Economic independence through Indigenous art in Australia’s far north

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in ANZSOG News and is reproduced with permission.

Tiwi Islands flag

Economic self-determination through art and culture can be empowering, but for some remote communities, it can be difficult to achieve. Carissa Lee Godwin, Editor, APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection explores art and cultural production as a source of economic income for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in the far north of Australia.

Report on the North-West Northern Territory and Tiwi Islands

A recent addition to the First Peoples & Public Policy CollectionIntegrating Art Production and Economic Development in North-West NT and the Tiwi Islands, presents the findings of one component of a major national survey of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. This national survey is being undertaken in the Department of Economics at Macquarie University progressively across six regions in remote Australia, and is scheduled for completion in June 2020.

Report authors, David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya, use the survey data to focus on strengthening Indigenous arts economies in the North-West region of the Northern Territory and the Tiwi Islands. The report presents the diversity of cultural practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in remote towns, settlements, homelands and outstations across the region.

Artists’ cultural economic activities

The report reveals that the most common cultural activities that survey respondents practice is visual arts (with just over 75 percent of survey respondents receiving income working in this field). The next most common art form in the survey region is performing arts (primarily music and dance), with almost half (45 percent) of artists currently engaged in and receiving income from choreography, writing and storytelling, music composition, filmmaking and multimedia, and other performing arts.

Tiwi Islands art gallery by Satrina Brandt on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On average, individual artists in the region have engaged in eight or nine cultural economic activities at some time in their life. Respondents also received some form of income for their work in at least one of the artistic activities and about two other cultural activities.

While almost everyone with experience in visual arts continues to be engaged in this art form (96 per cent), only three in five of those with experience in composing or choreographing and in writing and/or storytelling are able to practise in these fields, due to a lack of access to facilities.

In the case of other cultural activities, the vast majority of artists with experience in the everyday cultural practices of caring for country or fishing, hunting and collecting bush food are currently engaged in these activities (90 and 93 per cent, respectively).

Key policy recommendations

The main findings in the report are grouped into the following categories:

  1. Infrastructure needs: Improved funding and facilities are required to better assist artists in accessing and developing their creative work.
  2. Expanding economic opportunities: Culturally sensitive employment opportunities and income generation should be explored in this region.
  3. Training and skill development: One of the most important areas for policy formulation to support Indigenous peoples in remote communities is through education and training. The findings show that the primary pathways for transfer of arts and cultural skills and knowledge are found within the communities through family and community members.
  4. Cultural tourism: Tourism is a means to bring income directly to the source of supply. By promoting cultural tourism, tourists who visit remote communities can engage with Indigenous culture firsthand and support the regional economy by buying artworks or attending performances by local artists.

The report explicitly states that the researchers acknowledge that art and cultural production cannot on its own transform any remote community. Rather, in the right conditions, it can be an effective avenue towards employment creation and income generation, helping to improve the overall long-term prospects for economic sustainability and social viability, while respecting the fundamental importance of Indigenous culture.

About the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection

As part of its mission to improve Indigenous policy in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, ANZSOG is working to increase knowledge of Indigenous culture and history. Part of this is through supporting the APO First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, launched at ANZSOG’s Reimagining Public Administration conference in February 2019.

The First Peoples & Public Policy Collection is curated from a broad selection of key Indigenous policy topics, and provides a valuable resource on Indigenous affairs, with a focus on diverse Indigenous voices.

Resources

Improving learning outcomes for Indigenous students

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in ANZSOG News and is reproduced with permission.

Indigenous ways of learning include deep listening and community-oriented activities, with family being a prominent element of First Peoples’ education. In contrast, Eurocentric teaching methods can result in a lack of engagement for Indigenous STEM students. Carissa Lee Godwin, Editor, APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, explores how the Australian curriculum can become more culturally inclusive.

Elizabeth McKinley, Professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Melbourne, outlines the need for Indigenous knowledge systems in teaching practices in her paper on ‘STEM and Indigenous Students’, included in APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection. Although this paper is from 2016, the concepts and recommendations remain valuable to today’s educators seeking to improve their teaching practices.

Key research findings

McKinley presents the state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Australia, and where it falls short of interacting with the cultural complexities and needs of Indigenous students at primary and secondary levels. There are three main takeaways from her assessment of the system:

  1. Although there is an equal level of interest between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students when it comes to STEM subjects such as science, there is a level of disengagement for some Indigenous students in these subjects.
  2. Although there has been roughly three decades of research examining Indigenous knowledge systems in the context of education, these styles of learning and teaching might not be effective for teaching STEM subjects to Indigenous students.
  3. There is a mismatch between what is valued in the classroom, and what is valued at home or in the student’s community. As a consequence, Indigenous students do not find STEM subjects very accessible due to their cultural learning styles. Examples of these cultural learning styles include collaborative and community-oriented learning systems.

Key policy recommendations

McKinley provides three key recommendations for education and curriculum providers to teach STEM subjects to Indigenous students in a more culturally inclusive way:

  1. STEM educators need to provide an individual and responsive approach to teaching that encompasses the interplay of family, social and cultural contexts, and how these may influence individual students.
  2. Education providers should take into account each individual student’s cultural knowledge systems, as well as the importance of cultural identity to Indigenous communities, to understand how these may influence individual learning experiences.
  3. Educators need to understand that the often-separated cultural elements of home and classroom sometimes need to be intertwined:

‘Bridging between home and school culture thus provides an underlying cultural approach for teachers to support learners who come from different cultural backgrounds,’ McKinley said.

McKinley suggested that this can be achieved by finding ways to integrate cultural context within learning materials, by respecting and seeing individuals as important, and by encouraging teachers to establish a more caring and understanding rapport with students.

Far-reaching benefits

McKinley makes it clear that Indigenous students may benefit from culturally relevant teaching methods. To my mind, these methods may also benefit non-Indigenous learners. By presenting STEM subjects through a different lens, non-Indigenous students can learn how it fits into another person’s cultural worldview. Additionally, neurodiverse students may be exposed to alternative teaching methods that they may find helpful.

We all learn differently, and Indigenous students should not be deprived of achieving their highest potential because cultural ways of learning have not been considered. As McKinley points out, there are a number of ways to achieve this. It is time that our education system starts implementing these changes in a significant way.

About the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection

As part of its mission to improve Indigenous policy in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, ANZSOG is working to increase knowledge of Indigenous culture and history. Part of this is through supporting the APO First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, launched at ANZSOG’s Reimagining Public Administration conference in February 2019.

The First Peoples & Public Policy Collection is curated from a broad selection of key Indigenous policy topics, and provides a valuable resource on Indigenous affairs, with a focus on diverse Indigenous voices.

Resources