Realising the unique value of indigenous knowledge

| October 28, 2019

While some “lay asleep, rolled up in their opossum rugs”, others were still awake and “readily pointed out the proper direction” to Melbourne for the disorientated Westgarth.

William Westgarth was directed by a group of local Wurundjeri people. The illustration shows Aboriginal people fishing and camping on Merri Creek and was painted by Charles Troede in 1864.

Ten years later, the foundation stone for the University of Melbourne’s Old Quad was laid near the site of those campfires. Westgarth later reasoned that replacing the ‘native encampment’ with a university was a sign of societal progress.

He regarded the University — the height of ‘civilisation’ — as enlightening the ‘primitive colony’, seemingly oblivious to how he personally benefitted from engaging with Indigenous people and their knowledge.

For too long, Australian universities have assumed a similar mindset to Westgarth, overlooking Indigenous knowledge, ideas and peoples.

Margaret Williams-Weir, the University of Melbourne’s (and Australia’s) first recorded Indigenous graduate, graduated in 1959, an unconscionable 104 years after the University opened its doors.

Excluding Indigenous Australia meant universities missed opportunities to discover and share its rich knowledge.

Indigenous knowledge still exists, and we can still access it, learn from and about it. Importantly, including Indigenous knowledge systems, and examining their interaction with other knowledge systems, will enhance universities’ core purpose of knowledge creation and dissemination.

However, we must reframe how we view civic engagement between universities and Indigenous peoples if we are to learn all they have to teach us.

The recent Civic University Commission in the United Kingdom explored the growing importance of civic universities to the present and future of their local communities.

Dr Margaret Williams-Weir, Australia’s first recorded Indigenous graduate.

As the Commission notes, universities have “been territorially agnostic for many years”, ignoring the importance of local context and place. Civic universities are responding to this historic oversight by focusing on the specific, place-based opportunities before them.

As the Commission’s report argues, the current climate provides an opportunity to rearticulate the role of universities, with civic engagement serving a fundamental part of the established university roles of knowledge creation and dissemination.

We should apply this same spirit of understanding and connecting with context to how we consider the current framing of the civic university in the Australia.

The foundations of our higher education system are firmly British, an extension of the territorial agnosticism that prompted the civic university movement.

However, rather than embracing the civic model as a response to these challenges, we should first understand how these civic ideals might serve the needs and opportunities of our context, and in particular, of Indigenous Australia.

Universities should build enriching relationships with Indigenous communities that involve deep two-way learning, a notion that extends beyond service, anchor institutions and social accountability.

When it comes to Indigenous knowledge, the framing of a civic university presents three issues.

These partnerships offer opportunities for everyone to learn from each other. 

First, the term ‘civic’ originates from Indo-European languages, reinforcing a western civilisation approach to higher education. In framing the role of the university in this way, we unintentionally exclude other knowledge paradigms, including from Indigenous communities.

Second, as the Commission notes, “A civic university cannot serve everywhere, and that means that someone must fall on the wrong side of the boundary”.

In Australia, Indigenous peoples have traditionally been placed on the wrong side of university boundaries. Merely extending civic boundaries to ensure universities serve more Indigenous Australians could be akin to assimilation – a social process Indigenous populations know only too well.

Third, the Commission report highlights a public desire for universities to “localise their national and international responsibilities.”

They feel universities have responsibilities to benefit local students, employers and communities.

The opposite is needed for engagement with Indigenous knowledge.

Australian universities can internationalise local Indigenous knowledge by connecting it with established global knowledge systems, including the dynamic global dialogue surrounding Indigenous knowledge systems.

The University of Melbourne’s relationship with Indigenous knowledge thus far is instructive. At first, our mindset towards Indigenous issues focused on undertaking research on major challenges facing Indigenous peoples and generating solutions to ‘fix’ them from afar.

On-Country subjects, developed by local Elders, are part of this two-way learning. 

Another approach was to view Indigenous communities as needing our charitable help and providing the support we determined they needed.

We only started to build enriching relations once we began viewing our relationship with Indigenous peoples as one that involves deep two-way learning. The concept of bala lili, from the Yolngu Matha in Arnhem land, northern Australia, beautifully encapsulates our new approach. Bala lili means ‘to give and take, listening and understanding’.

It refers to the phenomenon where saltwater and freshwater rivers meet, mix, and flow on together. Where these waters combine, they bubble up together to create something exciting, something new.

A transformative model for this two-way learning is on-Country subjects, developed by local Elders, whereby students learn ‘on Country’ about Indigenous perspectives, issues, and ways of being.

By engaging with Indigenous communities and their human libraries of knowledge, these partnerships offer bidirectional learning opportunities and create new knowledge, fulfilling the purpose of our university.

The differing context, geography and history of other nations will mean this form of civic relationship with Indigenous peoples may not be relevant to other universities.

The responsibilities of a university in London, Johannesburg or Shanghai will depend on the needs, deeds and histories of their place.

However, the concept of bala lili is applicable to all.

To build enriching relationships with their local communities, universities must view engagement as a two-way process of giving and taking, listening and understanding.

This article was written by Professor Shaun Ewen and Daniel Hanrahan of the University of Melbourne.  It was published by Pursuit.  An earlier version was originally published in Transform: The Journal of Engaged Scholarship in the lead up to the Engagement Australia 2019 Conference.