• I have always loved history, writes Raelee Lancaster. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
It wasn’t until my degree in ancient history that I came to understand the erasure or invalidity of Indigenous peoples in institutions when the information of the anthropologist was prioritised. ‘Nothing about us without us’ is required, not recommended.
By
Raelee Lancaster

21 Oct 2020 - 4:18 PM  UPDATED 9 Nov 2020 - 10:56 AM

In many respects the 1920s aren’t much different to the beginning of the 2020s. We’re still combating Australia Day with messages of sorrow and survival. We’re fighting for our voices to be heard on matters that affect us - from racial bias by the police to discussions for treaty. We’re even facing yet another pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities. And we’re still growing strong and adapting to our current circumstance by taking western systems and navigating them to our own advantage.

This is what I’ve learnt as a Wiradjuri woman navigating life in a colonised society, working and studying in library and information services, with qualifications in history and heritage management.

History is inherently whitewashed

I have always loved history. The history of my own people was not a topic spoken about at home - the tongues of my old people too tired to retell past trauma. I would turn to libraries and museums and art galleries, and I would soak up any information my tiny hands could grasp. A lot of the information I absorbed during those formative years was curated by non-Indigenous people. 

The history of my own people was not a topic spoken about at home - the tongues of my old people too tired to retell past trauma.

It wasn’t until my degree in ancient history - albeit, a degree that focus on the western civilisations of Rome and Greece - that I became attuned to the provenance of material culture and how data can become embedded in cultural artifacts. More so, I came to understand the erasure or invalidity of Indigenous peoples in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) institutions when the information of the anthropologist was prioritised over the Indigenous society being studied. As such, I saw myself and my culture being invalidated and spoken about as if we were extinct. This is what made me turn my academic focus toward Indigenous culture. 

Community is key

Nobody tells you that studying your own culture in an academic environment is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Nobody tells you how your lived experience is invalidated as anecdotal and, therefore, unreliable. One heritage consultant I studied under told me not to be open about my Aboriginality in the sector else I be deemed ‘biased’. It took a long time for me to navigate western cultural spaces without ending the week crying on the phone or on the shoulder of another blackfella. Our mutual understanding of navigating academia as Indigenous peoples was a balm to our bitterness. 

I spent a year attending lectures, seminars, and conferences on GLAM institutions and by doing so, I opened myself up to an entire community of Indigenous peoples studying, teaching, and working within these industries. I met other Indigenous people in this space through Twitter and mutual connections. The strength and encouragement I received online helped me continue my studies. They helped me understand that studying cultural heritage and archaeology was too much for me, that libraries and archives were where my strengths lay. 

Validating Indigeneity by validating Indigenous data 

When I first begun studying and seeking employment within GLAM institutions, decolonisation was on everybody’s lips. Learning about decolonial practices helped me understand how western institutions were able to decentralise non-Indigenous knowledge and implemented self-determination. More so, it made me realise that Indigenous knowledges and perspectives had to be the foundation of these institutions for decolonisation to ever be effective. 

I’m still unsure whether decolonisation is actually achievable in our current society. Throughout my professional career, I’ve joked that we should ‘burn it all to the ground and start again’. To say I was joking would only be half the truth. Sometimes the frustration is so great and suffocating, as if you’re trying to squeeze your way through a tight gap on the side of a cliff. I am certain, however, that the growing investment in Indigenous data sovereignty is both achievable and necessary. 

Indigenous data sovereignty seeks to give provenance and custodianship back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

‘Indigenous data’ has historically been about us without us. Indigenous data sovereignty seeks to give provenance and custodianship back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is a movement that not only decentralises non-Indigenous knowledge and helps institutions implement self-determination practices—it actively centres Indigenous knowledges since time immemorial, it acknowledges Indigenous experiences as factual, and it asserts that Indigenous people, not the anthropologist studying our societies, are the custodians of our own cultural heritage. 

‘Nothing about us without us’ is required, not recommended

This article is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Decentralising non-Indigenous and validating Indigenous voices in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums have raised awareness and accountability in the GLAM sector. Indigenous data sovereignty in areas of IT and science, including astronomy, are being spoken about more frequently. Not to mentioned the extensive research on how Indigenous peoples use social media  to keep culture and community alive. 

I am standing on the shoulders of giants. Of strong, passionate people who have opened the door for me and those like me. The further Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people infiltrate these spaces and use our knowledge of these spaces to create new Indigenous-driven information systems, the closer we become to taking back custodianship of this land, our culture, and all its available data.

Raelee Lancaster is a writer and library services professional based in Meanjin. She tweets @raeleelancaster. 

This story is edited by Mununjali author Ellen van Neerven for SBS Voices and is part of a NAIDOC Week essay series inspired by the 2020 theme 'Always Was, Always Will Be'. 

National NAIDOC Week (8 – 15 Nov 2020) celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Join SBS and NITV for a full slate of NAIDOC Week content. For more information about NAIDOC Week or this year’s theme, head to the official NAIDOC Week website. #NAIDOC2020 #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe