Any person who comes from one culture and is tasked with working with another should take into account other people’s needs and cultural diversity in a project, says Donald Christophersen of Morning Star Indigenous Inservices. “If you don’t realise that other people’s culture will have a huge impact on any activity, anywhere, how can you do the things that you need to do in accordance with the community’s requirements?”
Christophersen is a cultural educator based in the Northern Territory. While he specialises in informing organisations about dealing with Indigenous communities, his words also encompass any number of projects worldwide where cultural difference may affect a project’s outcome.
To understand Indigenous culture is to understand three main things: Aboriginal connection to the land, how decisions are made, and priorities that compete with your project for attention.
Living on the land
“People have a connection to land, which is more than ‘I bought this land and I have a house on it and it’s worth…’. People didn’t buy land, they inherited it from their father over 2,000 generations. They’ll lease it for projects, but will never leave their country,” Christophersen explains. “It’s that connection to land and their identity that is important.”
Acknowledging this aspect of Aboriginal living history will help project managers understand why it can be difficult to conduct a project in particular areas. The other aspect is governance, which is not always clear-cut, says Danielle Russ, a Broome-based project manager for the Federal Government’s Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. “The governance structures or authority for project approval in the community aren’t necessarily through a community council alone, there may be traditional landowners that need to be briefed to make a decision.”
Use of any further resources will also need to be approved, she adds: “If environmental resources like water or land is required for building a road, there are all sorts of issues around access to those materials.”
Land ownership further provides a clue as to the spokesperson for that nation. The general population may think of Indigenous people collectively, but Australia contains numerous Indigenous nations, all with their own language and protocols, a fact project managers would do well to recognise.
“People are aligned through their country, who speaks for what country, what language group, who speaks for what community. All of that has always been well defined,” says Christophersen. “You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but it’ll go nowhere if the representative of the landowning group is not at the meeting. It’s up to them to represent the community and work out how they are going to be compensated.”
This is why a solution that works for one community might not be accepted in another, says Russ. “Even if you’ve done work in Indigenous communities before, always ask about the protocol for the area you’re in. People will appreciate the fact that you’re willing to learn.”
Adds Christophersen: “We generalise a lot about Aboriginal people and you have to be careful about that, in all contexts.”
One thing he says is “pretty universal” is the decision-making process. “All the landowners come together, discuss the issue and try to arrive at a consensus. Imagine you’re in a group with eight other landowners and you’re the odd one out, what do you do? Do you go against eight other families or do you go against your own family’s wishes?”
This is often why the decision-making process takes so long, says Russ. “The whole community approval consultation process is a time factor and it can be very complex. There can be a myriad of issues relating to that, so you have to be prepared to start from scratch.”