Our culture encourages and supports deep reflection. This thought struck me as I looked out over the Thames near the British Houses of Parliament last week, standing with a non-Indigenous Australian who was commenting on the regal beauty of such old symbols of empire.
Seeing this as an opportunity, I explained what I saw and understand of this space. The river tells us a million stories. Some of those stories have been rewritten many times from many perspectives. First Nations people have come to this place (London), embarking on an exploration into what was for them exotic and different. Many came as leaders. They had their own symbols and ceremonies and their leadership was legitimate and revered in their prospective lands. On arrival in London, that leadership was denied, erased or influenced by what was the collecting of Indigenous —our bodies were the artefacts. We were studied, paraded, co-opted and applauded, but with such a degree of misconception as to change our story to suit them.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders sense of place is not only about our country, our connections to physical space and ancestry. It is about time travel, sensing what was here before. Feeling within the spirit of that murky water, all the many peoples that have journeyed along it both willingly and unwillingly. I looked at the Thames and reflected on who has sailed along, each with different journeys. I also thought of the ships that sailed out from this land to ‘discover’ and claim terra nullius upon more land, not ceded but collected.
That is before however, and this is now. The Poche Leadership Fellows program, partnered with the Menzies Centre of King’s College London, put together a week-long program recently whereby ten rising leaders in Indigenous health visited places where power and leadership exist at the heart of Empire.
Myself as the facilitator of the program and the other ten Indigenous fellows embraced what, on face value, may seem to be structures of colonial imperialism, but yet, found something extraordinary and unique about this trip. The power, institutions and structures are not being ignored. Instead, we found our place within them. Deep intellectual engagement with colonial institutions is an element of leadership development, in the work which we do for our community, can push towards better health outcomes for Indigenous people.
Visiting institutions such as The Australian High Commission and the School of Oriental and African Studies required us to cast a critical eye over the imposing and often exclusionary spaces that have supported a long history of staking claim and changing the lands that the British have ‘discovered’. But this is 2018, and there has been a shift (albeit small) in claiming space in leadership. The Poche program is proof of that people internationally seem so enthusiastic to know more of our culture, but also of how health, and leadership, may be done differently.
I have spoken before of the fellows who joined me, that range from doctors, nurses, researchers, board directors, health academics and economic strategists in assisting health equity. Some of these fellows hold numerous roles that all work to influence change.
Indigenous Australians in this era may not be dealing with our blood being stolen or our heads being severed for study. Yet we do have to contend with the collecting of our stories; the appropriation of our bodies as artefacts through time; of success and of failure; as representations of the fact that they pulled out a seat at the table, only to leave the room. This program, which has now ended its London module, but returns in Melbourne in August, allows some of our allies to sit uncomfortably in the seat and listen, or respond to critique of that collecting, objectifying and erasing of us.
If the fellows traversed that same route up the Thames, what would the history of that water say back to them? If Bennelong was able to see them not only visiting the seats of power but speaking back at them, what would his thoughts be? This experiential program doesn’t erase the many statues and signifiers of power in London, and the fact that up to 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait artefacts remain in British Museums. But for some of us, such an opportunity has allowed us to locate our new position within the colonial project.
Tess Ryan is Biripi woman and Melbourne-based writer and academic. Tess has recently completed her PhD, focusing on Indigenous women's leadership in Australia through the University of Canberra, and is currently a Post-doctoral fellow with The Poche centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. Follow @TessRyan1
The Melbourne Poche Centre was founded in 2014 through Mr Greg Poche AO and his wife Ms Kay Van Norton Poche. It is part of the Poche Indigenous Health Network, which comprises six centres at five universities across Australia.