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Indigenous diplomatic practices have existed continuously on the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years, governing relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Clans and Nations, as well as with overseas traders. However, these practices have gone largely unacknowledged in Western knowledge systems. In order to recognise and better understand this rich body of Indigenous knowledge, The Australian National University (ANU) will offer an intensive postgraduate course on Indigenous diplomacy in November 2019.
The course is the first of its kind in Australia. Elders from the Torres Strait, Yolŋu in the Northern Territory and Ngambri-Ngunnawal in the Canberra region will teach students about Indigenous diplomatic practices. This move to acknowledge these practices is important, not only because it sheds light on the diplomatic systems that were highly successful in maintaining broadly peaceful transnational governance before British colonisation, but also because of the important role they play in contemporary reconciliation.
“This recognition, like the relatively recent recognition of Indigenous agriculture, land management, astronomy and law, is important in terms of better understanding these principles which governed Australia for tens of thousands of years,” said Associate Professor Greg Fry, course convener of “Indigenous Diplomacy”.
Based at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Associate Professor Fry said “this recognition is about respecting and understanding the Indigenous principles which are seen as important to creating legitimate dialogue”.
“In the initial course offering in 2019, the case studies will be drawn from Yolŋu culture in East Arnhem Land, and from the Torres Strait. It seeks not only to establish the existence of these generally unacknowledged diplomatic systems and cultures, but also to show their relevance to contemporary issues of governance, reconciliation and conflict resolution.
One such principle is makarrata, a Yolŋu peacemaking ceremony which provides a structure to deal with conflict and agreement making. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, issued by delegates at the 2017 National Constitution Convention, recommended makarrata as a diplomatic concept that could advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
“Makarrata plays a significant role in Yolŋu life,” said Toni Bauman, Visiting Fellow at ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies and convener of the framing workshop for the new course, which was held on campus at ANU.
“In Yolŋu metaphor, the cycad nut (ngathu) is both poisonous and symbolic of powerful Law,” she said.
“In doing business with governments and others, the ‘poison’ of ready-made ideas and ‘business-as-usual’ in the face of grief, trauma and suffering must first be ‘leached out’ in a long process before the ‘nut’ can be eaten.
“That is, meaningful negotiations cannot take place until the space is clear and people are ready and receptive; until they have said what they need to say and done what is necessary.”
The Uluru Statement called for a Makarrata Commission which would “supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.
Mr Yingiya Mark Guyula MLA, Yolŋu Elder and the Independent Member for Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory Government, was among the attendees at the framing workshop.
He said teaching Indigenous diplomacy is important because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have tens of thousands of years’ experience conducting diplomatic relations.
“Our knowledge systems are rich and we are proud to share them and invite others to learn another way, that may grow knowledge, skills and a broader understanding of the world,” he said.
“Yolŋu people had treaty relations with the Makassan traders (from modern-day South Sulawesi in Indonesia) that lasted hundreds of years.”
Mr Guyula said that without recognition of these systems “we experience a process of assimilation, whereby our way is not understood and a different way is forced upon us”.
“It’s important to recognise these systems because it is a recognition of the governance and law structures that underpin Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations. For many Nations these structures are still existing and functional on our country,” he said.
At the framing workshop, Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Officer at the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Leilani Bin-Juda, shared her experience in community consultation as a part of implementing the Australia-Papua New Guinea Torres Strait Treaty.
“The course will explore the practical ways traditional owners work together on the ground to manage matters within a shared maritime boundary,” she said.
“Understanding Indigenous knowledge systems helps to break down stereotypes, myths and preconceptions. With this shared knowledge, we can then build partnerships that help us move closer to ‘closing the gap’.”
The course will run over six days in November 2019 and is available to ANU postgraduate students. It is made possible through a collaboration with ANU and Charles Darwin University. For more information about the course, contact Associate Professor Greg Fry.