国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Presenter Interview プレゼンターインタビュー

Mar 13, 2023
Dan Mitchell (C) Footscray Community Arts



Pursuing dialogue between the Indigenous and Immigrant communities
Footscray Community Arts

Dan Mitchell

Located in the suburbs of Melbourne, Footscray Community Arts (established 1974) seeks to use art as a medium for promoting dialogue between the Indigenous community and Immigrant communities, through means such as appointing Indigenous Advisory Group members. This interview includes messages from the Indigenous Culture Program’s Senior Producer, Dan Mitchell, extending to measures for an arts and culture organization in today’s multicultural society that reflects Aboriginal concepts such as “Songline” and “Dreamtime.”

Interviewer: Kanoko Tamura

Footscray Community Arts

Footscray Community Arts

Exterior view of Footscray Community Arts

Footscray Community Arts


Footscray Community Arts

Roslyn Smorgon Gallery

Footscray Community Arts


I believe that Footscray Community Arts was a groundbreaking attempt to incorporate an arts perspective into social community building from a very early stage in the 1970s. Could you first tell us how it all started?
 I want to start by mentioning what a privilege it is to work on Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung and Boonwurrung land. I want to pay my respects to their elders for the privilege of working in that space. (*1)

Footscray Community Arts has an interesting history. It is the oldest organization of its type in Australia. It started in 1974, led by local unionists and political activists, who were interested. It is located in the industrial side of the city, the working-class side of Melbourne in the West. There were also all the shipyards there. The building that we had was an old slaughter yard for pigs. It’s also in a very beautiful spot on the Maribyrnong River. And it’s still based there. Some of the warehouses nearby were added and converted into rehearsal spaces, performance spaces, and offices.

The union movement there was very strong there. And local activists and leaders of the community wanted to give local community members the opportunity to access cultural life, and to have access to learn musical instruments rather than going through the traditional, more expensive academies. So, it gave them access to an opportunity to have a cultural and creative outlet. And in essence, it also was about accessibility to the community. So, it didn’t discriminate against who could be there.

It was a very powerful beginning. In essence, that has informed everything since. Political activism has continued throughout its lifetime. But also, an absolute emphasis on providing access to artists, to young members of the community who might want to start a career in the arts, to give them their first step.
Were those movements initiated with public funds? Or were they private activities?
 Private. There was a range of people who supported the program provided by their private money, sort of an early form of philanthropy. Philanthropic, from people or unions that might have a bit of wealth, was providing support for us.
What kind of people inhabited the Melbourne area at that time?
 We had a series of migrations in Australia over this history. The dynamic in the 1970s in Footscray, as a little window into this, was a number of new communities coming in, an Irish Anglo working-class community, then Vietnamese migration from the refugee crisis from the Vietnam War, and Italians and Greeks as well.

So, it’s a brilliant place because it’s so rich and multicultural, but also very difficult for each wave of new migrants, with institutionalized racism, and just plain racism. Australia had a White Australia policy. (*2) In the 1970s this was still present, and even now the echoes of this are still caught up in the way people think. All of the people experienced some sort of level of discrimination. But probably the worst, outside of being Aboriginal, was maybe the Vietnamese because they were very different.

So Footscray started to reflect on that story. In essence, the Footscray Community Arts was one place where people could maybe express these journeys and these stories. When new communities come in, it takes almost a whole generation, maybe two generations for them to start to confidently tell their story. And that’s happening now. So Footscray Community Art is starting to become more relevant for the Vietnamese and contemporary artists from the Horn of Africa living in the western part of Melbourne, to come and express the journey of their families. They like the medium of storytelling because every new wave of refugees is just busy surviving and keeping their heads down.
Was there a large Indigenous community in Footscray from that time?
 Not very large. Back then, it would have been very small, just a few families. It’s grown more recently because the western part of Melbourne is more affordable, in terms of rent and housing. In the last 10-15 years, Aboriginal people who have come to Melbourne, quite a few have moved to the western area. But traditionally, they predominantly lived in the north of Melbourne.
The 1970s was a time when the movement to regain sovereignty and human rights had finally begun for the Indigenous people.
 In western Melbourne, from an Indigenous perspective, it does have a proud history of political activism. Right through the 1950s to ‘60s and earlier, right back through the War, the Second World War, there was a very proud tradition of Aboriginal leadership, who helped establish a lot of the key political entities in Melbourne and stood up for the people’s rights.

In 1974 when Footscray Community Arts was founded, Australia was only five years after Aboriginal people were recognized in the Constitution, to be counted as part of the census. So, before that time, before 1967, Aboriginal people weren’t even counted as Australians, just not literally counted in the census. So, it was the very early days of the political movement.
It is remarkable that at a time when such a situation would have been urgently needed to be improved and resolved, there were people who believed in the power of art, which usually has no direct immediate effect, and had the foresight to create an art center.
 Incredibly progressive for its time, that’s why it’s super special. It’s funny, isn’t it, because we think sometimes that the arts are only something for affluent members of the community. But I think that the relationship between art and culture and healthy living was well-understood by people. That is to say, how do we open the doors of opportunity for people to see new possibilities for the community? I suppose – in the 70s I was only a little boy – there was an incredibly progressive federal government under Gough Whitlam in Australia, who introduced and reflected the ‘fair go’ attitude. (*3) In Australia, we use this term a little bit loosely. But he brought in free education for university studies and established the Australia Council for the Arts, and a whole range of incredibly progressive programs started then. Also with Aboriginal land rights, Gough Whitlam started to initiate serious conversations around rights to land and how that would work. So many progressive things were happening on a national level.

But I think the economy was also suffering and a lot of people were struggling. It’s interesting how those two things often come together. There was the oil crisis and all these types of things at this time in the 1970s. Not dissimilar to now. So, it was a progressive time, but I imagine people were just starting to see the possibilities with art.
Encouraged by such a change in awareness, Footscray Community Arts also became involved with the Indigenous people more, didn’t it?
 Yeah, it was very much time to build the conversation with the broader community. So, what you had through the 1950s and ’60s was that it was Aboriginal-led activism only that made the changes. Then maybe in the 1970s and the late ’60s, non-Aboriginal allies, as we call them, who started to lean into this challenge, started to say, “Okay, this is not okay, we need to start to address these issues at the government level, at a community level.”

So, at the time, the organization would have been seeing and would have always had activists in a sense who were allies open to that agenda. But it was still very young, and the situation was complex. And just like you indicated, I think the non-Aboriginal communities in Australia were unsure how to be a good ally. And they are still learning that.

And as the organization has evolved, it’s always had a strong advocacy role. But now it has started to, in the last 12 years, pivot towards a stronger Aboriginal leadership, Indigenous leadership. Not over the whole organization, but trying to bring it to a parallel, equitable level so that there is now in the Constitution a requirement of membership on the board for an Aboriginal person. There is the Indigenous Advisory Group, which Vicki Couzens and Uncle Larry Walsh, N’arweet Carolyn Briggs, and numerous others, are written into the Constitution, as well as part of an advisory to the organization, but they are also given their ability to operate autonomously if that makes sense. So, it’s like a new type of governance that we are still working through, it’s trying to embody some Aboriginal ways of seeing and doing alongside bureaucratic ways of doing and seeing. And it’s interesting and it’s an ongoing process, always being revisited and reviewed and discussed.
Was there a reason why you began to rethink the way you worked with Indigenous people in the past 12 years in particular?
 I can’t speak to this with total authority, but I think the organization was open and looking for these ways of working. What you found maybe 10 to 15 years ago is organizations starting to create identified positions. So, actively looking for, seeking to employ, say, an Aboriginal staff member to lead that program, which was something quite new in terms of the recent history. It is becoming more common now.

And so, the first people who came into those roles started to strengthen that program and realize what it takes the organization to learn, what it takes to do this well, and it’s still a learning process. One of the lessons of that process is that having just one Aboriginal person in an organization that is predominantly built around Western values doesn’t work. It is unsafe, culturally unsafe. So, this is an evolving process any organization that wants to progress in this space needs to consider how to open this door and make it as safe as possible. It requires a lot of work.
What difficulties did you face while taking such action?
 It was just more about how we do this the best way. So, I think there’s been a lot of caution and fear from the non-Aboriginal side that mistakes might be made. But there is no right or wrong in a way, it’s something we have to work through.

In Australia, we have this thing called a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). (*4) Every organization is obliged to have one of these. And for the Aboriginal community, they have become a bit of a thing that organizations do, which is just like ticking boxes. So, they may say, okay, we will acknowledge the traditional owners, we will maybe buy a little bit of Aboriginal art or something like this, and we will have a policy that looks to progress Aboriginal concerns within the organization.

It’s on a piece of paper and then it ends up in a file. And they’ve done their job. So, what’s happened across this process is an Aboriginal person might come into an organization and pick this up and go, what are you actually doing? Where’s the action? So that’s big, now we are actually leaning into the action phase, and learning. The action phase really is about the economy, it’s about employment. It’s the real achievable outcome for Indigenous people. So, organizations are leaning into that more strongly, and some are doing it better than others and learning from each other.
Can you tell us about the Indigenous Advisory Group at Footscray Community Arts?
 We’ve been very lucky because we have an incredible gathering of advisors and leadership. We have Uncle Larry Walsh, a Taungurung man who is a storyteller and a man of the western suburbs too in terms of understanding the political journeys and the social journeys, passionate about art and emerging artists.

Aunty N’arweet Carolyn Briggs is a great leader in the community, as well as an elder in residence. She, similarly, is really passionate about the next generation and supporting them. And then we have Vicki Couzens, who is a Gunditjmara leader and language specialist, and an artist herself.

Paola Balla, who is an artist and academic; Karen Jackson, an artist and academic, all indigenous; Robert Bundle, who is a brilliant musician and advocate for his community and an artist; Annette Xiberras, a Wurundjeri anthropologist. So, we have really amazing people. And they give their time to provide advice to the organization. Not only advice but also, propose ideas, and the organization will do its best to follow that guidance.

We have a First Nations first policy. And it’s at the top of all our statements in the organization's philosophy. First Nations first means that if you are employing someone and you’ve got three candidates and one is Aboriginal – you will probably go for the Aboriginal candidate if they’re all in the same space. So, there’s an emphasis. But the organization will also do that with communities that are disadvantaged in anything, anyway. So, the focus is to try to bring in the disadvantaged, and we reflect that in our organization and in the communities we support.
How are they usually involved in the art center programs?
 There are a few different levels to this. The indigenous advisory group formally meets maybe four times a year. Never really less, but sometimes more, depending on whether there’s some larger strategic organizational decision to be made. We will meet and also the senior management of the organization, the executive will also circulate relevant information at other times to say that they need feedback on a strategic plan, and they wonder if is it possible to pull together a special meeting. But we have to be very careful not to take too much of people’s time.

They are not employees. They’re an advisory group. They do this out of concern for their own community. And so, we have to respect that. The two elders in residence are paid an annual fee and really it allows someone like myself in the organization to call aunty or uncle to say, this has come up, how should I navigate this, and who should I talk to, etc. The organization would like to build this part of the program to make it more significant.
Is it only programs involving Indigenous people that you call on their advice for?
 No, it is sought across the programs, especially at a strategic level. An example would be we have received funding from the state government to do a large-scale infrastructure plan where there are opportunities to design the landscaping and some of the outdoor performance spaces. The Indigenous Advisory Group and the Elders and Residents will have a big say in how we should make sure we are connected to their Indigenous country and on the land with this process.

The public grounds around the venues and the venues themselves, the whole site is owned by the local council. And they are typical of a government organization where they don’t have a lot of continuity about understanding a relationship to a place because of staff turnovers and other reasons. So, you get very different ideas. There’s always tension there about how to get the best results. Sometimes the council will come in and just do something and not tell us or the Indigenous Advisory Group. So that’s difficult. But for this new project, we have attained the necessary funding.
I think that there must be some difficulties in incorporating the ideas and values of Indigenous people into a systematized and streamlined organizational management method. For example, there are different ways of perceiving time, aren’t there?
 Yes. It is difficult but also it’s an opportunity for organizations to start to shift their way of doing things and being and seeing. The way I talk about it is to think about it as a ceremonial process – you don’t know when it started, and you don’t know when it ended in a traditional sense. It’s happening the whole time.

The whole idea of time is really essential. It’s about listening, deep listening. When the elders speak, everyone listens for as long as is needed. Because in tradition, it’s a circular way of thinking, which is different from the Western linear ways of thinking, where you have to try to decide on a direct line. To listen can add contextually to a decision and not push it, not force it. Because sometimes it might be about consensus or actually allowing for a decision to have an unexpected outcome and allowing wisdom around the table to really be shared. So, it does take time and patience.

I mean I am a Westernized person in my thinking, through the university system, every job I’ve had, the institutions, agendas, and all that sort of thing. And they have a purpose, but they are just one version. And so, this is the opportunity and also the struggle of trying to make sense of this process, and also, not to shut it down. So, we are constantly reviewing this process.

Whenever we try to create rules for the Indigenous Advisory Group, if it comes from the organizational perspective, it still gets drawn into a traditional linear Western model. This is okay because we still need to find a way to come to some understanding. But there’s no model yet where the two can come together correctly. And that’s a work in progress, a really interesting area.
Still, you believe there is value in making the effort to bring the two closer together, don’t you?
 I personally feel that this is where the opportunity is in Australia in terms of identity and the expression of art and performance. If Australia could embody some of these Indigenous ways of doing things, it would transform us and give us a very unique identity in our art forms, rather than a Eurocentric form, which is quite limited.

Because as Australia reconciles with its history, it will also benefit by inheriting 60,000 to 80,000 years of cultural history, which is unfathomable from a global perspective. No matter what your background might be, think, “Okay, how can I be part of that Songline now? (*5) Australia now has a history of 240 years or something, and for the journey of this continent, how can we join in this journey and express it in our art, not to appropriate one or the other but in concert with each other, in collaboration, and also in a process of learning and listening, making it ceremonial. This is just a personal passion. And I know it’s a big dream. But I think this is happening already, to a degree.
In today’s society, where everything is speed-oriented and only simple solutions are sought, it often feels suffocating. But the perspective of thinking within a circle and the approach of not always looking for answers may provide a hint for us to face such a society anew. I feel that there is an overlap with the ability of art to formulate questions instead of providing solutions.
 Absolutely, I think what I’m saying is that rather than being obsessed with the outcome, move through that and you’ll end up with fabulous outcomes, unexpected and surprising as well. One way I could give an example of this is that every year we have a festival at Footscray that is First Nations-led. It is called Wominjeka Festival.

Wominjeka is the Kulin word for welcome. But it has multiple meanings. And I can’t speak in detail about it because Kulin is not my country. But this festival is really about celebrating and initiating Indigenous-led, Indigenous-run ownership of the space. (*6)

And my role in this is trying to pull it together. I would be sitting with the elders, literally 5 minutes or 10 minutes before the whole thing is starting, still talking about what is going to happen, not yet knowing what’s going to happen. And a lot of my colleagues get quite nervous and say, “Dan, what about this, what about that?” And I am saying, well, some of this is here because it has to be, I can’t be absolute about it. But I really think that’s a special energy that you get that you can’t explain. Let this happen as it happens. And so, I think there are a whole lot of really wonderful opportunities in that space to learn from, to process, and what the outcome looks like, is a ceremony of making and doing and creating. So much of it is in the process.

We have a term in Aboriginal English which is yarning or yarn. A yarn is sitting around a table, talking, talking, talking, talking, or anywhere, sitting on the floor, anywhere. But so much happens in that space.

And so, what the best kinds of programs that we have come up with, in my time anyway, have been ones where you facilitate that to happen, led by artists, with making and doing or with the community coming in and just talking. And incredible things happen in that space, lots of learning, lots of cultural safety, connection, and then outcome. And yarning, yarn, having a good yarn, is a really important thing that hopefully will become just a daily standard for Australians to sit and do.

And it’s not like an agenda-driven thing. It’s not a meeting. And sometimes we might be just making it, listening, and talking. And I think that’s an expression of this ceremonial process. The best outcomes come from that process.
Footscray Community Arts has a wide variety of other programs, and it seems that not all of them are centered around the Indigenous community, are they?
 It’s not a massive organization, but it’s maybe got over 25 permanent staff, and then all the casual staff that comes in for events. And we have focused areas that each team is associated with. But we cross over in areas, and the organization is working more to do that.

We’re not by any means an Indigenous organization, and the Footscray area isn’t either. So, what it is, is that we are trying to show an example. Well, it’s actually just to express an example of what an Australian organization should look like. Or it is perhaps more accurate to say an example for the town of Footscray and the western suburbs around it. One that has obviously got a focus on communities who may come from some perceived disadvantage.

For example, the Emerging Creative Leaders program (*7) is across the board from communities representing disadvantaged communities, but also just with emerging leaders in a sense. And because we have some really great support systems for people to learn from in a more informal context, like having the Indigenous Advisory Group and Elders in Residence, they can participate to support other programs, especially the elders. So, it is its own type of organism.
The artist-in-residence programs are also very interesting. While many programs today end just after the artist creates a work and presents the results, I felt that your programs have different systems that support the artists’ careers over a longer period.
 Yes. So, the residencies are sometimes six months or eight months. The pandemic has informed how we do things a little, too, because artists were really heavily affected. We are there to basically support artists in some form, and so we have discussed what we can do to give them support when a situation like the pandemic happens. So, I think out of that we have talked about structuring something meaningful for an individual artist for a given time. For the moment, that’s what’s happening. It may change. It’s quite fluid, it’s not set in stone. It is responding to specific needs, I think. And it needs to be dynamic.

And something that I think we are doing is we look to build a family out of all of these programs. So, each year there are people who come through the program who develop a very close relationship with the center. And that comes back to us because those artists might end up being employed by us, and they may come back with a plan for a show or a brilliant idea where they’ve been allowed the time to really arrive at that work, and not just be forced to achieve some sort of outcome. I think that’s really positive, and I’ve seen that in action.

So, when I came in to work here, I thought, “What a wonderful place to work.” I see all these young people coming back, saying, “I did the Emerging Cultural Leaders Program four years ago and I’ve got this idea for a show I’d like to do. Such artists feel safe to propose ideas. That’s a very effective model, I think.
You held 12 exhibitions last year alone. What kind of exhibitions are they?
 There is a whole variety. So probably, of those 12, maybe four were major exhibitions in essence, either group or solo shows in the main gallery. We also have smaller gallery spaces – that allow us to maybe do an emerging artists exhibition, more fine-grain exhibitions like that. The number of exhibitions is a lot because of that. And we’ve also used our outdoor spaces, maybe for a temporary public art exhibition or something like that.

Sometimes we introduce artists that have worked with the organization. Like, say we might have an artist from the ArtLife residency program, who will express an outcome. Similarly, there might be a group exhibition by the Emerging Creative Leaders Program participants. But then there will be more of a professional exhibition that is brought in because it’s relevant to a conversation that we are having at Footscray at the time. So, it might be a touring international exhibition, which is of a modest scale. Or connected to bigger events, like Photo 2020, or 21, large-scale ones where we will propose a curated event for them. Also, we do the annual Footscray Art Prize. (*8)

Yeah, so you get all sorts of things. Finding a balance between curating a program and facilitating the expression of a very diverse program, is really quite challenging.
When introducing the artistic expressions of Indigenous peoples, I think people often have an expectation that the works they create are "traditional" or project a certain ideal. What are your thoughts about striking a balance between preserving tradition and updating it with contemporary expression?
 You don’t have to try to strike a balance because culture never stands still, and Aboriginal culture is no different. So currently, it’s an Aboriginal culture that exists within the context that it is in.

Traditional culture, it’s an awkward or strange concept, isn’t it? Of course, there are pre-European aspects to the culture that were evolving at a slower pace with minimal outside impacts. Just like it would happen anywhere with trade and all that. So, there is some precious knowledge there that always has to be carefully preserved – there’s a lot of protocol around that traditional knowledge, and the evolving cultural journey is exactly that.

So, there is contemporary storytelling that is adding to the “Dreamtime” (*9) or the “Songline” of the Australian story. Just like the Europeans and everyone else in Australia are part of that new songline, and they are part of the Dreamtime of Australia. If people start to think of it that way, they might find it easier to talk about identity.

But the reality often leads to problems with traditional forms. The most common example in Australia is dot painting. (*10) They didn’t exist actually in that form, of course, prior to the coming of people Europe, because we didn’t have acrylic paints and canvases. A lot of that artwork was done in a very ephemeral way, a temporary way, like in sand art, or maybe on stone, on a rock cave face, or something like this, with a limited range of colors like ochre colors. And the dot painting is more like a map-making process, a mapping of place. So, that form, it’s much like a contemporary art form.

But it’s still, it’s a bit like, people won’t plagiarize anyone’s art, will they? I am not going to copy someone else’s painting and sell it. And so, the delicate thing that’s happening with Indigenous art is that people are appropriating it. In Australia, it’s not very common anymore because there’s a lot more awareness about it now. What I did notice in Japan, and it was surprising, was there were a lot of Japanese artists, who are obviously well-intentioned allies, using Ainu iconography and imagery and commercially making a business of it, selling bear carvings, all this sort of thing, and not thinking twice about it. And I’m not sure how the Ainu feel about this, and I’m not sure if they’ve been asked.
When you introduce an artist with indigenous roots at Footscray Community Arts, do you refer to them as an "Indigenous artist"? Or do you just say "artist"?
 It depends on the artist’s preference. Some say it’s important. I would assume now, for most artists who are indigenous, it’s like a protocol thing, because isn’t it almost like you are defining a place for yourself? It is like saying, “When I am doing my art, I am here, this is who I am, and I’m doing it in (the land of) this country. But not necessarily for everyone. It’s a personal choice.

I have friends who are Indigenous who don’t identify themselves in that context. They just say, I am just a professional artist and that’s what I do. Even though some of their work would be informed by their culture, they don’t weaponize it. That’s maybe their attitude. So, it’s fine. It’s everyone’s coming to it in their own way.
How did you yourself become involved with Footscray Community Arts in your career?
 I was living in Western Australia, and I was studying anthropology and Indigenous studies at university. But I was also playing music in a band. And friends of mine got involved with a sort of community project which was a multi-art form community show called Bizircus at ArtRage that had circuses, music, theatre, and other things. I also loved clowning and traditional comedy and slapstick, and all this really great energy acrobatics. And they said, come in and be in the band.

I just fell in love with being on stage and really putting on a big show. I also remember having my first experience of the power of storytelling, creative storytelling. So, I got this idea only just before one of the shows started. And when I told my mentor, the director, Lockie McDonald, about it, he said, “Great idea, just go out and do it.” I went up on stage and did nothing really. It was surrealist clowning in essence, and I enjoyed it so much. I just remember the power of that moment, being in front of an audience. All in one moment, I learned so much. And so, from there I was hooked. I left university.

And then I got very inspired by a lot of the French street theater traditions. So, I was into site-specific outdoor situationist work, (*11) as a sort of happening, interventionist theater, radical. I also worked with some companies that were coming to Australia for festivals. This is where my conversation around public art and public space, and theater and performance-making began to evolve into a whole career. I found myself eventually more involved in the creative development of work and the directing of the work.

As for Footscray, I came in initially to work on a festival that was being hosted by Footscray to express a conversation with the west Melbourne community in 2017. And then the opportunity to look at this position that I am in now came at the same time. And that’s when I became really interested to work more closely with my Indigenous cousins. But also, because my roots were not of the (Footscray) country, you know, I had to wait for that opportunity to come to me, not for me to go to it. And then after a five-hour interview with one of our elders in residence, they said, “Yeah, you’ll be okay,” and then I became a producer there.
If I may ask, could you tell us how you yourself formed your identity?
 I come from, on my father’s side, a Whadjuk Noongar indigenous background, and on my mother’s side, Irish and Swedish. So, I have a mixed heritage. And over my life, I’ve come closer to identifying with my Indigenous heritage and learning more about that.

Well, I always knew about it, but how to identify with it was always complex. I knew that in my family we have this story of the Black side of the family and the Brown side of the family, but I hadn’t actually grown up living and experiencing a lot of it. It’s two different life experiences. One is the ongoing trauma of “Stolen Generations.” The other side involved assimilation, privilege, and relative privilege, but still involved trauma, because it’s all there somewhere in between. One is extreme trauma, a lived experience. The other is inherited trauma. (*12)

In my family, I have eight siblings, and I’m number seven. And in my family, there are maybe three to four of us who work very strongly in this space and are comfortable identifying (with our heritage), and the others are quiet about it. And that’s totally fine. When I say quiet, they can talk to it, but it’s not something that they utilize in the work they’re doing.

But, say before I was 18 or 19, I was very oblivious, really, not aware, sort of crazy, because my grandfather looked very Aboriginal, and my brother was called a very horrible racist name at school, but he didn’t even know why. It sounds crazy. So, there were all these sorts of strange things that happened. I felt I was lucky because I had Aboriginal people come up to me and say, “You look like us.” I am, but I just didn’t know.

So, that’s been a long journey, but I am comfortable with my identity now. I can speak to it with an understanding of my place in relation to my broader family. And I’ve met my broader extended family members and elders, to connect those dots. But at its base level, I know my privilege as well. That my parents have given me opportunities that others didn’t have, and I didn’t suffer the deprivations of some of our cousins. So that’s always a point of tension in the community.

My family is now practicing more of our culture and learning our language because of this generation who are embracing it. If I talk to my elders, they will say, yes, this is your right. I know my line right back before the Europeans came. And I know those ancestors, and I am learning those stories. So, I’m very lucky. That is a real privilege because some of the Stolen Generation have lost that connection. If you understand. That is the hardest part of the story.
During your stay in Japan from August to September of 2022 at the invitation of the Saison Foundation, you had an opportunity for exchanges with (Japan’s indigenous) Ainu people. What did you feel about the situation of the Ainu people compared to the situation in Australia?
 Well, it’s probably hard to compare because of the relative differences. In Australia, I suppose I’ve benefited from a maturing of the conversation in Australia, so in the last 20 years, it’s safer for Indigenous people to identify as such. And there are more opportunities and knowledge for people to connect to each other, so they are not feeling like they are just on their own in a society that feels threatening. So, my understanding and impressions of the situation here in Japan are that there are people who are strongly expressing their Ainu identity. But then, understandably in a culture where it’s very monocultural, it’s difficult to express difference, any difference, I am guessing. So, I don’t profess to know, this is just an impression.

And what’s interesting, having come here and having conversations with different people, is realizing the actual diversity just within Japan, as it is now. It goes beyond the Ainu and the people of the southern islands. I had a really good chat with my friend about this the other day, and a part of this conversation was, what is it to be indigenous? Everyone is indigenous. But there are different journeys and traumas associated with indigeneity. So, of course, there’s a type of Japanese indigeneity, there’s an Ainu indigeneity and then there are all the different groups that have some kind too. In Australia, there is Irish indigeneity, and back in Ireland there is English indigeneity and in England there is Swedish, and so on. But it’s only recognized when a dominant culture has oppressed and tried to eliminate or discriminate against those peoples. What does that mean? Of course, people don’t want to put their heads above the parapet, because they might get their heads shot off. And because traditionally, I mean in Australia, that’s what it was like in the past.

So, I don’t blame my ancestors for assimilating, because very similar to the Ainu, it wasn’t healthy to us to assume you could get away with your identity. And I had a lot of my Aboriginal ancestors who fought for the Queen and Country in the First World War and the Second World War. And when they came back, they were still not even citizens of Australia. It’s unbelievable. So, it’s an incredible story of survival for all these groups that are culturally strong – like in Australia it’s incredible, despite the attempts of the dominant culture to say we don’t exist, you’re not even human.
Do you have any advice for people living in Japan who are trying to face their own roots and those of the people around them?
 What I would like to say to community members and young people in Japan, is to learn, but learn about your culture because it is a fabulous gift. You don’t have to be advertising it, it’s fine not to. You can just learn, and it’ll come to you then. You don’t have to force it. Because the more and more you connect, the country, and the land (of its origin) will draw you in and will draw the spirit of your ancestry out. And that is a wonderful thing.

And certainly, that has been my journey, and I feel really privileged. And now I feel more able to advocate, and to fight, to be a participant in the struggle. But not everyone has to be that way. And I feel it comes back maybe to the allies in the community to sort of initiate these conversations and support and not appropriate. To really respectfully come to this conversation and start to surprise your peers by doing that, because that’s where the change starts to happen.

And I’ve seen that happen in Australia. The way that our parliamentarians now behave compared to what they might have done 30 or 40 years ago is so different in terms of how they speak about Aboriginal issues or the way people are much more respectful now. It doesn’t matter, right or left, I think they understand the profound opportunity that sits there, but also the responsibility as well. Not everyone, of course, there are some horrible people, very conservative people out there too.
We need to continue to learn to understand one another and increase our allies. However, I think there is also a challenge that when the majority tries to understand the minority’s problems, the minority can become exhausted by the educational process.
 Maybe an example of this is that in Australia we’re coming into a phase of “truth-telling,” and hopefully it will lead to some legislation and representation in parliament. We have 11 or 12 Aboriginal parliamentarians today, and that’s amazing. In our last election, there were maybe three new ones. So, it’s great to see that. But it’s really important to make sure that the “truth-telling” doesn’t just come from the Indigenous members.

Right now, in Australia, people with the best intentions are wanting to know more about what it’s like to be Aboriginal. And to them I’d say, just go read the history, learn your history. It’s all in the books. And read Aboriginal literature, because that will enlighten you and you will become a warrior in your workplace very quickly if you are an intelligent person. If you read about genocide, you will learn about it. Find out that it’s just whitewashed history.

And so, what’s happening in our workplace? We used to do training, Aboriginal-led training, and cultural competency training. But this just became so much work, a burden for them. And our Aboriginal leaders who do a lot of this work said at one point, that’s enough, we’re not going to do this even if you want to pay us lots and lots of money. Because, you know, it was quite a good earning job. Because the work was re-traumatizing them all the time.

Even for me, who is from a privileged part of the community, if I start to talk about this, it gets very emotional. If you get Uncle Larry talking about Stolen Generation he was part of, it’s very, very potent. And I don’t want to put him through that. He deserves simply a peaceful life. So, it is better to encourage those allies to do that work and then it becomes a small process of just building knowledge and awareness. Because when you start to look at the real stories, it’s quite horrific. And I’m sure that Japan’s Ainu have some similar tales to tell.
What are your goals and dreams for the future, both as an individual and as an organization?
 Well, the two are maybe intertwined in some way. On one level, the work that I am hoping to continue to do is just to keep on evolving this conversation and working to make sure it’s sustainable. Because no single model can guarantee continuity, since it might come to rely on certain individual personalities, just like in any workplace. With the advisory group, I’m really working to help move this into the next stage.

From a personal point of view, I am actually looking to go into a period of investigation, to create time for personal creative investigation. I’ve already been writing a work that is a storytelling work, but I suppose my interest is ceremonial thinking and process. And therefore, I am not even thinking about the outcome, if you know what I mean. Sometimes it’s quite hard to explain.

I had someone email me the other night from a university, asking what exactly I want to do, and at what research school. I want to go on a journey but do not know the destination. But I know the material and it’s now a weaving process and a yarning process. So, I’m hoping to do that. Well, when I say hope, I mean that’s what I’m doing already, but I’m looking to formalize that process.
Will you be doing more cross-border collaborations in the future?
  Yes. I mean, what I know from working just through this visit in Japan, and the conversations that we’ve had, it’s important to broaden this conversation. When I say broaden it, obviously, we have this sort of relationship building and an opportunity to collaborate and learn more through this Ainu connection. But I think this conversation that we are talking about, how maybe a forum or something that invites Japanese creators, Ainu creators, Aboriginal creators, and broader Australian creators into it, will allow us to have a broader conversation around identity, and the challenges and the timelines of both countries’ histories, and I think it’d be really, really interesting. I feel it will benefit the conversation in Japan, and it will also benefit us because Australia can reflect on its own journey. And we still got a lot of work to do.

Uncle Larry is keen to also connect with the Sami people in Finland and Sweden. I think that also the Federal Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs are interested obviously in reconnecting to the world at the moment as well. So, there’s an opportunity here. We feel it would be important because the world at the moment – even though it seems to have shrunk back a bit because of the pandemic and people have closed their borders – it’s a really dangerous time I think for the world. We kind of lost the connection. And we need to be humans together again.
Thank you very much for giving us so much of your time for this interview.

*1 In Australia, as part of efforts to promote harmony with Indigenous communities, it is recommended to start by expressing respect to the indigenous peoples and their ancestors in the land where the work is carried out, such as when speaking in public.

*2 The White Australia policy is a policy that seeks to limit non-white settlement in Australia. One of them was the Immigration Restriction Act on December 23, 1901. This was one of the first legislation introduced in the newly formed Bundestag and was intended to restrict the migration of non-British nationals to Australia. With the enactment of this law, the White Australia policy was formally established. This policy was abolished in 1966.

*3 Gough Whitlam (1916–2014) was an Australian politician, 21st Prime Minister (1972–75), and Labor Party. Fair go was based on Whitlam's campaign slogan, “Give Gough a fair go,” and became a term that expressed the egalitarian spirit.

*4 The Reconciliation Action Plan is an action plan for reconciliation and cooperation with Indigenous communities established by local governments in Australia. Action guidelines that can be practiced on various scales such as companies, organizations, and individuals are presented. One of them is Dan’s words of gratitude to his ancestors and land at the beginning.

*5 A Songline is one of the paths that show the trajectory of Aboriginal ancestors. It is told as a path that spans the earth or sky through songs, stories, dances and paintings.

*6 Wominjeka Festival was held on October 22, 2022 for the first time in three years. The welcome ceremony included an important ceremony in which cloaks made from new possums were presented to “Elders in Residence” Uncle Larry Walsh and N’Arweet Dr. Carolyn Briggs AM. Some 300 attendees enjoyed Aboriginal arts and crafts markets, live performances, DJs and food throughout the day. The event was also welcomed by the Aboriginal community and demonstrated Footscray Community Arts’ enthusiasm for its “First Nations First” policy.

*7 The Emerging Creative Leaders program is a leadership development program for artists in the fields of art, theater, video, literature, broadcasting, etc., and those who work there.

*8 An award for visual art established in 2016 and held every other year. There are the main Footscray Art Prize for Australian artists aged 18 and over (Main Prize, Local Awards for Western Artists, Resident Artist Prize for Resident Artists for Resident Creation and Exhibition at Footscray Community Arts) and Young Artist Prize for Primary and Middle School students in West Melbourne. An exhibition will be held to display all the award-winning works and entries in the Young Artist Category.

*9 Dreamtime is a word that describes the creation of the world. It has a unique Aboriginal sense of time, history and memory.

*10 Aboriginal people had no literacy to read or write and conveyed a variety of information through dotted patterns and other drawings. Aboriginal art is said to have originated in 1971 when artists began painting with acrylic paint on canvas under the guidance of Geoffrey Bardon, a British art teacher. The characteristic painting methods of this genre are dot painting (pointillism) and X-ray painting, in which animal skeletons are drawn as if the animals are transparent.

*11 Situationists are cultural and political movements that emerged in France and other European countries from the 1950s. They rebelled against the existing systems of society, politics, culture, art, and life as represented by mass consumption, and aimed to “construct a situation” that created a moment of liberated life that was not controlled by it. It also influenced youth activities during the May Revolution in Paris (1968) and British punk in the 1970s.

*12 Dan’s Aboriginal great-grandfather had two families, one with an Aboriginal wife (Black) and one with an English wife (Brown). The trauma experienced by the Black family was due to discriminatory laws that created a “Stolen Generation” for colonial Aboriginal people (policies separating Aboriginal children from their parents, cultural and language controls, confiscation of land rights, forced migration, etc.), and the trauma experienced by the Brown family concealed and denied Aboriginal identity. It was due to their choice to assimilate into mainstream culture and avoid discrimination.