Arabella Douglass is illuminating Australian history

 

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Arabella Douglass at Centennial Park in Sydney                       Photo by Jeff McAllister

One of the projects I am working on is Stories of Indigenous Engineering for non-profit organisation Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

The project has facilitated fascinating conversations with Aboriginal people and cast light on the need to listen to Indigenous perspectives in our quest for a more sustainable and inclusive future.

One of the most passionate people I have spoken with is Arabella Douglass who started her career as a Senior Development and Environmental lawyer, and is now a Government Advisor, Strategic Consultant and EWB Board Member. During my discussion with Arabella, she challenged common miss-conceptions about Australian history and invited us to celebrate our ancient heritage.  I loved her forthright style, big picture thinking and unbridled enthusiasm to collaboratively find a better way forward.

I am a Minyunbal woman from Fingal Head. My country straddles South East Queensland and Far North New South Wales. I was brought up as part of a collection of children and that taught me a different perspective about genuine happiness. Growing up, I was part of two other families. One had eight children and the other had six. They were like brothers and sisters to me. I learned happiness is not an individualistic kind of notion; that if your siblings are happy, there’s more happiness in the household. I think that’s a very clear distinction between how Indigenous people understand their sense of happiness, how they operate, and how non-Indigenous people operate.

I believe it’s important to be connected to things bigger than yourself. It’s humbling.  If narcissism and individualism are so fantastic, extremely wealthy people would be very, very happy and they’re not. Lots of volunteers have a sense of drive and purpose and fulfillment that’s far greater than a financial reward. If you can be of service, it does something for you. There’s something about the giving which is fundamental to Indigenous values.

My main role model growing up was my great-grandmother, Jane Currie. She was an extraordinary woman, I was lucky to know her. She engaged with the missionaries, but didn’t just retreat into agreeing, she found a way to balance it. She used to say, “The Earth is my mother and God is my father.” She spoke three Aboriginal languages and learnt to speak English, her fourth language, by reading the Bible. I could never achieve what she achieved; keeping her family together, keeping her language and her cultural underpinnings intact, as well as managing the complexity of brutal missionizing.

When I went to school, I wasn’t told about the magnificence of Aboriginal culture.  People think there was nothing here before Captain Cook arrived. In fact, we were successful at living for 60,000 years. There were 400 nations co-existing without exploitation. They didn’t harm or hurt each other. You know why? Because fundamentally it’s about Indigenous values. Every nation has enough. Every little place has enough water, enough food and enough space for you to exist. The world is amazing. It provides everything you need wherever you are.

How unfortunate it is that people are stuck with truly believing that Indigenous people didn’t participate? When I was growing up, I learned about Burke and Wills. I thought they must have been the first people to cross the continent. I was shocked to realize a few years later what a joke that was.  Indigenous people were guiding most of the expeditions. They also guided most of the land use and where the resources were for white people. White people didn’t discover anything. They were shown something in a gracious attempt to say, “This is how we live,” like “What do you bring? What can we bring, how can we cooperate?”

I come from a culture that is complex, highly sophisticated and intelligent. They had structures. They had nations, boundaries, order, law systems, water and food systems. They had everything you could want. It wasn’t a vagueness. They had their own languages, and their own trading routes across the continent. Young Indigenous students should have that confidence to know that science and engineering is in your blood. You come from a very lush cultural historical base that has managed problems with astoundingly creative, excellent solutions that sustained human populations.

I’ve yet to meet an architect or an engineer who has told me anything about an Indigenous engineering feat in this continent. That needs to change. We need to reposition the history of 60,000 years and understand how people used land in a cooperative way. We need to embrace our history so that people talk about Indigenous brilliance with the same affection they talk about Ancient Rome and Greece and the Aztec nations. We have a historical, vibrant, powerful history of engineering here. If we utilize the traditional engineering practices of this continent and bring it alive and combine historical and modern components, you’re going to get creativity and innovation, especially in relation to sustainability.

A film interview with Arabella Douglass will be added to Engineers Without Borders Stories of Indigenous Engineering webpage when the next round of stories is published shortly.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

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