Monday, March 27, 2006


Nothing seems ordinary any more. Everything seems exceptional. The sunset as I was driving home this afternoon was almost literally breathtaking- this warm rose glowtook up half the sky in a huge bank of clouds- like the whole sky had just become orange. It is funny how people think things 'are' a colour in an almost immutable sense. Like that the sky is blue or the mountains green.

Anyway ... I met a new world last week going to a US diplomats place in Sydney for a 'reception' I found myself presented to a crowd explaining my work/research/life in a unprepared speech. Afterwards lots of respectable looking old men came and discussed it with me and I felt myself explaining with some broad generalisations the nature of cross cultural communication and some of the issues that can arise... talking about ethics too and what is an appropriate way to research indigenous languages in Australia. After I had talked away for a while, I asked the man I was addressing who he was.... 'Justice suchandsuch' he replied 'advisor to the AIATSIS (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Institute) ethics committee', 'chairperson for legal rights of indigenous peoples (or something like that...!)' etc etc. I spent the next few seconds looking at my shoes and trying to remember what the hell I had just said! He was a gentleman though eased my embarrassment by inviting me to come and talk to his colleagues some time about the work I was doing.

This happened more than once- until I realised everyone in the room was some one to be reckoned with, vice chancellor of this, chairperson of that etc. etc. and I also realised that this scholarship is not 'for free' so to speak, there is a performance involved and I need to get my act together and get it right because the people there were really *listening* to me, you know? As far as they were concerned I was an expert and I realised they may never hear it from some one else so next time I will be a bit better prepared to express clearly and in detail what my goals are and why they are important and how they could benefit from being involved...

I wish I could adequately explain the scene.. there were all kinds of unrecognisable food, 'waiters' hovering on every corner to refill your glass, gently direct to the right room, take your coat etc, marble columns beautiful chandeliers (a huge beautiful concert piano!). There were five scholarship recipients there, two physicists, two lawyers and me. They were witty and eloquent and well dressed- maybe they had caught on quicker than me that we were there to exhibit ourselves...afterwards along with some of the US students here on exchange we went out to a bar (pretentious might be the word....) and in hindsight I realise that I have to stop being sociable and agreeing with things or nodding my head , when I am thinking ' I couldn't disagree more'!, I have the feeling that if I just really said what I thought in those situations it would probably be much more interesting and significant. To really stop trying to fit in with a group and remain true to my own values and ways of measuring worth and warmth of interaction. To this end- in round two is coming up in May and when the Honorable Johnny Howard himself comes and shakes my hand, I will have a few things to say. And this time i hope to have a couple of elders of Ngukurr around to help me keep it real-... I must say apart from a few moments, I did enjoy myself- it felt a little bit like an anthropological expedition and I learnt a lot (about myself too) and the people were kind. Only one person asked me 'why don't 'they' all just learn English', I laughed at first because I thought she was joking- but clearly she was not, and I suppose it is good sometimes to start with your most base assumptions and elucidate why you believe in them. I think she listened.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Whew... I have been trying to maintain some kind of dignified integrity about all this- but here it overflows...
A few weeks ago I started writing an application for ethics approval from the uni. As I had been thinking about it a lot, I was at least a bit prepared when over a friendly dinner with a group of colleagues an (older) man I respect well, who works with indigenous people reacted strongly when I said I was recording conversations (of indigenous people) even while I was present and to some extent I thought the data collected was still valid and useful. He told me that 'linguists have a a lot to answer for' and that (university) research of indigenous peoples (languages) was 'exploitation', that I was naive and idealistic and had no concept of the brutality of colonisation and how did I expect people to talk (act) normally if I (being a whitefella) was there....

It was intense I tell you. He was a bit drunk ( I think) and very impassioned and with an impressive weight of experience behind him, as well as real concern for the state of indigenous health. As I said I respected him, so I took his concerns seriously - I was glad though to be able to draw on my own experience of living and working in Ngukurr- and I agreed with him that the state of indigenous health was appalling and didn't show signs of improving . I tried to explain to him that I worked hard at conceptualising my relationship in terms of humanness ( I feel naive now writing it!) - rather than in terms of race. What I meant was the relationships I have with family in Ngukurr is as real, emotionally to me, as relationships with anyone else I interact with.. and I didn't want my colour to be my defining factor.

Anyway that just pissed him off more and we continued back and forth and I tried hard to explain to him that even though I am idealistic I do still have a very real concept of suffering and brutality, that I am not innocent to the real concerns of the community (or which language and cultural maintenance is one!). He told me that if I wanted to be useful i should be working in Aboriginal health/political activism... anway it went on intensely for a while and though I thanked him at the end of the evening he was ungracious and obviously upset and angry, I could hear him thinking ' some silly young girl thinks she can just go into a community, do some research and change the world.... etc'.

Anyway, as you can imagine I thought about it a lot more after that, the last thing I want is to end up some well-meaning fool, but when I thought of my femli-mob there I thought how they would laugh it off, laugh at me for being so concerned and I felt confident in my own sense of what was going on, what is true, right etc... - the short of it is I finally submitted the application yesterday after Wamut had shown it to language centre representatives in the community and sent me a letter signed by them endorsing the application.

But then Wamut told me that one of the Old People said something to the effect of ' researchers coming up here and collect language and then they get all the credit and what do we get...?' Again, this Old Man I especially respect and he has looked out for me many times, and is well versed in the way of whitefellas- and again I start to think, really how is it ethical that I research these languages in this way unless the community expressly seeks me out and asks me to?? How can I justify gathering data and documenting language unless the community decides there is a need to? I cant tell you how scary these questions are to me ... I can sit here and break my own heart thinking that I am further disempowering an oppressed people - the irony of it.

I suppose I believe(d) that working (not researching) for the community in a manner directed by members of that community; and in doing so identifying the aspects of language communication that affected both myself and everyone dealing with the inevitable interface of the whitefella world and focusing my research on this, that I had justified to myself this area of research would be of benefit of the community too (and is something I feel passionate about and interested in)- but was I really consulting the community in this decision or my own sense of righteousness (and, God forbid, patronisation)???... as Greg pointed out the only way to really know what is going on and have some peace of mind is to continually negotiate with community members and be as transparent as possible. Maybe that I need to acknowledge that really I am doing it for myself... (am I?).

I had to give my supervisor some work today and I was feeling a somewhat demoralised - I told him what I upset about ( biting back tears..) and I said it would be so much easier and clearer if I was studying plants or rocks or something rather than languages. And he looked at me and said, ' but that wouldn't be nearly so interesting would it?'

Ah- all the sweat and tears- it must be a spiritual journey after all.