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Strengths, aspirations and support needs

Conversations in the Mid North West, North East and Far East Gippsland

Throughout the Mid North West, North East and Far East Gippsland, Traditional Owners discussed a range of strengths and aspirations. The following sections present the strengths and aspirations that arose consistently across these regions, as well as Traditional Owner suggestions of activities that would support and facilitate their development.

Healing

Many groups talked about the need for the local history to be told for healing to occur. People discussed the critical step of acknowledging the deep and recent history of these areas, the trauma caused and the ways in which this trauma is transferred across generations. Of particular importance was the trauma associated with government engagement and formal recognition processes.

The need to heal relationships within the community to move forward in a sustainable way was expressed in all regions, both implicitly and explicitly. Groups discussed the need to heal long-standing disputes between families and to be able to have difficult conversations in a culturally safe space.

'Some work needs to be done with the different families and groups to try and bring the issues out. Young people particularly want to move beyond this.'

'We are all wanting the same thing but we don’t have respectful relationships.'

Support for meetings and the need for reunions to reengage family was raised extensively across the regions. Support is needed to cover the cost of bringing people together in a culturally safe environment and to support people living off Country to return to Country.

'We don’t want a band-aid solution to healing, we want our own treatment and only we can give that.'

'Bring our mobs back together.'

'There is such healing needed…the cultural cry is what we need and walking together helps.'

Groups also talked about access to independent facilitators and mediators as well as training in facilitation and mediation skills to support them to hold challenging conversations. Several groups noted that healing needs to happen in small steps so challenges can be overcome safely, and people aren’t re-traumatised.

'Creating a physically and culturally safe space on Country is the only way to overcome differences. The issues have been left too long and have been neglected.'

Caring for Country

In all regions, Traditional Owners discussed their strong connections to Country, explaining this as critical to their identity and wellbeing.

'Looking after Country will bring about good health.'

Traditional Owners reflected on connection practices that remain strong including supporting one another to return to Country, providing access, visiting culturally significant areas, hunting, fishing and facilitating young people being on Country. Groups also expressed how important it was for young people to be active in decisions made about Country and cultural heritage management. Traditional Owners spoke about the importance of traditional burning, harvesting of foods and medicines.

Many of these caring for Country activities occur irrespective of formal recognition or external support. Several groups are actively engaging with land managers to formalise this work. Examples include Aboriginal waterways assessments, revegetation and cultural heritage work. One group also explained they already have conservation and land management training facilitated by one of their Elders, commenting that support for existing activities is needed. Groups in all regions also called for greater involvement and engagement with cultural heritage management on Country whether through access to the Certificate IV in Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management, or recognition of and support for their own cultural heritage management processes and training.

'We need training to be able to take care of cultural heritage and the environment but need to do this alongside cultural teachings so that people know what to do, when to do it, and how it’s done.'

Several groups suggested particular activities supporting this aspiration, including small projects to clean up Country and protect cultural sites, constructing a toilet block to assist in managing site use, establishing a team of rangers and Country planning.

Strengthening and maintaining culture

'Cultural identity is number one. That’s the most important.'

Traditional Owners across the state discussed their strong sense of identity and the strength of their cultural connections. Many groups continue to share language and knowledge across their community through their own programs and activities. However, some Traditional Owners talked about a lack of interest shown by government or the broader public. Groups spoke about how important it is for government and the broader public to acknowledge and value the cultural knowledge they possess, and the labour required to ensure its continuity.

One group discussed the varying degrees of cultural knowledge held by people in the group and the need for opportunities to come together to learn and share, to strengthen the cultural knowledge of the group.

'We want to make sure that the maintenance of culture is there, the transition of knowledge from Elders. Not just one-off workshops, but ongoing strengthening.'

Overarching goals include practicing culture across and between generations (thus passing this knowledge on) and creating opportunities to share cultural practices across the entire region. It was believed these opportunities would strengthen identity and continue to make people proud of their history and where they come from.

Traditional Owners talked about the importance of sharing and maintaining culture in their own way and want to be able to hold their own cultural workshops, camps and language programs with their own community, but also to be supported in sharing some of their knowledge with the broader local community. Groups discussed many activities through which they would be better able to do this; groups from two regions discussed the need to record cultural knowledge and oral histories as well as the need for a keeping place or cultural centre to hold and make accessible this material. Several groups also discussed the return of cultural material as an important activity to be centred around a cultural centre. The return and reburial of Ancestral Remains was also raised in two regions as a priority.

'[Cultural material] belongs to a keeping place, a library or something like that. There is a great need for institutions to look at processes so that agencies who hold material give it back.'

Governance

In all three regions, the need to build and strengthen effective governing practices was identified. This was complemented by many groups who explicitly stated their desire to develop functioning governing arrangements for both their own community and the region more generally. Key areas of focus included strengthening the governance and decision-making capacity of all community members, with an identified need to focus on young Traditional Owners. One group spoke about the importance of 'laying strong foundations for the future.'

Others discussed their goals for an active and engaged membership, greater decision-making powers and observation of cultural protocols. For some groups, strengthening governance is important as a requirement for formal recognition processes, for others it was discussed as a tool to embed cultural decision-making structures, for example, establishing an Elders Council.

In one region, groups felt the support required in the first instance was to come together for constructive conversations to determine future priorities.

'We want to set our own priorities.'

Groups across two regions were interested in support to discuss and record their own cultural constitution and others hoped to produce their own engagement protocols and code of conduct for external parties wanting to engage with the group.

'We’ve got to be involved in the processes and decision-making that affects us as a people.'

Engaging young people

Groups in all regions had young people present at meetings and while discussing their current involvement, hoped to increase it. One group is already running youth sports programs and educational cultural programs. Engaging young people was raised in two of three regions as an explicit aspiration, however all groups discussed the importance of involving young people and the need for greater opportunities for young people. In one region, this aspiration was discussed in the context of being able to provide greater opportunities for future generations; 'We need to make sure young people are involved.'

In other regions, groups discussed the need to recognise young people as the next leaders and ensure young people are connected to Country. It was explained that strengthening connection to Country will further embed the responsibilities of young people and is of great significance in Traditional Owner governance.

'Our young people deserve to be connected to Country and have the right to do things on their Country and have a future in that.'

Nearly all groups stressed the need for support to better engage young people with Elders and foster the transfer of knowledge and skills. In two regions groups expressed interest in mentoring opportunities and training to better understand the skills and requirements to be a good a mentee and a good mentor. Other groups talked about having opportunities to hold camps for young people and Elders to spend time on Country together.

In two regions, groups discussed creating a space for young people to meet separately from the rest of the group, to articulate their distinct voice in the form of a Youth Space or Youth Council. Other groups talked about the need for small projects directed at engaging more young people.

Education and capacity building

Across the regions, levels of capacity varied, with some groups discussing the benefits they have accessed through training courses offered by both Aboriginal Victoria and other government agencies. Yet in all regions people spoke about a greater need for training and education opportunities, and the importance of these being delivered regionally, not in the city. In many instances, training was discussed in relation to capacity building in non-Indigenous systems, ways of operating and requirements. Capacity building was explained as the right people with the right skills being able to participate, building capacity to work on Country and to be able to operate sustainably and employ 'our own people,' 'making strong through knowledge and resourcing.'

Many groups across all regions talked about their interest in training opportunities in cultural heritage management. Some groups discussed this in relation to the Aboriginal Victoria Certificate IV in Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management offered in partnership with La Trobe University, whereas other groups discussed the need for more localised and culturally-specific cultural heritage management training or even creating their own training modules.

Groups in two regions discussed the need for administration and corporate governance skills training, one group identified a need for training in stakeholder engagement, and another group discussed the need to better understand contracts, memorandums of understanding and agreements. There was an acknowledgement of the distinct skill-set required for successful and beneficial relationships with government and other stakeholders.

Building relationships

All Traditional Owner groups continue to want to build relationships. This was discussed in relation to government, external agencies and other Aboriginal groups.

'Don’t know what the future is, but we have to do things differently.Operated this way without money, with knowledge and strength. We are still playing at the edges.'

In some regions, groups did have established relationships with government agencies, whilst others had little interaction. Groups without established relationships often spoke about feeling left behind as opportunities were not shared. They felt excluded from important decisions for both the community and Country.

Traditional Owners also discussed the need to build relationships across groups within their region but also to be able to share ideas, knowledge and learning with groups across the state.

One group discussed an instance when positive relationships were formalised between groups across the regions, without government. In two of the regions, groups discussed the need to establish relationships with private land holders, particularly to assist in the management of Country and cultural heritage.

Recognition

'We want to be recognised as a nation, not just a handful of people.'

Although there are groups in each of the regions with a degree of recognition from their local community and some government agencies, recognition was raised as a high priority in all regions. Recognition was discussed both in relation to existing formal recognition processes, particularly as a Registered Aboriginal Party under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, but also more broadly in the context of local community recognition and broader recognition of groups’ connection to Country and their history. Groups spoke about the long-term outcomes of formal recognition such as formalising a group’s rights to Country and what that would mean for future generations. Other groups spoke about the importance of being recognised and respected by the local community as well as more broadly by the state or federal governments.

'Having a voice and having your rights respected and recognised. The right to make a decision about what happens in your life, in your community and on Country. It’s about being involved in these processes.'

Groups across all regions explored activities they need to undertake to embark on one of these processes. Groups in all regions requested more information about formal recognition processes including the differences between the processes, requirements and outcomes. Groups also acknowledged they need support for ongoing meetings to bring people together to plan for these processes. One group also discussed the need to understand the history of applications for formal recognition, the reasons for their decline and lessons from previous applications.

Central to these discussions was the need to work through questions of ‘right people’, group membership and representation, with one group explaining this needs to be a collaborative and culturally safe process so information and knowledge can be shared safely across the community. Groups noted the need for specific support to resolve these matters, including genealogical expertise and access to ethno-historical research, while others discussed wanting greater involvement in the research process.

'The ball game is changing, no more can they come in to communities and control research.'

'Some work needs to be done with the different families and groups first.'

One group also discussed holding community workshops to bring people together to discuss questions such as: Where are we from? Where have we been? Where are we going?

Several groups also supported the idea of more holistic ways of doing this business including holding cultural workshops or camps alongside formal recognition processes.

Engaging with government

Traditional Owner groups across all regions expected and wanted to engage with government agencies, particularly regarding decisions affecting Country. Some groups held that government should always engage with Traditional Owners, and others observed it is useful for agencies to have a conversation with them about priorities for engagement and opportunities they want to hear about.

Participants identified a few government agencies with which they were working, or had worked with, in the past. These include:

  • Aboriginal Victoria (AV)
  • Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs)
  • Department of Environment Land, Water and Planning (DELWP)
  • Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions
  • Parks Victoria (PV)
  • Ancestral Remains Unit at the Office of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council
  • VicRoads
  • VicRail

Groups across all three regions also stated that local government authorities (LGAs) were key organisations with which they engaged. Many groups identified they also had frequent dealings with non-government organisations such as Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Network and First Nations Legal & Research Services.

Conversations with groups with formal recognition

Groups with formal recognition expressed many similar aspirations and support needs as groups in the Mid North West, North East and Far East Gippsland. Often these were discussed in the context of the Traditional Owner corporation and its membership.

Healing and family engagement

Groups spoke about the need for healing at various levels, from individuals to families and the full group. They discussed wanting to strengthen their relationships and engagement with all Traditional Owners to build resilient relationships between families and 'a greater understanding of each other.'

'We are increasing our connection with members but there is a long way to go.'

One group also discussed their aspiration to engage with Traditional Owners who haven’t been involved and to continue to support people coming forward who want to engage with the corporation.

Groups identified a range of support needs to facilitate healing including funding for an engagement officer, opportunities for families to meet and build relationships and access to facilitation training and independent facilitators to engage in dialogue processes supporting ‘brave’ conversations to address conflict.

Strengthening and maintaining culture

Groups discussed the strength of their culture but also the need to further strengthen cultural knowledge and practice. Some groups discussed the varying degrees of cultural knowledge across their corporations’ membership lists and their aspirations to share and build the cultural knowledge and skills of all members.

Many groups explained the need for support for activities and opportunities to do this, and that although they receive some resourcing, it is limited and often tied to other activities.

Caring for Country

Traditional Owner groups with formal recognition felt good about being able to manage Country, do Country Plans and set priorities for Country. Some groups felt they weren’t able to access all their Country, or that they haven’t been recognised for the full extent of their Country, limiting their ability to manage Country.

Some groups wanted to be engaged by government regarding all matters relating to Country and others discussed their broader hopes for healthier Country.

Governance

Traditional Owner groups acknowledged they had strong corporate governance, however some discussed the need to further strengthen and renew their corporate governance structures and their relationship with their members. They also spoke about the need to further acknowledge and embed Indigenous governance.

Through support for stronger governance, formally recognised groups explained they hope to be able to facilitate difficult conversations and manage conflict internally.

Engaging young people

Traditional Owner groups discussed the need to ensure opportunities are available for young people and spoke about the need to educate young people on Country.

'We are meeting our corporate governance requirements, but also need to integrate Indigenous governance.'

'It’s as much about learning the successes as it is about understanding the losses along the way and learning from them.'

One group spoke about the need to set up things for the next generation, 'ready for them to come up.'

Education and capacity building

Traditional Owner groups with formal recognition discussed the broad and varied skillsets within their group but also the need to broaden the depth of skills and knowledge through training and mentoring opportunities. Several groups explained the overarching aspiration to have capacity to manage their own affairs, to facilitate mediation processes and difficult conversations and to grow  community leadership.

'Capacity building to me means educating our own people to take charge of our own community...to be our own CEOs, everything.'

One group also commented on the need for ongoing access to training opportunities like the facilitation and mediation skills training offered by the Right People for Country program.

Recognition

The Traditional Owner groups consulted have various forms of recognition. All groups are RAPs, while some groups also have recognition under the Native Title Act 1993 and/or the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010. For others, recognition under these processes is an aspiration currently being progressed.

Several groups spoke about their aspirations for recognition to extend beyond land and water into the ‘social sphere’, and the need for this work to be resourced, with one group adding they hoped to break the chain of intergenerational poverty. Many groups also spoke about the need for recognition of the full extent of their Country.

Engaging with government

As set out above, groups have aspirations across a number of domains relevant to government business – beyond land and water and into the ‘social sphere’. One group spoke about their aspiration for Traditional Owners to be 'approached regarding anything to do with our business – language, extent of Country, traditions, customs etc – social and community services as well as land and water management.' This group expressed they felt their engagement was relegated just to DELWP and AV.

'Just because we are Traditional Owners, does not mean we are not interested in the social and community services business.'

One group felt that engagement should be focussed on how government can enhance what the group does or wants to do.

Reviewed 08 November 2019

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