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Myth-making Isn’t the Right Way to ‘Indigenise’ Our Universities

Too often, the noble goal of reconciliation is being co-opted by those seeking to invent fake histories and advance politicized narratives.

· 16 min read
Myth-making Isn’t the Right Way to ‘Indigenise’ Our Universities
Artwork by 19th-century Indigenous activist William Barak, leader to the Wurundjeri people.

Several years ago, an Aboriginal academic from Queensland who was a staff member at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) presented a seminar on Aboriginal spirituality. Central to her presentation was the claim that Uluru, the large sandstone formation in the middle of the country (once known as Ayers Rock), was the foundational hearth of all Aboriginal spirituality, and the site from which all ancestral beings emanated before spreading across Australia. These original beings, she proclaimed, were the cloud and rain spirits known as Wandjina.

Wandjina-themed rock art in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

In the subsequent discussion, it was pointed out that belief in the Wandjina was a regional (and comparatively recent) phenomenon, confined to Western Australia’s remote northern areas; and so it was unclear how the Wandjina could be the forebears of all other older, ancestral beings. The academic, Tjanara Goreng Goreng, responded by saying that she spoke “the truth,” and she knew it to be true because it was traditional knowledge handed down from her mother, who had learned it from her mother. More unsettling than the presentation of such self-proclaimed truths in an academic context was the apparent credulity of the non-Indigenous academics in the audience.

In her 2018 PhD thesis, titled in part, The Road to Eldership: How Aboriginal Culture Creates Sacred and Visionary Leaders, the academic made similar claims:

The Wandjina are our Leaders, Our Ancestors, Our Elders—the beings who brought us Our Laws, Values, Principles and ways of being, knowing and doing. The Wandjina sang into the Songlines [defined in a footnote as “the pathways that Ancestral Beings travelled across country”] as they travelled, and we continue to sing the songs of our Ancestors reminding us of who we are and why we are here. I knew then it was the track I had to take to study our Eldership as sacred leadership. I call it the Road to Eldership.”

Elsewhere, she describes artwork depicting “the story of the Wandjina Ancestor of the Ngunnawal people from the land where Canberra Australia’s capital now sits” in the South Eastern part of Australia; as well revelatory dreams that connected her to the timeless narratives of her ancestors—which she refers to as Tjukurpa, a term from the central and western deserts. At one point, she writes:

I was given the medicine and power of a ngungkari [a traditional Aboriginal medicine practitioner, specific to the central and western deserts] and felt myself enter into a higher state of being. This was evident on my return to my normal world when I began to perform medicine healings on my friends and others who were ill. I noticed a heightened ability to heal through my hands and an intuitive sense and ability to connect to Ancestral beings in the Tjukurpa which had not occurred before. These Wandjina Beings would come when I was giving medicine and work in the energy to heal. I can only describe this as a powerful sacred energy which they bring and use. For me this is a sacred way of being.

The academic’s claims did not follow any one Australian Indigenous tradition, but reflected a jumble of incongruent mystical belief systems from widely scattered parts of Australia. (Aboriginal societies throughout the continent manifested locally, with each group having its own spiritual beliefs, languages, laws, and so on.) And so even by the lights of Indigenous spiritualism, her claims didn’t make a lot of sense. Yet this kind of academic presentation (and the credulous response it elicited) is not an isolated phenomenon. Myth-making of this sort has been proliferating on Australia’s campuses over the last decade, reflecting ongoing efforts to “Indigenise” the university sector, a project that often requires that academics suppress conventional modes of scepticism and inquiry.

The dynamic is reflected too, in the story of Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 non-fiction book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, in which the well-known Australian writer makes a number of claims about Aboriginal people and society that are refuted by history and science, but which are now popularly accepted (such as the claim that Aboriginals have lived in Australia for 120,000 years, roughly double the actual figure).

The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) was apparently unconcerned about the accuracy of Pascoe’s claims when awarding him its prestigious biennial medal, in 2021, for his “vital [work] in this age of truth telling”—this despite the fact that it isn’t even clear if Pascoe (now a senior academic at the University of Melbourne) is Aboriginal. (It was only when Pascoe was in his 30s that he came to believe he had Indigenous ancestry, having remembered that an uncle had once told him about an Aboriginal relative.)

This tendency to propagate dubious mythologies about Indigenous cultures and people, and the attendant marginalising of real scholarly knowledge, stems from well-intentioned impulses. But it misdirects policy-making that might actually help Aboriginal communities. Moreover, we expect the tendency will only become more pronounced following the recent election of a Labor government in Australia, as its progressive members tend to favour this myth-making project; and are more invested in the professional class of academics and activists who purport to speak for all Aboriginal people.

While “Indigenisation” is defined in many ways, most of its proponents generally exalt it as a political movement that promises to liberate Indigenous people from racism, white supremacism, and the alienation that comes from living within a European-descended political society. In its Great Guide to Indigenisation of the Curriculum, Central Queensland University (CQU) describes Indigenisation as an utterly transformative project that will “valorise and strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems.”

In keeping with analogous trends in Canada, this transformation roughly breaks down as a three-stage process, involving a symbolic element, inclusionary policies, and a substantive revision of the university curriculum. In Australian universities, the symbolic portion includes the prominent display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, flags, land acknowledgements, and welcome statements at public events, lectures, and meetings. (Torres Strait Islanders, inhabitants of islands situated between Australia and New Guinea, are considered distinct from Aboriginal Australians.) Inclusionary policies manifest in employment targets and reserved positions (quotas, some might call them, but this sort of explicit term tends to be avoided) particularly at senior management and professorial levels.

But it is the third stage—which affects the actual content of university education—that is of most concern to us. Australia’s higher-education umbrella organisation, Universities Australia, expects that curricula will become “inclusive of, sensitive to, and conducive to the aspirations of Indigenous Australians,” and that “all students will encounter and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as integral parts of their courses of study.” Each university is required to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) to guide their operations, with reconciliation in education being depicted as an endless and deeply personal process of spiritual cleansing: a “journey [of] learning, unlearning, and relearning … without an end-point [that] must be continuously worked towards.” Accordingly, universities are giving greater prominence to Indigenous cultural and spiritual values, personal experiences, traditional knowledges, stories, art, music, science, architecture, literature, law, education, health and social work; as well as in dedicated Aboriginal Studies courses.

AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia.

To include Indigenous epistemologies, universities are employing more Indigenous staff and promoting pedagogies such as yarning circles and storytelling, as at the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. Indigenisation includes courses to improve the cultural competencies of trainee professionals such as nursing and midwifery students at Monash University and education students at UTAS, which would ideally be professionally useful to graduates serving a diverse clientele.

Indigenisation also privileges Indigenist research ethics, protocols, methodologies, standpoint, and epistemology, so as to ensure that the subjects of academic research in Indigenous communities are consulted, that the research is of clear benefit to them, and that the data will be returned to their control—an extrapolation of the larger Indigenous Data Sovereignty movement, which aims to correct past practices that treated Indigenous communities as mere test subjects for white academics. Principles and expectations regarding this worthy objective are detailed in widely circulated documents such as the Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research (published by the National Health and Medical Research Council) and the Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

Many units also integrate far more dubious (and faddish) studies of “whiteness,” so as to denaturalise the purportedly false universalism of scientific knowledge—even if this kind of effort often is couched in deliberately hazy language that obscures the obvious tension between science and spiritualism. At the University of Wollongong (UOW), for instance, the glossy 55-page RAP includes a message from the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences (EIS) that runs as follows:

Everything that we do requires authentically engaging with, acknowledging, and maintaining cultural understanding of the Aboriginal lands on which we study and live. Reconciliation is an opportunity for all to come together to celebrate, respect, and accept the diverse cultures and beliefs represented at UOW, and enhance the connection, relationship, respect, and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples … We value the contributions that our Indigenous staff and students bring to EIS and celebrate their complex knowledge systems and lived experiences. We will continue to take every opportunity to increase our meaningful engagement by educating our staff and students in cultural learning and by embedding traditional knowledges and values.

It should be said that some aspects of Indigenisation reflect a commitment to a traditionally liberal (Enlightenment-based) approach to open inquiry, reasoned debate, evidence gathering, and critique. This approach to Indigenous issues reflects new post-colonial ideas that emerged in the late 20th century, well before the idea of “Indigenisation” had been popularized, and includes revisionist histories of inter-cultural contact, such as contained in Henry Reynolds’s 1981 The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European invasion of Australia. The approach not only remains valid, but vital, since Aboriginal and Islander people remain immersed in a profound and enduring socio-cultural interface with non-Indigenous people around the country. The interface presents all Indigenous people—from those in remote traditional communities to urban-dwelling professionals—with challenges that require informed and delicate negotiation.

A liberal approach to Indigenisation recognises the injustice and violence of colonisation, and the on-going structural determination of unequal life opportunities that has resulted. It acknowledges that “whiteness” (to such extent that term is useful) and its associated values are not universal, that they can affect individuals’ capacity to negotiate the world, and that an unbridled individualist ethos can serve to marginalise collective cultural identities. The approach also confronts the fact that earlier research often ignored Indigenous experiences and considered the research subjects as secondary to the development of (white) science and researcher careers. It also accepts that a rebalancing of power in the research relationship (as embedded in the Whole of Community Engagement initiative, led by Charles Darwin University) can help Indigenous people build a healthy sense of identity, and that the judicious embedding of Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum can be genuinely helpful toward advancing reconciliation.

This approach to Indigenisation, currently under pressure from more radical and politicized variants, is based on empirical evidence and deals in good faith with alternative viewpoints. And it includes Indigenous voices and their Western counterparts alike, without pronouncing one or the other as beyond critique. We took this approach in our own research and teaching of Aboriginal Studies at UTAS from 2000 to 2020, and in the process prepared many Indigenous and non-Indigenous students for work across Australia as teachers, nurses, administrators, youth workers, lawyers, and museum staff. Other universities have put this approach into practice, too, one example being Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in the early 2000s, which explicitly presupposed critical engagement with the two dominant knowledge systems and cultural perspectives. It acknowledged the complexity of the Indigenous situation, and the possibility of change in Indigenous perspectives.

Unfortunately, this critical liberal approach to Indigenisation is being overtaken by an identity-based form that stigmatizes normal academic debate and critique as a form of harm visited upon Aboriginal minds. Activists who hew to the American-influenced social justice movement routinely emphasize postmodern doctrines that cast knowledge as entirely subjective in nature, and science as inherently racist and exploitative. They have translated these understandings into a totalising focus on the injustices done by the dominant capitalist structures of Australian society to working class, female, gay, non-white, disabled, and transgendered individuals. The university is presented as an inherently colonial and oppressive institution that must be overhauled to prioritise belief, feelings and subjectivity over evidence.

In our experience, this identity-based and illiberal approach to Indigenisation is primarily championed by an academic elite whose members are predominantly drawn from regional and urban backgrounds in Australia’s south and on its east coast. It’s a professional clique whose members often have little authentic connection to heritage culture—so much so that several have been accused of having no Aboriginal ancestry whatsoever.

Within this academic/activist subculture, there is an oversized level of attention paid to public symbols and details of language—especially those that are deemed microaggressions. In keeping with their counterparts in other parts of the English-speaking world, they co-opt American social-justice parlance by agitating for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” denigrate whiteness, and promote a mythologized version of Indigenous culture and beliefs that casts Aboriginal people as perpetual victims and strips them of agency. At UTAS, Indigenisation has led to the denigration and replacement of an entire discipline-based critical Aboriginal Studies program with a single first-year unit that consists of a “country tour guided by Palawa Elders and Knowledge Holders,” whose content predictably blurs the line between academic instruction and political sloganeering.

Some of Indigenisation’s most visible proponents have offered grand but spurious claims about Aboriginal history, such as the idea that Aborigines were farmers, invented bread, and developed a transcontinental system of government and “sophisticated writing system”; and that Aboriginal societies were human-rights paradises that were strangers to sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of bigotry and discrimination. They have also claimed that because Indigenous people engaged in tens of thousands of years of diplomatic relations with one another, their experience should be central to Australian foreign policy (advice that the new government appears to be taking seriously); that the boomerang led to the invention of propellers and drones; and that (at UTAS) an Indigenous perspective should be included in Antarctic Studies.

Particularly in the Australian island state of Tasmania, where Indigenous people have become deeply disconnected from customary knowledge, it has become possible for self-appointed experts to advance all manner of politicized claims. One notable example is the assertion that building a cable car on Mt. Wellington, near Tasmania’s capital, would constitute a desecration of sacred land—notwithstanding an archeological report to the effect that “the development does not involve an Aboriginal heritage site as defined under [federal law].” At one point, the claim that the mountain contained “secret caves” was advanced in a local newspaper (without evidence)—which accords with the image that many gullible white Australians have of ancient Australia as a sort of paradise.

One ahistorical theme that runs through this activism is the portrayal of “whiteness” and Aboriginality as monolithic binaries, each characterized by their own stereotypes. Yet in reality, at the time of colonisation in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Aboriginal population was divided into roughly 250 distinct language and cultural groups, many of which regarded one another as hostile. The various groups also went on to have different experiences with colonisation, and the notion of a pan-Aboriginal community emerged only during the latter part of the 20th century.

One reason these ahistorical and reductionist stereotypes of early Aboriginal societies are accepted by so many academics is that they read back to us our own mythologized visions of communal, pre-industrial life. In this imagined world of peace and harmony, the elders are universally respected repositories of timeless, spiritually understood truths that exist beyond the scrutiny of science (or even the comprehension of outsiders). This is the kind of “pseudo-profound bullshit” (as one academic paper has described it) that was evident in a recent ABC Science dispatch produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in which an Indigenous academic explained Indigenous spirituality as a sort of proto-environmentalism in which “everything is connected and needs respect—not just humans, animals, trees and rocks—but land and sky, and past and present.”

Such utopian visions often are juxtaposed with an equally simplified white world, which is cast as alienating, racist, and oppressive. Insofar as problems within Indigenous communities are discussed—in health, education, arrest rates, incarceration, suicide, and the rest—they often are laid at the feet of racism or society’s “colonising discourse” (with any disputation of this presumption being decried as an instigation toward yet more racial hatred).

Marcia Langton, a professor at the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, told ABC TV in 2018 that “Aboriginal men did not [before contact] treat Aboriginal women in the way they have been taught by white people. They’ve adopted a very white Australian attitude towards Aboriginal women.” Another Aboriginal professor, Bronwyn Carlson of Macquarie University, similarly claims that there was no violence against women in pre-contact Australia. There is also an effort to ignore evidence of a “rape culture” and homophobia in remote Aboriginal communities. (Of course, violence against women has existed in every part of the planet. For an evidence-based counterpoint to these dubious claims about Aboriginal societies, see Peter Sutton’s 2009 book, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus.)

To their credit, some Aboriginal intellectuals have been prepared to expose the lived realities in their communities. One example is Noel Pearson, whose home on Cape York in Far North Queensland hosted weekly binge-drinking parties, during which “young children [emerge] out of the houses, as if from a war zone [with some] sitting on the kerbside at 3 a.m. … simply too scared to go home.” Others include Warren Mundine, Anthony Dillon, and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. But in academic circles, this kind of candour runs afoul of the preferred in-house ideology, and so any focus on Aboriginal agency and individual behaviour is generally eschewed.

It is equally unfashionable to point out that some of the statistical indicators taken to signal structural racism actually point to more complex (and sometimes even progressive) developments—as noted in a 2021 Australian essay by Price, a Warlpiri woman:

It has been claimed recently that Indigenous incarceration levels have been maintained at alarming rates since Australia was first settled. Historically, incarceration for crimes committed against white settlers—the spearing of sheep or cattle, theft and homicide—was preferable to the widespread frontier practice of shooting those suspected of such crimes. This practice continued up until 1928 when my own grandfather narrowly escaped that fate during the notorious Coniston massacres that year. However, from the beginning authorities were reluctant to incarcerate, or punish in any way, Indigenous Australians for violent crimes against other Aboriginal Australians. Imprisonment rates for Aboriginal people dropped dramatically at the beginning of the 20th century when many were forced on to reserves, where their lives were more effectively controlled and their employment became the mainstay of the pastoral industry.
Major technological changes and practices from the 1950s and the 1968 equal wage decision increased unemployment. This, and the legalising of access to alcohol, caused a dramatic rise in crime rates. The extension of full citizenship rights to Aboriginal Australians has resulted in the recognition of their right to expect the full protection of the law—including from violence inflicted on them by other Aboriginal people. Since then, incarceration rates have skyrocketed.
At the same time, Indigenous lives lost due to criminal activity outside of custody outstrip those lost in custody. Yet no concern is expressed for these lives when the cause cannot be blamed on racism or colonisation. Between 1989 and 2012, 951 Indigenous lives were lost to homicide. Of these, 765 were killed by Indigenous perpetrators, and 67 per cent of those were classified as domestic homicides. Where is the outrage?

As one might expect, the idea of Indigenisation has filtered down from the level of pronouncements and manifestos to everyday politics. At Griffith University in South East Queensland, Professor Regina Ganter withdrew from teaching a first-year Aboriginal Studies course in 2019 after a single Aboriginal student alleged that her lectures were “propagating a white supremacist history.” Something similar happened to Indigenous Studies staff at Murdoch University in Perth. At UTAS, a non-Indigenous anthropologist was uninvited from a panel discussion on the film Samson and Delilah when it was decided that only Indigenous people could participate. In 2013, non-Indigenous students at Queensland University of Technology were censured for accessing a computer room that was tagged as Indigenous space. In 2011, the staff kitchen of the equivalent space at UTAS was claimed by a senior Indigenous staff member as “cultural space,” not to be used by non-Aboriginal people. Several years later, an academic with an office nearby one such support unit was aggressively questioned as to whether she had been inside the unit, which by then featured locked doors overlooked by a security camera. What had been imagined as an open and welcoming part of the campus had become a militantly policed segregated enclave.

Meanwhile, the amount of substantive and accurate knowledge concerning Indigenous Australians that is actually transmitted to students seems to be decreasing thanks to Indigenisation—because many university administrators are principally concerned with advancing the politics we have outlined (and their own reputations as champions of reconciliation). In a 2019 public apology to Tasmanian Aborigines, for instance, the University of Tasmania acknowledged its “role in wrongdoings towards Tasmanian Aboriginal people,” yet university officials were apparently unable to articulate what those wrongdoings were when requests for information were made by Tasmanian historians. And the apology was commemorated on a plaque that noted that Tasmanian Aborigines “possessed these lands for sixty millennia”—i.e., 60,000 years—a figure completely at odds with the scientifically agreed figure of 35,000 years.

We have observed the elimination of Aboriginal-Studies tutorials on the basis that the critical debate that might unfold therein would be culturally “unsafe.” Circulated texts often require community approval, which means students receive material that is more propaganda than educational. In some cases, staff are even advised to avoid the scientific evidence of the Aboriginal arrival in Australia, and instead discuss creation myths that present the Aboriginal presence as dating “from the beginning of time.” The academic beneficiaries of this trend often include those with dubious credentials, such as the above-referenced Bruce Pascoe, and Tyson Yunkaporta, who believes that faith in animist rock spirits can help “save the world.”

We are offering this critique not to deny the historical reality of white colonial wrongdoing in Australia, but to help reorient reconciliation efforts so that they do not (a) undermine liberal values and critical education; (b) strip Aboriginals of their individual agency; and (c) continue to provide academics with incentives to exaggerate or invent victimization narratives that spring more from social-justice ideology than real historical grievances.

As academics, we’ve witnessed the manner by which Indigenisation (as it is now implemented) has damaged the basic intellectual tools that we’ve long relied on to understand and communicate about the world around us. Aboriginal students need to learn these tools if they are to succeed. As Sutton noted in his book critiquing Dark Emu, we need to have a “wider debate about the status of scientific methods … the values of secular reasoning and scientific method and the use of doubt in a proper way. Those values are under threat … We’re running a technological society … which depends for its efficiency and its functioning on science.”

Our goal should be to bring the same thoughtful, critical perspective to bear on Indigenous issues that we bring to every other subject. We are in complete agreement with those who say that issues pertaining to Aboriginal peoples once were either ignored, or taught in a racist way. But thankfully, those days are long past. And it won’t do anyone any good—especially Aboriginal people themselves—if we insist that making amends for past wrongs requires us to renounce considered debate and the disinterested search for truth.

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