Research Colloquium on Place and Indigenous Cultural Recognition

Speech by Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell, November 2019

Thank you, Shaun. And thanks Marcia for your acknowledgement of country.

Welcome everyone. I want to start by making my own acknowledgement to the Elders and senior leaders here this morning. I first acknowledge the Elders of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, as traditional custodians of the land on which this Law School stands. I also acknowledge Indigenous Elders and people from other country, including Yorta Yorta lands to our north, Gunditjmara country to our west, and any other parts from which they come.

I especially welcome Uncle Jim Berg. We are honoured to have you here today. I’ve been reading your book, The Power and the Passion: Our Ancestors Return Home, co-authored with Shannon Faulkhead, also present today, and to which Ross Jones and Ian Anderson have also contributed. It’s very moving. For me as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, it’s a privilege to welcome you here today, Uncle Jim. I am very glad that you can be part of our discussions as the University tries to make sense of its past, and the nation’s past, and to map out a journey for the future that I hope we take together, as a university and Indigenous communities working in partnership.

I also extend a warm welcome to Dr Larry Kimura, who gave the Narrm Oration last night. Dr Kimura has amazing experience in Indigenous language recovery, and spoke to us last night about the reawakening of new generations of Hawaiian language speakers over the past 30 to 40 years. You are very welcome here, and thank you for being part of today’s discussions.

At the start today, I also want to acknowledge the work of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Cultural Heritage Oversight Committee. One of the longest titles in the University and it does great work, under the leadership of Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker and Professor Marcia Langton.

I acknowledge Lyndon’s role today, and also his role through next year, as the University addresses issues concerning the appropriate respect of the cultural knowledge and heritage of Traditional Custodians, Elders and Indigenous organisations and engaging with them in projects regarding the built and natural environment.

This Colloquium will also inform an International Symposium on Place and Indigenous Cultural Recognition to be held next year which will promote the critical and scholarly engagement so necessary in addressing these important issues.

Like this event, the Symposium will be sponsored by the Hallmark Indigenous Research Initiative and I acknowledge the co-chairs Professors Shaun Ewen and Julie McLeod. Their work with the Hallmark Initiative expands an understanding of the challenges and opportunities confronting Indigenous people through embracing Indigenous knowledges via multidisciplinary collaboration.

Today, we begin a conversation that focuses on the University of Melbourne and its interactions with place, and with the people who care about place, among whom the Indigenous people of this land are first and foremost.

I would like to kick off by sharing some of my own personal thoughts about place. Of course, I do not come from here. I arrived 14 months ago. But that does not mean I do not have my own very strong attachments to place, my own sense of place.

Even those who haven’t met me before may be able to tell that I come from North London. I don’t really hide my roots! My father and mother and grandparents all come from the same area of London, a place called Barnet. My mother’s family came from Scotland. Parts of our family have been in North London for generations. It’s very different from here.

One of the primary attachments people have in that area is to football teams. The people in the area I grew up in, including all my uncles, strongly supported Arsenal, whose home ground used to be a place called Highbury. Arsenal now has a big modern home ground called Emirates Stadium. It’s not quite the same.

Being independent-minded I grew up not supporting Arsenal at all but supporting one of their great enemies, Manchester United. The rivalry among these clubs was intense, and as a Manchester United supporter I had little love for Arsenal as a team. But when in the 1990s they pulled down Highbury football ground because the club no longer needed it and it was sold to housing developers, I was very upset.

There was so much history, so many emotions from the highs to the lows, the hopes and dreams of so many people were invested in that place.

During the 14 months I have been here, I have developed very strong feelings for this place, and this country. I’ve been based in Melbourne but have travelled quite a bit.

I have been in country Victorian towns, looking over the long lists of names of the fallen from World Wars; to other capital cities; and to North East Arnhem Land.

I was in there for the Garma Festival last August, standing in stringybark forest on the escarpment at Gulkula, watching the mist spread over an amazing landscape, seeing where the red bauxite of the earth meets the deep blue of the sky, feeling the power of an ancient landscape, encountering a very old and powerful culture that continues to live and breathe and speak its own language.

I’ve begun to learn the different sounds and sights of Australian bird and plant life, the different light and landscapes, which all make such a contrast with the places I’ve spent my previous life.

It’s richly interesting. No one knows this place better than Indigenous people, whose inherited knowledge is crucial to understanding the place at all.

The real connection that human beings have to place is very important. It’s at the heart of what we want to discuss at today’s colloquium.

This university has a history extending back about 170 years. There is a lot of water under the bridge in that time.  But how do we compare 170 years with tens of thousands of years during which Aboriginal people have lived in this place, cared for it, invested their lives and emotions in it? It’s not easy to grasp the immensity of that collective experience.

However, we should try.

Studies have suggested that 50,000 to 70,000 years ago sea levels were 25-50 metres lower than they are now. New Guinea, mainland Australia, Tasmania were all joined together as a single continent. So the first people probably walked here from the north across a land bridge that no longer exists.

Indigenous people from Tasmania have song stories about people walking between here and there.

Great work is being done today to recover knowledge of this incredibly important time in human history, by scholars including scientists and art historians and linguists, people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and people from universities working together.

That coming together of traditional university domains of knowledge and much older Indigenous domains of knowledge is one of the most interesting things happening in this country today, I think.

But it brings hard questions with it. How do traditional university-based narratives come together with traditional Indigenous narratives? How do we make them work together respectfully, successfully?

There are global narratives around today, about the interaction of Indigenous and Western knowledge. Some of those narratives concern tension and conflict.

At the University of Melbourne we don’t necessarily want to buy into those narratives, but we should be mindful of them. The emphasis, for me at least, is on finding ways to build strong partnerships between the University and our Indigenous friends.

The University sees itself as a community – at least, while I’m Vice-Chancellor, I hope we do. I also recognise the admirable strength in many Indigenous communities, and hope we can learn from that.

The situation we are in nationally, here in Australia and even globally on these questions, is that we are in a moment of perturbation. People are starting to recognise the great wrongs of the past done to Indigenous people, and there’s understandably some anger around about this.

But I hope we don’t have to become angry ourselves.

The big question for me is: ‘how can we control the swing of the pendulum, learn what we can to embrace the best of both traditions, and build a positive future together?’

It’s very important for me to recognise that our narratives, from both an Indigenous and western perspective, are not alien narratives. We can make them work in together, but we have to go on a learning journey to learn how to make them work together.

Today’s Research Colloquium is part of that learning journey. I am very grateful for the enormous work that has gone into this project, over years actually. I particularly thank Margot Eden for her great leadership in this space. The preparations leading up to today can help us as an institution to think through the difficulties and also the opportunities that lie before us in this historical moment.

Recently at the University of Manchester Professor Brian Cox made the interesting point that one of the valuable roles of a university is being a place for ‘holding complexity’ and ‘holding uncertainty’.

Not every answer to every question is  clear, which is not an excuse for doing nothing but it does mean sometimes we have to reserve judgement, talk things through, be calm, recognise that we can’t necessarily foresee the outcome of a conversation until we’ve actually had the conversation.

This is what we are here for today: to have a conversation that will take us into some complicated territory, on issues that are very important indeed, for Indigenous people, for the university, for everyone who has a relationship with this place.

Today’s conversations will inform the University’s planning as we move ahead on the next stage of our reconciliation journey.

I look forward to this whole day with great anticipation. Thank you, everyone, for being here.