconciliation Action Plans and other initiatives led by senior members of the university community. And while these top-down, administrative processes have in some cases led to valuable outcomes for First Nations peoples, there remains a disconnect between the work being done at the executive level and the daily experiences of First Nations people and allies working towards embedding Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in these institutions.

It was from this position of ‘disconnect’ that the Fenner Decolonial Research and Teaching Circle (the Circle) sprung to life in 2019. The Circle is an Indigenous- and student -led collective with a long-term goal to decolonise research and teaching at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. In this article, Circle Founders kate harriden, Sam Provost and Rachel England reflect on its establishment in early 2019, and describe some of the Circle’s activities over the past three years and why these activities are important.

The first yarning circle happened in January 2019. A small bunch of HDR scholars plus two academics gathered on Ngunnawal/Ngunawal and Ngambri country near what’s known as the Forestry Firepit to talk – yarn actually – about decolonisation, what is was, and what it actually meant (in real terms) for the variety of science-based research and teaching we were doing at the Fenner School. We decided then that the Circle would encourage other scientists to think critically about how their research and teaching interfaced with Indigenous lands, waters, kin and ideas. The ‘frog in the swamp’ analogy was discussed and became a cornerstone of what the Circle sought to achieve – to an ecologist with a Western research approach, the frog in the swamp is simply a frog to be accessed and studied; but to an ecologist with a decolonial research approach, the frog is also a sacred and relational being and there are protocols for access and great responsibilities when studying it. The use of the word ‘decolonial’ would also be deliberate, underscoring our thinking and approach to everything the Circle did. Finally, we committed to creating a safe space for collectively thinking and yarning about decolonisation – a journey that inevitably involves self-discovery through difficult emotional terrain.

Since 2019, the Circle has organised field trips, supported poster campaigns, presented at induction seminars, curated an extensive library of decolonising resources, created a blog (this one!), been commended formally by the Dean of College of Science, and drafted a publication (in prep) – always with decolonisation in academia as its goal. Today, the Circle has more than 100 members across the ANU and beyond. But at the heart of the Circle remains our monthly yarns, where we invite and support post-graduate scholars, academics and professional staff to engage intellectually and practically with Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies in research practices and teaching activities.

Structurally, our yarns centre around a selected academic paper, podcast, video, public talk or art exhibition. When we can, we come together on Country and yarn through the key topics presented in the works before inevitably spiralling out towards our own experiences of incorporating decolonial ideas and practices into our research and teaching. From these yarns – the readings selected, activities shared, and the culture and practices developed and nurtured – we seek to illuminate the taken-for-granted colonial academic processes embedded in our institution and challenge them via Indigenous epistemologies, informed by Indigenous ontologies.

Personally, the Circle’s yarns provide a safe space to ask difficult questions and practice unfamiliar ways of knowing and doing. We don’t always have answers to the questions – we are after all a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous HDR scholars who are still on this learning journey! – but the goal of our yarns is always to enhance our capacity to challenge entrenched colonial academic practices and seek answers to the questions that should be asked aloud.

Each yarn sprouts new initiatives – for example, the idea to develop a series of guidelines about how to be respectful when researching on Country and build meaningful relationships came from a particular yarn about the increasing number of questions coming to us from non-Indigenous researchers, teachers and administration. The Acknowledgment of Country guidelines, presented in the inaugural Decoloyarns post, evolved from yarns and workshops the Circle have held.

From another yarn sprouted our special edition publication (in prep) reflecting on the commitment of Circle members to examine how we can contribute to the call for “the transformation of academy norms, and the regenerative capacity of research for good rather than bad” (Weir et al., 2019:1304). During the process of developing this collection, we have endeavoured to challenge traditional academic writing and publication practices through privileging Indigenous voices, beginning and ending many of the sections with First Nations reflections of the work, and ensuring that the peer review process was conducted by the Indigenous circle participants, proving a powerful experience for both reviewer and the reviewed.

The list of sproutings goes on, but we will stop at this.

When we first started talking about the need for the Circle, we anticipated it would primarily interest Fenner-based Indigenous researchers/lecturers or non-Indigenous researchers/lecturers working (conspiring?) with Indigenous peoples in Australia or overseas. To our surprise, we were welcoming ‘orphans’ from across the ANU and the natural resource management sector externally only a few months later. The depth of interest in and engagement with the Circle to date is heartening because while more than 20% of the Circle community identifies as Indigenous peoples from Australia, Asia and Africa, we need allies and co-conspirators to put in the work towards decolonising the academy’s research and teaching practices.

Over the first three years of the Circle, we have (collectively) stumbled over rough terrain, learned how to pick each other up, grappled with the difficulties of working ethically in academia, held some intense conversations, and had some ripper laughs. It has not ever been easy or comfortable – but it has always been important. Today, we can clearly see that the bottom-up approach works – the Circle is evidence of this: our active and engaged members are a collective that is developing greater confidence and capacity to create research projects and curriculum that engages Indigenous peoples, communities, knowledges and ontologies in meaningful and respectful ways.


Weave With Us

Interested in the Circle? If you’d like learn more, get involved, or develop your own at your school or university, here are some next steps:

Learn About Us

If you’re at ANU, you can catch The Circle at The Fenner School HDR Symposium Days. At the next HDR Symposium on August 23rd 2022, a Circle member will be speaking about the Circle to attendees.

Another way to get a good sense of what the Circle is about, is to read more of our Decolyarning series. These might even be useful texts to sit down with some colleagues and friends and reflect on together! You can find all of our Decoloyarns here.

Join In

The Circle welcomes new members from anywhere at ANU and beyond. If you’re interested in joining our monthly yarns, you have questions about starting a Circle, or you’d like support to establish a Circle, you are welcome to contact any of the contributors to this article via email.

kate harriden:

Sam Provost:

Rachel England:

Write With Us

We are always looking for new contributors to the Decoloyarning article series. Decoloyarning is a space for any writing or creative thinking that promotes decolonisation of the academy, and it’s currently joint activity between the Circle the Fenner School Communications Team. Published works are circulated online across the Fenner School social media platforms and via the Fenner School newsletter. If you’ve been working in a decolonial way, this is a place to share your successful, creative, and less-successful practices – and we’d love to hear from you, and we will work with you to develop your story! Here’s all the information about how to pitch a piece.

Published August 12, 2022