maar bidi: Carving Sovereignty and Desire in Indigenous Youth Storytelling

By , and | 1 February 2021

Indigenous storytelling and sovereignty

We have in contemporary times inherited and taught curriculum in undergraduate courses that dominantly presents Indigenous history through non-Indigenous writing and voices; history granted authority for its footnotes and purported ‘rigour’, rather than inter-generational knowledge or relation to Indigenous knowledge holders. In these classrooms, questions sound as noisy as elephants crashing through the room. To what extent do these courses benefit Indigenous students? How can we provide liberated spaces for Indigenous students to write and read their own stories as history? Will it be a space on campus, or a dedicated online space? These questions echo the larger question of decolonising the academy posed by Indigenous scholars. Bundjalung woman, poet and editor Evelyn Araluen asks whether it is even ‘possible for an institution of knowledge production in a settler-colonial state such as Australia to function as an agent of decolonisation?’1

In settler-colonial contexts, the academy is perpetually created and recreated as a space where autonomous Indigenous expressions are subjected to colonising frames of non-Indigenous listening, assessment, and judgment. Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman Chelsea Bond has written of Aboriginal people’s struggle to forge a place within the enduring racism of the academy:

For a long time, I had been trying to find the way to get beyond the veil – to outperform and outsmart racism. But I have resigned myself to the fact that the academy, as a world in which we are longing for a place, is theirs, not ours … What I am instead seeking is a way for us Blackfullas to be more at home in our own lands, more at home in our own skin. I want what is ours, not what is theirs.2

Stories developed and shared ‘at home in our own skin’ are a practice a sovereignty of the mind and the self. Indigenous scholars argue that, just as stories have served colonial purposes and projects, so have they served decolonial and liberatory ones. Writing, Goorie woman Melissa Lucashenko argues, is a way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take control of the meanings of Aboriginality from non-Aboriginal people, who attempt to socially and legally define and monitor ways of being Aboriginal: ‘[If] we can just … replace [settler stories] with our own, then we can exert power too’ and ‘gain control not only over the national story or the regional story, but also … the stories we tell each other around the kitchen table.’3

Indigenous scholars have been talking about and re-defining writing as an act of sovereignty for over a decade. Ngugi/Wakka Wakka woman Tracey Bunda has written that: ‘Our sovereignty is embodied and is tied to particular tracts of country, thus our bodies signify ownership and we perform sovereign acts in our everyday living. Writing by Indigenous people is thus a sovereign act.’4 More recently, and inspired by Waanyi woman Alexis Wright’s idea that writing as a way to cultivate the sovereignty of the mind, Lucashenko has urged that writing is no less than ‘a sovereign act’. She says she remembers ‘watching Alexis Wright {around a decade ago} … urging us … to cultivate the sovereignty of our minds’, and wondering ‘What is it, this sovereignty of the mind? How do we cultivate it?’5 From these perspectives, there is an urgent need for the creation of spaces where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can write and practice a sovereignty of the mind and the self. Sovereignty exists in strength of mind and in expression.

  1. Araluen, E 2017 ‘Resisting the Institution’, Overland, 2017, np
  2. Mukandi, B and Bond, C 2019 ‘Good in the Hood’ or ‘Burn It Down’? Reconciling Black Presence in the Academy’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 40(2), p. 261.
  3. Lucashenko, M 2018 ‘Writing as a Sovereign Act’, Meanjin Quarterly, Summer, np.
  4. Bunda M 2007, ‘The sovereign Aboriginal woman’ in Moreton-Robinson, ed. Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2007, p. 75.
  5. Lucashenko 2018 np.
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