Cross-cultural consideration

Australian - 21st February 2001
Author: Martin Nakata

Indigenous academics are on foreign ground in their own land, argues Martin Nakata, who proposes signposts

Invoking and romanticising memory and tradition can be problematic

INDIGENOUS academics are a small and often isolated minority within the education sector.

We have, generally speaking, got to where we are through personal and educational struggle, although our backgrounds are diverse. Our numbers in universities are even fewer, and research work done by indigenous researchers is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The first lesson an indigenous undergraduate learns is coming to understand how we are represented in the literature that supports what we know as Australian history, not just in descriptive terms but in conceptual and theoretical terms -- how we are understood and talked about.

In this corpus of knowledge, we are presented with a reference point for thinking and talking about ourselves.

In many cases, particularly for those of us who are older and had incomplete or unsuccessful schooling and little access to the media, this is the first authoritative reference point we have been given access to, beyond our personal experience and consciousness.

This is invariably empowering, as knowledge tends to be, whether indigenous people accept the views they read about or oppose them. It gives them a schema on which to hang or from which to contest the ideas and thinking that derive from their own experience.

But nowhere is there an authoritative indigenous reference point from which to develop our ideas and ways of thinking, beyond the narrative of citing our experience.

There is no intact framework for organising some authentic or valid indigenous theoretical position.

Legitimate indigenous knowledge does exist, and there is a movement to restore and reclaim it. But invoking and romanticising memory and tradition can also be problematic.

Indigenous experience has been shaped by our collision with Western ways of knowing, and those systems for thinking continue to shape our experience and continue to infiltrate the restoration, organisation, documentation and deployment of what remains of indigenous knowledge.

The way forward from this mix will depend on how we reshape our interactions with what we call Western knowledge.

In indigenous education, the literature is very recent. In the 1970s, most of it was reviews and analysis of the appalling state of affairs, which confirmed and legitimated the need for reform and funding measures.

In the 80s, we see some research and analysis of reasons for our educational failure and ways to reform teaching and learning areas. Not until the 90s do we see a questioning of the theoretical parameters of that research and its effects as it attempted to generate a more culturally sensitive but still compensatory education.

Indigenous academics, like the rest of the academic population, respond in different ways, according to personal and educational experience and no doubt a lot of other things.

Some have embraced the status quo -- that is, the position theorised mostly by others on our behalf -- that our educational position stems from culturally different paradigms and that reform should emphasise identifying and teaching to those differences and educating other Australians about them.

This has been the accepted path of reform since the 80s and it has been credited, along with improved positive structural access measures, with the slow improvement in outcomes.

However, somewhat paradoxically, it is also increasingly implicated in the continued low outcomes at all levels of education and the continuation of what is essentially a two-tiered system. The two tiers refer not to alternative pathways but to differences in the mastery of academic skills and in outcomes.

That some of us oppose the reference points provided in the literature is not to say we all agree on the way forward.

For some indigenous academics, opposition means separation. Such agendas urge the development of knowledge and ways of learning as something quite distinct from Western knowledge.

Others, more pragmatic, engage with the body of knowledge with the ultimate aim of influencing and shaping it to indigenous priorities.

These three responses produce different sorts of dialogue within institutions, between indigenous people as well as between indigenous Australians and other Australians who work in the same field.

Going with the status quo brings opportunities for dialogue that strongly legitimate the indigenous position.

This is so because in this dialogue, indigenous people are the primary knowledge holders -- we get to own our difference -- and more to the point it is difficult for others to contest it.

This has great appeal for indigenous people. Just as our difference has been deployed against us in the past, now we use it to work in our interests.

This position also appeals to other Australians involved in our issues. For so many who support our cause and are committed to reconciliation, the opportunity to hand over ownership of the dialogue to indigenous people sits well with their desire not to interfere but to merely assist in the process.

At the same time, however, it allows plenty of room for the others to continue to push their barrows and their expertise so that indigenous people can take on their approaches to reform.

There are many problems with this sort of dialogue, occasioning increasing discussion among indigenous people.

This form of dialogue encapsulates our dilemma. We need to maintain control over what is essentially conceptualised as a cultural domain and we need new understandings of Western knowledge systems to solve some of our problems. But at what point do we start being critical about our own application of these systems of thought? For me, we are still on the same leash; it's just that it's longer and we can run a bit more freely with it. But the path we're taking is an old one that has been resurfaced, rather than a better route.

Separatists, on the other hand, would prefer to reduce the need for dialogue with others by building their own knowledge systems.

In this way they speak to each other or to other indigenous peoples around the world, generating new knowledge and ways of understanding that better represent lifeworlds and experience.

In this way, they bypass a lot of interference and co-option into other ways of thinking in an attempt to give primacy to traditional ways of thinking and traditional knowledge.

In my heart, I'm quite sympathetic to this notion, but it is fraught with problems.

New ways of thinking need to emerge and the separatist response is one way of going about it. My fear is that anything developed without conventional engagement with the formal academy is likely to be marginalised or patronised.

I also fear that it may in fact be poorer for not having engaged rigorously with Western knowledge systems, which in the end circumscribe the context in which we now live and think.

But in terms of a dialogue there are positives for the separatists.

They make a space that is their own and the boundaries are quite clear about who can and can't speak.

In this sense it is simple and clear cut -- it is a sanctuary and it inverts relationships. I often yearn to be there myself just for those reasons.

However, the most difficult dialogues are those where indigenous academics choose to engage with the corpus of knowledge, to contest it conventionally and influence and shape thinking on indigenous issues.

First, it requires the mastery of Western knowledge and thinking, mastery of logic and systems of thought and mastery of language, none of which come easily without submerging indigenous lifeworlds and experience.

Second, it requires engagement with people who are just as familiar with the field, probably more facile with the English language and logic, an engagement fraught with risk and humiliation for indigenous people who work from a narrower context in terms of general knowledge of the world. In this relationship, we are rarely considered the knower.

Third, it is difficult to shift non-indigenous people beyond their positions, particularly ideological and theoretical positions, when they make so much sense in their own context.

Dialogue therefore proceeds more on their ground rather than indigenous ground; it requires more intellectual persuasion by indigenous academics because dialogue is less about cultural content, less about the morality of positions and more about the premise of particular systems of thought and the production of knowledge.

Lack of loyalty to accepted theoretical or ideological positions by indigenous people is often read as our misreading and misunderstanding of these positions and what they have to offer indigenous people.

But indigenous experience informs the way that we read the world and the knowledge positions which inscribe us into that world and gives us a different reading of the value of particular systems of thought.

This level and type of dialogue is therefore much more complex, difficult, as well as risky.

For this dialogue to be productive, we all have to give up something in order to reach common ground, mutual understanding and a reshaping of thinking.

The territory is uncharted, boundaries are not clear, there is no exclusion in terms of who and who cannot speak, and the intellectual space is a shared one. It is a negotiation skewed in favour of non-indigenous people.

But it is at this level that the dialogue needs to intensify.

The quality of the cross-cultural dialogue will be enhanced if indigenous people are able to continue to discuss the issues among themselves. This is a space where we can test and contest ideas, deal with painful issues, help each other to develop effective forms of theorising and expressing experience, learn the ropes without fear of failure.

The most powerful and successful indigenous negotiators in the past decade have been those who have been able to participate in the difficult cross-cultural dialogues.

They are well-educated in non-indigenous ways of thinking and knowledge but they are firmly embedded and steadfast in the indigenous standpoint -- people such as the Dodson brothers, Mick and Patrick, and Professor Marcia Langton and Dr Bill Jonas.

They have been able to achieve big things for the indigenous cause because they have been able to preserve the indigenous standpoint through difficult dialogues conducted within and according to the rules that count in official circles. They have negotiated at the interface of two conflicting positions. They have worked someone else's ground for common and logical justice and influenced reform. And they worked in a space where the odds were stacked against them.

Reform in indigenous education moves forward in the same way.

Indigenous academics are in a constant process of negotiation -- with intellectual positions, with colleagues and with all stakeholders.

When we move into the space that so many indigenous and non-indigenous reformers want to share, when we participate in dialogue, we all need to remember that the negotiation is not in our favour, however it looks and feels.

Trying to find common ground for dialogue is not the same as meeting on even ground. However much we want to shape and direct the dialogue, we are on foreign ground in our own land. Until the shape of that ground changes, it will remain a very difficult place for most indigenous people to be.

Dr Martin Nakata heads the Aboriginal Research Institute at the University of South Australia and is on the co-ordinating committee of this week's Indigenous Peoples and Racism Conference in Sydney