Updated: Jul 25
This is the second of a two-part interview. For the first part, click here.
Our Artistic Director, Chloe Chung, met with Todd Phillips in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney for this conversation. Here they discuss living with Aboriginal lore in modern Australian society, Aboriginal music-making, and Todd shares his wishes for what every Australian should know about Aboriginal culture. The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney Aboriginal heritage tour led by Todd Phillips formed the central inspiration for our March 2020 Virtual Concert series “The Birds and the Bees”. Find out more about the tours here.
Todd Phillips is a Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr man from the north coast of New South Wales. Todd is leading Macquarie University’s Indigenous Connected Curriculum Project, an Australian-ﬁrst, university-led educational framework that has been designed and developed by Walanga Muru, the university’s Indigenous peoples’ unit, which is applying the embedding of Indigenous values, philosophies and knowledges across all educational faculties and departments.
Chloe Chung: In the tour, we learnt about how you’re living with lore and law, and straddling these two worlds. What that was like growing up and what that’s like now, for you and your family?
Todd Phillips: I’ve written about this a little bit, where I had a bit of a conflict in my education system; Aboriginal culture was often painted as if it was non-existent, wasn’t actually happening now, was something that was very foreign and in the past. I’m very, very fortunate that I have learnt from my elders about lore, and learnt from them about culture and men’s business and how men should behave and cultural obligations and all this stuff; that happened as a young kid on the north coast of New South Wales.
Often it’s very conflicting to Western ways of operating. It’s often not hierarchical, we’ve got people in communities that all have a role to play, our elders in our community are our conduits of knowledge; very well respected, very well regarded, and it’s their job to pass on the knowledge, wisdom, pathway to life for young men and the community. In our community, it’s very segregated in terms of male and female, where we learn and how we learn. So, I guess growing up, I had a very conflicting ideology of what that looked like. As an older man now, I still have very conflicting views about living in Sydney and operating under Commonwealth law but then also having cultural obligations that I need to fulfil as an Aboriginal man. So it’s a challenging one.
CC: And how about for you, your family, your kids, are they at school in Sydney?
TP: They’re in school in Sydney! I guess we’re really fortunate in that, across the country a lot of our First Nation languages are disappearing or dying, but I’m from the Gumbaynggir Nation and we’ve had a lot of success in revitalising that language recently. So, we’re very, very blessed that we have numerous versions of our dictionary. We’ve got online resources now. A few years ago our language centre in our community went online - YouTube videos. Now they’re doing classes, which I’d love to take my kids to, but living in Sydney I don’t have access to a Wednesday night class [there]. So I’m looking into how I can bring that class to Sydney.
I love sharing words and phrases with my kids, and we have some really good resources in that language centre where they’ve got books and CDs now of kids’ songs. So, I’m doing my best not to be too disconnected. But certainly, I’m giving my kids every opportunity I can to share our unique Aboriginal culture because as we know, there’s such diversity in Aboriginal culture all around the country.
CC: Growing up as a first-generation migrant, it’s been a little bit awkward and tricky learning about Indigenous knowledge until recently, from doing my own self-led research, and things like the tour. The ways in which you made us feel included in the tour was really different from any way that I’ve previously related to Indigenous culture. I think there is a certain need at the moment to find out more. And also, with the first concert in the concert series, we’re raising money for Firesticks, from your suggestion, and that in turn was born out of a need to ask all these questions. With Firesticks, they’re supporting Indigenous fire knowledge and practices; how they’ve been lost, or not communicated well with firefighters. There’s so much potential for connection and more healing work there. So, I wondered if you had some ideas around that.
TP: We live in a really exciting time, where we’ve got access to Indigenous knowledge like never before. You can’t live in Australia and not have some questions, because more and more Indigenous knowledge and cultural events are in your calendar, we’re seeing things like Acknowledgements of Country done by the Prime Minister and people in corporates and at school assemblies, and there’s so much great stuff all across the country. We also have a free-to-air TV station which is dedicated to NITV, and we’ve got a couple of national newspapers in Australia. I guess my advice is, people have access to information and they should really ask the questions that they’re curious about.
I love hearing about people that have done tours, or people I teach in the classroom, because they say, “You know what, I had this perception about Aboriginal culture, and after learning from an Aboriginal person, or from Aboriginal books or literature, it’s really shifted my view.” I think fire management is a great example, where organisations like Firesticks are doing great work with the Rural Fire Service about how they can do things more effectively, drawing on tens of thousands of years of knowledge - which is the thing I always like to highlight that we’ve got - this plethora of knowledge out there. But I really encourage people to check it out, and ask the tough questions sometimes. This content can be really eggshells and people don’t want to ask it...
CC: It doesn’t take that long, just a quick search and I’m reading really interesting articles and watching videos, and there’s lot out there.
TP: Yeah! A lot out there, and a lot of really good stuff. As well as some not so good stuff. I think it’s really important that people find out more, because I guess one of the things we’re doing in the university space is embedding Indigenous knowledges into all curriculum and all of our teaching areas. Sometimes there’s a real gel there with some areas like health and education, but then sometimes we get pushback, or we get the questions saying, “Well, how can we incorporate ancient Indigenous knowledge into things like modern day business, or economics, or a whole range of different areas around medicines”, but there’s so many cross-overs. So, it’s great doing work like that, and challenging the mind.
CC: In my own musical studies, I have had brief introductions to Aboriginal Music in the study of various global musics within ‘ethnomusicology’ at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. There have been so many revolutions in the way we write within that field – because obviously some old analyses were very Eurocentric to begin with, but there’s a lot of exciting and extensive work that has taken place in this field and continues right now, which is also shifting and deepening our understanding of Indigenous music. So, I wondered if you’d like to share anything about your thoughts on, or experience with Indigenous music-making?
TP: What I find interesting is how Aboriginal music has evolved with the influence of European missionaries that have come in, and introduced or imposed certain religious beliefs - but then, how certain songs and hymns have influenced Aboriginal music. And that blows me away, when I go to places in rural Australia and hear this amazing choir singing in German, you know, and singing songs in German and Aboriginal language.
CC: It also reminds you that tradition is alive, and culture is alive, and it’s allowed to evolve. It doesn’t have to be this field recording, out there from ages ago, because Aboriginal music now is very much different. But there are continuing traditions, which are also really sacred and special.
TP: Yeah, and certainly instruments that have been used for a very long time, and [are] very unique.
CC: We had a wish from our Dreambox Collective, which is our group of musicians, to start this concert series. So, if there was one thing you could wish for so-called “Australian society” to know more about Indigenous culture, what would that be?
TP: Everything! I mean, I know we’re moving towards having very generic information about Aboriginal people and culture in high schools now, in the curriculum at a state level, and territory level. But if I had a wish, it would be that from the first moment a kid steps into a school, on their first day, they are introduced to an Acknowledgement of Country, or something simple like that. Every kid. And that was their introduction to Aboriginal culture. So, from the very start, they are embedded in this learning. Or even better, they are welcomed to the school by an Elder from their area - so that we are not having kids go through their schooling and then saying, “Oh, what’s an Acknowledgement of Country?” or, “What’s Aboriginal culture, what’s it really about?” I’m really shooting for the stars here, but if I had a wish… because I think there’d be so many benefits. People would have a toolbox they could learn from, there’d be less discrimination and racial biases against certain groups, there’d be more harmony and people would learn - if they take anything out of Aboriginal cultures - about sharing and working better together. That would be my wish.
CC: Thank you. I don’t think it’s shooting for the stars! But reflecting back on my experience; we did the Acknowledgement of Country, almost every assembly. Then if when you become elected to be on the SRC, you get to read that paragraph out, and you’re really excited. But I remember reading it out, being young and thinking, “Well, where are they?” And you get used to this thought process of, “Oh but, they’re not here… but where, then… where are they?” And that’s really not alright, to get used to that, I think?
TP: Yeah, and at the same time, I think we’re having conversations now that we, Australia, just wasn’t having twenty years ago. We've come such a long way, with still so much work to do, but we’re certainly moving forward. I think we just need more champions to step up and take the lead on this stuff. There’s no point me wishing to the stars and saying, “I’d like to see this in the curriculum but we don’t have the right decision makers…”
CC: It’s up to us saying, “We’d like to see this, I wish that I’d seen this earlier”.
TP: Yeah! If I had advice for anyone, it’s if you learn this stuff, share where you got it from, but then also if you’re inspired, share it with people so that they can be inspired too.
This is the second of a two-part interview. In the first part, Chloe and Todd discuss the history and meaning behind acknowledgments to country, and Todd talks about his work as an Aboriginal tour guide, as a lecturer and researcher, and as a consultant for various companies, helping them to implement ‘Reconciliation Acton Plans’ that strive for greater diversity and inclusivity for Aboriginal people in the workplace.
Profits from this series are being donated to Firesticks, Indigenous Fire Alliance. Firesticks provides Indigenous leadership to protect, conserve and enhance cultural values of people and Country through Indigenous ﬁre and land management practices - something that we feel is incredibly important in this time of increased bushﬁre severity. You can learn more about them or donate directly here.
All illustrations by Sandra Rose Brand.
Article written by Carlo Antonioli with editing by Toni Berg.