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Placing Indigenous knowledge and culture at the heart of the University

Associate Professor Sadie Heckenberg aims to see Indigenous knowledge and culture integrated into every aspect of university life, from research and education, through to community and social events.

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The core philosophy of Associate Professor Sadie Heckenberg’s approach to Indigenous engagement at university is simple: nothing about us without us.

Joining the University in 2023 as Academic Director, Aboriginal Engagement, Sadie, a Wiradjuri scholar, will ensure Indigenous knowledge and culture are “at the heart” of all aspects of academia, administration and campus community, in line with   the Strategic Plan for Aboriginal Engagement.

“Our universities are all built on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Country in Australia, so it is important that we ensure the voices of the local Aboriginal communities are represented in everything we do, whether that’s curriculum, research, student engagement or broader community initiatives,” she said.

“Universities, by their nature, are very westernised institutions so we need to work harder, and work together, to Indigenise and de-colonise in recognition of that.”

Through working with the Riawunna Centre and our increasing number of Indigenous academic colleagues across Colleges, Sadie’s vision for the University of Tasmania includes:

  • incorporating traditional knowledge and Indigenous perspectives into all areas of study
  • highlighting the important work of the Riawunna Centre and Indigenous staff and students across the university
  • creating a greater awareness of and engagement with Tasmanian Aboriginal culture across all sectors of the university
  • ensuring research is always respectful of Indigenous culture and communities
  • creating stronger links with communities and organisations, highlighting and respecting diversity.
Associate Professor Sadie Heckenberg (pic supplied by Sadie Heckenberg)
Associate Professor Sadie Heckenberg (pic supplied by Sadie Heckenberg)

Most  recently working at Swinburne University of Technology as Academic Director (Indigenous Research) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Senior Research Fellow, Sadie is the President of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium and is passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and culturally safe research practices.

A member of the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts, Sadie’s research focuses on Indigenous methodologies, Cultural Safety, protecting Indigenous spoken knowledge, and ethical research frameworks. Through the work of her PhD, “Nothing About Us Without Us: Protecting Indigenous knowledges through oral histories and culturally safe research practices”, and beyond, Sadie aims to ensure any research about Indigenous people is conducted with the consent and input of  that community.

The Lead Chief Investigator (CI) for the Australian Research Council Linkage Project "Empowering Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Girls, Changing Communities", Sadie is excited to have the University of Tasmania partner with Ember Connect, Curtin University, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Federation University Australia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls from around Australia to ensure culturally safe and empowering spaces in education.

University of Tasmania Pro Vice Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership, Greg Lehman said that with Sadie’s expertise, the University would significantly increase its capacity to shift to a more strength-based approach where the academy recognises that Indigenous cultures and people bring valuable alternative perspectives and a depth of association with place.

“In particular this will have a big influence in areas like the natural sciences, conservation, biodiversity, fire management. But there are other disciplines that Indigenous knowledge and perspectives have not been brought to bear on yet,” he said.

“Astronomy, for example. First Nations people have been gazing at the sky for thousands of generations, building oral traditions around what they see in the heavens, and there are important implications for observations of slower processes like climate change based on experiences back to the last ice age.

“There’s a breadth and depth in Indigenous knowledge that simply isn’t available to Western science, which is typically abstracted from everyday life, and tends to rely heavily on technologies less than 500 years old. In contrast, Indigenous knowledge accumulated over thousands of generations of common observation and experience results in a developed understanding of the world that is deeply meaningful.”

Sadie also hopes to foster broader community engagements with Indigenous culture, in ways that are empowering for Indigenous communities and transformative for non-Indigenous colleagues and students.

And – as a non-Tasmanian, herself – Sadie encourages everyone in the island state to walk on Tasmanian Aboriginal land with the same awareness and respect she was always taught to show.

“I live life through Yindyamarra, a Wiradjuri way of being that is in every breath and every action: respect, be gentle, polite, honour, do slowly.”

The Riawunna Centre is a culturally welcoming place, on each of our Tasmanian campuses, creating positive change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through collaborative approaches to educational experiences, Culture and Community engagement.