For September’s Design & Ethics around 20 of us gathered at RMIT to listen to Dr Marion Muliaumaseali’i present her research into changing communicative ecologies of Village Samoa and its relationship to the ‘va’, a ‘thread’ that exists in every gesture, speech and interaction between Samoans, as well as work she has done for RMIT researching Indigenous students’ journey. Following Marion’s presentation, we split into two smaller groups, facilitated with the support of Grace and Nala Leone to talk through some of the key insights.
The key theme that surfaced was that the central consideration was that meaningful working with indigenous peoples was not about what we say or do, but firstly who we are as individuals and how we show up in the communities we work with. There was interesting conversation of Marion’s assertion “this is who I am” as opposed to the more often asked “who am I?” The difference being that in Samoan culture, children are raised with a strong sense of identity firmly rooted within their culture. This differs to societies where the individual is prioritised as the basis for identity formation, leading to a feeling of ‘loss’ in knowing what ‘cultural identity’ means. Whilst it was an occasionally uncomfortable realisation that we must first work on ourselves, our identity and our relationship with indigenous peoples rather than focusing on tools, tips, frameworks and approaches, we did all came away appreciating how important this foundation is.
Following on from understanding the importance of firstly being self-aware of the way we show up in any relationship with indigenous communities was the importance of understanding the importance of respect and what it looks like to different people in different cultural aspects. Both Marion and Grace shared stories of their work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including the importance of firstly allowing time for community elders to discuss the matters they deem of most importance, rather than showing up with our own agendas and expecting to run the conversation. Grace shared stories of projects where she would allow for several hours of any meeting with elders, especially in early engagement, following the discussion set down by elders and only when invited to, would she ask her own questions. Several people brought up the potential for this time to build relationships based on trust and respect to run up against broader stakeholder expectations around effort and time required for a project. This was just one example of how to engage respectfully with indigenous peoples, with Grace pointing out the importance having conscious conversations with all participants of what respect looks like to each, and negotiating how respect will be lived in each engagement.
All in all it was an enlightening evening that invited all of us to look firstly within ourselves in order to construct an authentic relationship with indigenous peoples rather than being driven by project deliverables.