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Humans of RMIT: The story of N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM

Prominent Indigenous figure at RMIT N’arweet Dr. Carolyn Briggs AM recently completed a PhD that is part of her life long journey documenting the history of her ancestors.

A life-long journey is a rich resource to be able to draw from in your studies. It is the envy of many PhD candidates working to develop new insights on their chosen topic.

But that’s exactly what N’arweet Dr. Carolyn Briggs has at her disposal. Her PhD is more than a study. She’s mapping her entire life, putting her journey into context and the journeys of those before and after her.

“I bring knowledge of the generations before me,” Carolyn said: “This comes with authority, and I’ve been able to recognise that having authority to speak comes with certain responsibilities. I can formulate my knowledge into a Western construct, writing it in a framework that can be validated.”

Carolyn describes her study broadly as defining: “My role as an elder and how the transmission of that knowledge to urban youth demands all resources available. This included mapping, recordings, documentation and language. This also involved having a certain understanding of Country and defining society and what belonging means,” she explained.

“Over my life and before it, we’ve been written about, marginalised and put into deficit. We’ve demonstrated resilience. Culture moves on, but you always retain your connection to people and place.”

Carolyn said she first developed a want to understand her own history and how she came to being in early adulthood.

Through her family and history, Carolyn began to place the knowledge provided to her by her of her mother and extended family into a much larger context, providing valuable insight into life in Australia decades and centuries ago.

“I’ve heard songs of our ancestors, sung by a family member about my great grandmother’s memory of Melbourne, and records of how she described Melbourne when there were three houses in the whole place.”

She also made the realisation about the extent of her family’s knowledge and the traditions that they had maintained. “My older cousins and brother had maintained that strength (of family connection), and it was through my older brother and his persistence in maintaining the strength of the family link and how he transferred the knowledge to my cousins,” Carolyn said.

“My need to place the knowledge my mother had taught me, in a broader context, came after Mum died when I was 20. I went on a long, long journey to connect this knowledge with my larger extended family and community.”

“It’s another view on my lived experiences. There are amazing gems like diaries and documentation that have been locked up by the government for 50 years. We got the rights slowly, particularly with the abolition of the Aboriginal Protection Board and the Aborigines Welfare Board, but we never got to see the documentation on us.”

“When I found the records in the 1970’s, I didn’t realise the importance of it, but there’s a lot of records out there. We need to use the Western system as a vehicle to validate timelines and events that we know of.”

“There were things that were revealed to me along the way. It’s amazing to think we were important enough to be written about. We’ve only had oral tradition. Putting our oral traditions together with the historical records is not just enlightening for us – but confirms our oral history is confirmed by recourse to the historical record.”

“That’s my journey.”

The rule of two approaches

Carolyn is using a combination of two approaches in her study. “It’s a combination of bringing tradition to academic framework. There are weaknesses and strengths with both approaches.”

Traditional forms of knowledge transmission revolve around spoken word and storytelling, which can be at odds with Western academic frameworks, which revolve around fact-finding and proving a conclusion to be true. Given that much of Carolyn’s study materials have little written aspect to them, being able to find verification in a Western academic context has proved challenging.

“You’re reinventing the wheel, but the old wheel framework is still there. You adapt to new ways of thinking and working. Nothing stagnates. It’s like culture, it evolves and adapts or it dies.”

“Oral traditions can change and create different types of narratives. In the Western system of research and discovery, everything is done through writing and it’s about being factual,” Carolyn explained.

“This (my research) is about lived experiences. People will have differing lived experiences. Oral tradition is challenging in a Western academic setting, because you have to demonstrate how you defend those traditions. You don’t question what you receive in oral tradition, but in Western systems you do. It was a journey for me.”

“When you’re told stories as a young person, you accept them in the same way we accepted other stories told to children. But you then realise that you actually believe in them, because they are part of your life – part of your life experiences. This is why research helps me bring it all together. It isn’t right or wrong. Each piece is part of the journey.”

Teaching lived experience

A big part of Carolyn’s work is defining her role as an elder, but also having it validated by the wider community. This involves teaching a generation of children about language and history, which is a new and unique challenge.

“I do a lot of work with kinder-aged kids with diverse cultures. I’m teaching them language and they absorb it. They understand the environment and we make stories out of it.”

“I can play and be the child that creates the stories that gives children a sense of their own belonging to place and people.”

“(The most rewarding element has been) understanding my own role in the community and the legacy I want to pass on to the next generation. It demonstrates that we are no longer the victims of history and we are in control of it. We are resilient. We’re acknowledged.”

“We are contributors to change and contribute to Melbourne’s history. But nobody before has been able to name these contributors, and I’ve been able to name people. We are not the nameless shadows in the historical narrative – we are the actors and the leaders.”

Carolyn was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019 for her community work. She sees this national recognition as part of the role of an elder.

Carolyn’s journey has defined not only her research, but her life and the lives of many others in and around her community. While vehicles of preserving history are changing with time, lived experience of history will remain forever the most valuable asset we have in making sense of the past, and using it to make a better future.

This article was originally published on RMIT WorkLife.