Living and breathing sustainability
What do you think when you hear the words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘sustainability’ together? Do you think of plants, or maybe animals? The perception that Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge is limited to flora and fauna is a hangover from a settled, colonised world, says Professor Steve Larkin, Pro Vice- Chancellor Indigenous Engagement at the University of Adelaide.
“To inadvertently limit Indigenous knowledge to things like folklore because they’re meant to be this hunting gathering class of people: they are rather outdated notions of what people think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know.There’s an element of power in this: the power of who decides who knows more, or what people are deemed to know.”
Every day, across every faculty, experts from the University of Adelaide are pushing the boundaries of traditional notions of sustainability. The following are just a few examples of members of our community working to sustain Aboriginal music, language, and health, all of which will in turn sustain Aboriginal culture.
Researchers have received a $1 million grant from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Indigenous scheme for a project that will strengthen knowledge, understanding and application of the intricate tuning systems that underpin traditional Indigenous musical practices. Members of the research team from the University include Dr Luke Dollman from the Elder Conservatorium of Music, Mr Grayson Rotumah from the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, and Ms Eleanor McCall from the Mobile Language Team.
University of Adelaide researchers have contributed to a new website, a comprehensive one-stop-shop for everything about the Kaurna language, the original language of the Adelaide Plains. The Kaurna Warra website is the new project of Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (KWP) which has been hosted by the University since 2004, and its sister organisation Kaurna Warra Karrpanthi (KWK). The KWP team, Associate Professor Rob Amery, and PhD candidates Susie Greenwood and Jasmin Morley, also worked on the first ever English to Kaurna dictionary, Kaurna Warrapiipa, which was published in 2022.
As Uncle Rodney (Rod) O’Brien, respected Kaurna Elder and Cultural Advisor at the University of Adelaide says: “The Kaurna language revival is vital to the survival of the Kaurna culture in the future. Without our language we lose our essential ingredient, I believe... it defines us and distinguishes us from others.”
Director of the University’s Indigenous Oral Health Unit and Yamatji woman Ms Joanne Hedges is the chief investigator on a study about human papilloma virus (HPV) throat cancers among Indigenous Australians. The initial results found throat cancers caused by HPV are 15 times more prevalent in Indigenous Australians than young non- Indigenous Australians. The National Health and Medical Research Council has provided $3.1 million in funding so the world-leading study can continue for the next five years, with the research’s ultimate goal being the early detection of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer before it becomes fatal.
“Sustainability is much broader than just key things to do to sustain a healthy physical environment in society. We need to sustain a social, political, moral commitment to achieving equity as a priority; it’s something that the University breathes, it’s got to live its values.”Professor Steve Larkin, Pro Vice- Chancellor Indigenous Engagement at the University of Adelaide
Health through education
Mr Kym Thomas, a Nukunu Elder, is a researcher with the Adelaide Rural Clinical School which coordinates training placements for medical students across rural, regional and remote South Australia.
Currently the Chair of the Nukunu Thura Corporation, and previous Chair of Pika Wiya Health Service Aboriginal Corporation, Kym believes the placements are invaluable for the next generation of doctors to better understand Aboriginal patients and work with them toward healthier futures.
“When I used to take the medical students on cultural immersion trips to the APY Lands, one student said to me, ‘I’ve learned more in this week than I have in a lifetime, when it comes to knowing Aboriginal lifestyles and cultures’. If you don’t understand your topic, if you don’t understand the community, you’ve got no way of being a doctor that’s going to fit in and provide the right treatments, the right referrals, the right advocacy.”
Dr Dylan Coleman, a Kokatha/Greek woman from the far west coast of South Australia, works as a Lecturer in the Yaitya Purruna Indigenous Health Unit, which sits within the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.
“Aboriginal peoples’ health and wellbeing, with protection of Country at the centre, should be a priority within university systems, but that’s not always the case,” she says.
“Yaitya Purruna has developed an Aboriginal Governance Model that includes all of the schools in the faculty. The Executive Dean has approved this model, and the faculty is supporting its further development by Indigenous staff at the University through a process of community consultation.”
“The improvement and maintenance of Aboriginal health necessarily requires people to be able to make decisions about their own lives and that of their children and grandchildren, to protect Country for the future generations.”
The University of Adelaide prioritises sustaining Indigenous cultures.
In 2022 as part of National Reconciliation Week, a new portrait of Uncle Rod O’Brien was unveiled in the Barr Smith Library.
The University has long collected portraits of its leaders and great thinkers, and this was the first portrait of an Indigenous leader to join the University’s Visual Art Collection. The portrait was created by Thomas Readett, an artist and Ngarrindjeri/Arrernte man who was born and raised on Kaurna Country. Uncle Rod’s portrait acknowledges his leadership in the University community on its journey to reconciliation.
“I hope my portrait shows Aboriginal people that I’m valued by the University, and I hope to inspire other Aboriginal people at the University, whether they be students, academics, or professional staff, to reach for the stars and achieve excellence. Maybe one day there will be an Aboriginal Chancellor or Vice-Chancellor,” Uncle Rod reflected at the time.
Also in 2022, a mural was commissioned as a permanent fixture of the University of Adelaide’s North Terrace campus. The mural, Kaur na Wirltu Tidna, was created by Cedric Varcoe, a Ramindjerri yuraldi man of the Ngarendjerri nation, and Narunga artist.
“The University of Adelaide strives to increase Indigenous cultural affirmation by raising the status and visibility of Indigenous cultures.We also prioritise collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. By commissioning Cedric’s artwork for the Hub, the heart of our University, we are putting these principles in motion,” Professor Steve Larkin says.
Uncle Rod believes the mural is important for connecting people to Country when they are on campus.
“If you connect to our Country, we believe that you’ll care for our Country, and if you care for our Country, the Country will care for you.”
Professor Larkin believes sustainability is twofold: sustaining the right things, while leaving the wrong things behind.
“It requires robust interrogation – sustaining what we value, want to retain, maintain, build and grow while rendering unsustainable those structures that actually oppress, limit, and perpetuate inequality and disadvantage. This requires us to be quite introspective as an institution; for Indigenous Australians it’s sustainability of organisational commitment,” he said.
“Sustainability is much broader than just key things to do to sustain a healthy physical environment in society.
“We need to sustain the investment of both material resources and of commitment to closing the gap.We’ve got to sustain a material investment that’s commensurate to need, we need to sustain a social, political, moral commitment to achieving equity as a priority; it’s something that the University breathes, it’s got to live its values.”
Mural: Cedric Varcoe, Narungga/Ramindjeri/ Ngarrindjeri people, born 1984, Kaurna Wirltu Tidna , 2021, acrylic on canvas (University of Adelaide Library Special Collections, A.VA.2022.1037.1)
Story by Eleanor Danenberg, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Economics.