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2021 CEO wrap up

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Throughout 2021 AIATSIS faced a range of challenges, most arising from the complications of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet once again staff at the institute have risen to the occasion each time and have produced an astonishing amount of excellent work in support of the AIATSIS vision and purpose.

From the ethical management of the vast number of objects in the collection, to research, to publishing, to the repatriation of cultural heritage items, to family history support, to a highly-successful online art market – AIATSIS has found ways to innovate and deliver its programs despite the ever-changing landscape in public health.

Prominent among the events of 2021 was, of course, the March election for four seats on the AIATSIS Council. The Council governs the work of the institute, with four of the members elected for four-year terms while five are appointed by the Minister for Indigenous Australians. Newly-elected in 2021 were Michelle Deshong, a Kuku Yalanji woman from Townsville whose involvement in Indigenous affairs extends for over 30 years at both the state and national level, and Duane Fraser, a Wulgurukaba and Bidjara traditional owner, who has extensive experience advising Commonwealth and state governments on Indigenous affairs and environmental policy. Dr Clint Bracknell and Myfany Turpin were both returned to Council for a further term, and Dr Bracknell was later appointed Deputy Chair of the Council.

Publishing First Nations voices

Once again Aboriginal Studies Press (ASP) – the AIATSIS publishing arm – continued its strong record in producing outstanding titles that contribute to truth-telling and the sharing of stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

In January, we launched Black, White and Exempt: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives under exemption. This collection of 11 histories, edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones, celebrates the resilience of individuals and families who sought certificates that exempted them from state government restrictions on movement and association. It also charts the experiences and impacts of those who struggled to advance Aboriginal rights, resist state control and abolish the exemption system. 

On National Sorry Day, 26 May, we released Sorry and Beyond: Healing the Stolen Generations that describes the growth of a movement – first in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and then the wider Australian community – of people determined to expose the truth about the forced removal policies and to work for healing and justice. Authors Brian Butler and John Bond were at the heart of this people’s movement. 

During the Cooktown Discovery Festival in far north Queensland in June, ASP relaunched the much-loved children’s book Milbi – Aboriginal stories from Queensland’s Endeavour River. Originally captured and beautifully illustrated by Tulo Gordon, this new edition retains Tulo’s gorgeous illustrations, which were held in trust by AIATSIS in the intervening years, but includes his words in the Guugu Yimithirr language alongside a new translation by linguistic anthropologist John Haviland.

In September we released the Mawng Dictionary, compiled by Ruth Singer, Nita Garidjalalug, Rosemary Urabadi, Heather Hewett, Peggy Mirwuma, Philip Ambidjambidj, and Anne Fabricius. Containing illustrations, detailed entries and cultural and kinship information it is the most comprehensive dictionary ever produced for Mawng, a language of western Arnhem Land that is associated with the islands Warruwi and Weyirra (North and South Goulburn islands).

November saw the launch in Alice Springs of Nomad Girl – my life on the gibber plains and beyond by Kanakiya Myra Ah Chee. Born at Oodnadatta in remote South Australia in 1932, Myra was only eight when her mother died and her grieving father gathered up the remaining family to walk north. They spent years as nomads, travelling with camels, walking the gibber plains and beyond. This is a book of empowerment, and not the voice of a victim. It has enjoyed an enthusiastic response from readers, and was featured in a prominent story in The Australian in November.

An upcoming title from ASP is the winner of this year’s Stanner Award, announced in September. ‘Making Cultures Count: Transforming Indigenous Health Data in Australia’ by Sarah Bourke (of Gidja and Kamilaroi descent) is a doctoral thesis using an Indigenous cultural perspective to examine health data. It was assessed by a panel of independent judges as the best academic manuscript submitted in 2021.

Maintaining an investment in First Nations research

Research activity has continued at AIATSIS with minimal interruption.

The flagship research event was the 2021 AIATSIS Summit (31 May to 4 June). Co-convened with the South Australian Native Title Services and Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation in Adelaide, South Australia, this was the first time the National Native Title Conference and the National Indigenous Research Conference have been held together. 

With the theme 'Footprints for the future — Tracking our journey together' the summit provided a unique forum for collaboration and opportunities to support and strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge and governance. Despite last-minute lockdowns and consequent travel cancellations, the peak attendance at the summit was over 920 attending in a single day. We had over 220 speakers on-site and almost 50 others via Zoom. The AIATSIS summit report has more details.

During the summit, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP, joined me to launch the AIATSIS Education Strategy 2021–2025. This aims to influence what children learn at school about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; to research, develop and provide culturally-responsive, digitally-agile professional learning and education resources; and to facilitate a cutting-edge schools program, situated in Canberra, to provide inquiry-based learning experiences for visiting students.

Earlier, the annual Native Title Representative Bodies Legal Workshop took place in Darwin over 16–18 February 2021 with both in-person and virtual live participation. The workshop included a focus on alternative settlements and compensation, legislative amendments, documenting and protecting native title, and updates on significant cases. 

In June, AIATSIS and the National Indigenous Australians Agency entered into an agreement to support a further four years of AIATSIS native title activities. The Native Title Research Unit was established by the AIATSIS Council in 1992 to undertake research and support the development of the native title sector and has received funding support from successive Indigenous affairs agencies over nearly 30 years, a testament to the value of AIATSIS contribution in this area. This new funding agreement will provide $5,464,824 over four years to support new projects and partnerships.

During October the Australian Council of Learned Academies entered into a memorandum of understanding with AIATSIS to improve the recognition and inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into research-based advice, and ultimately inform better Australian policy considerations. The formalisation of this relationship helps to recognise the status and esteem of AIATSIS’ membership, comprising leading experts and professionals, and its function under the AIATSIS Act to provide leadership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research.

In 2021 the AIATSIS-directed Indigenous Research Exchange Grants Program funded 21 new Indigenous-led research projects, sharing a total of $3.8 million in grants. The Indigenous Research Exchange aims to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by ensuring more involvement and agency in research projects.

Fourteen projects, announced in August by Minister Wyatt, included such topics as the role of cultural law for improved resilience from natural disaster, better sexual health education, support for mental health and suicide prevention measures, child welfare policy reforms, better mechanisms for engagement between communities and government on social issues. A later round of funding supported seven further projects including cultural landscape management practices in a variety of contexts, the transfer of cultural knowledge, and recording land inheritance practices. 

Kaurna Welcome to Country from Rosalind Coleman and Jeffrey Newchurch at the 2021 AIATSIS Summit. 

June Oscar, Gail Mabo, Craig Ritchie and Colleen Hayward at the 2021 AIATSIS Summit.

2021 AIATSIS Summit plenary session

Delegates arrive for day 3 of the 2021 AIATSIS Summit. 

2021 AIATSIS Summit gala dinner

Delegates from the Indigenous Women’s Talking Circle workshop on day 4 of the AIATSIS Summit.

Returning First Nations heritage

Work on the Return of Cultural Heritage program increased in tempo across the year, despite travel restrictions.

Key events included the return in February of over 1800 stone artefacts from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The collection was donated to the museum in the 1970s by Mr Carl Shipman of Melbourne. A ceremony for the return was held in the Maraga building and was attended by Minister Wyatt and Mr Ron Gerstenfeld, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel.

In May we celebrated in Alice Springs the return of sacred objects from the United Kingdom and the planned return of objects from the most significant collection of Australian Indigenous art and craft held in North America. The material received in Alice Springs from the Manchester Museum consisted of 19 sacred Arrernte objects gathered by collectors in the early 20th century. As foreshadowed at the Alice Springs event, in November, Arrernte, Warumungu and Warlpiri material was returned to Australia from the vast Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.

Also this year, a ceremonial headdress originally from the Wellesley Islands returned to Australia from the United Kingdom. Originally belonging to the late Mr Philip Jack – a member of the Mornington Island Dance troupe that performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 – the headdress was a farewell gift from Mr Jack to Mr Maurice Routhan, a neighbour in Sydney, as Mr Routhan prepared to return to the UK. In his later years, Mr Routhan decided that the headdress should return home, and AIATSIS will continue to care for it until such time that Lardil Elders can prepare a suitable place in the community on Mornington Island.

In November, three duck decoys were returned from a private holder in the USA. Meanwhile, there are currently two returns in progress from private collections in New Zealand, a shield is being returned by Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, and two spears and a spear thrower are being returned from a private holder.

The Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP, Mr Ron Gerstenfeld and Mr Craig Ritchie look at stone artefacts returned from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 

Lardil ceremonial headdress returned from overseas.

Arrernte ceremony in Alice Springs celebrating the return of sacred objects from overseas collections. Photo: Mark Sherwood, MAGNT

Adapting to new circumstances

Online events were a necessary recourse for a significant amount of activity during the past year.

It is noteworthy that the redesigned AIATSIS website not only made these tasks easier to present, but itself won a gold award for design. The 2021 Good Design Australia Awards singled out the project team that developed the current AIATSIS website for a gold award for digital design. Relaunched in September 2020, the AIATSIS website is the result of a collaboration led by the AIATSIS communications and digital teams, the Indigenous-led communications and events agency 33 Creative, and strategic design company Folk.

Online events hosted by AIATSIS in 2021 included in March an online panel discussion on Black, White and Exempt (released by ASP in January) with the editors and two contributors who spoke of their stories.

Late in March, AIATSIS hosted an informal online community of practice on marine rights. The seminar brought together Indigenous saltwater communities from the South Coast of NSW, Chile and Panama to develop a community of practice on marine rights and facilitate information-sharing regarding asserting decision-making authority over coastal areas, traditional cultural fishing practice, engagement with government and industry, research partnerships and different regulatory approaches.

In August AIATSIS joined the Local Contexts initiative to host the online webinar ‘Supporting Indigenous rights and interests in data’. This event explored the Traditional Knowledge and Biocultural Labels and Notices and examined the significance of this work and the practical implications for communities, researchers and institutions.

In October, AIATSIS presented the annual Russell Taylor Oration as an interactive online event. This year’s speaker, Josh Smith of the Yoo-rrook Truth and Justice Commission in Victoria, reflected on unsung First Nations public servants whose work has inspired a new generation of First Nations leadership – grounded in strong cultural values, community-minded approaches, and effective activism.

In early November, AIATSIS joined forces with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to present the online symposium Common Problems Shared Solutions. This two-day event sought to identify and solve issues faced by collecting institutions with regard to the future preservation of audio-visual materials.

The year wrapped up with a blockbuster online event in the form of the AIATSIS Indigenous Art Market (26 November to 5 December). An annual event since 2014, the market went online event in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. In this format it has proven a highly-successful means for connecting people from the Canberra region and far beyond with Indigenous artists, art centres and remote communities around the country. In 2021 the AIATSIS IAM featured 1019 First Nations artists and over 4000 works on offer. It attracted 15000 unique visitors and enjoyed record-breaking sales of almost $575,000 over the period, returning 100% of those sales directly to the sources.

Ending a very full year, with much more to come

All in all, AIATSIS and its staff have had a very full year and more than deserve the break that is due to them. But I can promise them – and you, dear friend of AIATSIS – that 2022 is going to hold even greater achievements.

So please enjoy the holiday season, and rest up, and rejoin us in the New Year ready for the adventures ahead.


Craig Ritchie
December 2021


Last updated: 24 December 2021