Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Ethics of Teaching from Country

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Ethics of Teaching from Country

Article excerpt

Abstract: The 'Teaching from Country' program provided the opportunity and the funding for Yolnu (north-east Arnhem Land Aboriginal) knowledge authorities to participate actively in the academic teaching of their languages and cultures from their remote homeland centres using new digital technologies. As two knowledge systems and their practices came to work together, so too did two divergent epistemologies and metaphysics, and challenges to our understandings of our ethical behaviour. This paper uses an examination of the philosophical and pedagogical work of the Yolrju Elders and their students to reflect upon ethical teaching and research in postcolonial knowledge practices.

Teaching from Country

In the Yolnu Studies program at Charles Darwin University (CDU), north-east Arnhem Land, Aboriginal knowledge practices have found a place in the academic world. This place, within the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Education, continues to be a site of careful work by both Yolnu and balanda (white Australian) philosophers working together. The Yolnu Studies teaching program established in 1994, was in constant contact with, and under supervision from, the language owners in Arnhem Land, as it developed in the city of Darwin on the traditional country of the Larrakia people. Yolnu Country is much further east from Larrakia Country. About 5000 Yolnu are the traditional owners of areas of north-east Arnhem Land, and are divided into 50 or more subgroups, each belonging to one of two moieties--Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each group has its own language, belonging to the Yolrju family of languages. As explained further below, it is the differences between these groups that are critical to Yolnu epistemology.

Yolnu people had contact with Macassans for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived, and Methodist missions were established in the early twentieth century. Bilingual education was a key feature of Yolnu schooling from the 1970s until the 1990s, and the researchers in the group--Yolnu and balanda--worked together during those years. For some time now we have been elaborating and supporting Yolnu knowledge practices, and their epistemologies, pedagogies and methodologies (see, for example, Christie and Marika-Mununggiritj 1995; Christie et al. forthcoming; Verran et al. 2007).

In 2008 I was awarded (through a National Fellowship with the Australian Learning and Teaching Council) sufficient funding for the development and evaluation of something about which we had long been talking: a program enabling Yolnu Elders living on traditional land in very remote Arnhem Land homeland centres to participate in the Yolnu Studies teaching and research program remotely. We named the program 'Teaching from Country: Increasing the Participation of Indigenous Knowledge Holders in Tertiary Teaching through the Use of Emerging Digital Technologies'. The funding provided for travel, Apple Macintosh laptops and G3 connectors.

We started with the rather simple and pragmatic goal of allowing Elders to participate in our program without the expense and inconvenience of long hours in light aircraft. But the Yolnu participants became focused upon what Australian Indigenous theorists Moreton-Robinson and Walter see as a common goal of Indigenous methodologies: the effort 'to make visible what is meaningful and logical in our understanding of ourselves and the world' (Moreton-Robinson and Walter 2010:2). This led us to some interesting and important philosophical work.

The CDU Human Research Ethics Committee generally refers applicants intending to work with Indigenous people to the AIATSIS (2000) Guidelines for Ethical Research in Indigenous Studies. Unlike other university systems--for example, the University of Victoria in Canada, which employs a two-tiered process with a separate Indigenous committee (Ball and Janyst 2008)--CDU has a single committee with Indigenous representation. …

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