In 2010 history was made when Rebecca Richards, an anthropology student of the University of Adelaide, became Australia’s first Indigenous Rhodes Scholar. Awarded to only a handful of students across Australia, the prestigious Rhodes scholarship provides the opportunity to study at Oxford University. For Rebecca, it means access to one of the oldest anthropological museums in the world.
The daughter of a Leigh Creek stockman and a primary school teacher, Rebecca is an inspiration for many young people who consider higher education to be an unlikely path. Her own journey was not to be predicted as no one on her father’s side had finished school. But whilst her family may not have had an academic education, they passed onto Rebecca the most important knowledge of all – their culture.
Raised in South Australia’s Riverland, Rebecca is a member of the Adnyamathanha and Barngarla peoples of the Flinders Ranges. She grew up on her family's fruit block, riding horses, dirt motorbikes and swimming in the Murray River. Her father was a major influence in her life, encouraging her to constantly seek knowledge. He took her on many trips to the Flinders Ranges, where he would show her rock art and tell stories.
‘My father would tell me these stories, usually when travelling through country... It's a continuous story across the landscape as you journey. At the beginning it doesn't seem like it makes any sense. But then as you keep travelling and building up the story, it becomes richer and fuller, and you understand it more’, Rebecca explains.
Rebecca became interested in anthropology at just 17 years of age. She undertook some fieldwork in her native Adnyamathanha and Barngala lands with her father and also with the Head of Anthropology at the South Australian Museum, Dr Philip Jones. The information they gathered on these trips was invaluable—later used in the determination of native title of those lands. This sparked both a desire in Rebecca to learn more and a passion to change the ways things were done.
‘These formative experiences helped me to realise that the Indigenous knowledge of the ecology and history of South Australia and this continent is priceless. My fight for its recognition has fuelled my academic achievements’, Rebecca says.
Rebecca is now a passionate leader in the Indigenous community and is committed to preserving and promoting Aboriginal culture. She has custodial responsibilities for women's sites in the Flinders Ranges and her family site, Pukatu. She is also an advocate for Indigenous rights and has been a community-nominated representative for native title mediation for the past five years.
Whilst she is a long way from the Riverland at present, Rebecca plans to continue her fight for Indigenous heritage preservation. With access to the Pitt Rivers Museum and Bodleian Library at Oxford, she hopes to help repatriate objects and knowledge - sharing them with the relevant Indigenous communities in Australia.
Rebecca’s achievement makes her the University of Adelaide’s 104th Rhodes Scholar. She hopes that her achievements encourage other Indigenous people to pursue their dreams. ‘My advice to future generations is to find something that you're passionate about, and pursue it with everything that you have. Just do what you love and know that there is a place for you. And it doesn't have to be typical of your background. You could do amazing things’, she said.
Rebecca Richards in Canberra