Water sovereignty, climate futures and the academy: can we heal country on stolen Indigenous land?

Grant Rigney (Ngarrindjeri), Erin O’Donnell, Brendan Kennedy (Tati Tati), Lisa Hocking, Policy and Program Manager, Uncle Lloyd Hood (Gunaikurnai), Tim Paton (Gunaikurnai), Zena Cumpston (Barkandji), Jacqueline Peel and Eddie Cubillo (Larrakia/Wadjigan and Central Arrente).

Summary

The 2021 theme of NAIDOC week is: Heal Country! The theme is itself a call to action, and reflects the ongoing, deeply held responsibilities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country. Settler Australians living and working on stolen lands share this responsibility to Country.

To celebrate NAIDOC week, the University of Melbourne showcased research partnerships that demonstrate the ways that Indigenous and settler knowledges and forms of knowledge production can support one another. In doing so, we sought to ask the question: How do academics put our expertise in service of a justice agenda for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? How is our work helping to heal Country? What is the responsibility of publicly facing universities in researching and teaching on stolen Indigenous land?

The event highlighted a recent project from Melbourne Law School that demonstrates the power of respectful, justice-oriented research partnerships. It included a presentation from the people directly involved in and leading the project, followed by comments from leading Aboriginal and non-Indigenous thinkers and researchers, who were invited to reflect on how settler and Indigenous knowledge can be brought together to Heal Country and address the myriad challenges posed by the climate crisis.

‘Give us our water, and we’ll show you what we can do with it.’

The Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project is a partnership between the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning (Victoria), and the University of Melbourne, as well as representatives from 20 Traditional Owner organisations and First Nations across Victoria. This project is an important step towards water sovereignty for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who currently own less than 1% of water rights in Australia. Lack of access to water deprives Aboriginal people of opportunities to exercise self-determination, care for Country, and generate wealth from agricultural production. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold the knowledge, stories, custodial obligations and cultural knowledge that have always ensured the health of waterways and river Country. Their expertise and generosity underpins the project.

The project partnership builds on the leadership of Traditional Owners and First Nations across Victoria, and is already achieving some early success, with water rights recently handed back to Gunaikurnai people in Gippsland.

Presenters

  • Grant Rigney (Ngarrindjeri), Chair, Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations
  • Erin O’Donnell, Early Career Academic Fellow and Senior Fellow, MLS, University of Melbourne
  • Brendan Kennedy (Tati Tati), Deputy Chair, Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations
  • Lisa Hocking, Policy and Program Manager, Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation
  • Uncle Lloyd Hood (Gunaikurnai), Water Team Leader, Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation
  • Tim Paton (Gunaikurnai), Water Officer, Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation
  • Zena Cumpston (Barkandji), Guest Curator (Science Gallery Melbourne) and contributing author, State of the Environment 2021
  • Avril Horne, DECRA Fellow, Water, Agriculture and Environment Program, University of Melbourne
  • Jacqueline Peel (Moderator), Director, Melbourne Climate Futures and Professor, MLS, University of Melbourne
  • Eddie Cubillo (Larrakia/Wadjigan and Central Arrente) (Chair), Associate Dean (Indigenous Programs) & Director, Indigenous Law & Justice Hub, MLS, University of Melbourne