Evolving First Nations Custodianship by questioning Western paradigms

Ian RT Colless from the Dharabuladh clan of the Gundungurra reflects on the Australia Council’s new Custodianship Program, and how questioning hierarchic notions of leadership can evolve Custodianship as a cultural responsibility.

‘Culture strengthening culture’ is the focus of the Australia Council’s new Custodianship Program. Gathering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts leaders from across Australia, the Australia Council’s Custodianship program transforms people and challenges Western notions of what arts leadership means. This program is designed by and targeted for First Nations cultural practitioners, arts workers and artists.

The Australia Council through the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and now Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Panel has shaped the history of this program for over a decade in consultation with artists, arts organisations and communities.

‘Custodianship is something that is enacted – a responsibility. It’s not an acknowledgement of leadership, it’s an action,’ said Ian RT Colless, First Nations Capacity Building Project Officer at the Australia Council.

Replicating the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities learn – through community rather than through a Western-style top-down hierarchy, the Custodianship Program sees a diverse group of First Nations practitioners gather to hone their cultural and artistic practice while also developing skills.

‘As was explained to me, “We sing, we dance, and we corroboree together. We dance together; our young dance with our old, and our old with the young,”’ said Colless, quoting one of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples he met with as part of a recent national targeted community consultation.

Tervina Yettica-Paulson, Ian RT Colless, Mariaa Randall, Dr Jilda Andrews, Nickeema Williams, Zane Saunders, Carl Fourmile, Birrunga Wiradyuri 2020. Photo credit: Jo-Anne Driessens.

‘Custodianship is not something that is owned individually; it is a result of what has been fine-tuned through the act of “doing”, handed down in an experience-based education from one generation to the next, as part of the oldest continuous culture(s) on the planet,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘The program aims to encourage participants who are at various stages of their careers and who are ready to reflect on their skills, their capabilities, and on what Custodianship means to them individually. So we’re asking the participants: What does custodial responsibility mean to you? How have your cultural responsibilities enabled you to get you to where you stand now within your cultural journey, your human development, your professional development’.

Developed by the Australia Council, the new Custodianship Program is presented with the assistance of Core-Facilitator Mark Yettica-Paulson (a Birrah, Gamilaroi and Bundjalung man) and Elder-in-Residence Aunty Associate Professor Henrietta Marrie AM (Aunty Henrietta is an Elder of the Gimuy Walubara clan of the Yidinji people and Traditional Owner of the land on which the City of Cairns and southern suburbs are now located ).

‘There are three main themes that form the foundation to knowledge discussed within the program. Unearthing First Nations self-understanding of practice and Custodianship by developing different ways of; “Knowing”, “Being” and “Doing”. These three themes are the central architecture for the members program: 3 residentials over the span of 12-months – each residential specifically focusing on each above theme. The delivery methodology of the program guided people to learn in four diverse ways: to explore, reflect, learn, and – most importantly – to do it together,’ Colless explained.

As part of the program, 13 participants from a wide spectrum of artforms, career levels and language groups recently met in Mossman Gorge on Kuku Yalanji Country, in the Daintree region of north-east Queensland, for a six-day residential in February, 2020.

Learning about Country from Kuku Yalanji Elders, including dividing up into separate groups and visiting sacred Men’s and Women’s places, participants also learned about the health benefits of the many plants native to the Daintree. It was a really diverse cultural experience and it was really quite extraordinary,’ said Colless.

As well as knowing Country, the first residential was firmly focused on the participants learning to know themselves.

‘Just as Country is unique to its own environments, so too is the information that comes out of Country: its rhythm, language, its songs, its dance. All these things are specific to the environment – and so to the people who are from that Country. And their individual experiences of living in colonial-occupied and controlled land are unique too’.

‘As Indigenous people grow up, they are influenced by an experience that is older than them, whether it be their Indigenous experience of their particular language group. Or whether it be their experience in the colonial system and how they react to it. Through these influences, both in the Indigenous cultural development and in the Western cultural development, it may influence people to understand what their sense of self is. And the first residential really had the focus of “knowing” oneself.’

‘The first of three residentials as part of the Custodianship Program had a profound impact on participants’ Colless said.

‘Some participants, when they put in applications, explained that they didn’t feel like they were a custodians of their culture and art. Some felt Custodianship as a really strong anchor point that defines what they do, and others just felt somewhere in between. By the end of the first residential there was a quote that someone gave me – they came up to me while I was having a cuppa and said to me, “Ian [Colless], when I arrived here I knew that I was going to study and learn about Custodianship, but now I leave knowing that I am a custodian for my people.’

Learn more about the Custodianship Program at the Australia Council website.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts