Cultural Rights and Educational
Speech by Michael
Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner:
The Frank Archibald Memorial Lecture, 5 September 1994, University of
I would like to acknowledge
the Anaiwan people as the traditional owners of this country, and to thank
the University of New England for the honour of presenting the 1994 Frank
Archibald memorial lecture.
I believe that the
greatest tribute to a man who so fully committed his life to learning
and sharing the wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous peoples is to dedicate
our own lives to making that wisdom the basis of the daily reality of
all our peoples. Realising that objective is both a duty and an honour,
and it is on these occasions that I am most conscious of the lineage of
responsibility of which we are part.
So I speak with you
tonight in the spirit of the words set down by Indigenous people from
all parts of the earth when they met in Brazil in 1992 to create the Indigenous
People's Earth Charter:
We, the Indigenous
peoples, walk to the future in the footprints of our ancestors.
When I was thinking
about what I wanted to speak about tonight, I looked back to the footprints
of those eminent Indigenous people who have spoken about education and
Indigenous peoples on this occasion in years past. And it struck me that
within their diversity, all of the speakers had connected with a common
theme. They all recognised that no matter what aspect of education we
are looking at, we must retain the integrity of our cultural heritage.
I would like to join
my voice with the others, and perhaps make the chorus a little stronger
by bringing to it the conviction that it is a fundamental human right
that Indigenous peoples be guaranteed an education which respects and
strengthens our cultural heritage. A right and not a privilege.
Gross and systematic
violation of the rights of peoples belonging to particular groups has
been, and continues to be, a perennial component of social relations throughout
Even given the efforts
of the United Nations in the last fifty years to promote universal respect
for human rights, it remained clear to members of oppressed groups, and
anyone else who cared to see, that control over wealth, political power
and knowledge has remained in the hands of the same dominant groups, albeit
under the proviso that they ought to try not to discriminate too much.
As the efforts of
the international community to overcome oppression continued to fail,
it became clear to us that we would only attain true freedom if we insisted
on the right to not only to be part of the game, but to write the rules.
It became clear to us that it was the structure of social and political
relations that oppressed us, and that our freedom would only come with
a genuine shift in the shape and the structure of the system when we speak
about equality, we do not simply mean letting everyone speak English,
but about letting us speak our own languages. In every sense.
Peoples denied of
their freedom will always fight to break out of the cages which confined
them. And that freedom means not simply participation, but equality in
our differences, whether they be the differences of African Americans,
women, gays and lesbians, Kurds or Indigenous peoples.
In fact, it is only
relatively recently that the international community has even begun to
acknowledge that Indigenous peoples were being systematically deprived
of the basic rights to which all human beings are entitled. It is even
more recent that there has been some acknowledgment that Indigenous peoples
may have a right to our own voices. It is only beginning to dawn on people
to question the commonly accepted notion that our disappearance as distinct
peoples was not only inevitable, but most likely appropriate to human
Even in the field
of human rights, the rights articulated in the major instruments, and
those rights which have gained the greatest international attention have
been the rights defined by western non-Indigenous peoples. What that has
meant is that human rights have been framed in terms of the rights of
the individual, and it has been assumed that all that was necessary to
achieve social justice was for all people to be guaranteed those rights.
There is no denying
that all peoples must be guaranteed fundamental rights such as the right
to adequate food and health and just treatment. But what has been missing
from the human rights framework is an appreciation of the importance of
culture and identity. The dimension of the rights of peoples.
As Indigenous peoples
increasingly take our place in the international arena to reclaim our
rights, we are asserting that a concept of rights limited to the rights
of the individual does not reflect our conception of our own freedom,
and will not overcome the profound oppression we continue to experience,
even when it appears that "we are participating".
On the one hand Indigenous
peoples are absolutely clear that human rights are indivisible, and that
the recognition of all rights is a prerequisite for our reclaiming our
dignity as human beings. On the other we do not accept that our freedom
from oppression means leaving behind our cultural heritage. It is simply
not enough to open the door to the mainstream system and "let us
come in". No program to "give to us" will ever work for
us because it is in our own heritage that we can find the source of our
power and liberation.
At the heart of the
identity of Indigenous peoples is our distinct culture, deeply rooted
in our traditions, our knowledges and the lands of which we are a part.
Our being is steeped in the wisdom we have inherited from our ancestors.
We cannot survive
as distinct peoples, nor can we exercise our fundamental rights as peoples
unless we are able to conserve, revive, develop and teach that wisdom.
Without the connection with our cultural heart, the enjoyment of all other
rights is a superficial shell.
The Draft Declaration
of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples articulates the key rights of Indigenous
peoples, and throughout all rights emphasises two consistent and related
themes. The first is our right to self-determination, the second is our
right to practice, revitalise and transmit our cultures. Together these
rights provide the foundation of all other rights. That means that in
every aspect of our lives Indigenous peoples have the right to determine
the way in which we exercise our rights in the context of our own cultures.
The right to self-determination
in particular has been held up by Indigenous peoples as the pre-eminent
right of peoples, a right which "Is to peoples what freedom is to
individuals; ..... the very basis of their existence." 2
But even self-determination becomes an empty concept for Indigenous
peoples unless we are free and supported to live according to the values,
practices and systems which we have created for ourselves.
Madame Daes, the
chairperson of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations described the
intimate relationship between cultural rights and practices and self-determination,
and I quote:
of cultural and intellectual property is connected fundamentally with
the realisation of the territorial rights and self determination of
Indigenous peoples. Traditional knowledge of values, autonomy or self
government, social organisation, managing ecosystems, maintaining harmony
amongst peoples and respecting the lands is embedded in arts, songs
poetry and literature which must be learned and renewed by each succeeding
generation of Indigenous children. These rich and varied expressions
of the specific identity of each Indigenous people provide the required
information for maintaining, developing, and if necessary, restoring
Indigenous societies in all their aspects. 3
Article 27 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that
persons belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities shall
not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group,
to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their religion and use
their own language.
Australia has agreed
to uphold that right. But for our cultural rights to be enjoyed in fact,
and not merely supported in rhetoric, it has to be understood that cultural
rights cannot be relegated to the private sphere, but are communal rights
embedded in the enjoyment of social, economic and political rights.
A people's culture
includes all the spiritual and material values which structure its way
of life, and the way of life itself. Culture encompasses the whole complex
of the identities and products of a people, all that it inherits and transmits,
its knowledge, its language, its laws and ethics, its religion and ceremony,
its social organisation and kinship structures, its customs, its philosophy
and art and song and stories. As Indigenous peoples, we are acutely aware
that our survival as peoples depends on the vitality of our cultures.
The deepest wound that colonisation has inflicted has come from a process
of stripping us of our distinct identities and cultures.
Culture, for Indigenous
peoples is not a theory we carry around in our heads, or a segment of
our lives relegated to Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. It is an
intimate and integral part of everything we do. It is woven into the structures
of our families and communities. It is embedded in the way we live on
the land, it underlies and is embodied in our practices of working and
earning and sharing.
And it is because
of our cultures are embedded in every aspect of our lives, that our cultures
have been eroded with each blow that colonisation struck. Each violation
of our economic, social or political rights interferes with our ability
to maintain and protect those practices through which our cultures are
lived and revitalised. Conversely, the protection of our cultures depends
upon the guarantee of our economic, social and political rights, and a
share in economic, social and political power.
To take a few concrete
Begin with land.
The land which is the heart of our culture.
The removal of a
people from their land is not simply a violation of their economic rights.
Where a people's cultural identity is firmly embodied within the context
of land, their cultural identity is deprived of its life blood if the
land is torn away from them.
Again, the connection
between land and culture is intensely practical. Hunting, fishing and
harvesting are not merely economic activities or the exercise of property
rights . As older people walk the country they teach the young, tell the
stories, and teach the responsibilities. The distribution of the catch
or harvest enables kinship obligations to be learnt and fulfilled. The
denial, loss or impairment of hunting, fishing, or harvesting rights amounts
to a denial, loss or impairment or the opportunity to maintain and participate
in the enjoyment and exercise of Indigenous cultural life and to transmit
culture from one generation to another.
As I recently heard
a person from the Torres Strait say: "The sea is our supermarket.
The sea is our church". Stop the people fishing and they cannot
Another basic practical
violation of cultural rights is the widespread practice of state sanctioned
removal of children from their families and the disruption of Indigenous
families and kinship structures. this once took place in the name of hygiene,
assimilation and economic restructuring. It now takes place in the name
of juvenile justice.
and kinship relationships are like the circulatory system of cultural
life. It is through the veins of those relationships that culture and
Indigenous values, beliefs, knowledge and practices are transmitted. Sever
those veins, and you cut off the circulation of our cultures.
The prohibition on
Indigenous languages in schools, and even between Indigenous peoples took
away the most fundamental vehicle of cultural transmission. Think how
much of your own cultural transmission and the practice of your own culture
depends on your native tongue, your mother tongue. To have it cut out
is to be culturally orphaned; to be landed in a country with no familiar
landmarks, and no point of orientation.
Then there is the
very obvious abuse of cultural rights in the theft and the decimation
of cultural and intellectual property, including all products of our peoples,
human remains, burial grounds and sacred sites.
To understand the
implications of the theft or misuse of the products of our peoples, you
need to go beyond a western conception of property. When Indigenous peoples
talk about cultural and intellectual property, we do not just mean property
in the sense of something that we own, we also mean something that is
a property of what we are. For Indigenous peoples, all products of the
human heart and mind flow from the one source, the net of relationships
within which it exists: the relationship between the people and the land,
the kinship relationships between the people and with living creatures
sharing the land, and the relationship with the spirit world.
What a Western culture
might see as property in the form of objects or knowledges, we would see
as an intimate part of our heritage and ourselves. Our heritage
is "A bundle of relationships", and the use or care of the objects
and parts of that heritage are ways of honouring those relationships,
and fulfilling the responsibilities they entail. For example, if I am
the custodian of a song, and someone else wishes to share it, there will
be a set of protocols I must follow, involving all the people to whom
the song belongs. When we share it, a new relationship is created between
givers and receivers, and the way that the object or knowledge is used
is regulated by that relationship.
Compare that with
the Western concept of individual purchase and permanent alienation of
objects of art or ideas from the peoples from whom they emanate. One hand
you have a set of respected and time honoured relationships with the total
environment, on the other you have a system of economics removed from
human value or experience. It is the latter which has justified the plundering
of our cultural heritage which now fills art collections and museums across
For Indigenous peoples,
the impact of separating us from our heritage goes directly to the heart
that pumps life through our peoples. To expect a people to be able to
enjoy their culture without their cultural heritage and their sacred belongings
is equivalent to amputating their legs and digging up the ground and asking
them to run the marathon.
But just as the framework
which has supported the abuse of our cultural rights has been our lack
of social, economic and political power, so too empowerment in the economic
and political dimensions can be the basis for the reassertion of those
rights. If you look at cases in which Indigenous peoples have either retained,
or reasserted their rights in the economic and political spheres, cultural
rights are given a very different priority.
Compare the dominant
juvenile justice systems in this country with the system in New Zealand.
Here, where a young Indigenous person breaks the law, the legal system
removes them from their community, and dishes out what it considers to
be a just response. When a young Maori breaks the law, the response is
negotiated between the justice system and the Maori community. Firstly,
this process takes into account the views of the Maori community, but
more importantly it directly supports the transmission of Maori cultural
practices associated with correct behaviour, law and morality.
The reason such a
system can operate in New Zealand is because there is a social and legal
recognition, firmly based in the treaty of Waitangi, that the Maori people
have rights to determine the practices which will affect them. By contrast,
in this country, where there is no such legal recognition, our young people
are condemned to alien and alienating systems of punishment which rarely
take any account Indigenous cultural forms of justice; and even where
they do, it is seen as a concession, rather than as a right.
In the lands of the
Navajo nation in the USA where the Navajo people have economic and political
rights, Navajo workers on BHP mines have negotiated a health scheme which
includes "medicine man insurance benefits". That is, a Navajo
can claim insurance to cover the costs for themselves, and at times their
extended families to partake in healing ceremonies with their traditional
Compare this with
the situation of countless Indigenous peoples around the world, whose
lands are plundered for minerals or other natural resources, and who may
be lucky to escape with their lives, let alone assert their rights to
benefit from the development and retain their distinct cultural practices.
Unfortunately I could
continue all night with examples of the exploitation which can happen
when peoples are deprived of power; but those where Indigenous peoples
are supported by a framework of rights are few. To fully understand how
this extraordinary systematic violation of Indigenous rights has occurred
in virtually every part of the world, you need to go beyond the purely
economic and political, and look at the ideologies of colonisation.
Whatever its particular
form, colonisation of Indigenous peoples has taken place with a tenor
of moral, intellectual and cultural superiority. Indigenous cultures and
social systems have generally been regarded as backward and inferior;
the relics of the past beyond which Europeans had thankfully developed;
perhaps we were seen as curiosities worthy of study and collection in
the safety of institutions and museums, but rarely did the colonising
cultures meet our peoples as equals to be respected and understood. And
rarely if ever did they consider that they had an obligation to negotiate
with us the social and political organisation which they would impose
on our lands. Rarely if ever did they see an obligation to take into account
the pre-existing systems and values which had maintained our peoples for
thousands of years.
Even where the non-Indigenous
cultures saw "value" in the Indigenous cultures, they considered
that they had the right to exploit this value to their own ends. At one
time it was our bodies alone and the objects we produced which were considered
valuable, and were stored, stripped of our knowledges or living cultures
in institutions across the world. Today, as non-Indigenous cultures develop
a fascination with the living aspects of our cultures and our intellectual
property, they are rapidly turning these into the commodities of academia,
new age religion, pharmaceuticals, art markets and tourism.
Where can we find
a meeting between peoples in the spirit of equality and respect? Where
can we find a recognition that the culture of a people belongs to that
people, and that the people has an inherent right both to live according
to that culture, and to control that culture?
And with that, we
come right back to where we sit at this moment, the institutions of knowledge
If the currency of
non-Indigenous societies has been a pervasive disrespect for, and abuse
of, Indigenous knowledge and culture, then the central bank and the mint
have been the educational and academic institutions. At the simplest level,
Indigenous peoples do not enjoy our right to equal access to education.
We have been, and continue to be explicitly and implicitly excluded from
participating in the educational institutions of non-Indigenous society.
At another level,
educational institutions have propagated, and continue to propagate ideas
and histories which devalue Indigenous cultures and exclude Indigenous
realities. It is only now that the history of this country is being rewritten
to acknowledge the truth of colonial violence. And even now we have to
fight the proliferation of myths as basic as "settlement".
And at yet another
level, educational institutions continue to operate from assumptions and
ideologies which are alien to and inappropriate for Indigenous peoples.
We have our own unique ways of knowing, teaching and learning which are
firmly grounded in the context of our ways of being. And yet we are thrust
into the clothes of another system designed for different bodies, and
we are fed ideologies which serve the interests of other peoples.
What are the values
that the education system is transmitting to Indigenous peoples? Is it
the dignity of Indigenous peoples and knowledges, or is it our invisibility
and so called "disadvantage"? This alien imposition and
sense of "misfit" is felt by Indigenous peoples throughout the
world. I quote you some words of the Nunavik people of Northern America:
for thousands of
years our people had a very effective education....then things changed.
We inherited an institutional system of learning that was designed and
controlled elsewhere.... 4
Or the Mapuche people
of Chile, who speak of their Indigenous mapuche kimu, an education
system which encompasses Indigenous wisdom, value and technique. They
observed how 500 years of cultural imposition and ideological acculturation
has detached Indigenous children from their cultural roots and Mapuche
wisdom and how these foreign structures of learning accelerate a child's
loss of identity. 5
Article 30 of the
International Convention on the Rights of the Child states that:
in those states
in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, a child belonging
to such a minority, or who is Indigenous shall not be denied the right,
in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or
her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or
to use his or her own language.
This is an obligation
Australia has promised to fulfil. Is it keeping that promise? Or
is it providing a system which insists that the Indigenous child check
her wisdom at the door, and fill her bag with its commodities of knowledge?
A system which rapes
that child of her history and culture and ground of being in the world
and leaves her lonely and lost. A system which takes her from her own
wise heritage and leaves her an orphan. Is that the system that we have
promised to provide?
Surely if peoples'
rights can be violated in the name of education, so too can the truth
of education be the most powerful vehicle for the restoration of those
rights. The UNESCO declaration on the Principles of International Co-operation
reads, and I quote:
one: each culture
has a dignity and value that must be respected and preserved; two: every
people has the right and duty to develop its culture, and; three: in
their rich variety and diversity, and in the reciprocal influences they
exert on one another, all cultures form part of the common heritage
belonging to all mankind.
fully support these principles. Our interest is not only in the preservation
and vitality of our own peoples, but in the wealth and survival of the
peoples of the world.
We are not seeking
to exclude all others peoples from our cultural heritage. On the contrary,
it is both our connection with our distinct heritage, and our ability
to share aspects of that heritage with others that gives us our dignity
and value. But that cannot happen unless there are structures in place
which support our right to both enjoy and control our own heritage. If
that is guaranteed, then our rich heritage can be shared at appropriate
times and in appropriate ways.
In this era of reconciliation
where interest in "things Indigenous" is increasing across the
world, people need to be educated about the correct protocols that must
be honoured when coming into relationship with other cultures. And I think
it comes down to some pretty basic principles. Ensuring that a people
retain the right to practice, transmit and control their cultural heritage;
and understanding that any relationship with the objects or knowledges
of a culture is a relationship with a people, and requires respect.
An education system which both embodied and taught those principles would
provide us with a solid ground for reconciliation.
I would like to conclude
with the words of my Nunavik brothers and sisters:
wisdom cannot be
nurtured effectively unless there is a wise structure in place to support
it.... the simple and the certain don't lead to a powerful education
in our age. They are not the paths for structuring a democratic society,
(little own cultural democracy), and they don't provide a base for optimism
about the world. 6
But in the spirit
of optimism I would urge us all to take inspiration from our ancestors
like Frank Archibald, and create the structures of wisdom.
1. Much of
this discussion is drawn from the paper by Erica-Irene Daes, Special Rapporteur
of the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and an Protection
of Minorities, Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples; Study on
the Protection of cultural and an intellectual property of Indigenous
peoples, Economic and an Social Council Paper, E/CN. 4/Sub 22/1993/28,
28 July 1993.
Addine Ghazali, Opposition to violations of human rights, in UNESCO,
Violations of Human Rights, 1984, quoting in part Karel Vasak,
`Human Rights: As a Legal Reality', in Vasak (ed.), the International
Dimensions of Human Rights, p. 3, Paris/Westport Conn., Unesco/Greenwood
Daes, op cit. para 4.
Pathway to Wisdom, Final Report of the Nunavik Educational Task Force
(February 1992) p.3.
5. 1993 World
Indigenous Peoples Conference: Education - Conference Paper entitled Status
of Mapuche Education in Chile.
Pathway to Wisdom, Final Report of the Nunavik Educational Task Force
(February 1992) pp 17-18.
updated 1 December 2001