Decoloyarning: We are all, always working on Country

There is an increasing number of research projects attempting to incorporate Indigenous perspectives and decolonial approaches. If you’ve seen a few of these, you might have wondered whether the people who claim to be working with/for Indigenous people are actually doing things Indigenous peoples want done. Unfortunately, too much of the time, the simple answer is no. If we truly want to be a supportive ally (or even an accomplice) to (with) Indigenous peoples, it is important to learn how to distinguish genuine effective partnerships from superficial and tokenistic processes.

But how can we tell the difference? Or more illuminatingly, how do Indigenous peoples make this judgement? Linda Tuhiwai Smith offers us insight into this question by sharing the explicit and implicit questions Indigenous peoples ask of researchers:

These can be summarized best by the critical questions that communities and indigenous activists often ask, in a variety of ways: Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its scope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?

What may surprise many people is that what may appear as the ‘right’, most desirable answer can be incorrect from Indigenous perspectives. These questions are simply a subset of criteria that a researcher cannot prepare for, such as: Is her spirit clear? Does he have a good heart? What other baggage are they carrying? Are they useful to us? Can they fix up our generator? Can they actually do anything practical or useful?

(Tuhiwai Smith, 2012, p.10)

This article by Tracey Potts, first presented to the Fenner HDR retreat on March 30 2022, provides an example of genuine effective partnership involving Local Land Services that supported Wiradjuri priorities and embraced Wiradjuri protocols.


Decoloyarning: We are all, always working on Country

The sentiments and protocols presented in this writing were endorsed for use in a Decolonisation context by Elders Aunty Alice Williams and Uncle Neil Ingram. A warning, I will reference deceased Wiradjuri ancestors.

There’s that very familiar saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” which is supposed to guide us to be mindful of the cultures and respectfully adopt the customs of the people whose lands we visit or work on. It demands of the visitor to be aware of where they go and to behave appropriately while there. First Nations Australians have customs and cultures that we are required to respect as researchers on Country.

The work done on Garra Traveling Stock Reserve (TSR), near Molong in the central tablelands of New South Wales led us on a wonderful journey of discovery, connection, growth, improved understanding, reflection and joy. It also gave us cause for pause, needed us to face and confront some uncomfortable truths and will continue to inspire change for good. I hope that by sharing part of the story with you, it will continue to be all those things.

Our Aboriginal Protocols are the starting point for everything we do. The protocols weren’t negotiated, they were developed by the Wiradjuri Elders in the central tablelands 

based on ways handed down through the generations. They aren’t open to interpretation and are foundational to achieving respectful interactions that lead to successful outcomes – defining success isn’t linear or one-sided.

The initial intent of the Garra project was to use newly developed Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) technology, which would be used for the first time in Australia, to improve the understanding of Wiradjuri burial practices. Aboriginal knowledge and oral histories of this site say there were likely up to five large carved trees that once stood around the grave of a man of high degree. His wife is buried across the creek, with one carved tree marking her burial site. The community was particularly interested in the location of the ancestor in relation to the markers at the site and one of the tangible outputs they wanted was a 3-D printed model of the site to use for educational purposes. The models will promote traditional knowledge sharing among the First Nations community and support the narrative of a living culture.

Consultation doesn’t bookend a project, it is a critical aspect of ongoing, well maintained relationships. The way this project evolved from its initial intent to fulfil something much larger is a direct result of ongoing, culturally appropriate consultation. What does that mean? What does it look like?

Culturally appropriate consultation means talking with the right people, for the right conversations, at the right time and at the right place. For some nations, like the Wiradjuri, navigating your way to the ‘right’ people is complex due to the size of the community. For the Garra project some consultation sessions were held in the Local Aboriginal Lands Council Boardroom and some were held on Country. The points of discussion relating to women’s business were only discussed by women, men’s business was discussed by men and general discussions were contributed to by all Elders. This requires us all to embrace the foundational principle of Yindyamarra. Yindyamarra is more than a single word concept and includes ‘ways of being’ philosophies like being respectful, giving honour, being gentle, doing slowly and taking responsibility when on Country. Knowledge will be shared with you when you are ready to receive it, when the time is right. Consultation is also not project driven, it’s an ongoing, respectful relationship. Think of it as a garden you tend and nurture, it will have its seasons of needing more time and investment and others when a light touch is best for it, and it will grow, mature and become more resilient with the right input. Neglect it and, rightfully, the weeds of distrust regrow.

No decisions were made by the NSW Local Land Services (LLS) at any stage of the project. They were made and owned by the community. Decisions were guided by cultural protocols and made by the appropriate Elders who are mandated to speak on behalf of the whole community. The LLS role in the project was to enable the will of the community which meant providing resources where they were needed and finding the people with the skills and technology to carry out the work. Skills and technology weren’t the only factors in working with La Trobe researchers, we had worked on other projects together and they have come to learn, respect and embrace the protocols.

The GPR results are in, but I won’t share those with you. They have been received by the Elders who will share them; it is Wiradjuri IP, data and findings and therefore it is not appropriate for me to share that with you (this article is not about the results, it’s about the process).

While we were working with community on the GPR project, we received a call from Heritage NSW to facilitate the repatriation of the remains of a female ancestor from the Molong area. Through testing and the backstory provided by the anonymous ‘donor’, we know she was a Wiradjuri woman of approximately 60 years of age. She was a mother, very likely a grandmother and Elder and deserved the dignity of being returned to Country. The community requested she be repatriated to the Garra TSR and laid to rest near the chiefs wife.

Once the community decided they wanted to lay her to rest at Garra, we again saw our role as enablers. We had scales of consultation that took a team to enable. The logistics of the site and ceremony was planned by Elder Aunty Alice, who is a powerhouse and will not compromise on protocols. Men were involved in decisions about things like should children attend, did the community want it filmed, etc. Aunty Alice deliberately used the opportunity to be inclusive by inviting the Central Tablelands LLS Management and Board to attend. She also created space for younger women and the local high school dance group to learn about parts of the ceremony that were appropriate for them. The burial ceremony was screened off and men were invited to hold a corrobboree at the chief’s burial site across the creek.

We came down to Canberra to collect the ancestor and held ceremony with Elder Aunty Matilda House. She was wrapped in kangaroo skins, smoked, and given safe passage home. The repatriation ceremony was mostly a happy return, a feeling of closure and a sense of sadness at the disrespect she had to endure.

Once the ceremony concluded, Aunty Alice used the opportunity to educate us about stepping back and taking our focus away from the carved tree and to consider the whole site. She determined the timing was right to share broader knowledge about the site, what was appropriate and what wasn’t. This was particularly confronting because it brought home the undeniable systematic and wilful destruction of our national cultural heritage. All but one carved tree were destroyed, the vandalism of this sacred site (and so many others) was systematic and deliberate. It was confronting to acknowledge and even more jarring to contextualise current land-use practices.

We at LLS had hoped to use the Garra TSR as a showcase demonstrating that Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and western agricultural practices could co-exist. Through consultation and an improved understanding of the cultural significance of the area, western agriculture is no longer deemed an appropriate land use and it is proposed that a new lease agreement not be pursued once the current one lapses. The community has requested support in declaring it an Aboriginal Place and would like to assume management of the site.

To summarise, Aboriginal Protocols are foundational, without them you can be certain your negative unintended impacts will create pain and further distrust. Consultation doesn’t book-end a project, it’s an ongoing relationship that you nurture and care for.

We are all, always working on Country.


Want to become a Decoloyarning Ally/Accomplice?

Here are some resources recommended by the Decolonial Teaching and Research Circle to help you further reflect on how to more effectively partner with Indigenous peoples to create genuine and effective relationships:

- Finlay, S. (2020) Where do you fit? Tokenistic, ally – or accomplice?

- How to write respectfully about Indigenous peoples: The Fenner School guide

Indigenous Peoples: Language Guidelines University of British Columbia

- Tuhiwai Smith, L., 1999. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zedbooks Ltd.

Are you ready to take action? If you’ve thought deeply about this article and the recommended readings, you’re ready to:

  • Start critiquing the consultations with Indigenous people in your everyday life; seek out effective engagement examples and practices. (How) does your work or research engage with Indigenous peoples? How does your current practice compare to what has been raised in Tracey’s article? What about work or research that you fund, review or supervise?
  • Start a conversation about the importance of genuine and meaningful partnerships. Can you use this article to start a conversation with people you know? Would it be more effective to have an informal chat or put it on the agenda for discussion at a meeting? Is there anything you can do to reduce the number of non-Indigenous people wasting Indigenous people’s time with requests to be part of tokenistic consultations or presenting their work as good practice engagement when it isn’t?

Do you want to genuinely and meaningfully engage with Indigenous peoples in your work or research?Developing the knowledge and skills you’ll need will require you to do a lot more than reflecting on a few articles! Here are some suggestions from the Fenner Circle on where to start:

  • Attend Indigenous-led events – NAIDOC week (this year 3-10 July) is a good place to start.
  •  Check whether “Indigenous” events organised by non-Indigenous people or groups are based on genuine and meaningful relationships before you attend.
  • Find a local campaign being run by mob and offer to help in a support capacity (i.e. not try to run) e.g. Pay the Rent (The time has come to say fair’s fair!)