How the whispering in our hearts can become a resounding chorus

One of the great transformations in Australian society has been the growing awareness of the need to respect and engage with Indigenous culture and knowledge.

Yet there are many who still resist what they see as ‘black armband’ history. As for reconciliation and recognition the Morrison Government attitude to the Uluru Statement from the heart, and embedding a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution, echoes the Howard Government’s vote (one of only four countries) against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

On the other hand, there are also many people who want to engage with Indigenous culture and knowledge but do so hesitantly due to lack of confidence in navigating the issues.

Now there is a comprehensive answer to those hesitating and a blueprint for how to meaningfully and respectfully engage with Indigenous culture.

Terri Janke’s True Tracks is the product of the author’s life experience, academic training and work in both Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) law and commercial law. Her law firm acts for Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients, artists, community-controlled organisations, governments and companies.

Her first major contribution to the area was writing the 1998 report Our Culture:  Our Future – Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights for ATSIC while working for Michael Frankel and Company. While completing a PhD Terri Janke also started to develop a framework for ethical Indigenous engagement which became the True Tracks principles. They are:

“Respect: Indigenous peoples have the right to protect, maintain, own, control and benefit from their cultural heritage.

Self-determination: Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination and should be empowered in decisions-making processes within projects that affect their cultural heritage.

Consent and Consultation: Free, prior and informed consent for use of ICIP should be sought from Indigenous peoples. This involves ongoing consultation and informing custodians about the implications of consent.

Interpretation: Indigenous peoples have the right to be the primary interpreters of their cultural heritage.

Integrity: Maintaining the integrity of cultural heritage information and knowledge is important to Indigenous people.

Secrecy and Privacy: Indigenous people have the right to keep secret their sacred and ritual knowledge in accordance with their customary laws. Privacy and confidentiality concerning aspects of Indigenous peoples’ personal and cultural affairs should be respected.

Attribution: It is respectful to acknowledge Indigenous peoples as custodians of Indigenous cultural knowledge by giving them attribution.

Benefit sharing: Indigenous people have the right to share in the benefits from the use of their culture, especially if it is being commercially applied. The economic benefits from use of their cultural heritage should also flow back to the source communities.

Maintaining Indigenous Cultures: In maintaining Indigenous Cultures, it is important to consider how a proposed use might affect future use by others who are entitled to inherit the cultural heritage. Indigenous cultural practices such as dealing with deceased people and sensitive information should be recognised as important and be respected.

Recognition and Protection: Australian policy and law should be used to recognise and protect ICIP rights. Copyright law, for example, as well as new laws and policies should be used to protect these rights. These issues can be covered in contracts, protocols and policies for better recognition.”

Within this framework case studies examine issues such as who owns Indigenous languages and the caring for and protection of language collections; how to stop the abundant Indigenous arts rip-offs which can be found in tourist areas and markets; copyright and protocols for Indigenous music; protocols for the film and TV industries (a section which includes a tribute to David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer); and encouraging and promoting Indigenous voices in writing.

Art rip offs are not limited to Australia of course. The author saw a white Canadian woman selling dot paintings in Newfoundland who, when questioned, said she had seen them in Australia and decided to copy them.

There are chapters on Indigenous architecture and industrial design; dance companies, rainforest bushfoods and medicine; integrating Indigenous and Western science; rethinking the complex and problematic areas of Indigenous research; enabling Indigenous voices in education; rights and data sovereignty in digital and technology areas; Indigenous tourism; and appropriation of fashion in contrast with the authentic Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair fashion parade.

The section for companies could well be more than usefully read by all Australian companies and especially the new management at Rio Tinto.

A Ten-Year Indigenous Roadmap, prepared for the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) to enhance Indigenous involvement in museums and galleries, asserts the principle which emerged strongly in community consultation: ‘Nothing about us without us’.

It recommended: “re-imagining representation; embedding Indigenous values into museum and gallery business; increasing Indigenous opportunity; two-way caretaking of cultural material; and connecting with Indigenous communities.”

The book highlights the Indigenous Australian art and culture displays in Paris’ musee de quai Branly and analyses the repatriation issues raised by the National Museum’s 2015-16 Encounters exhibition.

We have, however, come a long way from the Howard era NMA culture wars although one wonders what Scott Morrison might have thought of the NMA’s magnificent recent Captain Cook exhibition which was a major step in engaging with Indigenous perspectives and re-imagining the Cook ‘discovery’ story.

It also reminds us that Australia desperately needs something similar to Winnipeg’s astounding new Qaumajuq museum – home of the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world – but addressing not only art but Indigenous culture as a whole.

Henry Reynolds 1998 book, This Whispering in our Hearts, constructed an alternative history of Australia through the eyes of those who felt disquiet and disgust at the brutality of dispossession.

We have made much progress since 1998 and True Tracks is a blueprint for turning those whispers into a community-wide resounding chorus.