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“We have the knowledge, the expertise and the solutions”: International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference

Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 15 January 2024. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2023.

This article was first published on Thursday, June 22, 2023


Introduction by Croakey: If you had FOMO from all the tweetage that arose from the Lowitja Institute’s conference on the lands of the Gimuy Walubara, Yidinji and Yirrganydi peoples in beautiful Cairns, strap yourself in.

The best conferences are the ones that not only inspire you, but leave you thinking and build on your thoughts and actions in some way.

In the report below for the Croakey Conference News Service, Danielle Manton, a Barunggam women, grown up on Dharug Country and Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Teaching and Learning at the University of Technology Sydney, reflects on, and responds to some of the conference highlights, around its themes of Truth, Rights and Response.

Danielle and Terry Manton, with son Levi

Danielle Manton writes:

The Lowitja Institute’s Third International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference started with force. In keeping with the theme for day one of TRUTH, the Welcome to Country set the tone with the truth of the Country we were gathered on, the unceded land of the Gimuy Walubara, Yidinji and Yirrganydi peoples.

Gudju Gudju Fourmile welcomed us to his Country, speaking of the truth of the land, and sharing the truth of the dispossession of land, separation from family and Country, the violence of colonial authorities and domination and control over the Gimuy Walubara, Yidinji and Yirrganydi peoples.

Gudju Gudju Fourmile sets the tone for the conference with his welcome.

Gudju Gudju Fourmile spoke of the ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma and poor health outcomes, sharing story of his family, his experiences and his own health challenges. He left the delegates with a clear call to action: “The truth telling has to start…our health is in your hands.”

An audio-visual presentation featuring conference Patron Aunty Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue ignited the passion and motivation in the delegates with an inspirational directive, “I believe we have the solutions at hand, don’t be afraid to take a risk.”

Australian Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler acknowledged in a pre-recorded message that the conference was a “showcase of the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and culture from all over the world”.

A welcome also from DrBernie Singleton on behalf of the Yirrigandji clan

Power of Indigenous Truth

Truth incorporates our truth as Indigenous peoples and knowledge holders. Australia has a lot to learn from Indigenous peoples: “We have over 120,000 years of knowledges, it is absurd not to be acknowledged and respected,” Aunty Professor Pat Anderson told the conference in a keynote address.

A truth that emerged from this presentation is that we have done it their way for long enough. It is definitely not working for our peoples, but as well as that, it doesn’t seem to be working well for any people!

Later in the conference, Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney reiterated how ignoring Indigenous knowledges has failed all Australians, identifying the gap between rich and poor as increasing as we make an authoritarian shift.

Truth about the constitution

Distinguished Professor Marcia Langton AO presented an authentic yarn with the audience, sharing her learnings and insights regarding the Voice process and the Australian constitution. Her presentation was personal and inspiring, she had no script or notes, speaking from her heart rather than as a professor of anthropology or geography, but as an Aunty. It felt as though we could’ve been sitting around the kitchen table.

The truth is the constitution was written in 1901 at a time when all government policies and documents were designed to oppress Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In another session, Aunty Professor Pat Dudgeon put it this way: “Colonisation is a takeover of what is considered truth and knowledge”.

Langton went on to say that the social constructs of Australia have changed dramatically, and as a country we need a document that reflects the society we live in. Additionally, the Government has a responsibility to our peoples and the Voice to Parliament “is the most minimal of rights, it is a constitutional pathway to overcome racism,” she stated.

 

International perspective on truth

Karen Diver followed Distinguished Professor Marcia Langton with practical and powerful insights from her experience in the United States. Diver served as Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from 2007 -2015 and was also appointed by the Obama Administration as the Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs among other influential roles advocating for her peoples.

Diver reminded us that social change is a process of slow and steady growth, and our best offensive is to work from the inside, have representation in every agency, and have a voice at as many tables as possible.

“It makes you wonder why being in a conversation about our own future is scary for some people,” she said.

It should be simple: #nothingaboutuswithoutus.

Healing power of truth

The message from these keynote speakers was clear and consistent: we must look backwards to move forward.

As a nation all people must know the truth, learn from the truth and heal with the truth. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know the true history of this Country, over 65,000 years of knowledge, with colonial atrocities the more recent 250 years. We need change and recognition. Isn’t the definition of insanity to continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome?

In the words of Aunty Professor Gracelyn Smallwood AO, we need to ask ourselves and those within our sphere of influence: “What did you do to leave a legacy for our children? We need to start with something.”

Day 1 International panel on Voice, Treaty, Truth
Day 1 international panel on voice, treaty, truth

The plenary for Day two, with the theme of RIGHTS consisted of three formidable First Nations global leaders and changemakers: Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman Professor Chelsea Watego, Professor Janet Smylie, a Métis Physician and health researcher from Canada, and Professor Papaarangi Reid, a distinguished public health practitioner who belongs to Te Rarawa iwi.

Rights and equity

Professor Chelsea Watgeo made many thought-provoking points; one that stuck with me was “equity is of service to white supremacy”. In unpacking this I realised the truth of it. Although often well-intentioned, equity alone cannot meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Our worldviews are opposing, and aspiring to “equity” can be a form of subtle assimilation, which all too often ends in failure, with the blame attributed to First Nations peoples’ non-compliance or perceived inadequacies.

In reality, programs, approaches, structures and funding models are designed in a way that can never truly know and understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our systems, structures, processes and governance. Indeed, part of advocating for equity involves demonstrating a problem or a solution in order to access resources.

Another of the keynote speakers, Professor Papaarangi Reid, identified this, stating “a lot of the work is in documenting the issues and the findings so that they will have uptake by non-Indigenous peoples – but it is what community already knows too well”.

Watego told the conference, “It’s time we blackfellas break up with equity, it’s a toxic relationship we‘ve got to get out of. We have options, we have sovereignty!”

Sovereignty is also reflected in the Uluru Statement from the Heart as our connection to the land; a spiritual connection to Country, to our ancestors and our future generations.