A platform for the people who are not always heard

Delegates to the World Indigenous Network Conference in Darwin, Elizabeth Utsi (Sami of Sweeden) , Helena Steenkamp ...

Delegates to the World Indigenous Network Conference in Darwin, Elizabeth Utsi (Sami of Sweeden) , Helena Steenkamp 9South Africa) , Wilson Mancha (Kenya) Photo: Glenn Campbell

Last week in Darwin, the first World Indigenous Network Conference (WIN) was held, drawing together 1200 rangers and land and sea managers from across the globe for six days of discussion and information sharing. The addition of the WIN conference to the calendar of events looking at indigenous issues, industries and knowledges is a welcome one. Not only are these types of gatherings timely as many governments look towards indigenous knowledges and practices as a way of reducing climate change and land degradation, they also have the power and potential to create significant global solidarity, growth and change. WIN joins a growing movement to address indigenous issues at a global, rather than just at a local level.

I first attended the World Indigenous People's Conference in Education (WIPC:E) in 2005 over in Hamilton, New Zealand. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It was the first time I had ever been overseas, and while most of us tend to think of New Zealand as culturally quite similar to Australia, I found it starkly different.

It's a very confronting thing, as an Aboriginal person from Australia, to go from your home country where it feels like your culture is mainly ignored by the mainstream unless there is bad news story to tell, to a country where even the “Pakeha”, or non-Maori folks, speak Maori. Or where there are towns, landmarks, shops and the like with Maori names and nobody is stubbornly pushing on with the English names of these things (think Uluru). The first night I turned on the television and saw Maori faces everywhere, whether it was the news, or the soap operas or sport coverage. That just has not happened here on our major commercial television stations. Naturally we got ribbed a bit on the topic of rugby (not sure what that is ...) by our Maori cousins, but although my eyes were not opened to this strange sporting activity, they were opened to a number of other things.

Yousria Rahman, Egyptian delegate. Click for more photos

World Indigenous Networks Conference

Portraits of delegates to the World Indigenous Networks conference being held in Darwin. Photo: Glenn Campbell

Though perhaps the biggest difference between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Maori is a legal one. The Treaty of Waitangi, in place since 1840, has not always been completely honoured by the government, but it does mean that there are a series of specific obligations the government and society can be held to in a way that we have never had in this country.


At the conference I witnessed almost 3500 indigenous education workers from across the world talking about their experiences in a number of fields. I listened intently to the ways that indigenous knowledges were fighting to get recognition in mainstream academies globally, how they were being utilised to re-engage disenfranchised people in education, and how they were being taken beyond the classroom. The stories I heard reflected so many of the struggles I had felt, and witnessed on our own shores.

I left with a great deal more knowledge, a network of contacts, and the empowering thought that I too had unique attributes to contribute to higher education in this country. Simply put, hearing the experiences from people across the world who I shared more in common with than many I worked with every day made me feel like I was part of something bigger and was not alone in my experiences. Some of the sessions that stick in my mind from the WIPC:E conference include a lecture on traditional Hawaiian sexuality, an insight into ta moko tattooing and how it has been culturally misappropriated over the years, a portable Navajo planetarium, the morning prayer circles run by Cree performers and the opening ceremony at the Royal Marae, Turangawaewae featuring performances from all across the world. Where else do you get the opportunity to decolonise your education on a global scale?

"Being heard" is a key issue that many indigenous peoples face. Sadly there is an ongoing lack of respect for their ways of knowing. Spaces where indigenous ways of knowing dominate, rather than the knowledges and practices of the dominant culture, provide a rare opportunity to engage with some of the most ancient and practical knowledge systems in the world. Across the world, our education facilities are dominated by coloniser groups and their knowledge systems, as are our parliaments, our health providers and so forth. Indigenous voices within these spaces are generally considered as marginal rather than central and it is therefore a rejuvenating experience to enter spaces where this is not the case.

These gatherings also provide spaces where non-indigenous people can engage in indigenous culture in ways they usually wouldn't. Non-indigenous people can listen and observe, but they don't control the space. They can access education and cultural practices in ways generally not available to them anywhere else. Global indigenous gatherings provide opportunities to work collaboratively, rather than paternalistically, and provide an opportunity to build networks and further practices in knowledgeable and respectful ways.

Indigenous peoples worldwide are markedly different. We come from different environments, different cultures, Third and First World nations. We have different ways of knowing and we have experienced different methods of oppression at the hands of colonising regimes. But we have a great deal in common as well, including the social issues that affect us, and having some of the most well-developed and specific knowledge systems in the world. The ability to gather together globally and share our experiences is a true gift.

As an Arrernte woman whose outlook was transformed from the ability to engage globally and form points of comparison between situations elsewhere and here in Australia, I hope that the opportunities for global indigenous collaboration continue to expand and more people, indigenous and non-indigenous, take the opportunity to hear the stories from our cousins overseas.