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Centre your culture
This topic discusses how successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups place culture at the heart of their governance. We explain how culture provides a foundation for strong, legitimate governance. We also discuss the importance of culture in two-way governance.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What role does culture play in the governance of your group?
- What cultural elements inform your group’s governance? Are there any you wish to strengthen?
- How does your group understand cultural legitimacy? How do you make sure that your group’s cultural values and standards inform the way you govern?
Culture is key
By culture, we mean the collective beliefs, values, rules and customs that inform a group’s way of life. At its most basic level, culture is shared knowledge and practice. Members of a group use this knowledge as a guide for how to understand and behave in the world around them.1Naiomi Kipuri, “Culture”, in State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, eds. United Nations, (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: New York, 2011), 52.
Every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group has a unique culture. But there are some important cultural features that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups share. These include:
- networked systems of kinship and family support
- deep connection to Country (lands and waters)
- value of ceremony, traditions and ritual
- respect for law and the authority of Elders
- respect for women’s and men’s areas of knowledge
- mutual responsibility and sharing of resources.
Culture is not static. It’s a living system of beliefs, values, practices and understandings. This system evolves in response to changing circumstances. As the needs, lifestyles and characteristics of a group change, so do their worldviews and behaviours.2Naiomi Kipuri, “Culture”, in State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, eds. United Nations, (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: New York, 2011), 52.
Sometimes this change happens gradually from within, over many generations. For example, when the section and/or subsection system of kinship slowly spread across the top of Australia. This system is often referred to as ‘skins’ or ‘skin names’. Or, when coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples adjusted their traditional camping locations. This happened because of the changing coastline many thousands of years ago.
At other times, culture evolves quickly because of externally created crises and violence. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, resilience and resistance are important aspects of their culture.3 Minette Salmon, Kate Doery, Phyll Dance, Jan Chapman, Ruth Gilbert, Rob Williams and Ray Lovett, Defining the indefinable: descriptors of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultures and their links to health and wellbeing (Canberra: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Team, Research School of Population Health, The Australian National University, 2019), 24 This is a response to the damaging impacts of colonisation. For example, impacts on traditions of extended family life and reciprocity.
Culture is a source of strength and identity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It allows individuals to develop a strong sense of who they are as a person, or to heal from the traumas of past removals and discrimination. It also builds collective unity and connection with other people – whether it be one’s family, nation, or wider environment. Living and practising culture is key to building strong and meaningful futures. It is also key for building effective Indigenous governance.
Like culture, a group’s governance is not static. Governance evolves and adapts over time. It responds to changing internal and external opportunities, situations or ways of doing things. Importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have the right to evolve their governance arrangements in ways of their choosing – and in ways they see as being culturally legitimate.
Traditional knowledge and culture
A central aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is traditional knowledge. Traditional systems of knowledge are distinct from traditions. Traditional Indigenous knowledge is the network of knowledge, beliefs and traditions that preserve and communicate culture through generations.4 Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, Taking Care of Culture Discussion Paper, (Melbourne: State of Victoria, 2021), 42 Traditions, in contrast, are long-established practices, customs and behaviours that are passed down.
In other words, traditions are the performances or practices of shared knowledge. For example, holding funerals or performing Welcome to Country. Traditions show how a group agrees to put its shared knowledge into practice. Traditions can be reinforced or revised by traditional knowledge. Knowledge adapts and grows, and the traditions that grow from it can also be adapted by people so they align with accepted new knowledge and understandings.
This often happens during times of crises– such as during the Covid-19 pandemic when attendance at funerals had to be changed to online participation. Or technological changes – such as digital communication and repatriation of cultural histories. It also occurs as a result of a group’s own creative innovation. For example, the development of new ceremonies or new governance structures. In other words, people can actively choose to refine and revitalise their traditions in ways that suit their contemporary needs.
Culture and governance
Culture is a central part of people’s lives. It influences their perspectives and values, and shapes what they want and what they do not want. In this way, governance cannot be separated from culture.
Culture has always been an integral part of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups govern themselves. Governance is a process of people working together to pursue things that are important to them. Working together involves:
- assigning roles and responsibilities
- making decisions
- implementing these decisions through practical action.
Governance also involves people assessing how those arrangements are working by asking:
- Was the responsibility undertaken properly?
- Was the decision acted on?
- Did the action achieve its purpose?
- What worked well and what didn’t work so well?
Culture – as a shared way of thinking about the world and doing things – lies at the heart of Indigenous governance. It is important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups consider how they want their culture to be the foundation of their governance.
“Law and culture is what makes governance strong. It comes first. We come together to keep us strong and then we can look after the organisation”– James Marriwal, Member of the West Arnhem Land Shire Transitional Committee
Key elements of culture
There are a few key elements of culture that can guide how a group chooses to govern itself. These elements of culture underpin what your group wants, how to get it, and who is responsible for doing what.
To understand if your governance arrangements have a healthy, credible cultural foundation, look at these deep cultural elements. They often lie at the heart of effective and legitimate governance.
Values are the core principles that your group believes to be worthwhile or important. They reflect an ‘ideal’ your group wants to live up to. People use their values to decide what the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ thing to do is.
Values inform and influence our attitudes, choices and behaviours. This means the values of your group also inform and influence the way you approach governance. When practicing governance, group’s need to agree on what shared values are important. Then, they should decide how they will use those values to define their priorities and goals.
Laws and rules
Strongly held values are often the basis for strong laws and rules. Laws and rules tell us how a group expects power should be organised, exercised and controlled. They influence the actions people take to get things done and guide group’s ways of working.
Laws and rules can provide a framework for how your group achieves its governance goals. Indigenous laws and rules are often based on different values and standards from those of non-Indigenous societies. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural laws and rules often centre on:
- holding and transmitting knowledge
- collective resource sharing
- looking after family
- caring for Country.
In contrast, non-Indigenous laws and rules may centre on:
- individual rights
- prevention of corporate corruption
- conflict of interest
- financial regulation.
Today, groups must consider both Indigenous and non-Indigenous laws and rules in their governance arrangements. Laws and rules affect various aspects of governance, including decision-making, succession planning and meetings. Sometimes, ways of governing can come into conflict because of differing ideas about what the right laws and rules are. Effective two-way governance means balancing these different ideas.
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, relationships define how people work together. They tell us who are the ‘right’ people to be a part of governance, as well as who should take the lead and make decisions. In other words, they clarify people’s roles and responsibilities.
Roles are positions that are assigned to or taken on by someone in a group. For example, the role of a leader, a teacher, or a healer.
Responsibilities are duties and obligations that people in certain roles are expected to fulfil. For example, a leader may have the responsibility of helping a group to come to a consensus decision. A teacher is responsible for passing on knowledge in a proper way. Often responsibilities are reciprocal. That is, they operate between 2 people – or groups – and so they involve a relationship.
Roles and responsibilities tell us who is held accountable for doing certain things. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, important areas of responsibility are often tied to cultural systems of family and kinship, land and sea ownership, and law.
Read more about the importance of relationships to governance.
Meanings are the shared understandings, values or beliefs that people associate with words, concepts or expressions. Meanings help to explain their significance or purpose.
Groups may attribute meanings to different things based on their collective beliefs, priorities and interests. These meanings are conceived and understood through the language we use.
When it comes to governance, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups attribute their own meanings to the big ‘power’ words. Local expressions or language terms might be used to describe these governance terms. These meanings can differ from external stakeholders like governments, regulators or partners.
For example, the meanings of accountability, responsibility and legitimacy. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples value internal accountability and mutual responsibility, while non-Indigenous meanings may emphasise ‘upwards’ accountability, financial management and compliance reporting.
Meanings can also differ within a group itself. When groups arrive at shared meanings, it can make it easier for them to assert their rights when working with external stakeholders.
Traditional knowledge is the system of information, beliefs, and understandings about the world. This knowledge maintains and communicates a group’s shared culture.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional knowledge has been passed down and protected for generations. Each generation can add to the wealth of their group’s shared knowledge with new information or insights. These insights are judged by the group to be credible knowledge about the world.
In other words, culture and its foundation of shared knowledge are not static. They can grow, adapt, revitalise and be renewed over time.
Ideas are the thoughts, opinions or beliefs a person has about something that can lead to a possible course of action.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups may have different ideas around what effective governance is and what makes it work. For example:
- shared ideas about the future of the group
- how decisions are made
- what effective leadership looks like.
As long as ideas are culturally acceptable and shared by your group, governance is likely to be seen as being culturally legitimate.
Beliefs are the ideas, worldviews or convictions people hold that they believe to be true. Beliefs can be individual or shared collectively. The beliefs of your group inform its everyday practice and underpin the way you interact with others – both within your group and your wider environment.
Beliefs – for example religious or spiritual beliefs – are not static. Like knowledge, beliefs can be refined and revitalised over time. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, shared beliefs have existed and been passed through generations for many thousands of years. For example, Creation stories or Dreaming stories.
Beliefs influence people’s values – what they think is right or wrong. Beliefs play an important role in the purpose and vision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance. They are often the reason behind why a group decides to govern.
Within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, individuals hold different powers and ranks. These powers may be exercised differently in different contexts.
There are individuals and structures that may hold greater power and authority within a community. For example, influential leaders, powerful families or certain organisations.
When thinking about governance, powers refer to more than a separation of powers or the power and delegation rights of a board of directors. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, power refers to the:
- extent of acknowledged legal, jurisdictional and cultural authority
- capacity to make decisions, exercise laws, resolve disputes and carry out administration.
Governance is considered culturally legitimate when a group’s governance structures and leadership align with group members’ ideas of how power and authority – including cultural authority – should be exercised.
“In our organisation culture is everything! Everything we do and the way we do it is around Aboriginal culture.”
– Minimbah Preschool Primary School Aboriginal Corporation, Category A Shortlisted Applicant, 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards
Each of the above elements are linked to the deep cultural features shared across all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. These features are:
- family and kin relations
- law and Elders
- valued knowledge and traditions
- mutual responsibility and reciprocity.
Steve Jampijinpa, Warlpiri educator and scholar, explains the five pillars of Warlpiri culture—the land, law, ceremony/performance/dance, language, and families in skin groups—all of which connect together to govern Yapa people’s lives.
The importance of cultural legitimacy
When a group follows its cultural values and rules, it is seen as operating with cultural legitimacy. This is also referred to as ‘cultural credibility’ or ‘cultural fit’. It means that people judge a governing arrangement as being ‘proper’ or done in the ‘right way’ – based on their cultural values and standards.5 Toni Bauman and Diane Smith, Building Indigenous community governance in Australia: Preliminary research findings, (Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, 2006), 13-15.
“… having legitimacy with the people you are trying to govern turns out to be a critical point …You have to have legitimacy with the people whose lives are at stake … In some cases, this may mean Indigenous communities have to rethink their ideas of how to govern and invent new ways that better meet their needs … What matters is not that things be done in the old ways. It is that things be done in ways – old or new – that win the support, participation and trust of the people, and can get things done. Some will be old. Some will be new.”
– Stephen Cornell and Manley Begay, paper presented to ‘Building Effective Indigenous Governance Conference’, 5–7 November 2003, Jabiru
The way we judge if something is legitimate can vary depending on the situation. For example, looking after close family may be seen as a strong value within a person’s extended kin or in a particular community. But it may not be the best approach when making decisions in a board or leadership group. This can make governing a challenge.
Groups need to decide which values are appropriate for different situations, and which ones are not. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always used different cultural rules in different contexts. For example, to acknowledge separate rules of knowledge and practice for men’s and women’s business. This same agility and flexibility can help build cultural legitimacy in different areas of governing.
In this video, winners and finalists of the 2022 Indigenous Governance Awards share how the governance of their organisations reflect the culture of their communities.
The Aṟa Irititja digital initiative was developed by the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples (Aṉangu) of Central Australia. Aṟa Irititja means ‘stories from a long time ago’ in the language of Aṉangu. It is an example of Aboriginal peoples’ contemporary flexibility in working cultural rules into digital domains.1 About Aṟa Irititja’, access 2023, [link] Since 2020, the Aṟa Irititja Project has come under the umbrella of Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) and its Executive Board guides the project.
Working alongside local teachers, researchers and IT experts, Aṉangu have created a digital archive that, in 2023, contains over 300,000 repatriated and locally produced materials about their histories and contemporary lives. Aṉangu spokeswoman Sally Scales explains:
“Aṟa Irititja means our history or stories from a long time ago and in the mid-nineties our senior leaders told Pitjantjatjara Council to start a project to retrieve images and materials that missionaries, school teachers, anthropologists, scientists, doctors and government had collected over time and were keeping in cultural institutions like AIATSIS, several museums and their own private albums. Our old people said that they wanted this information back and to teach the young people … and to keep our culture strong… We’ve got items dated as early as 1884 all the way up to 2009 … There are films, sound recording, photos, documents, art works, objects and a map. And there’s more than 75,000 items in Aṟa Irititja … [It is used] to connect to family and culture, for teaching, learning and … for entertainment”– Scales cited in Ormond-Parker et al. 2013, vii
The project is community-based and was developed at the request of Aṉangu communities. Aṉangu have retained control and ownership over the archive. It is a private cultural, social and historical record for Aṉangu communities and is not open to the general public. Aṉangu also own the cultural intellectual property. In these ways, Aṉangu have been able to develop and use this digital technology in a way that is seen as being culturally legitimate.
The archive also uses Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanytjarra and Yankunytjatjara languages to record oral histories:
“The recording of oral histories in Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanytjarra and Yankunytjatjara languages is an integral part of the archives ongoing work. The Aṟa Irititja system needed to be flexible enough to ensure that each of the relevant local Indigenous languages could feature not only in the database title name but throughout the interface, such as in culturally designed graphics for on-screen icons or buttons”– KC Website; Scales et al. 2013, 160
The way the digital archive is governed aligns with and draws from the law of Aṉangu land. This makes it culturally legitimate in the eyes of Aṉangu communities.2Diane Smith, That computer is clever like a dingo: principles and practice for Indigenous digital governance and digital sovereignty (Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, 2022).
Culturally legitimate governance
Governance arrangements are culturally legitimate when they:
- are informed by cultural traditions, laws, rules and practices
- embody the values and norms that are important to you and your people today
- reflect your community’s contemporary ideas about how power and authority should be shared
- are generated through your people’s own decisions and efforts
- are effectively and properly put into practice.6Janet Hunt and Diane Smith, Indigenous Community Governance Project: Year two research findings (Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, 2007), 24-25.
To help you figure out the kind of cultural legitimacy you want to build into your governance, have a collective yarn with your group. Identify whether your shared values and relationships are embedded into the way you govern. You might find that you want to embed or emphasise different values in different situations. This is a self-determined governing decision.
Even if you don’t use the exact term in your everyday language, your governance may already embody cultural legitimacy. You may get things done according to ‘your way,’ the ‘right way,’ ‘proper way’, or in a ‘culturally appropriate’ way.
When your group’s governance reflects the culture of your members, they are more likely to be invested in its success.
Groups that have the trust and confidence of their members will benefit from:
- increased stability and authority
- resilience to external pressures and unexpected crises
- increased personal responsibility and participation from members
- greater cooperation and cohesiveness.
Greater trust and confidence in the cultural legitimacy of your governance produces a positive cycle: the group works more effectively for its members, members are more satisfied and supportive, and external stakeholders see your group as more credible.
Girringun Aboriginal Corporation was awarded Highly Commended Category A in the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Phil Rist describes how Girringun’s cultural and spiritual foundations underpin the organisation’s success.
Culture and two-way governance
Every culture has its own standards and rules about what is legitimate or not. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, it means finding ways to work across 2 different ways of governing:
- Their own people’s cultural ways of governing.
- Their wider environment (including external stakeholders like governments, businesses and industry groups) where governance is usually based on non-Indigenous laws, rules and values.
External stakeholders are likely to play a significant role in the operations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. They include industry partners, philanthropic funding bodies, and governments. It is important that your ways of governing are seen as being credible not only by your members, but also by your external partners and stakeholders. In other words, your governance must be seen as credible, reliable and trustworthy by everyone you work with.
The challenge is achieving this external credibility while meeting the cultural expectations of your own people. The governing arrangements created by groups to positively address these different ways of governing is often called ‘two-way’ governance.
Governing under these dual forms of accountability can be challenging. For example, when members’ expectations around decision-making, sharing benefits, or nominating board representation are different to government regulations and legislation. Many groups are coming up with innovative governance arrangements. This means they can work well with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous governance values and practices, even when they differ.
Your group must choose what kind of two-way governance arrangements you want to build, rather than have them imposed from the outside. Many groups are finding greater control and effectiveness when cultural strengths and priorities are at the heart of their governing arrangements. We call this building ‘culture-smart’ governance.7 Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 19.
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