Edition #18: February 2020

Photo of a middle-aged woman with a brown bob and dark-rimmed glasses, wearing a bright red top and matching lipstick, smiling broadly, a wall of concrete columns directly behind her.
Photo of a middle-aged woman with a brown bob and dark-rimmed glasses, wearing a bright red top and matching lipstick, smiling broadly, a wall of concrete columns directly behind her.
Professor Anita Heiss, photo: Helen Kassila

Listening to the storytellers

Professor Anita Heiss is one of the keynote speakers at the Foundation’s Gambling Harm Conference 2020: Every conversation counts, which will be held 23–25 March at the Frankston Arts Centre. She will speak about Indigenous storytelling and its connection to social justice.

Anita, a Wiradjuri woman, is a multi-award-winning writer, Indigenous rights champion and professor of communication at the University of Queensland.

‘Throughout the history of Aboriginal Australia, most aspects of society and culture were passed on to family and community via an oral tradition. Dance, performance and visual arts are other forms of storytelling that have always been used to pass on information over generations and this practice endures today,’ says Anita.

Storytelling as a political platform

‘It is our storytelling that informs other Australians and international audiences of not only our truth in history – a history largely documented by the colonising nation – but also the truth of our realities today. Storytelling in all its forms is the only political platform we have in Australia, as we continue to be disadvantaged by political parties that deny many of our rights as First Nations peoples.

‘But we are telling our stories and, increasingly, people are listening.’

Anita champions BlackWords, which has indexed approximately 7000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers with more than 20,000 individual works that cover all forms of creative writing, plus film, television, criticism and scholarship.

‘But we are telling our stories and, increasingly, people are listening.’

Professor Anita Heiss

As a lifetime ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which largely focuses on remote communities, Anita identifies literacy as essential to Aboriginal self-determination.

‘If we cannot read, we cannot make the decisions that impact on our lives,’ she says. ‘Self-determination requires each of us to have the literacy to have the power to make our own decisions and control our own futures. Only when we are self-determined as individuals will we be self-determined as a nation of peoples.’

Self-determination and identity

Language and self-determination are intimately bound up with notions of identity and the ways individuals and communities express and represent themselves; the ways they see and are seen.

‘There weren’t any “Aborigines” in Australia before colonisers used a Latin term meaning “original inhabitants” to describe the peoples whose land they were stealing,’ continues Anita. ‘There were just people who were known by their relationships to each other through familial connections, connections to Country and through language groups.

‘The concepts of “Aboriginality” and “what an Aborigine is” have been an ongoing construction of the colonisers.’

Professor Anita Heiss

‘More commonly used today is the term “Indigenous”, meaning “native to”. And while I’ve used these terms throughout my work because they are standard ways of discussing Australia’s First Peoples, they affect identity because we have our own terms to define who we are. Many of my mob prefer Koori, Goori, Murri, Noongar, Nunga and so on.

‘These kinds of complexities have existed since 1788, and since then the concepts of “Aboriginality” and “what an Aborigine is” have been an ongoing construction of the colonisers; an imposed definition.

‘It is also a political issue for people who have been forced to live by legislation created around these constructions, answering to variations of it, while at the same time trying to explain to non-Aboriginal Australians what it actually means to be Aboriginal from our perspectives and based on our lives in the 21st century.’

Listening to truth-telling

The Foundation has endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart; an invitation of great generosity. It calls for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, seeking ‘to be heard’, ‘truth-telling’ and ancient sovereignty being enabled ‘to shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’. It’s about Indigenous people speaking, but what of the wider community's capacity to deeply listen?

‘There is so much goodwill in the community,’ says Anita. ‘People want to “help” but what is missing is the listening to what we need “done”. Listening is a key element in the communication process and it’s not as if we haven’t been speaking forever. The call to change the date of January 26 [Australia Day] has been documented since before the 1988 bicentenary, but to many it seems like a relatively new conversation. Why? Because the general public hasn’t listened; didn’t want to listen.’

Listening is a key element in the communication process and it’s not as if we haven’t been speaking forever.

Professor Anita Heiss

Also bound up with language and identity is the recognition that deep knowledge and culture are embedded in endangered Indigenous languages.

According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, there are more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages, with an estimated 800 dialectal varieties spoken at the time of European arrival in 1788. Only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still learnt by children, with another 100 or so spoken in some form by older generations. Many of these languages are at risk as Elders pass away.

The United Nations recognised 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages to highlight how endangered Indigenous languages are across the world and to link language to development and reconciliation.

Anita welcomes the launch of the Foundation’s Reconciliation Action Plan, noting it is critical that vision and action match up.

‘As with the broader community, there is no one-size-fits-all with Indigenous communities,’ she says. ‘Any vision or plan will only be successful through consultation on the ground with those you claim to serve; collaboration with those you seek to assist; and communication with those who have the knowledge and expertise to make the vision a reality.’

The Gambling Harm Conference 2020 is Australia’s only conference to address gambling harm. To find out more and to register, visit gamblingharmconference.com.au.

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