History through Wiradjuri eyes

8 AUGUST 2016

For much of his life Dr Yalmambirra didn't know he was Wiradjuri but the discovery led to a desire to understand more about his cultural heritage and eventually a PhD through CSU.

For much of his life Dr Yalmambirra didn't know he was Wiradjuri but the discovery led to a desire to understand more about his cultural heritage and eventually a PhD through Charles Sturt University (CSU). 

"Mum and Dad had kept the fact that we were Indigenous a secret because they didn't want to lose their children," Dr Yalmambirra said. "When I found out and came to university it hit home, I'm Wiradjuri and I've got to do something about this. I wanted to know who I was."

Drawing on thousands of old diaries, notebooks and literature, written largely from a colonist's perspective, Dr Yalmambirra's PhD research explores and then challenges how Wiradjuri culture was documented as inferior and stone-age.

"For example many of the books I read as part of my research suggested that Wiradjuri peoples were cannibals."   

Dr Yalmambirra also spoke with 41 Indigenous people from across Wiradjuri country, asking about their cultural background and knowledge.

These interviews touched on the Stolen Generations, dispossession and relocation to missions and reserves; the impacts of government policies; and how contemporary policies define Indigenous people today.

"My PhD was designed around two things, to provide an avenue where Wiradjuri peoples could have a voice and to show the broader Australian community that we are still here, that we haven't gone away and we are just as valid now as we were 120 000 years ago," said Dr Yalmambirra.

"In order to understand where people are today you need to be able to understand where they were in the past."

He's now turning his research into a text, that he hopes will help students better understand our history and Wiradjuri culture.

"I think it is important that the voices of those 41 Wiradjuri people that I interviewed are taken into consideration when these students read the published historical narratives of Indigenous peoples and culture.

"I must say I am not an advocate for burning the books. I think all of those resources that I used for my research are very important because they portray an Australia that is out of line with First Nations' peoples.

"People need to read those books to put what we say into perspective. It's up to people to make up their own mind. We plant little seeds and how they nurture those seeds is entirely up to them."

Dr Yalmambirra's own educational journey at CSU began on a dare.

"I was a bad bugger when I was young and got sent to a boy's home for 11 months. So I left school at 11 years of age and started work," he said. "I had no educational background. My education came from my workmates who were much older than me."

More than 30 years on, when his brother Robert graduated from CSU with a Bachelor of Parks, Recreation and Heritage in 1995, he then challenged Yalmambirra to do the same.

"The promise was if I came to Charles Sturt University and passed the recruiting program that they had for mature-aged Indigenous people, then I would see it all the way through," said Dr Yalmambirra. 

After being awarded his Bachelor of Applied Science (Parks, Recreation and Heritage) (Honours) through the CSU School of Environmental Sciences, Yalmambirra set his sights on a PhD.

During his time at CSU in Albury-Wodonga he was Elder in Residence and lectured in Indigenous studies and Indigenous land management.

He was awarded his PhD titled 'Indigenous Cultures in Contemporary Australia: A Wiradjuri Case Study' during a ceremony in Albury in December, 2015.

Media Note:

Contact CSU Media to arrange interviews with Dr Yalmambirra who lives at Bethanga near Albury-Wodonga. He is available for interview Monday 8 August, Wednesday 10 August and Friday 12 August. Photos available from CSU Media.

CSU's Indigenous Education Strategy has been in place since 2009 and the University has one of the highest proportions of Indigenous students of any Australian university.

CSU provides personal, cultural, financial and educational support to help Indigenous students achieve their goals.

CSU also provides Indigenous cultural competency training to all staff and CSU's School of Australian Indigenous Studies delivers Australian Indigenous programs of teaching and research across professional and general academic programs within the University.

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