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This topic discusses key principles for culture-smart governance. It also provides practical examples that demonstrate how your group can fulfil them in your context. Achieving these principles allows your group to respect cultural priorities while strengthening your credibility with external stakeholders.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What does does being culture-smart mean to you and your group?
- Are there ways your group is already practicing culture-smart governance?
- Which of the key principles resonate most with your members?
What it means to have culture-smart governance
Being ‘culture-smart’ means producing governance solutions that work both ways. Culture-smart governance solutions aim to protect, revitalise and strengthen cultural ways of doing things well together, while still meeting the needs of external stakeholders.
“Our unique culture is the thread that weaves its way through our entire operation and keeps us focused on our core values.”
– Ungooroo Aboriginal Corporation, 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards.
Culture-smart governance solutions are ones that:
- are considered and determined locally
- capture your people’s cultural priorities and vision for the future
- resonate with their cultural values, standards, and rules
- are practically effective in your local and wider environments
- meet the expectations of your local members and your external stakeholders.
Culture-smart governance promotes cultural legitimacy as a source of credible and practical governance. Not just with your own members, but with your other stakeholders. It has the potential to:
- mobilise support from group members
- boost internal accountability and legitimacy
- enhance a group’s overall performance.
Culture is a governance strength, not a problem.
Principles for culture-smart governance
Culture-smart governance involves developing governance solutions based on a group’s cultural values, beliefs and traditions. These must also be credible to external stakeholders and partners.
Here, we explain the key principles that are key to culture-smart governance. Your group can use these principles as a guide when developing your governance structures and solutions. For each principle, we offer examples of what it may look like practice.
These principles draw on the research of Kate Bellchambers in “Governing Country: A literature review of Indigenous governance principles in Indigenous Ranger groups & Indigenous Protected Areas.”
There is no ‘one correct way’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups to achieve culture-smart governance. Every process must be customised to fit local contexts.
“We recognise that the journey to recovery and self-determination will only be successful if we incorporate a great and real appreciation for our cultural traditions and beliefs. We create and structure our working environment and programs around Indigenous knowledge and worldviews.”
– Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre, Category A Finalist, Indigenous Governance Awards 2016.
Cultural legitimacy is one of our 4 principles of effective Indigenous governance. It is also essential to culture-smart governance. When governance is culturally legitimate, it genuinely reflects the values, standards, and rules of your people. This encourages support from your members and strengthens motivation to be successful. In turn, cultural legitimacy enables your group to deliver governance solutions that are customised and practically effective.
What does this looks like in practice?
Preserve cultural knowledge
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are taking action to keep their culture strong into the future. These groups are working to ‘safeguard’, ‘pass down’ or ‘preserve’ their knowledge. For example:
- learning about history on Country
- restoring language
- repatriating knowledge in the form of photos and recordings.
NPYWC host Law and Culture camps or meetings. At these meetings Anangu and Yarnangu women come together to celebrate and consolidate their traditional cultural practices and identity.
These women-only gatherings have been running since 1983. They are held on Country in the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) region. They allow women to connect with elements of their life and culture that are distinct from that of their men. As well as strengthen their ties with other women from the NPY region, their land and important sites.
“With the passing of many senior women who hold important cultural knowledge, law and culture gatherings are now, more than ever, vital to the cultural maintenance for the women of the NPY Lands.”
– NPY Women’s Council, Annual Report 2016-2017.1NPY Women’s Council, Annual Report 2016-2017, (NPY Women’s Council, 2018), 9, [link]
According to NPYWC, the purpose of Law and Culture gatherings is to:
- facilitate the exchange of traditional knowledge and ceremonial cycles
- perform dances and ceremonial cycles to confirm the importance and power of women’s law
- promote the position and status of senior Aboriginal women from the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities
- expose younger women and women dispossessed of their culture to particular practices to gain an understanding of their heritage
- allow relatives from NPY communities who have not seen each other for a long time to reunite.
Read more about NPYWC and their Law and Culture gatherings.
Create a culturally safe environment
To be culturally legitimate, your group should work towards creating a culturally safe environment. This means developing spaces, programs or services where all people feel comfortable and safe to express their culture and identity.
Incorporating cultural safety into governance solutions is also about making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander values, principles and practices are acknowledged and respected. For example, recognising and accommodating separate men and women’s business. Or including cultural leave for ceremonial or family matters in your group’s policies.
The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) see cultural safety as:
“Respectful internal and external relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that values cultural knowledge, experience and advice … Cultural safety enables everyone to live and express their cultural identity that is respected and valued in the workplace.”1Australian 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), 21.
Their 2014–2017 Cultural Safety Action Plan outlines 8 principles and values that make their vision of cultural safety:
1. Building trust, respect and mutual understanding for good working relationships.
2. Recognition of the many complexities in the environment of an Aboriginal organisation.
3. Commitment to self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
4. Recognition of the impact of dispossession, colonisation, removal of children from their families and other laws, policies and practices on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.
5. Respect for diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and peoples.
6. Respect for non-Indigenous cultures and peoples.
7. Valuing knowledge, experience and expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.
8. Listening with an open mind and heart to hear the perspective of others.
To support and implement the principles and strategies in their Cultural Safety Action Plan, SNAICC developed a Cultural Safety Leadership Group. This group includes both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men and women. SNAICC also have an appointed a ‘cultural safety manager’. This person looks after internal cultural safety matters. It has also established a cultural safety implementation working group. SNAICC board members also act as cultural mentors for staff.2Australian 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), 27.
SNAICC’s commitment to cultural safety is documented in their strategic plan. Pillar 5 of the plan – to achieve a strong and effective national peak body for children – focuses on prioritising cultural safety and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment. Read the strategic plan on the SNAICC website.
Your group’s governance must be culturally legitimate and practically effective in your local and wider environments. To achieve this, it is important that you engage with your networks.
Networks are visible in the relationships between family, kin, traditional owners, Elders, and Country. Your governance should incorporate the responsibilities, obligations and systems of authority that stem from your networks into your governance.
What does this looks like in practice?
Engaging with members
Culturally legitimate governance requires leaders and decision-makers to understand the interests and needs of their members. Your members need to have ways to voice their interests and concerns. You should listen to all perspectives respectfully and with an open mind.
There are two main ways you can engage with your members: consultation and participation.
Consultation is when you discuss important matters to learn people’s opinions, expertise and local knowledge. For example, including Elders as representatives in advisory groups or councils. Or holding meetings prioritising community consultation.
Participation is when groups or individuals actively take part in governing activities. Every member should be able to participate in your governance processes and have a say. Participation can be encouraged through educational workshops, cultural events or community gatherings.
Members are more likely to have trust and confidence in your governance if they participate in and are consulted about decisions and processes from the very start.1Diane Smith, Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory, (The Aboriginal Governance and Management Program, Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory (APONT), 2005), 174.
Other ways your group can engage with your members include:
- regular consultation and conversations in the places where your members live
- translating important information and news back to members
- letting members know about decisions and actions
- leaders doing governing work on the ground, so it is transparent and inclusive
- the group participating in the community
- the community members participating in the group.
Through community engagement, leaders and decision-makers can clarify what members want in their governance. Not all cultural values will be included. For example, some areas of law, ceremonial knowledge and ritual can be kept secret.
It is important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander styles of communicating are acknowledged when engaging with community. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, communicating highly technical medical information was most effective when translated into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and visual graphics. Such as in film, video, social media and posters. Groups also used digital technologies to engage with their members and boards during lockdowns.
The Wiradjuri Nation is one of the largest in New South Wales. It has around 28–30,000 citizens spread across numerous rural towns and discrete communities. Wiradjuri people are known as the people of the three rivers:
- the Wambool (now known as the Macquarie River)
- the Kalari (the Lachlan River)
- the Murrumbidjeri (the Murrumbidgee River).
Wiradjuri have been working on a community-informed framework for rebuilding the Wiradjuri nation. Wiradjuri Elders and other community leaders identified a need to make sure the nation-building principles resonated with the wider Wiradjuri community. To do this, they worked closely with communities across Wiradjuri country.
Wiradjuri nation builders hosted and facilitated a series of collaborative community conversations with 3 communities in Narrandera, Tumut-Brungle and Wagga Wagga. Wiradjuri citizens had conversations around the most appropriate Wiradjuri language words and concepts for nation rebuilding. It also involved talking with the communities to make sure the nation building framework and principles were relevant to Wiradjuri people.
Wiradjuri leaders Donna Murray and Debra Evans explain the importance of community engagement when governing their nation rebuilding efforts and honouring Wiradjuri ways:
“We travelled our region and began exploring Indigenous Nation-Building (INB) principles with communities in Narrandera, Tumut-Brungle and Wagga Wagga… We also understood that these were Wiradjuri communities with different histories, different experiences and views of what it is to be Wiradjuri. This was important. It provided a deeper comparative aspect to our understanding of how we might apply the nation building principles…This community engagement was essential in helping us to translate nation-building from an international idea to a valid local context and was the necessary starting point for changing mind-sets in our communities.”1Donna Murray and Debra Evans, “Culturally Centred, Community Led: Wiradjuri Nation Rebuilding through Honouring the Wiradjuri Way,” in Developing Governance and Governing Development: International Case Studies of Indigenous Futures, eds. Diane Smith, Alice Wighton, Stephen Cornell and Adam Vai Delaney (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2021), 176.
Connection to Country
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people maintain distinct connections to Country. These connections have been passed on for generations. They represent deep spiritual and cultural bonds between people and place.
Connection to Country provides a sense of identity and empowerment. The songlines and stories express important laws, cultural knowledge, rights and responsibilities. These underpin the ‘right’ ways to live and work.2Kate Bellchambers and Jason Field, “Governing Country: A literature review of Indigenous governance principles in Indigenous Ranger & Protected Areas Programs,” Discussion Paper No. 300/2022, (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University).
Your group can build culture-smart governance by embracing your connection to Country and embedding it in your governance values, structures and practices.
What does this looks like in practice?
Prioritise being on Country
It is important that your group privileges opportunities for members to physically be on and care for Country. Being on Country allows people to strengthen their culture and share customary knowledge and practice.
Purple House is an Aboriginal-owned and run health service in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. They operate remote dialysis clinics in more than 15 communities across the Northern Territory, as well as a mobile dialysis unit called the Purple Truck. Purple House was established in response to challenges faced by Pintupi people, who were often forced to leave their Country for Alice Springs or Darwin to get treatment for end-stage renal failure.
“Up where we live, Aboriginal people have a strong connection to a particular piece of land. It’s absolutely vital that people who have cultural knowledge of that land have an opportunity to pass it on to their kids and their grandkids. The only way to do that is to be ‘on country’ and with the right people at the right time. That cultural knowledge can’t be passed on unless you are physically in that spot.”
– Sarah Brown, Purple House CEO.
Ngurra (On Country) is a core strategic goal central to Purple House’s governance. They recognise that those who receive their services must be able to be on and return to Country to keep their culture and communities strong.
To be culture-smart, your group must have genuine control over what happens in your affairs and on your lands. Governing power refers to the acknowledged authority and capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to control what matters to them.3Kate Bellchambers and Jason Field, “Governing Country: A literature review of Indigenous governance principles in Indigenous Ranger & Protected Areas Programs,” Discussion Paper No. 300/2022, (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University), 25. This includes:
- making decisions
- exercising rules
- resolving disputes
- conducting administration.
How much governing power is available to your group is shaped by your governance environments. By governance environment, we mean the layers of authority, stakeholders, rules, and legal and non-legal mechanisms that surround your group.
There are many ways to make sure your group has genuine control over your affairs and shares power successfully.
What does this looks like in practice?
Formalised agreements or contracts
You can strengthen your group’s governing powers through formal documents that recognise these powers. Agreements and contracts are a way to regulate your relationships with your stakeholders and maintain autonomy. Including cultural protocols and knowledge into these documents means they are more likely to be respected by your members.
The Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA) is the peak governing body of the Ngarrindjeri Nation. This nation is made up of 18 distinct tribes.
The NRA has successfully formalised their governing power in the area of natural resource management through the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreements (KNYAs). KNYAs are a culture-based legal contract that government powers must enter into if they wish to consult with the NRA. This includes local, state and federal governments, as well as other parties – such as research institutions. The contracts require parties to commit to respectful listening, discussion and negotiation over matters in the Ngarrindjeri Nation’s jurisdiction. KNYAs legally secure the NRA’s authority over the management of their land and waters.1Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority and the Government of South Australia, Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement: KYNA Taskforce Terms of Reference 2016, [link]
By developing these agreements, the Ngarrindjeri Nation have determined their own process of collaboration with non-Indigenous governments and institutions. And have strengthened their decision-making and planning authority.
A KNYA Taskforce comprises representatives from:
- the NRA
- relevant state government departments
- the South Australian Water Corporation
- the Environmental Protection Authority.
It was established to support the implementation of commitments under the KNYA.
“The KNYA Taskforce is a radically new kind of interaction with Indigenous people for South Australian government employees and politicians—it is conducted on Ngarrindjeri terms and incorporates sovereign performance, authoritative Indigenous speaking positions, and transformative and educative processes… Negotiating, writing, and performing Ngarrindjeri into a position of increasing power in the policy, planning, and management of Ngarrindjeri land and water gives Ngarrindjeri an increasing role in the development of healthy Ngarrindjeri futures, where being Ngarrindjeri and making a living the Ngarrindjeri way have become positive regional factors.”
While formal agreements and contracts can establish autonomy, implementing these agreements and contracts requires considerable resources, funding and monitoring.4Diane Smith, Organising Aboriginal Governance: Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory, Australia, (The Aboriginal Governance and Management Program, Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory (APONT), 2005), 73.
For some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, formal agreements may not be practical or timely. Some groups exercise their governing powers without these agreements. For example, through:
- improving their decision-making authority and responsibility
- gaining financial independence
- designing culturally credible and locally controlled programs
- strategically leveraging their limited rights in ways that maximise their autonomy.
- how people should talk to each other
- how orders and information should be communicated
- how senior people within the workforce should treat more junior people.
- providing guidance and direction
- standing strong for a collective vision
- motivating others to achieve shared goals.
Nēwara Aboriginal Corporation is a non-profit Aboriginal community organisation based on Anaiwan Country in Armidale, New South Wales. Nēwara is committed to the reclamation and revival of Anaiwan language, culture, history and traditional practices on Country.
Rather than negotiate a formal agreement with the New South Wales government to acquire Country under restrictive legal frameworks, Nēwara Aboriginal Corporation set up a crowd funding campaign to purchase a 240-hectare bush block. This means Anaiwan people own the land outright. They can be self-determining and take care of country in their way.
“Our vision is to have a place where our people can go to revive and practice culture, to revitalize language, and to care for country. We plan for this block of land to be used for cultural camps for Aboriginal kwānga (children ) in out-of-home care, on-country Anaiwan language learning, the growing and harvesting of native foods and medicines, gatherings of local Aboriginal men’s and women’s groups, and as a place where our people can come together to sing our songs, dance our dances, and share our stories.”
For Anaiwan people, buying a privately owned block of land was the most straightforward means of getting country back. As Steve Widders, Nēwara Corporation chairman, explains:
“There are some land councils that got some land back from the Land Rights Act, but there were strings attached to it. For example, it wasn’t subdivided – you couldn’t build on it… buying land outright means self-determination. We can do what we like with it … It’s going to build better relations. It’s going to break down a lot of barriers and build a lot of bridges – done in our way, on our terms.”
Read more about Nēwara Aboriginal Corporation.
Culture-smart governance arrangements are customised to meet your group’s own needs and interests. Being able to customise your governance arrangements in a culturally appropriate way is more likely when those most affected have the biggest say. In other words, when there is local control.
Locally controlled governance is when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are directly involved in the decisions and actions that affect them. That is, they have authority and autonomy over their own affairs.5Janet Hunt and Diane Smith, Indigenous Community Governance Project: Year two research findings, (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, 2007), 15. This may include your group members, the people in your local community, or the citizens of your nation.
What does this looks like in practice?
Flexible governance structures
Your group can implement governance structures that respect the geographical and cultural diversity of your members. This makes it possible for local actors to have effective control over their own affairs.
Desart is a not-for-profit association located in the Northern Territory. It represents over 30 art centres across the Central Desert region. Art Centre members are community-based enterprises, owned and managed by local Aboriginal people. As a result, the governance structures of the art centers often differ to that of Desart.
Desart promotes local solutions to local problems by making sure their art centre members have effective control over their own affairs. For example, Desart has no authority to intervene in or order that poor practices be changed if a member centre is performing poorly. They must be asked to assist by the centre itself.1Diane Smith, Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory, (The Aboriginal Governance and Management Program, Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory (APONT), 2005), 57.
This makes sure that people at the local level continue to have control over their governance.
Capability refers to the full set of resources available for groups to implement governance in practice. This include the skills, understandings and expertise of the people involved.6Kate Bellchambers and Jason Field, “Governing Country: A literature review of Indigenous governance principles in Indigenous Ranger & Protected Areas Programs,” Discussion Paper No. 300/2022, (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University), 7.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people bring strong, unique and diverse capabilities to governance. By building on these, your group can be better equipped to exercise control and do things your own way.7Diane Smith, Organising Aboriginal Governance: Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory, Australia, (The Aboriginal Governance and Management Program, Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory (APONT), 2005), 153.
What does this looks like in practice?
Investing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff
Employing and retaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff is a key aspect of building capability. Your group can provide training and development opportunities to strengthen the skills and expertise of those involved in your governance. Investing in the capabilities of individual staff members can have a wide-reaching benefit on governance. This can be through mentoring, knowledge transfer and leadership.
It is important that opportunities are customised for participants. When designing training programs, consider local factors – such as language, cultural obligations, location and literacy and numeracy levels.
Investing in governance capability must evolve to be effective. It is important that your group learns to adapt to new circumstances and challenges.
ALPA contributes to the development of local economies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses across 27 remote locations in the Northern Territory and Queensland. ALPA focuses on training, developing skills, creating jobs, and developing sustainable businesses across the region. As of 2021, ALPA have 1200 employees, 84% of whom are local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
““It is critical for ALPA to have Yolŋu staff members undertaking ongoing training and development once in employment, as this allows for them to further develop their skills, take on new areas of work and step up into bigger roles. This not only builds their confidence and engagement, but it also ensures we can continue to open up opportunities for new staff to enter the business in more entry-level roles.”1Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Skills and Employment Program (ISEP) Submission,(National Indigenous Australians Agency: Canberra, 2021), 6, (link)
– Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, Category A Shortlisted Applicant, Indigenous Skills and Employment Program (ISEP) Submission.
ALPA have developed an effective strategy to employ and retain high quality staff. This includes traineeships, development programs, mentoring and in-house training. Part of their success comes from investing in staff in a customised way. Their training programs are based on ‘home rules’ – where they commit to “creating work conditions that suit Yolngu life and priorities.”2Diane Smith, Organising Aboriginal Governance: Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory, Australia, (The Aboriginal Governance and Management Program, Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory (APONT), 2005), 41. In other words, they align staff requirements with local cultural expectations.
They take into account local rules and preferences for:
Effective leadership is a central way your group can align your governance with cultural ways of doing things.
Strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership is about:
For your governance to be culture-smart, it is important that your group’s leaders can represent local interests and uphold cultural ways of doing things.8Toni Bauman et al, Organising Aboriginal Governance: Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory, Australia, (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2015), 15.
What does this look like in practice?
Respect for cultural authority
It is important that those with cultural authority have a central role in your leadership. Many groups have found innovative ways to involve Elders, Traditional Owners, and other cultural knowledge holders by appointing them as directors or cultural advisors. Privileging the voices of those with cultural knowledge increases the cultural legitimacy of your group’s decisions and actions in the eyes of members.
Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) is a Martu organisation based in the Western Desert, Western Australia. The organisation delivers an integrated suite of programs that provide significant social, cultural and economic benefits to Martu with the overarching aim of building strong, sustainable communities. Respect and recognition of cultural authority have been key to their success.
KJ is governed by a board of 12 Martu directors. KJ’s Board invites several Elders who assume the KJ Senior Cultural Advisors role to attend board meetings. The KJ Senior Cultural Advisors provide cultural and Martu political advice to the board in its deliberations. The role they play is also crucial in developing and supporting new generations of Martu leaders who will not only be visionaries but will also have the ability to represent and respect the views and concerns of the Martu people, especially the Elders.1“Board and Governance,” Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, accessed June 2023, (link)
KJ’s commitment to involving Elders in their leadership is reinforced through the Martu Leadership Program. The initiative aims to strengthen the ability of participants to work confidently with non-Indigenous systems while promoting Martu aspirations. Wherever possible, Elders are involved to mentor group activities.2“Martu Leadership Program,” Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, accessed June 2023, (link)
Succession planning frameworks
Succession planning refers to the rules and processes in place for preparing future leaders. These involve passing down the knowledge, practical skills, and experience required to take on leadership roles. It is important that your group actively plan so there are experienced and well-trained people to guide you into the future.
Cunnamulla Aboriginal Corporation for Health (CACH) is a health centre based in South Western Queensland. It aims to promote, maintain and improve the health and wellbeing of the local community through a range of programs and services.
The CACH Murri Network has developed a ‘Young Elders and Future Elders’ program. This program allows the future leadership and skill development of the younger generation. It is an important strategy to engage younger people in their community. And to ensure the transfer of knowledge from Elders onto the younger generation.
The program selects 2 senior students who have been identified by their peers and school staff as having similar qualities and leadership abilities of current Elders. The role of these ‘Future Elders’ is to work closely with members of the CACH Murri Network. They also act as advocates and a voice for young people.
The CACH Murri Network encourages, develops and nurtures the younger generation. They mentor and support young people to strengthen their skills and aspirations to become future leaders of Cunnamulla.
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