OPINION

What is your relationship with the Indigenous community and its people?

WAY: Proper reconciliation does not ask for passivity, nor deference to Indigenous people. Picture: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock
WAY: Proper reconciliation does not ask for passivity, nor deference to Indigenous people. Picture: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

I pose this question as a Nyoongar man with connection to my grandfather's country by the sea - Wardandi boodja - and to my mother, an Aboriginal woman, leader and Stolen Generations' survivor.

I also pose the question as chair of the Indigenous Leadership Group at Curtin University's Bentley campus, located on Whadjuk Nyoongar boodja.

I ask non-Indigenous people within Australia's tertiary education institutions: What is your relationship with Indigenous community and its people?

As National Reconciliation Week comes around again, I am reminded of how far we have come as a nation - from the smoking ceremonies we see on our campuses, to the Welcome to Country and everything in between.

In the many meetings and committees I sit, I hear of reconciliation-related achievements: the scholarships awarded, awards developed, development of curricula to address inequities, and so on.

All of these things are reminders of the strength of feeling toward social justice and reconciliation held by non-Indigenous led institutions.

The cynic in me, however, thinks otherwise - reconciliation "activities" are de rigueur within our institutions, metrics to be accumulated, consumed or worn proudly by neoliberal machinery that is not ignorant to the current sociocultural and political climate sensitive to diversity and equity, and understands - like any successful business - how to leverage for its own benefit.

Stan Grant's recent piece on the failings of reconciliation in this country is a stark reminder of Indigenous peoples' discontent with the state of democracy within our nation and brutal in its explication of how little we have progressed as a society broadly.

Again I pose the question, what is your relationship with Indigenous community and its people?

Deceptive in its simplicity, this question is a reminder of what all our achievements, our celebrations, our ceremonies must be predicated on.

This question ought to remind us that the fundamental premise of reconciliation must be relationship and trust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, the quality of this connection defining where we stand, and where we're able to move to.

Relationships ought to be sewn into the fabric of all we do, and an outcome in its own right.

Clearly, we still have some way to go. Within our institutions, we continue to structure much of our functionality in violent ways that, for example, pit Indigenous centres against one another in benchmarking standard exercises imperative to their survival.

Every time institutions require Indigenous researchers or educators to maximise their gains, to play the zero-sum game, to protect their patch, to the detriment of other Indigenous people, Indigenous people are reminded of exactly where we stand.

Grant's piece reminds us of the magnitude of ongoing tensions within our society, tensions also evident in our institutions.

How we negotiate these tensions at a local level - within everything we do that falls under "reconciliation" - will determine the value and meaning of reconciliation within our communities now and into the future.

So much of this goes back to intercultural relationships and their strength, to understanding one another sufficiently to hold ourselves and each other to account on matters vital to the wellbeing and flourishing of Indigenous peoples.

These relationships are forged through time spent together as humans, not as individuals tasked with attaining KPIs, and certainly not via unilateral interaction.

Reconciliation does not ask for passivity, nor deference to Indigenous people. No relationship of a mutual and enduring quality was ever forged or sustained through unquestioning deference.

Conversely, we, as Indigenous people, must be mindful of getting caught up in the machinery of our institutions, that we ourselves lose sight of when we are complicit.

As institutions and as individuals, we still need to have "hard conversations" around these tensions, to clarify how we progress reconciliation.

We need to be reminded when we encroach upon territory that, while celebratory and well-intentioned, may actually find us complicit in activities that raise questions about how clearly we understand Australia, and the path to reconciliation.

Let the simple question "what is your relationship with Indigenous community and its people?" be a reminder that, if you have not forged meaningful relationships with Indigenous Australians, are you truly understanding, and moving toward, reconciliation?

Dr Jonathan Bullen is chair of the Indigenous Leadership Group at Curtin University and senior lecturer, Curtin Medical School.

This story What is your relationship with the Indigenous community and its people? first appeared on The Canberra Times.