Personnel Image

Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Research Centre

Indigenous Education & Research Centre

Publish Date

21 February 2023

Influencing a nation’s narratives

Since the arrival of newcomers to Australia, Indigenous people have taken many approaches to try and equalise their changing position with governments and other public officials. In the JCU Bachelor of Arts subject, “Indigenous Narratives in the Contemporary Era” (offered in the Indigenous Studies major and as an elective), students examine how national narratives and agendas have influenced and are influenced by the position of Indigenous people, and the ongoing need for Indigenous people to determine their own futures.

Dr Ailie McDowall is both the coordinator and Senior Lecturer for IA3024: Indigenous Narratives in the Contemporary Era, and she highlights that the subject supports students to learn about and engage with the contemporary position of Indigenous Australians.

“We focus on the social and political narratives since the 1967 referendum,” Dr McDowall says. “But, of course, these narratives began before then, even with the Federation of Australia in 1901. Indigenous people weren’t included in Australian law — they were explicitly excluded from this new country established on their own land.”

Dr McDowall says the subject focuses on Indigenous narratives because they provide insight into how Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians engage with the “unfinished business” of our nation.

“We explore narratives like land rights and reconciliation. It’s generally understood that the concept of reconciliation doesn’t come from Indigenous people. The Keating Government introduced the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act in 1992, tying Indigenous people’s fights for land rights and treaty into a new discourse of reconciliation.”

Dr McDowall says that over time, reconciliation has emerged as a narrative about national unity, promoting that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people should find common ground and work together.

“In a way, reconciliation is a political campaign, and it hasn’t always worked for Indigenous people’s benefit,” she says. “However, reconciliation remains on the table because it refers to this idea of ‘unfinished business’, and Australia as a whole is aware that there is still unfinished business in our nation.”


Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Critical thinking around political ideas

A positive effect of the reconciliation narrative and the idea of unfinished business is that it creates a space for people to converse about what reconciliation means and how to move forward.

An example of such conversations is the matter of Indigenous Australians’ constitutional rights. The proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament suggests that enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament within the Constitution would give Indigenous communities “a route to help inform policy and legal decisions that impact their lives”.

“The debates about constitutional recognition and protection are not just about reconciliation,” Dr McDowall says. “It would create a different premise to move forward by reconfiguring the legal relationship between Indigenous people and the federation that we call Australia.”

Dr McDowall says the Indigenous Narratives subject focuses on encouraging students to think critically about the social and political narratives they cover — to ask questions about whose interests are being served by a narrative, document, policy or plan and what types of outcomes it might be able to achieve.

“Part of what we do in the Indigenous Narratives subjects is investigate Reconciliation Action Plans,” she says. “We steer away from an ideological position about any particular narrative that we investigate, whether that’s for or against, and instead ask different types of questions like ‘does this serve the interest of Indigenous people’?

“When we explore Reconciliation Actions Plans, for example, students may want to dismiss them based on their critical position. But when we begin to read between the lines and question what’s being promised in these documents, students realise that things are rarely simple. They realise the difficulty of creating change — it’s not as easy as words on paper or words in a politician’s speech. You have to do real, practical things to make real change.”

Dr McDowall says these exercises build students’ capabilities in releasing their preconceptions long enough to ask thoughtful questions, consider multiple perspectives and begin to identify the assumptions that exist in many Indigenous narratives and action plans.

The glass sliding doors into the Indigenous Education and Research Centre.
Two students sit together in the Indigenous Education and Research Centre, beside a mural depicting a timeline of Indigenous history.
The Indigenous Education and Research Centre (IERC) provides programs, services and personalised support to empower students to set and achieve their goals. (IERC in JCU Townsville, Bebegu Yumba campus, Douglas pictured left.)

Indigenous people deciding Indigenous futures

One of the main topics the Indigenous Narratives subject explores is self-determination and the narratives associated with it.

“There’s a very particular political narrative,” Dr McDowall says. “In 1972, official government policy changed under the Whitlam Government from a priority of assimilation to self-determination, which was the idea that Indigenous people should have a right to make decisions over their individual and collective futures. The definition used in political scholarship is ‘the right for a people to control their own destiny’.”

Dr McDowall explains that since the Whitlam Government, every new government (save for the current one) has brought in some type of representative body that should be responsible for guiding Indigenous policy.

“That’s around 50 years of different advisory bodies working with the Government, and what we’ve observed is that there hasn’t necessarily been the change that Indigenous people have asked for. Many Indigenous Australians still feel disempowered from making decisions about their own lives.”

In relation to the Voice to Parliament, Dr McDowall says much came out of the process of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was developed through dialogues with thousands of Indigenous Australians around the country. “It brought out the idea that there needed to be a body that was enshrined in the Constitution so that Indigenous policies and affairs weren’t as susceptible to the Government’s agendas.

Professor Megan Davis, who chaired the Referendum Council’s sub-committee, wrote in an essay, ‘what the State gives, the State can take away’. It exemplifies the position that Indigenous people find themselves in.

“In our subject, we discuss how, on one hand, this referendum has the potential to bring a stronger voice to Parliament. It could establish a better decision-making process through which Indigenous people have informed input into the legal decisions that impact their lives.

“We also discuss how, on the other hand, self-determination exists outside of political narratives. It is made up of the individual decisions that Indigenous Australians make every day. Indigenous people have always had agency, and this agency expresses itself in everyday choices, including trying to negotiate better conditions with introduced governments.”

A subject applicable for every student

Overall, Dr McDowall describes the Indigenous Narratives in the Contemporary Era subject, which is available for all JCU undergraduate students to enrol in, as “exciting and challenging”.

“We encourage students to pull apart the relationship between Indigenous people and the nation-state. We consider that the nation-state — as a legal and social concept with particular types of laws and social institutions, and where you need a passport — is a relatively recent concept. The world has only had that level of government institution for a couple of hundred years.

“When students start to understand that, they start to understand the bind that Indigenous people find themselves in — being on their own land and having a new institution set up in their place. Then having to work, sometimes with and sometimes against, that institution to pursue their own goals.”

Each week, the subject investigates a different case study on topics including land rights, equal rights and anti-discrimination, and Closing the Gap. Dr McDowall guides her students to explore the history of these narratives and how they developed, then pull them apart to find how Indigenous people are represented in those narratives, whose interests the narratives serve, and the potential implications of those narratives.

“We want students to remember that no narrative is ‘finished business’. We want them to go into their careers and into their communities not knowing everything about Indigenous positions and issues, but equipped to pause in uncomfortable situations or conversations, to ask questions, to listen, and to build tentative, informed ideas and positions.

“We want our graduates to go out knowing that they have a lot more to learn.”

Interested in increasing your critical thinking, exploring cultural narratives and engaging with current issues relevant to every Australian? Learn more about the Indigenous Narratives in the Contemporary Era subject and how JCU supports students through the Indigenous Education and Research Centre.

Discover JCU Society and Culture

Learn about the history, politics and contemporary positions of the world's societies and cultures. Be equipped with the knowledge to support the betterment of social systems as well as individual outcomes.

Researchers profile picture

Featured researcher

Dr Ailie McDowall

Senior Lecturer

Dr Ailie McDowall is an education and Indigenous Studies academic. She is currently teaching undergraduate and postgraduate coursework, and coordinates the Indigenous Education and Research Centre’s Master of Philosophy (Indigenous) program.

As a non-Indigenous researcher and educator with a background in education and psychology, Dr McDowall’s interests lie in how educators develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous graduates and researchers to respond to the needs of Indigenous peoples.