Decolonisation or Transformation?

By Gregory Phillips, Waanyi/Jaru

I have just finished an inspiring week at the Pacific Rim Indigenous Doctor’s Congress (PRIDoC) in Auckland, Aotearoa, the theme of which was Transformation. Though not a medical doctor myself, I find these conferences inspiring because most delegates blend the best of both worlds – Indigenous cultural grounding in country, with the best of science and research as practiced in Indigenous ways.

The delegates come from Australia, Canada, Aotearoa, the USA, Taiwan and Native Hawaii (who do not count themselves as a part of the USA). Sometimes we are lucky to have participants from other Pacific nations like Fiji and Guam as well. PRIDoC happens every two years, and the next one will be in Hawaii, where Natives Hawaiins are facing a similar choice as ourselves – to be ‘recognised’ on the coloniser’s terms, or to hold out for something better, like government-to-government equal negotiations for sovereignty.

The final keynote speaker this week was Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who has spent years decolonising the academy (universities, research, professions). I asked her what the difference was between decolonisation and transformation, if any. She said:

My husband and I have this discussion all the time. I think decolonisation is the work of breaking down structures and thought processes that aren’t ours and that don’t serve us well any more. He thinks transformation is the overall process of both decolonisation and then building back up what is ours. They’re both important.

I tend to agree. It is one thing to tear down what does not serve us well. It is another to rebuild what was and is ours.

First though, let’s be clear on what decolonisation is. Decolonisation does not mean simply replacing white people in our organisations, research teams, the bureaucracy or the parliament with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. It does not simply mean being ‘included’ in white organisations on white terms. Decolonisation means actively choosing the Aboriginal Terms of Reference, as Aunty Lilla Watson would say. It means that there is no use having Aboriginal people in parliament, or Torres Strait Islander people in universities, for example, if they all they do is utilise the same value system and terms of reference as white people – prestige, career, incrementalism, and choosing to be spiritually asleep. If the delegates at PRIDoC were just concerned with being like white doctors, where they believed that science alone is all you need, then I would not go there – it would be a waste of my time. If they were concerned with simply replacing white doctors in Aboriginal medical services with Aboriginal ones, with those Aboriginal doctors just using science like white doctors, then that would be a waste of my time.

Instead, groups like PRIDoC seem to have the right balance because they understand that the terms of reference on which they operate must be decidedly Indigenous; that is, cultural groundedness in paradigm, diagnosis, prevention and treatment. It means utilising bush foods and knowledge of on-country healing in the clinic. It means understanding the country is also the clinic. It means understanding that dealing with trauma means getting people to remember and practice the old songs and stories and dance. It means that suicide prevention will only work when we rebuild our own culture and governance.

Our Aboriginal medical services and schools should not be called ‘Aboriginal’ just because they are staffed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but because they use Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander paradigms and ways as the basis for practicing western medicine and education. We must use our terms of reference and values. Some say they do that, but I’m not sure they do. What is success here? Is success just being financially solvent and pleasing to the bureaucratic masters? It is very important we have well run organisations, and most do a good job of balancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander values with the pressures of funding compliance, yet what happens to our independence and self-determination when we are too scared to challenge government for fear of losing funding?

I do not begrudge any organisation or person who believes that incrementalism – making change within the system bit by bit – is a good thing. We do need some people and organisations to do that. Yet if that’s all we do, we’re fucked. That’s not self-determination or independence. That’s the merry-go-round of whiteness – dancing back and forth between white people and governments on one hand, and us on the other – where the white terms of reference are always ‘the given’, or the basis for ‘negotiations’ or ‘consultation’. We’re allowed to dance with white people, but only if they own the dance floor. It’s still their space. Their rules. Their power. Their control.

Decolonisation is not just breaking down what does not work for us, it is rebuilding what is ours.


In 1950s Cloncurry, where my Mum and her siblings and cousins grew up, Aboriginal people were not allowed to work in the front of cafes or shops, were not allowed to be nurses or doctors or teachers, and certainly could not go to law school or be on the local Shire Council. The grand old Shire Hall, that we all have fond memories of, was a segregated place in the 1950s – separate entrances for Aboriginal people and a separate dance floor and seating to the side for my Mum and her sisters and cousins. Yet my Uncle Johnny’s band, The Teen Beats, was the best band in town. It was an all-Aboriginal band, except for one token migaloo (whitefulla). Uncle Johnny on lead, Uncle Crow on rhythm, Uncle Blue-Dog on pickin’, Uncle Kelpie on drums, Uncle Laurie on bass, and the whitefulla on the electric slide were all mad on Cliff Richards and the Shadows, the Beatles, Elvis, and anything by Charlie Pride and Slim Dusty. Everyone in town loved The Teen Beats, so on most Friday nights, Uncle and his band would be on stage playing for white teenagers and their families on the main dance floor, with Aboriginal teenagers to the side.

One night, my Mum and our family, being who they were – taught to look a white man in the eye and never back down – started dancing on the main floor too. Of course the white Shire Hall managers took exception to this, and tried to make the Aboriginal teenagers and families stay to the side. The Teen Beats saw this, and refused. They said no.

The next Friday night, they took the band down to the side of the river, where there was an old abandoned piece of concrete flooring leftover from a long-crumbled house. They took their old portable speaker, plugged in the guitars, and had a long night of dancing and laughter under the stars, unencumbered by white rules and white values.

Eventually, all the white teenagers started coming down to the riverbed on Friday nights, because the music was much better. The Teen Beats had a sound everyone loved. No one was going to the Shire Hall anymore.

After a few more weeks, the Shire Hall managers folded and allowed everyone to dance together on the main dance floor. The People had won. True story.


There are stories like this from all over Australia. There are lessons to be learned that sometimes I think we have forgotten.

First, white people did not occupy just the dance floor to the exclusion of others, but their whiteness and white rules occupied the whole building.

Second, Aboriginal people had valuable resources they did not realise they had – spunk and style and pizzazz in their music. They had something everyone wanted.

Third, they said no. They said no to the imposition of whiteness and white rules. They walked away from the old fight.

Fourth, they re-created an Aboriginal space with next to nothing. They believed in themselves.

Fifth, they invited everyone to the riverbed; white people too.

Sixth, whiteness realised that they may ‘own’ the rules and the space, but not if the spunk and pizzazz that everyone wants is not present. They had to change because they no longer had power.

Seventh, Aboriginal people transformed ‘the white space’ not just by tearing down its old rules and structures (decolonisation), or by literally tearing down the building, but by saying no. They tried reason and negotiation (reconciliation), but the white man would have none of it because his power was still intact (CONstitutional ‘recognition’). So Aboriginal people walked away from the abusive relationship (healing), they stood on their own two feet (self-belief, self-respect and dignity), and they created their own dance floor out of next to nothing (re-building their governance and structures and spaces). Then the white people changed.


Both decolonisation and transformation are critical.

Decolonisation is the task of healing ourselves and breaking down what is not ours.

Transformation is the task of believing in ourselves enough, and having enough self-respect to get off the white man’s merry-go-round and dance floor. To say no. It is walking away from the old fight, rather than thinking if we stay in it long enough, we’ll win. In fact, when we stay in the old fight long enough, like an abusive domestic violent relationship, we become sick too. We end up mirroring the oppressor. Transformation is the task of actively choosing our own Aboriginal Terms of Reference and our own Torres Strait Islander Terms of Reference. It is rebuilding our own values, philosophies, governance, structures and rules.

Transformation is a spiritual process of hearing what the country and our Dreaming stories are saying. It is standing up for our country, not for ego or money, but because we have spunk and pizazz and magic that we need for survival. The white people want and need this too – that is, our spiritual relationship to country and each other; how to survive and thrive. We should not give our magic away too easily.

When we decolonise and transform, then we see thing more clearly for what they are.

Currently, CONstitutional ‘recognition’ is the crumbs from the white man’s table. A treaty is stronger, but is still reliant on white power (the white sovereign and white parliament) to give it effect, and can be ignored at the whim of whichever government is in power. It is a seat at the table. Yet government-to-government negotiation of both the terms of power and how it operates is more akin to sharing sovereignty on joint terms. This is owning, or at least co-owning, the table, the building within which it sits, and the ground on which it stands. This must be our goal. This must be our vision.

Image credit: Ronald Wymarra Lingwoodock 


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