How sovereign Wiradyuri woman from Tottenham’s research transforms colonial systems

18 APRIL 2024

How sovereign Wiradyuri woman from Tottenham’s research transforms colonial systems

A Wiradyuri Wambuul woman, who graduated from Charles Sturt University this week with academic excellence, was guided by her Wiradyuri culture, ancestors and community to complete a PhD to impart ‘crucial knowledge and wisdom’.

The PhD of Charles Sturt University graduate Dr Jessica Russ-Smith (she/her) is more than a research project – it’s a ceremony that honours her culture, ancestors and unceded never-ending Wiradyuri sovereignty, which transforms colonial research.

Dr Russ-Smith is a proud Wiradyuri Wambuul woman from Tottenham, NSW and is currently living on Ngunnawal Country in Canberra.

Dr Russ-Smith graduated from Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga with a Doctor of Philosophy (Arts and Education) on Thursday 18 April in Wagga Wagga, where she also received the Higher Degree by Research University Medal which acknowledges the outstanding quality of her work

She is one of 509 students to graduate in Wagga Wagga this week and said, for her, it was an exciting time of deep reflection.

“As a Wiradyuri Wambuul woman, this graduation holds profound meaning,” she said.

“To know that I will share this important milestone with family, friends and Wiradyuri community means the world to me.

“I do not see this graduation as an individual achievement, rather it is a shared celebration of Wiradyuri sovereignty, knowledge and knowing.

“This graduation is also a special way to pay homage to my Wiradyuri grandmother who is core to my PhD research and passed a few years ago.”

Dr Russ-Smith completed her PhD, titled ‘Balayanhi Wiradyuri Garingundhi. We are sovereign my granddaughter. Embodying Wiradyuri women’s sovereignty through Wiradyuri knowing, being and doing’, under the supervision of Charles Sturt’s Professor Susan Green and Associate Professor Chris Orchard.

The research explores how Dr Russ-Smith embodies sovereignty and how being sovereign was taught to her by her grandmother. It centres on Wiradyuri cosmology and sacred relationships of grandmothers and granddaughters.

“Across my life and career, I have constantly seen First Nations and Wiradyuri knowledges exploited by White systems and colonial institutions, so I wanted to disrupt this norm and centre Wiradyuri sovereignty as it was taught to me,” she said.

“My thesis also centres on how Wiradyuri ways of knowing and doing, as well as language and the inclusion of these, are too often dismissed and discouraged by society and the academy.

“This work and the way I did it and shared it is to resist the deficit narrative forced on us and to do this resistance through an unwavering sovereign voice, just like my ancestors taught me.”

Dr Russ-Smith said her PhD journey was challenging, but she is grateful for the opportunity and support to share and extend crucial knowledges and wisdom about First Nations sovereignty. Her research shows how sovereign ways of doing and leading research and education can transform colonial systems.

“My PhD was a long and challenging journey where I had to face continuous battles and resistance as my research pushed against traditional Western ways of knowing and doing a PhD,” she said.

“For me, being a First Nations educator and researcher is about embodying my duty as a sovereign Wiradyuri woman and how I honour and connect with my ancestors and our continuing survival.

“To be at this point, I feel a deep sense of appreciation for my family, friends, elders, community and ancestors who supported me to make it to this day and create a sovereign piece of Wiradyuri knowledge that I can share with the world.”

Dr Russ-Smith said she was honoured to receive the HDR Medal from Charles Sturt.

“For me, this shows an acknowledgement of sovereign Wiradyuri research, its impact upon society and the importance of First Nations research for Charles Sturt University, as well as its research impact,” she said.

To those still studying or preparing to graduate, Dr Russ-Smith imparts the Wiradyuri phrase of ‘Wayamiilbuwawanha’, which translates to ‘turn the feet to come back and stand in the self’.

She said there were moments when she doubted her work but then remembered her sovereign responsibility and the lessons of strength taught to her by her Wiradyuri nan.

“At these moments, I connected back to Country to remember why I was doing a PhD, which is to honour those who came before me and led me and guided me to share sovereign Wiradyuri ways,” she said.

While completing her degree, Dr Russ-Smith worked in various academic positions at Charles Sturt University, Australian Catholic University (ACU) and University of NSW (UNSW). She is currently employed as a Senior Lecturer, Academic Developer for First Peoples curriculum at ACU.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Jessica Russ-Smith, contact Nicole Barlow at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0429 217 026 or

Photo caption: Dr Jessica Russ-Smith with her Higher Degree by Research University Medal at graduations in Wagga Wagga on Thursday 18 April.

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Wagga Wagga Charles Sturt University Indigenous