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Indigenous students: don’t go to Indigenous festival

This year’s Indigenous festival has been undermined by a lack of consultation with Indigenous students, reports Madeleine King

Sand paintings, art forums, markets, and a discussion of the Freedom Rides are just some of the events that will take place this week, as part of the University of Sydney Union’s (USU) annual Indigenous Festival. They are the product of over half a year’s planning by this year’s directors, Elyse Johnson and Amie Liebowitz, and USU Programs Manager Mona Jindi. But after issues relating to consultation, the SRC Indigenous Officers have called for students not to take part in the festivities.

On the surface, the most controversial issue is that both Johnson and Liebowitz are not Indigenous. Applications opened in July last year and by November the two were notified that they’d been chosen as the Festival directors. Johnson, who majors in Indigenous Studies and topped the state in the subject during her HSC years, is not concerned about the issue.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity, being non-Indigenous – seeing as the university population is mainly non-Indigenous – to not only open up avenues for Indigenous people to be able to showcase and celebrate their culture, but also to provide events that engage with non-Indigenous students,” she says.

In an email to Honi Soit, Jindi provided the selection criteria for the position, which were predominantly organisational qualities but included one mention of a “demonstrated interest in and knowledge of Indigenous affairs and issues.” She says the advertised positions, sent out via The BULL, the USU website, Facebook, posters and word of mouth, was accompanied by the statement that “Indigenous applicants [are] strongly encouraged to apply for this role and all other roles at the USU.”

Kyol Blakeney and Chloe Wighton, two of four SRC Indigenous Officers, say they and the Indigenous student community were not made aware the director positions were open. “There was always interest with us at the Koori Centre,” says Blakeney, “but we were never given the opportunity to put our foot forward for those coordinator positions … We didn’t find out that it was happening until the last few weeks of semester [last year].”

Blakeney is quick to add that he has no problem with the Festival directors not being Indigenous, but that logistically it would have been easier to communicate and develop the program at the Koori Centre if they had been. “Once the directors found out [around January] that the Indigenous students weren’t happy with how it all panned out,” says Wighton, “they were really really helpful. Elyse and Amie, they asked lots of questions about what they could do, how we [the Indigenous students] can be more involved now.”

Johnson confirms that they have “been in consultation with a lot of Indigenous groups, as well as academic staff and research staff” to develop the program, including AIME, the Metropolitan Land Council Redfern, Gardeners Lodge Café, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Support Staff at the University of Sydney.

But it would appear too little, too late. When Honi Soit spoke to the SRC Officers on Thursday night last week, most – if not all – Indigenous volunteers had dropped out of the festival.

“It isn’t so much a problem with the program of the events they have organised,” explains Wighton, “because I think [the directors’] hearts are in the right spot…but it’s sort of going over our heads and not involving us in a festival that represents us. We would have liked to be involved from the start.”

The lack of consultation from the beginning has caused a chain reaction of gradual disengagement, Blakeney adds, which culminated last Wednesday in the incident that prompted Indigenous students to effectively boycott the Festival after a request from the Koori Centre to have a respected Aunty included as a speaker at the Opening Ceremony was turned down. Allowing the Aunty to speak was a mark of cultural respect which, when not honoured, disappointed the Indigenous community.

“We warned them that we work together, and we warned them that if something like this happened without us being consulted, we’ll stand by each other and all pull out together. And that’s exactly what happened,” says Blakeney. He believes the problem lies higher than Festival directors Johnson and Liebowitz.

“Now the University has to go through with an Indigenous Festival with barely any Indigenous involvement…that’s going to be embarrassing. And that’s sort of the point we wanted to make,” he adds. Having brought the issue up with USU management, he says he has been reassured things will be done differently next year.

Wighton agrees that the Indigenous student community are “not going to just turn up and put on a show for everybody: we wanted to be involved, to have ownership and real input so that it is meaningful for us as well.”

“It would [have been] a good time for us to celebrate as well.”