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A trailblazer with a single focus: equality for our First Nation Peoples

Professor Maggie Walter

Distinguished Professor Maggie Walter is many things: a palawa woman, researcher, academic, teacher and author. Yet in all her endeavours she has but one aim: to achieve equality for Australia’s First Peoples.

Professor Walter recently finished her five-year term as the University of Tasmania’s first Pro Vice-Chancellor - Aboriginal Research and Leadership.

It meant that for the first time an indigenous voice could be heard at the decision-making table. The impact? Conversations are shifting, as the focus on deficits pivots towards positive actions, and there is finally the prospect of a new relationship with our past and First Peoples.

Professor Walter’s proudest moment was Wednesday December 4, 2019: the day the University of Tasmania apologised for wrongdoings towards Tasmanian Aboriginals.

The Alumni eNews sat down with alumna Professor Walter (BSW Hons 1998, PhD 2003) to reflect on her position, our place and its people.

What have you been able to achieve as the University of Tasmania’s first Pro Vice-Chancellor – Aboriginal Research and Leadership?

“There have been some real highlights over the past five years. From the very start of my tenure in the role I deliberately set out to make visual changes to stimulate a different conversation.

Firstly, we developed an Indigenous Cultural and Educational Exchange Program where students from Tasmania, Sydney, New Zealand and Canada spend time overseas learning about international Indigenous issues.

It is aimed at high academic achievers. I wanted to take the focus off it always being about the deficit. Although we need to support our students who are coming out of an inadequate public education system, we also need to encourage our high achieving students to aspire to big things. Every participating student has finished their degree and many have begun post-graduate studies.

More recently we started the Senior Indigenous Research Scholarships, enabling senior people from our community to do Masters and PhDs in their areas of expertise.

I’m also proud that we now have academic pathway provisions to increase the number of Indigenous scholars. As of early 2020, three Aboriginal Research Higher Degree students completing their PhDs are being provided with mentoring and support so they become active academics.

However, the real achievement is less tangible. We have moved from the invisibility and deficit model to being a visible, scholarly vibrant Aboriginal presence on campus, contributing to our identity as a University.

Previously, a student could study on campus, having being told there are no Tasmanian Aboriginals and leave without that view being disturbed.

Now, they see the Riawanna Centre, which I, and others, fought hard to move from the back of the campus to the centre, to making it more visible. They also see the welcome signs in palawa kani.

Now it shouldn’t be possible for any student to study at the University of Tasmania and not understand more about palawa and lutruwita.”

Late last year, The University of Tasmania apologised to the Tasmanian Aboriginal People, as a result of your leadership. Why was this such a significant moment?

“The apology is probably my proudest achievement, although I did not achieve it alone.  We needed University leadership with the vision to recognise that this was both possible and a good idea.

We are the only institution to apologise for our past wrongdoings in Tasmania.

The Tasmanian Government apologised for the Stolen Generation, but our apology involved doing an audit to identify our wrongdoings, which included: collecting Aboriginal human remains.

For me, there was a huge sense of pride on the day that we were able to honestly face what we had done. Truth telling means identifying what you have done wrong, publicly owning it and apologising for it.

It’s something the University did for itself, so it could go forward with its relations with the Aboriginal community in a different way.

The fact that the Aboriginal community allowed us to have the apology translated into palawa kani was a real gift.”

The Tasmanian Parliament apologised for the Stolen Generation and provided monetary compensation. Why do you think Tasmania was so progressive on these issues and where does it sit now?

“We had the apology for the Stolen Generation and some land hand backs, but this was 25 years ago under forward-thinking visionaries like the late Premier Jim Bacon -  but the leadership has dissipated.

There have been well-intended politicians from both sides of politics, but no real vision has been communicated and it’s time to begin working with the Aboriginal community to overcome this paralysis.

I think the University needs to be a ‘thought leader’ in this space.”

In terms of Aboriginal sovereignty, you have spoken about unfinished business, what are your hopes for the future?

“We really need to be moving to Treaty; other Tasmanian institutions who have committed wrongdoings – and that is most of the major institutions in our state - need to apologise and there needs to be a truth-telling of Tasmanian Aboriginal history.

In Tasmania, many people tend to want to shut down and don’t want to talk about it. They say they feel guilty and I say: ‘hang on a second, I am a descendant of rape and abduction, as are most Aboriginal people in lutruwita, I’m sorry that it’s a bit uncomfortable for you, but it’s something that we all must deal with.’

It’s not something I can reconcile, but you need to accept that’s the truth, it’s painful and ugly, and it needs to be told.

Others ask: ‘can’t we just put it all behind us?’ The answer is no.

It is always part of who we are as Tasmanians, but we can stop it becoming the open sore where you get shut-down from the non-Indigenous side and frustration and anger from the Aboriginal side.

Imagine how good it could be if we could all celebrate that we are part of an island with one of the oldest human histories in the world? That’s everybody’s legacy, whether you are from European or Aboriginal ancestry, you are a citizen of lutruwita; this is your home.” But we need truth-telling and apology to allow us to move to that space.

Are you optimistic about the possibility of achieving equality of Australia’s First Peoples?

“I am. I think there is a groundswell of opinion within the wider Tasmanian community that the relationship should change.

There are non-indigenous Tasmanians who are deeply frustrated: they feel as boxed in as the Aboriginal community because of this stalemate.”

The Vice Chancellor Professor Rufus Black has spoken about your role in indigenising the University curriculum - can you explain what this has involved?

“It means that every subject at every level is examined to consider how, and to what extent current content and pedagogy, reflect the presence of Indigenous peoples and the valid contribution of Indigenous knowledge.

We started with the Bachelor of Arts, surveying every unit. We didn’t just look at whether they had an Indigenous component to the course, we looked at the readings in the course to determine how indigenous voices were represented.”

What’s next for you?

“I am heavily involved in the Maiam Nayri Wingara, Indigenous Data Sovereignty, which has led the development of Indigenous data protocols in Australia.

I am also part of the Global Indigenous Data Alliance, which engages us internationally in Indigenous data sovereignty and data governance activities.

I have also very recently been appointed for one year to the Minderoo Enrich Global Chair, looking at data sovereignty, artificial intelligence and individual and collective privacy. This will keep me busy in 2021.”

Can you tell us about your family history what does it mean to you to be a palawa woman?

“I’m a descendant of Woretemoeteryenner, who is one of the daughters of Mannalargenna one of the leaders of the North East of Tasmania.

She was probably abducted when she was 14. She had at least five children with sealer George Briggs: he then sold her to another sealer.  She ended up on a sealing ship and was off-loaded in Mauritius. Eventually she was sent back to lutruwita and taken to wybalenna (The Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island). Years later she was released into her daughter Dalrymple Briggs’ care. She was the only Aboriginal person ever released.

I also have European ancestry, but these ancestors came here and partnered by choice. My Aboriginal ancestors have always been here. I have links to this island that go back at least 60,000 years, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”

Published on: 09 Apr 2020 12:18pm