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Arlathirnda ngurkarnda ityirnda: Being knowing doing: Decolonising Indigenous Tertiary Education

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By Veronica Arbon

Published: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-921214-40-0
Pages: ii+194
Imprint: Post Pressed


This book points to the struggles that emerge when change is made in the core knowledge-production and transmission work of Indigenous tertiary education. It argues that when this shift is accepted, the status quo) that is, the status quo accepted by those 'who-know-best' for us and their fellow travellers) is adjusted towards a more equitable understanding between Indigenous and Western forms of knowledge. The struggle to make such a shift is explored through critical work in areas such as curriculum change, Indigenous employment and in bringing a stronger Indigenous philosophical and cultural underpinning to the core of our learning and work.

The Ularaka and the ontologies it contains reveal that we exist as embodied, reciprocal and related entities within an embodying lifeworld whose epistemologies are likewise formed from the Ularaka. From it and in it our knowledge exists, is located and has presence while it is experienced, organised and controlled, and our doing is dialogued, mentored and responsible as we engage and interpret all for understanding. These different spheres of the Yalka are also tied as the sacred and temporal. This is a complex system, although incomplete, as it is impossible to articulate all of the Ularaka here. Indeed, it is always incomplete as it strives for expansion of consciousness as we each do in our lives as Arabana Nharla (people). This framework is drawn on to underpin and work from in this book. An ancient Yanhirnda arratya process is also used to record and present 'data'. The book then turns to consideration and analysis of 'data' through a personal reflexive process involving experience, engagement and interpretation. This work brings forth six key areas of new knowledge.

The key areas of new knowledge concern the guises of resistance that emerged at the locus of my research, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. These areas of new knowledge took the form of emotionality and even racism as the 'experts' (those who speak for us) asserted hegemonic ideology and philosophies of, up to this point, benevolent control. Also threaded through this book are areas of change that were implemented at the Institute such as curriculum work and Indigenous staff increases as Indigenous knowledge was shifted to the core of content, processes and practice. These areas, along with Indigenous authority (a long term Indigenous vision) in change processes, will bring freedom from ongoing subjugation through experience, interpret and responsible engagement. Decolonisation is intricately entwined with Indigenous knowledge and the ontological constructs that arise from this knowledge. Decolonisation from within Indigenous philosophy, knowledge and standards is therefore a counter-hegemonic act bringing our knowledge to the core of activities and around us in our life worlds and learning activities. This is where Indigenous pedagogy is discussed.

Finally, I speak of my own powerful learning journey within this doctoral study which has been kalyi-ma maya ungu by my Elders and the Ularaka.

Veronica Arbon is an Arabana woman of the west Lake Eyre region of central South Australia. Previously the Director of Batchelor Institute, an Indigenous university in the Northern Territory, she is currently Professor and Chair in Indigenous Knowledge Systems at Deakin University.

Table of Contents

Arabana Language - Wangka Arabana

Chapter 1

  • My Story Wangka Anthuna
  • A broad sweep of the issues
  • Circles and Tracks - Yalka as Metaphor
  • Key Questions

Chapter 2

  • They Call Us Arabana Kariru arinha Arbana pidlharnda
  • Arabana Ularaka - Ontologies
  • To be as Arabana
  • Being is Embodied
  • Being is Reciprocal
  • Being is Related
  • Essence, Identity and Consciousness
  • To Know as Arabana
  • Knowing is Experienced
  • Knowing is Organised
  • Knowing is Controlled
  • Knowing Exists, Is Located and Has Presence
  • To Do as Arabana
  • Doing is Engaged
  • Doing is Interpretive
  • Doing is Understanding
  • Dialogued, Mentored and Responsible

Chapter 3

  • Indigenous Tertiary Education Engagement for Survival
  • Indigenous Tertiary Education - A Broad Crisis
  • Access to the Mainstream
  • Supported Learning
  • Curriculum Additions
  • Aboriginal Tertiary Education in the Northern Territory
  • Aboriginal Teacher Education Centre
  • Batchelor College Emerges from ATEC
  • Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education

Chapter 4

  • Batchelor Institute and Colonialism
  • Batchelor Institute
  • Growing Strength in an Indigenous Knowledge Focus
  • Colonialism Reborn

Chapter 5

  • Know From Where? Ngurka Intyara-rnda
  • How is Knowledge Constructed in the Western Tradition?
  • Western philosophies
  • Agency unto themselves
  • Distinction with Indigenous Knowledge
  • Phenomenology and Hermeneutics: Possibilities Perhaps
  • Indigenous Approaches to Knowledge Creation

Chapter 6

  • Doing Research
  • Research Histories
  • Indigenous Challenges to Research in Australia
  • Broader Issues Within Indigenous Research
  • Insider and Outsider Issues
  • Essentialism and Authenticity
  • Written and Oral Knowledge
  • Ethics and the 'Proper Way'
  • Indigenous Knowledge, Metaphor and 'Proper' Doing
  • Doing in Research

Chapter 7

  • Curriculum Yanhi-rnda arratya
  • Curriculum
  • Curriculum Struggles at Batchelor
  • English Literacy and Numeracy
  • Vocational Education and Training
  • Indigenous Knowledge Within the Curriculum
  • Indigenous Standards
  • Institute Staff and Staff Development
  • Resistance

Chapter 8

  • Employment Yanhi-rnda arratya
  • Indigenous Employment
  • Indigenous Employment at the Institute
  • English Literacy and Work
  • Merit and Employment
  • Indigenous Knowledge and Employment
  • Institute Staff and Staff Development
  • Resistance

Chapter 9

  • Insights and Understandings
  • Understanding Resistance to Indigenous Knowledge
  • Decolonisation of the Academy
  • Embodiment Requires Us at the Core
  • Experience Brings Knowing
  • Engagement is Responsibility
  • Indigenous Pedagogy - A Beginning

Chapter 10

  • Conclusion Yalka yuka thikarnda
  • Returning to the Key Research Questions
  • Resistance Has Many Guises
  • Decolonising Consciousness and Counter-Hegemony
  • Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Specificity
  • Authority, Employment and Curriculum
  • My Journey



Arbon, V. (2008) Arlathirnda ngurkarnda ityirnda: being-knowing-doing. Post Pressed: Teneriffe, QLD.

By Kerry Taylor, Health Sociology Review 20/1 (2011) in press

Arlathirnda Ngurkarnda Ityirnda Being,-knowing-doing is a unique insight into the experience of working in an Indigenous tertiary setting, written from the perspective of an Indigenous academic. Based on the author's PhD, Veronica Arbon writes on issues not been previously covered in Australian literature to a great extent. Indigenous tertiary education is an idea that requires a concerted effort to de-colonise existing practices, attitudes and processes. This effort is outlined in the story of the Northern Territory's Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.

Batchelor Institute has long been held up as a model of 'both ways' education for Indigenous students that is meant to draw upon Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing, while at the same time drawing on non-Indigenous academic traditions to equip students with skills for contemporary contexts. Arbon's book exposes the cracks in the everyday reality of working and studying within the Institute where she found ongoing colonising practices, racism and resistance to change.

Arbon uses her Arabana identity and language to give meaning to the: 'Struggles that emerge when change is made in ...Indigenous tertiary education...' (Arbon, 2008, p11). She argues that when such a shift is accepted, the status quo is adjusted towards a more equitable understanding between Indigenous and Western forms of knowledge. This book however, reveals the resistance that can emerge when the status quo is challenged. It was initially felt that the subject would have a limited audience appeal, both in terms of content and writing style which is heavily theoretical and laden with academic jargon. However, perseverance with the text offers a genuine challenge to entrenched ways of thinking. For non-Indigenous readers, the writing can at times be uncomfortable to experience, but the messages are firmly directed toward non-Indigenous academics, policy makers and others who need to examine their taken-for-granted ideas, practices and behaviours that continue to colonise Indigenous people in Australian tertiary sectors. Arbon explores the responses as she perceived them, of non-Indigenous academics within an Indigenous tertiary institute, when trying to implement curriculum change, increase Indigenous employment and embed stronger Indigenous philosophical and cultural underpinnings to the core of learning and work.

The book begins by telling the author's own story as an Arabana woman, with extensive experience in Indigenous tertiary education. She identifies the issues that led to her exploration of the process of creating a genuine Indigenous university. Arbon questioned why the institute that was purported to be culturally appropriate, safe and accessible to Indigenous people had so few Indigenous graduates, why this had occurred for so long and why it had been allowed to occur. She began to examine the deeper issues of curriculum and its purpose, the deficit of Indigenous employment in tertiary education and the ongoing hegemony and colonialism experienced by Aboriginal people working and studying within Batchelor Institute.

The reader is given a unique insight into Arabana ways of being, knowing, doing throughout but more specifically in the chapter titled, 'They call us Arabana...'. It is a complex chapter that aims to outline Indigenous philosophy, epistemologies and ontology and provides a fascinating context for the potential of an Indigenous tertiary institute that was able to successfully and willingly incorporate these as core concepts for education. However, Arbon believes that most Australians cannot accept Indigenous approaches as being equal to Western scientific and academic traditions, due to ongoing colonial mindsets which are what she describes as still very much 'assimilationist in intent'.

The call for a new vision of a university in Australia - one that was informed by 'Indigenous mentality' was according to Arbon, met with resistance by some within the organisation. A lack of respect and trust in Indigenous abilities, a downplaying of the value of Indigenous knowledges and the impact of a colonising history that is continued into the present, all collide when up against a goal of achieving the real potential of an Indigenous tertiary institute.

Arbon seeks to make some comparisons of Western academic traditions with Indigenous approaches to knowledge creation that may be as problematic as some of the issues uncovered in the Batchelor Institute. There is a tendency to offer a superficial view of Western traditions rather than maintain the focus on responses underpinning the resistance to change that were encountered. However it gives the non-Indigenous reader a glimpse into what it must be like on a daily basis to have one's own cultural knowledge and traditions downplayed, so is an important inclusion.

The rest of the book looks at specific issues related to doing research, resistance to curriculum change, and the employment of Indigenous staff within the Institute. It offers reflections from the author on key events and processes implemented within Batchelor during her employment. The conclusion returns to the key question of whether it is still possible for Indigenous Australians to control their own destinies, according to their deep knowledge traditions, in contemporary Australian society. Resistance must be met and challenged, the powerful influences of assimilationist intent must be identified and countered and the 'experts' who seek to speak for Indigenous people called to account for their own ongoing colonialism.

For a non-Indigenous reviewer of this text, there was an obvious tension in wondering if this would be considered another 'expert' making commentary on an Indigenous author's work. However, it seemed that in employing a non-Indigenous approach to sharing knowledge, via academic scholarship, non-Indigenous readers are the main audience for whom these lessons and insights are intended. Although the subject matter may appear geographically and context specific, Arbon provides insights and challenges that have much broader application. Anywhere that change is being effected can draw something from the sometimes difficult journey that may be taken when challenging the status quo. Importantly, this book adds to the growing body of Indigenous scholarship that is made accessible to the broader community. It further demonstrates to other potential Indigenous authors that their ways of being, knowing and doing are to be embraced and valued in not just tertiary education, but within Australian society as a whole.


Arbon, V. (2008) Arlathirnda ngurkarnda ityirnda: being-knowing-doing. Post Pressed: Teneriffe, QLD.

by Jan Stewart, Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 38 (2009) 117-119

This is a scholarly publication that shows how Indigenous and non-Indigenous educational stakeholders can begin to understand and work towards the necessity of reconciling differing ways of knowing in a research and education setting. Arbon has gone about this by informing others of how Indigenous knowledge of everyday living in the world frames and guides what learning means in a more holistic sense, which is different to past and present Western ideas of formal education. Arbon has spoken about meaning making coming from the experience of 'being, knowing and doing' as have other Indigenous writers such as Martin (2008) in talking about outsiders to community. However, Arbon's is not representative of an essentialist viewpoint of Indigenous belief but has drawn on a differing personal taste in the mouth; an attitudinal shift in the ways knowledge is perceived.

The existing situation on which Arbon has based this book is that any work done towards reconciling Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing in an effort to include Indigenous people in today's world more fully, is still overshadowed by 'those who know best'. She maintains that the resulting imbalance continues to tilt the scales in favour of Western approaches to knowledge and sustains a lack of any real change. The central challenge for Arbon has been to question and counteract the 'continued submersion of and resistance to Indigenous authority' in matters academic. In an attempt to gain a more equitable mix of knowledge bases for educators to draw upon, she has critically re-examined what is lacking in the decolonising process for staff and Indigenous students in curriculum change and Indigenous employment in the context of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.

The richness of this text lies in how Arbon has built her viewpoint from personal experience and twenty-five years working in Indigenous tertiary education. It is not presented as a singular and generic version of 'Indigenous knowledge' per se from one who 'knows' but is established from inheriting and further developing a genuine and close relationship with her country and people. She has situated her writing and ideas, both introducing and concluding this text within the way she lives her daily life. This connection is emphasised throughout with the aid of her language (the intrinsic nature of Indigenous connection), which permeates the text to show how views should situate future scrutiny of educational directives.

Hence Chapter One outlines her position within country as a basis for posing vital and necessary questions about often unwavering attitudes and perceptions that continue to direct tertiary educational objectives in research and pedagogy. The 'brick wall' for Indigenous people is the refusal of mainstream education to acknowledge the possibility that alternate approaches and ways of knowing can be as valid, rigorous and sustainable as those encased in the classical Western canon, which isolates and protects the belief of what formal education is. She has proposed that Indigenous scholars need to be vigilant in working extra hard to build on the bank of research and learning that serves to articulate and promote Indigenous knowledges and authority. Accordingly, her work is grounded in the language of her country.

In Chapter Two, Arbon has immersed the reader in the ontologies of her people, the Arabana of the central Australian desert, and the Ularaka, the Arabana cosmology, knowledge and philosophy. She describes what it is like 'to be' as Arabana, 'to know' as Arabana and 'to do' as Arabana to base her own understandings of what she does as an Indigenous educator and researcher. She believes that her cultural stability is embedded within the future sustainability of such ontologies. Chapter Three is an outline of the place of Indigenous tertiary education in Australian history and its fight for survival after emerging in the 1970s from the threat of being completely smothered in the general invisibility of Indigenous existence. It covers access to the mainstream, supported learning and curriculum additions. This development is representative of the history of the present Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.

In Chapter Four the history of Batchelor Institute is linked with colonialism and it shows the Institute's resistance, against the odds to neo-colonialism, while Chapter Five describes and highlights the differences between Western knowledge traditions and Indigenous approaches. Arbon has stepped back from the specific instance in Chapter Six and has re-examined the broader issues of Indigenous challenges to research and pedagogical issues. These involve questioning and attempting to change the ingrained practices that have blocked or negated participation of Indigenous peoples in their life directions. Such research and teaching practices and their inherent attitudes isolated and relegated Indigenous people to the fringes of decision making, and which often resulted in the creation of grand narratives we recognise today; for example, the blanket victim status of Indigenous Australians. She has then introduced the Arabana ways of 'doing research' as a backdrop for how the Batchelor Institute approached the irrelevance of Western belief systems in curriculum matters, which she has related in Chapter Seven. Covered in Chapter Eight is how those curriculum matters flow into Indigenous employment generally, then at the Batchelor Institute specifically.

Chapters Nine and Ten have placed emphasis on the importance and responsibility of the roles of Indigenous staff in understanding what they are actually facing in the academy regarding resistance and decolonisation so to better engage with making change. In the final chapter, Arbon has returned to her background knowledge of Arabana country in reviewing the key questions introduced in Chapter One and offers the various 'doable' ways in which Indigenous people can be consciously monitoring their attitudes and actions towards making change.

Arbon has begun and ended by situating herself within her knowledge base; she has spoken from which she knows, talking from rather than about others. Certainly she has spoken from the advantage of her keen sense of place denied to many Indigenous Australians who continue to suffer feelings of placelessness and its repercussions. Nevertheless, emphasised throughout the book has been the need to strengthen Indigenous authority in all matters of research and educational significance and Indigenous cultures provide that necessary background from which to work. There are those in research, teaching and learning and the bureaucracy, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are working to highlight that authority among Indigenous stakeholders (Herbert, 2003; Stewart, in press). Although Arbon's reference is the Bachelor Institute of Tertiary Education, an Indigenous institution, it holds many lessons for how Indigenous students needs and aspirations can be incorporated into any tertiary establishment; in fact, how it could enrich the academic lives of all students and staff, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Some readers might find the constant use of Arabana language and terminology in the text to explain philosophies and practices a little distracting by having to continually return to the glossary and Arbon's previous explanations. However, I feel that the extra time needed to explore Indigenous worldviews is time well spent for a progressive decolonisation process and reconciliation generally. Often the crux of the problem between many stakeholders is the misunderstanding and therefore misinterpreting of differing ways of knowing and operating and is the obstacle to positive and effective communication.   

Arbon sees 'bothways' education still difficult to achieve. Perhaps Western attitude is partly that the holistic nature of Indigenous ways removes the levelling field for universal comparison of approaches and standards. There is much nervous hesitation in moving out of the comfort zone and exploring alternate ways of achieving similar results, if not with exactly the same attitudinal slant on those results. If we have to change the world then the job is even more monumental than merely changing the institutionalised Australian attitudes and practices of academia; however, it is a fight that is occurring within many nations by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders. Canada and New Zealand are two such countries that Australian scholars collaborate with and whose progress is keenly watched. Perhaps a somewhat pessimistic view might be that world-wide Western hegemony regarding formal education is impenetrable but the staunch battle for change is also untiring like a dog gnawing at a bone.

On a more optimistic note, I recommend this text to any person interested in this challenging and vital dilemma of instilling Indigenous authority. Arbon has approached a topic that although is 'frighteningly difficult' begins at home, the ground roots of Indigenous knowledge. She has asked the question of herself and others 'How do we take power and interpret for ourselves?' and then has proceeded to offer and demonstrate just how this might be achieved. It is a text that is much needed in the limited bank of knowledge surrounding Indigenous tertiary education in Australia.


Herbert, J (2003) Is success a matter of choice? Exploring Indigenous Australian notions of success within the context of the Australian university. Unpublished PhD thesis, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Victoria.

 Martin, K (2008) Please knock before you enter: Aboriginal regulation of Outsiders and the implications for researchers. Teneriffe, QLD: Post Pressed.

Stewart, J (2009) Indigenous Narratives of Success: building positive and effective communication in group conversation. Teneriffe, QLD: Post Pressed.


She has succeeded in delineating and elaborating on the dialectics of colonizer-colonized interaction in the tertiary education arena in a way that expands our understanding and opens up many new questions and avenues for inquiry and praxis.

Ray Barnhardt
University of Alaska Fairbanks

This book turns western epistemology on its head... It shows how colonialism is 're-born' in externally defined accountability structures, standards, and funding limitations. This is the impasse found when 'experts' speak for Aboriginal peoples.

Manulani Aluli Meyer
University of Hawaii

This is indeed a magnificent book that lifts the nexus between Indigenous and western knowledge systems beyond mere comparison to a new high that forensically examines both through mutually stalwart lenses.

Mark J Rose
Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc

She has good knowledge and shows deep understanding of our knowledge and culture and shows appropriateness whenever it is right to do so in context to whatever is being discussed.

Syd Strangways

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