Indigenous voices are re-emerging. We are representing ourselves once again

19 May 2017

Just about everywhere I turn in Canberra I am reminded of how this city is a place of representations. From the mountains to the lake, from the numerous government buildings to the resistance camp at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, these are all representations of power and agency.

Just about everywhere I turn in Canberra I am reminded of how this city is a place of representations. From the mountains to the lake, from the numerous government buildings to the resistance camp at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, these are all representations of power and agency.

Over the last few days I have walked on Ngunnawal country participating in the annual Indigenous Health May Day 2017 conference. As with the previous 3 years, this year’s conference has selected a theme that is significant to the Indigenous community to frame the day: Representation: Politics, Policy & Education.

The dictionary definition of representation is straightforward: “the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being so represented”. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the later part of this definition, “the state of being so represented”, specifically on how Indigenous people have been represented in the Australian political narrative.

The Twitter storm that surrounds #IHMayDay is one day of the year where Indigenous voices are privileged, and the twitterverse provides a window to observe and engage in Indigenous representation. Here followers will read of Indigenous strength, resilience and sophistication. It is a showcase of the ongoing survival of our culture and knowledge systems in contemporary Australia.

Our pre-colonial self-representation as a sovereign people was from a place of wholeness of body, mind, spirit and of deep belonging. It was a place of symmetry, of knowing and interacting in our dual worlds. However, English colonial rule changed our symmetry. Our sense of wholeness was replaced with subjugation to an alien social and legal construct. This alien construct became the dominant representation, and for a period, Indigenous self-representation witnessed a turn from a holistic rich narrative, to a single story of deficit. What emerged as the “state of so representing us” was the dominant colonial narrative characterising us as the “other”. First Nations peoples became foreigners in their own countries and our Indigenous voice was bound in a place of vox nullius.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the “danger of a single story”. When a constructed single story represents “a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, … that is what they become”. Since 1788, the dominant socio-political narrative in Australia has shaped the representation of Indigenous people and impacted on the way we interact with the colonial-settler world, and also how we interact with each other.

Words are powerful in creating language that can build, or language that can tear down. In the face of the dominant political narrative, Indigenous people took on a deficit identity, our Indigenous culture and intellect became blanketed into living within an imposter-syndrome framework. We came to believe this political mis-representation, became captive to a single story and all that this single story entailed via government policies and practices.

But, we survived! Over the generations our storylines continued, albeit in secret places. Now Indigenous peoples are re-emerging, re-presenting ourselves. We’re throwing off the imposter’s blanket to represent our selves once again.

I believe we are living in a time where institutions of power are changing. Throughout our nations, political narratives are being altered. Across Australia windows of opportunity are opening for Indigenous people to assert our enduring culture, intellect, and the realisation of our strength and resilience in walking two worlds. We are seizing the opportunities to create new spaces for our voice. We are talking up loud and representing ourselves and our community from a place of strength.

I want to see Indigenous representation in our institutions of power shift us to a place of independence from welfare dependency, to a place where we can build our future in parallel to the dominant systems, with mutual recognition and respect. I want to see us change the dominant political narrative and break all the stereotypes that we come up against on a daily basis.

I want Indigenous people to be seen by wider Australia as real contributors and participants in social and economic capital. Where our voices are not just dismissed as part of a consultation process, but fully recognised as valuable in enriching Australia. I want to see and experience communities reformed, where those communities of long term social and economic issues are not simply dumped into the too hard basket. Where communities themselves become places of opportunity to get things right.

And getting things right means we position ourselves to act on every possibility to represent ourselves, at any level where it is required. I believe tomorrow is such a day. We now have that opportunity to take action and use our voice, to represent ourselves, to build our future in “the state of being so self – represented.”.

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