Indigenous academic women, because of her, we can.

12 Jul 2018

Kamilaroi woman, and researcher at the University of Newcastle Amy Thunig writes about the strength of Indigenous women in academia. How their role is intrinsically linked to politics and activism.

Amy Thunig

Teaching in a university setting is a position of privilege, engaging in research even more so. The opportunity for impact is high, you are teaching and informing future world shapers and leaders, and are surrounded by people of incredible talents and intellect.

Having been engaged as a new career academic, and research assistant in a higher education institution for close to two years, and enrolled in a PhD for eighteen months, I recognise how fortunate I am to have these opportunities. I also recognise that these opportunities have come at a cost, they are the results of battles fought for and won over many years since the arrival of the first fleet.

In academic regalia, performing the academic procession as part of my work role at the University of Newcastle.

The history of formal education, as defined and imposed by colonisers since invasion, has in many ways been one of exclusion, segregation, and harm for the First Nations people of this continent known as Australia. What is accepted and acknowledged as formal education today, in various ways continues to rely on Eurocentric knowledges, perspectives, and histories. So for me as an Indigenous woman, to be able to do what I do, where I do it, I recognise and acknowledge the generations of people who have fought to carve out space for Indigenous knowledges, culture, and bodies in what were previously exclusively spaces of whiteness.

I was the first in my family to embark on an academic journey, but I was not the first to be capable.

My Mum, with her Mother, and Grandmother, holding my elder sister Jay (baby)

My Mum, with her Mother, and Grandmother, holding my elder sister Jay (baby)

A love of learning, reading, and healthy debate was role modelled for me from a young age. I don’t remember a time in my childhood where my Mother didn’t have a book in her hand, our linen closet empty of linen, and filled instead with books. I was encouraged from childhood by my family and teachers to aim for higher education. In school I had felt brave, I had my family, but also many strong and generous role models to look to. But when the time came and I first entered academia I recognised within myself an active fear of the unknown. I didn’t understand the jargon and language used, constant acronyms, or significance of titles. My family and role models had experienced limited access to higher education, so while they were generous with encouragement, once I had entered university I had little guidance from home on how to navigate the terrain.  As I began to feel my way through, finding my feet, learning the lingo and culture, eventually attaining two degrees, I found that my fear shifted from the unknown to the known.

Gail Tillman, my deadly colleague and mentor at the University of Newcastle.

The more I understood the highly politicised nature of academia, and the ways in which engaging in research and higher education positions us as individuals with the potential for significant impact, the less brave, capable, and willing I felt. I recognised that participation at this level cannot be passive; data and research are political, and among more than 100,000 higher education staff in Australia, there are less than 1,400 Indigenous staff. Of those, there are less than 400 Indigenous academics. Realising that felt very isolating, and as I came to understand that my participation as an Indigenous woman would be seen as representative, I became very reluctant to move forward. I felt paralysed at the thought of inadvertently doing harm.

It was picking up a publication by Professor Maggie Walter which begun to transform my experience and perspective. I began to seek out writing by Indigenous women in academia, going on to read work by Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Esteemed Professor Aileen Moreton Robinson, Distinguished Professor Marcia Langton AM, and international Indigenous academic women such as Professor’s Margaret Kovach, Tracey Lindberg, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith.

The more I consciously sought out the writing of Indigenous women, both within formal publications, and on informal platforms such as social media, the less isolated and paralysed I felt. I looked around me and saw that although the pool of Indigenous academic women may be relatively small, it is nothing short of mighty.

Indigenous women whether PhD candidates, or senior academics, are word warriors and daily demonstrate to me an important truth in action; while I may be the first of my family to enter academia, I am not the first of my people.

Research and data is political, and for too long the Eurocentric ideals positioned Indigenous people as deficient, but thanks to the work of strong Indigenous academics the discourse is changing, ethics in research is evolving, and opportunity exists for new generations of Indigenous academics to now contribute to these positive changes going forward. Many strong Indigenous women have forged, and walk, this path ahead of me.

Looking around I see that many incredible Indigenous women also walk beside me, and I am honoured to be on this walk, knowing that many more will also come after us. Traversing higher education and academia is not an easy task, but while I alone am not enough, because of her, I can.

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