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Towards common ground

Lisa Rapley explores ways in which indigenous and western world views can merge for a more just and sustainable tomorrow.

Posted on 06/07/2021
By Lisa Rapley

It was an unseasonably hot humid day in the stunning Scenic Rim, Queensland, Australia, also known as Mununjahli and Bundjalung Country by the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the land.

The mountains were kissing the sky in the distance and there was not a cloud to be seen. Heat was radiating off the ground. I was walking past my totem tree: a flame tree, blooming with vivid scarlet red flowers. I was on my way to the local shops to avoid the heat and rehydrate. I stopped and looked in awe, my feet connecting with the hot earth beneath. It struck me that it was the wrong time of the year for the flame tree to flower. Indigenous Australians have been stewards of this land for thousands of years; knowledge passed down, through countless generations, would suggest that something was profoundly wrong.

I turned and walked into the cool of the shops. As soon as I entered—dressed in my Aboriginal art singlet and flip flops—I felt eyes on me. Shrugging off this feeling I continued to walk the aisles but I couldn’t help noticing an employee behind me, following. I turned the corner and, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the employee again. Feeling uncomfortable I grabbed some water and headed for the checkout. This never happens when I wear non-Indigenous identifying clothes, I thought.

Heading back to my car, shoes off and walking on the grass, I noticed a group of Aboriginal Elders sitting upright under the flame tree, peaceful, silent, but nonetheless being questioned by police. Yet in view of the police, a group of non-indigenous people were drinking alcohol and littering. Why did the police not choose to speak to them?

I shook my head and left. This experience is sadly not uncommon; it is one that has been spoken about publicly by many indigenous Australians including Steven Oliver, Melanie Mununggurr-Williams and Meyne Wyatt.

‘We tend to notice the reality of exclusion bubbling under the surface of mainstream consciousness only when a tragedy is filmed and tensions explode’

Nor is it an experience that is unique to Aboriginal Australians. First Nations people across the globe fall victim to misunderstanding and isolation, not to mention poverty, short life expectancy and imprisonment. We tend to notice the reality of exclusion bubbling under the surface of mainstream consciousness only when a tragedy is filmed and tensions explode as they did in the fallout from the George Floyd tragedy and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, or, in the Australian context, the now politicised ‘change the date’ debate for Australia Day, currently held on the 26 January—the day that Indigenous Australia changed forever and our lands were taken forcefully and declared Terra Nullius.

So why do Indigenous peoples continue to face these abiding challenges? It’s important to look at root causes. Indigenous peoples have faced varying levels of settlement and colonisation by imperial powers throughout history. Western cultural world views, for example, are very different to the Indigenous world views they have tended to dominate, especially around the areas of individualism vs community orientation and holistic thinking vs technological and scientific thinking. As our thinking can often contradict western views, we have been relegated as a psychological out-group. This has led to pervasive, intergenerational misconceptions that Indigenous people are somehow less intelligent and less human than their non-Indigenous counterparts—and more deserving of suspicion. Most of this thinking is unconscious and has seeped into the fabric of our political and social systems. It has also played havoc on the way we relate to ourselves, each other, and our environment.

In order to move forward, we must acknowledge that Indigenous knowledge systems have much to share.

Indigenous Australians have the longest surviving continuous culture in the world, and most of the unspoilt natural environment in Australia is Indigenous-owned land: as a beacon of sustainability we should stand tall and proud.

This brings me to our shared now—and the imperative to find common ground with each other to live and prosper in harmony. Deep down I believe that we all want the same thing—a happy and equitable community of people on a safe and healthy planet—we just have different beliefs on how to get there.

‘Indigenous Australians have the longest surviving continuous culture in the world, and most of the unspoilt natural environment is Indigenous-owned land.’

To borrow from activist Alice Eather: let’s sit around a metaphorical fire—in a circle—and decide on a path that promotes equity and prosperity. In this spirit, I invite you to read the table below and see how differing outlooks on the world can merge to create a more sustainable and just tomorrow; not just for the indigenous people of the world, but for everyone.

Key Assumptions Indigenous
Working Together Towards Equity & Sustainability
Ontological and ethical
Metaphor of Earth Mother/web of life Vast machine Life support system
Perception of Earth Alive/sensitive Dead/passive Home/managed
System composition Organic/wholes Atomistic/parts Parts and wholes
System structure Heterarchical Hierarchical Holoarchical
Human role Plain member Domination Stewardship
Scientific and technological
Resilience of nature Highly vulnerable Tough/robust Varied/fragile
Carrying capacity limits Already exceeded No limits Approaching
Population size Freeze/reduce No problem Stabilise soon
Risk orientation Risk aversion Risk-taking Precaution
Faith in technology Pessimism Optimism Scepticism
Economic and psychological
Primary objective Ecological integrity Efficient allocation Quality of life
The good life Antimaterialism Materialism Postmaterialism
Human nature Homo animalist Homo economicus Homo sapien
Economic structure Steady-state Free market Green economy
Role of growth Bad/eliminate Good/necessary Mixed/modify
*Table 1 is adapted from Gladwin et al’s (1995:993) Paradigm framework and their constituent assumptions as sighted in appendix 1, page 40, Barter, N & Bebbington, J (2011), Pursuing Environmental Sustainability, University of St Andrews. Please note that these categories are generalised for illustration purposes and may not apply to all people within each category.

What more can the Commonwealth institutions and members states do to learn about First Nations’ world views, and promote cultural capability between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples? I suggest starting with these practical steps:

  • Build your organisation’s knowledge of First Nations’ history, culture and world views
  • Provide a platform for Indigenous voices at events hosted by your organisation
  • Fund development and growth opportunities for Indigenous people and include them in the design of such programmes
  • Monitor and report on your cultural capability progress.

These steps are not exhaustive, but they are a great start—let’s continue to walk together towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

Lisa Rapley is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Yuludarla Karulbo.