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PhD leaves a lasting legacy of shared Indigenous knowledge

Nicole Tujague PhD stands in nature

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Words
Tamara Hamilton
Published
8 July 2024

The acclaimed research of Southern Cross University Gnibi College alumnus, Nicole Tujague, PhD has not only influenced the way many people engage with Indigenous communities, it has also fundamentally changed Nicole herself.

As a young Gubbi Gubbi and South Sea Islander woman, who grew up in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Cape York, Nicole had big career dreams.

Becoming an evaluator was not one of them.

“I don't think evaluation is top of any child’s wish list,” Nicole said, laughing, “I wanted to be a doctor!”

But if Nicole was to tell her younger self that, one day, she would be working to improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, she would, no doubt, have felt inspired.

That same little girl would also go on to be awarded the Southern Cross University Chancellor’s Medal for her outstanding PhD thesis through Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples.

First, though, Nicole had to turn her back on a long and successful corporate career, aged in her forties, while raising a young family.

“I always wanted to go back to working with Indigenous communities, because that's my family,” she said. “So, I took an entry level job working with First Nations families, and enrolled to do my Bachelor of Indigenous Studies,” with a focus on healing and trauma, and managing organisations.

“The flexibility of online study really worked for me and the fact that I had life experience, and was also working in the area, just made it so interesting and so relevant.”

“When you find a key piece missing, your PhD is this perfect opportunity to try to add some knowledge into that space.”

Nicole Tujague PhD holds her Chancellor's Medal

Finding the missing piece

Hungry to learn more, Nicole went on to earn First Class Honours, while also establishing her consultancy, The Seedling Group, as one of two founding directors. 

“I found this space of consulting difficult to navigate as an Indigenous person,” she said. “I realise I was trying to do things in a culturally-safe and trauma-informed way, but in a very Western system.”

“The climate changed in the work we were doing and suddenly evaluation became an important field. But the evaluations we were asked to do were often very culturally unsafe.”

That realisation led to Nicole’s PhD, exploring Indigenous-led evaluation.

“When you find a key piece missing, your PhD is this perfect opportunity to try to add some knowledge into that space,” Nicole said.

“The reason we can’t close the gap is that we’re not funding the right things. This is partly because we’re not measuring the relevant Indigenous values of projects affecting First Nations Peoples. This leads to the refunding of projects that are not necessarily effective.

“We also have lots to learn about evaluating in a culturally safe and trauma-informed way.”

For instance, within Aboriginal communities, Nicole explains, trust and building relationships is paramount, and that takes time.

“To fly in, talk to a few people, then fly out to write up your data is not considered safe practice,” she said, “but that might be all the time your evaluation budget has allowed for, so you spend a lot of time trying to renegotiate the parameters of the work.”

“Then, if the measure of success is ‘was this project on time?’ or ‘did we get enough bums on seats?’, those things are sometimes irrelevant to Indigenous communities who may value collective healing and learning above all else.”

In collaboration with her fellow Director and Consulting Psychologist for The Seedling Group, Kelleigh Ryan, Nicole authored a book for people wanting to work safely with Indigenous Peoples. The book, Cultural Safety in Trauma-Informed Practice from a First Nations Perspective: Billabongs of Knowledge, has been received well and was mentioned on the 2023 Springer Nature bestsellers list.

“The real test is when you go into an Indigenous community and they say, that feels really right,” she said.

“I never felt restricted and always felt supported. In many ways, I was encouraged to just blast through any ceilings.”

Nicole Tujague PhD stands in nature

The PhD conundrum

One thing that didn’t sit quite right with Nicole, at first, was the very idea of a PhD – using a Western concept to explore a non-Western ontology or way of knowing.

“With a PhD, when you analyse your data, it's seen as very important that the work is all yours and that you come to your conclusions, alone,” Nicole explained.

“In an Indigenous way of thinking, that would be an incredibly arrogant thing to do, to think that your one little world view is going to reveal everything in that data. I did wonder during my PhD if there would be ceilings that I would come across.”

However, Nicole praised the ‘incredible knowledge and ways of thinking’ among her PhD supervisors at Gnibi.

“I never felt restricted and always felt supported. In many ways, I was encouraged to just blast through any ceilings,” she said.

“I learned that, as an Indigenous person, you're actually an expert of your own knowledge, the knowledge that's been handed down to you. So, it's your responsibility to make sure that you say what you need to say.

“I would just like to know that when I leave this earth, I've contributed something meaningful to the knowledge base.”

Now, as a dedicated life-long learner in her sixties, Nicole claims her PhD has changed her as a person.

“It changed the way I saw the world, and that's just such a gift,” she said.

“What else can you say in your forties, fifties, and sixties is actually going to change you as a person? Sharing knowledge does that.”

Learn more about the exciting courses on offer at Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples.

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