Bridging the gap - finding ways forward with Indigenous Australians

Research news
17 February 2015
ASSA award for outstanding anthropologist, Associate Prof Emma Kowal.

It was first-hand experience – and coming face-to-face with the tensions of non-indigenous people working with Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory - that led Associate Professor Emma Kowal to begin her outstanding academic journey.

Associate Professor Kowal has been relentless in her bid to bring a new level of sophistication to the issue and help Australia find a way forward.

In recognition of her “national and global influence” in this endeavour, she was recently awarded the 2014 Paul Bourke Award for Early Career Research by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA).

Further, to cap off her outstanding early career, Associate Professor Kowal is heading to Yale University later this year for a six-month sabbatical to join a group of international experts exploring biological difference and Indigenous bioethics.

Since her student days, Associate Professor Kowal has been passionate about contributing to Australia’s Indigenous communities. She concurrently completed her medical degree and a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Medical Anthropology at Melbourne University, before heading to the Northern Territory to work in Indigenous health.

Her experiences in the NT acted as a catalyst for her post-doctoral research and culminated in her book "Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia" (Berghahn, New York). The topic will also be the focus of her ASSA lecture at Deakin’s Melbourne City Centre on April 23.

“The white anti-racist experience has a lot of ambivalence, contradictions and double binds. It is a microcosm of the broader situation of post-colonialism,” she said.

“I am interested in asking how we can do things better and understanding the underlying tensions between making Indigenous people statistically similar, in terms of health and education, for instance, and nurturing difference.”

Associate Professor Kowal returned to academia as a post-doctoral research fellow in 2007, and has since written the monograph and 78 papers - and received an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) in 2012 and a national citation for teaching in Indigenous studies in 2013.

She is also Convenor of the Asia-Pacific Science, Technology and Society Network, editor of “Postcolonial Studies,” and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics at the ANU.

After establishing strong links with Deakin’s Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADRI-CG), Prof Kowal made the move to Deakin in June 2014 as Principal Research Fellow within the centre.

Her work focusses on two major anthropological research streams: Indigenous health; and science and technology studies, in areas such as genomics, biomedical research, bioethics and public health.

“Many people who are anti-racist are knowledgeable and motivated to address the legacies of colonialism by trying to put into practice the principles of self-determination,” she explained.

“There are huge challenges at a practical level, and the guilt associated with ‘colonial burden’ tends to contribute to the difficulties, as do inadequate funding and lack of co-ordination.”

For the past 10 years, Associate Professor Kowal has worked with the ADRI-CG’s Professor Yin Paradies, teaching professionals who work with Indigenous people about these issues.

“There are no easy answers, but we try to give some clarity about the underlying dilemmas,” she explained.

She believes that, at least in some areas, there has been a “seachange” in understanding how the two groups can work together. For instance, through her involvement with the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, she has worked with Indigenous people over the past four years to develop guidelines concerning the use of the ANU’s collection of Indigenous genetic samples. Some of these samples date back to the 1960s, but the whole collection has been in moratorium since the late 1990s while the centre sought a way forward.

“Unlike the ‘specimen’ approach of the past, there is now an understanding that, if we work together with Indigenous representatives right through the process, this collection could make a real difference to Indigenous health,” said Prof Kowal.

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Associate Professor Emma Kowal. Associate Professor Emma Kowal.

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