Understanding the Indigenous Knowledge Position

Mon, 18 May 2009 16:08:00 +1000

Recently, Professor Mark Rose joined Deakin University’s Institute for Koorie Education where he and Professor Veronica Arbon will work alongside in the two positions of Chair, Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

Here they speak to Deakin Research’s No Limits newsletter about their paradigm-shifting research projects that aim to undo a lot of damage done in the past to Aboriginal people by “Western” research approaches.

No Limits. You’ve recently had a meeting with the Elders that was important in helping you shape your future research. What has been the outcome of that?

Veronica Arbon: The research we do in the future has to be with our community. In the past we talked about collaboration and negotiation and so on but I think it has got to the stage where we have to do research with our communities. It has to grow from our Indigenous Knowledge Position and therefore must work from an Indigenous methodology.

No Limits. Just explain the Indigenous Knowledge Position.

Veronica Arbon: My position is that we all as Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Island people have our own knowledge positions. An Indigenous Knowledge Position from my view captures aspects of that knowledge position that are likes others across the world or across Australia such as a knowledge position of relatedness, the locative and a requirement toresponsibly grow our future.

Mark Rose: I concur with those comments completely. If you want to put it visually, if you take the clock face of 60 minutes and give each one of those minutes a thousand years, then you have got the recorded time that our people have been on this land. That means Plato was here a minute and a half ago. And because of that there are multiple ways of seeing reality, of seeing the world. Obviously the bias has been towards the Western Way that has got its heritage one and a half minutes ago. We’re working collaboratively looking at drawing on that knowledge but as Veronica said, over-turning the destructive experience that research has had in the lives of many Aboriginal people. It was research that under-pinned the removal of many of our people like my father.

Veronica Arbon: In fact that research has unravelled some of the fundamentals that affirm our knowledge positions. We now have to turn that back to actually use research as we are beginning to use education – to affirm and to grow our knowledge and the knowledge of the Western world that we want to take on into the future.

Mark Rose: The only way we can do that is by working with the community.

Veronica Arbon: Absolutely, not imposing this one and a half minutes on them.

No Limits: What is the response you are getting to this approach, even at what is essentially still a very early stage.

Veronica Arbon: Well I followed … I have been sort of working this line for a long time. My first paper was about collaborative research way back in 1992. I think our people are slowly coming to terms with the fact that research doesn’t have to be a dirty word as they say in Victoria or as Linda Smith wrote. Research can be useful, but it has to be in our hands. So the response has been from my personal experience with my family, positive. Moreover, early research has created huge excitement behind the scenes because people start talking about important fundamentals. I think that excitement was affirmed in the workshop with the Elders, that research can be useful and exciting and can generate a lot of talk behind the scenes if we do it our way.

No Limits: Tell us a bit more about that meeting.

Veronica Arbon: It was at the Deakin Management Centre and there were about 20 or 30 Elders and Knowledgeable Others from Victoria.

No Limits: Do you see this research helping re-empower Indigenous people in the community?

Veronica Arbon: It not only re-empowers but it centres Aboriginal people as Linda Smith says in her groundbreaking work of 1999. It helps us bring the shattered pieces together. That is one aspect of it but also it affirms rather than denigrates what we know. That is why it is so important and I see it as critical.

Mark Rose: It centres young people’s reality and that they live very much in a black world and in a white world. We will try to make sure they can affirm whom they are and it is not the tail wagging the dog.

No Limits: How hard is it for people to live in both communities without a full understanding of the Indigenous community?

Veronica Arbon: I think it is difficult at any time. We have found it extremely difficult because of the Western science and ideology that has actually formed a position and placed us within Australia. So we have found it extremely difficult. Others who have migrated to this country have also found it difficult to maintain their language and culture as well as live as Australians. From my view as we’re moving forward, we are actually saying we can sort through this using these tools – education or research - that in the past have assimilated us. It is a big ask but I think we can do it.

Mark Rose: I see it as putting Indigenous Knowledge in the place where it belongs. In the Western mainstream system Indigenous Knowledge has been often tokenised and out of that tokenistic appraisal I think lies what the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody referred to as underlying issues and never really put its finger on what those issues are. Part of it is the true place of Aboriginal people in this country and the integrity of their knowledge.

Veronica Arbon: It is saying to Western science that it is not the only knowledge position in the world, there are others and we can use others. For all people but particularly for Aboriginal people who come from a knowledge system of fundamental relatedness, it is critical to actually use that in powerful ways to critique and turn back I guess the Western knowledge position on itself to highlight where it is flawed.

Mark Rose: It gives both knowledge systems balance and gives perspective and depth. The Western system, without being too critical, has been tied up in measuring. Charles Darwin used to measure our skulls to see how human we were or weren’t. In the search for measurable realities a whole lot of other realities have been dissipated.

Veronica Arbon: As far as we are concerned, we are Aboriginal, but in the past, we haven’t had the confidence to use that knowledge in the academy but hopefully now with the world movement of Indigenous PhDs and an increasing number in Australia, we can increasingly do that with much confidence.

No Limits: Is Deakin unique in what it is doing in Australia or are there other institutions working in this way?

Veronica Arbon: I think it is quite unique. There is only one other and that is the Batchelor Institute that has led the way since the early 1980s.

No Limits: That is the Institute in the Northern Territory that you headed up?

Veronica Arbon: Yes. It struggled with a notion of ‘both ways’ and tried to progress that in the face of huge opposition from a mainstream, which only saw one way, the Western scientific way, as necessary. Deakin is quite unique in that it is trying to progress that at not only the undergraduate level but at the Higher Degree level. I was fortunate to do my PhD at Deakin and that was a huge plus for me and for my family because it generated a substantial amount of discussion and knowledge sharing behind the scenes as well as my doctorate.

Mark Rose: I always go back to what Tom Calma, the Human Rights and Social Justice Commissioner, said. He saliently put that the first Maori PhD was in the 1800’s and the first Aboriginal PhD was 100 years later. Aboriginal people have only been one and a bit generations into tertiary education and the last thing we want to do is as predecessors have done is to give scant regard to the validity of Indigenous knowledge systems. What makes Deakin remarkable is the appointment of two chairs in this area. There are chairs and professors around the country, but our titles Indigenous Knowledge Systems go to the heart of what Deakin has always done in the field of Indigenous education – that is respect and being part of Community.

Veronica Arbon: Yes, and there is a commitment to not only looking at the tangible but also the philosophy and deeper aspects of Indigenous Knowledge.

Mark Rose: And the positions and titles are backed by support firstly from Professor Wendy Brabham, the Director of IKE and also from senior University executives, John Rosenberg and Sally Walker herself. They give tremendous support and a real commitment to this and that is what makes Deakin unique. Another thing that is important in this is that between us, Veronica and I cover a great deal of Australia. Veronica is from the north of Australia while I am from Victoria. So that brings together a lot of knowledge, a lot of aspects, as well.

For more information on the Institute for Koorie Education, visit: www.deakin.edu.au/ike/

About Associate Professor Mark Rose: An outstanding indigenous administrator and educator, Professor Mark Rose is traditionally linked to the Gunditjmara Nation of Western Victoria. Professor Rose has spent most of his life in education teaching every level from prep to PhD supervision, and was invited to become a member of the former Federal Government’s Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC), advising the Commonwealth Education Minister, Julie Bishop. Professor Rose is a former Principal of Koorie Open Door Education (KODE) and has been an active member of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc (VAEAI). As a Director of Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships (IEP) Professor Rose spends time working with indigenous youth across the nation. Professor Rose was a member of Victoria’s task force on the Stolen Generations in 2002 and between 2004 and 2005, he co-chaired the whole-of-government implementation review of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

About Professor Veronica Arbon: Veronica Arbon is from the Arabunna people of the central deserts of South Australia and also has links to the Lower Southern Arrernte people. She was born in Alice Springs and grew up at Urapunga in the Roper River region of Australia's Northern Territory. Before joining Deakin University Dr Arbon was the Head of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Northern Territory. She is interested through her studies, research, and work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, health, and management. In recent years, this interest has also focused on issues of rights and quality in education through systems, processes, and practices that do not require an abandonment of the value of difference. She is particularly interested in interrelationships and exchange in these areas as they impact on adult education in remote Australia. Ms Arbon holds an Ass. Diploma in Community Development, a BA, an MEd, a Graduate Certificate in Management, as well as her PhD.


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20th August 2012