An excerpt from Associate Professor Nikki Moodie’s keynote, opening the 2021 AARE conference on Monday November 29.
Indigenous education research – in its broadest sense – is so oriented to addressing the harms that the western schooling system has visited upon us, and the urgent work of attenuating the most immediate challenges – that there is little space to do work that imagines otherwise, or even sometimes to see the answers that Indigenous people have been offering for so long. The great challenge before us is to imagine schooling futures, education and work futures that in and of themselves are Indigenous. What does it mean to have an Indigenous future? To step into the vision that our ancestors had for us, to be good ancestors to people who come after us, and to have the skills and capabilities to live full, meaningful, contemporary Indigenous lives?
In education, health, economics and policy research overall we see comparatively less focus on self-determination or even cognate ideas of Indigenous Lifeworlds or cultural continuity, and such a prevalence of work either mapping the damage or some small attempt to heal the damage. It is possible that when we turn away from the idea – not just the language – of self-determination, we end up diminishing Indigenous rights as either ‘cultural’ or ‘racial’ constructs. This turning away does little except to depoliticise the basic land-relation that defines both Indigenous and non-Indigenous life on this continent.
Sometimes we might see the language of self-determination in policy and practice, but often only as a euphemism for consultation, as a last-ditch effort to save a failed policy or program. So self-determination as a concept has been off the table for a while, for a myriad of reasons. But self-determination is about Indigenous rights, and Indigenous rights in education require difficult thinking about what it is that schools, universities and governments are obliged to do for all citizens, and what it is that Indigenous people have the right to exert authority over.
But even if the language is contested, self-determination remains a right enshrined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which Australia is a signatory. And it contains a useful entry point to the nature of the collective self that Indigenous societies mobilise.
New targets in the new Closing the Gap policy, and the greater involvement of the Indigenous service delivery sector in the development of those targets, may indicate a deepening recognition of the ways in which Indigenous Lifeworlds are different to the lives of White and non-Indigenous people of colour in Australia. Particularly with regard to engagement in education and employment, greater recognition of Indigenous languages and connection to Country may allow deeper conversations about what it means to pursue an Indigenous future in the Australian settler state. Whilst there has been a move away from comparing Indigenous people to non-Indigenous people in the newest iteration of Closing the Gap, and characteristics of the non-Indigenous population are not necessarily established as parity goals, this policy still has some distance to travel before it is able to accurately represent the challenges that Indigenous people face – and the aspirations that we hold to empower ourselves.
Too often, research in Indigenous education begins by establishing the “context” – listing the statistics, describing the government policy, and marking the urgency of the need for reform.
We lay out some gains that have been made, how Indigenous people are ‘making it work’, how we’re adapting to the system and slowly getting better outcomes. But these inequalities are design features of a system that – in its most benign state – was never focused on our aspirations. Any achievements we eke out of this system are achievements in spite of, not because of settler colonial benevolence. What the research and data on education show is that we are indigenizing, adapting the settler institutions that govern our lives to achieve a best-fit in systems that render participation in society in a very particular way. But that requirement that we ‘make do’ – that we seek a best fit – itself does harm. Other ways are possible, and those other ways of imagining research that supports cultural continuity, Indigenous collective and relational authority, perhaps are yet to see their fullest expression in our research endeavours.
The caveat to that is that Indigenous people – land councils, nations, community groups, businesses – are making decisions on the basis of evidence, are directing research, and are collecting the data they need to govern their own lands and people. How we support those voices, those decision-makers, their aspirations, hopes and pathways for their own children and communities gives us the opportunity to reimagine education research in its rightful place – in service of the aspirations of Indigenous collectivities, in Australia and around the world.
How we educate for self-determination – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – opens up possibilities beyond anti-racism and cultural awareness, as we all move towards treatied relations, in recognition of the Indigenous right to determine our own futures.
Associate Professor Nikki Moodie is a Gomeroi woman and sociologist based at the University of Melbourne. Nikki holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Political Science from the University of Queensland, and a PhD in Sociology from the Australian National University. After an early career in the public service, she moved into research focusing on higher education, social networks and Indigenous governance. Nikki is the current Program Director of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity, a 20-year philanthropic program focused on Indigenous-led social change.