Bridging the cultural divide
Two of the most significant events to have occurred at the University of Adelaide in the past four years are now paving the way for a positive new era in our relations with Aboriginal communities.
The signing of the Reconciliation Statement in 2003 and the launching of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Employment Strategy in 2006 both stand as historic markers for the University.
The first was a commitment by the University to move beyond the rhetoric and actively promote an understanding of Indigenous issues, culture and history in its programs and courses. At the same time, the University acknowledged the Kaurna people as original inhabitants of its land.
Closely tied to the reconciliation objectives is the employment strategy - now in its second year - which aims to address the under-representation of ATSI people across the higher education sector.
Underpinning all this is the University's acknowledgement of past injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Professor Roger Thomas, the Director of the University's Centre for Australian Indigenous Research and Studies, said the priority is to build up the Indigenous academic numbers within the University.
"Indigenous people should be researching their own culture and we need to build a cohort of Aboriginal academic staff to achieve that. To that end, we have appointed three Indigenous academics to the School of Education, School of History and Politics, and the School of Psychology, who will start in 2008," Professor Thomas said.
The University currently employs 31 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, made up of 11 academics and 20 professional staff. A total of 136 Aboriginal students are enrolled in the University's programs, with 23 of them expected to graduate in 2007. In total, 17 different scholarships are offered to Indigenous students each year.
The strengthening of relationships between the University and the Aboriginal community began 30 years ago with the establishment of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). This is the only university program of its kind in Australia which continues to deliver training for ATSI people in Indigenous music and performance.
Felix Kerry, who has just completed an Associate Diploma in Aboriginal Studies in Music, is a recent CASM graduate. Felix was named the 2006 South Australian NAIDOC Artist of the Year for his work with Aboriginal communities in the performing arts field.
The personable singer/songwriter gives regular performing arts workshops to Aboriginal youth and also wrote the musical score for the award-winning Crossing Paths dance spectacular at the 2006 Adelaide Fringe Festival.
But the success stories are not confined to music. Across the campus, collaborative research is being undertaken on Aboriginal health, languages, native title claims, heritage issues and the higher education sector in general.
In 2000, the Yaitya Purruna Indigenous Health Unit was established in the Medical School, supporting Indigenous student recruitment and the integration of Aboriginal culture into the medical curriculum.
Jenni Caruso, the unit co-ordinator, says all medical students can take a second year elective which gives them the opportunity to visit Aboriginal communities to assess health services.
Dr Veronica Arbon is an Indigenous research fellow within that unit whose brief is to secure funds for research into Indigenous health and provide leadership in this field.
Approval is currently pending for six grant applications to address a wide range of health issues across Aboriginal communities, including renal failure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dental and eye health. A seventh grant application - for research money into indigenous youth suicide - has been successful and the University has already held talks with Port Augusta and Coober Pedy communities on this issue.
Dr Olivia O'Donoghue is one of the University's outstanding Indigenous medical graduates from 2003 and is now working in paediatrics at the Royal Darwin Hospital and studying towards a Diploma
in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
In the past four years Olivia has done several remote GP attachments in the Galiwinku community, an Indigenous community in Arnhem Land, and will start rural general practice training in 2008. She is also enrolled in a Yolngu culture and language course, a dialect of Arnhem Land, where she hopes to be posted next year.
Many non-Indigenous academics in the University have also been involved in collaborative projects.
Internationally renowned pathologist, Professor Roger Byard, has done some work in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankuntjatjara Lands in the north of South Australia helping to expedite the autopsy process for deceased Aboriginals.
And Dr Rob Amery, a University of Adelaide linguistics lecturer, was honoured by UNESCO this year for his efforts in reviving endangered Indigenous languages.
Dr Amery has been working with Aboriginal communities since 1980, firstly as a nurse, and in the past 20 years specifically with local Aboriginal languages.
He has completed a PhD on Kaurna, the language of the Adelaide Plains, and today works closely with members of the Kaurna community to reintroduce the language.
Despite relatively low enrolments, the University supports the teaching of a Kaurna linguistics course and in September hosted an international Indigenous language conference.
"We are making a significant impact in supporting language revival efforts but we need to lift our game when it comes to recognising the Indigenous ownership of intellectual and cultural property," Dr Amery said.
Anthropologist Dr Deane Fergie played a significant role in the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair, supporting the claim of Ngarrindjeri women that the area was sacred.
A Royal Commission initially found the claim a hoax, fabricated to stop the construction of the bridge, but the Federal Court subsequently contradicted the Commission's findings in 2001 and a legal suit against Dr Fergie was dismissed.
Some positive things came out of the political and legal quagmire, including a new tide in Aboriginal affairs and recognition that clearer, less adversarial processes were needed to avoid similar disputes.
For the past decade, Dr Fergie and her University of Adelaide colleagues, in consultation with Aboriginal communities and their lawyers, have helped develop sensible ways to protect Indigenous heritage and undertake native title research.
Dr Fergie's research team, which includes historians, anthropologists and a lawyer, works in consultation with Aboriginal groups, developers and government bodies.
The group's work has involved negotiating the placement of towers for a new power line from Port Augusta to Roxby Downs to facilitate the Olympic Dam expansion, and working with the Dieri people and oil and gas developers in the Cooper Basin. More recently, team members have worked on native title claims and with mineral exploration companies in the Gawler Ranges.
Dr Fergie said this model of cultural heritage work is setting a benchmark for the rest of Australia.
"It's a continuation of the work that our academics started early last century. By road or rail, our researchers travelled from North Terrace to Aboriginal communities relatively easily. Academics such as Murray Barrett in Dentistry, Ted Strehlow of the Board of Anthropological Research, and Fay Gale and Jane Jacobs in Geography were exemplars of research based in deep relationships with Aboriginal people. The same tradition continues at the University today, but is enriched with Aboriginal researchers leading the field."■
STORY CANDY GIBSON