What do we want? It sounds like a simple question, but for Dr Heidi Norman, finding an answer has been far from easy.
Last May, after years of meticulous archival and ethnographic research, the Associate Professor in Social and Political Sciences released her first book What do we want?: A political history of Aboriginal Land Rights in NSW.
What do we want? is the first published work documenting the fight for Land Rights legislation in NSW. It chronicles the political struggle of activists and discusses the ongoing impacts of the 1983 laws, which, at the time, heralded an entirely new and unprecedented involvement in government and governing by the state’s Aboriginal people.
Norman describes her work as a study of the “possibilities, tensions and entanglements” of Land Rights legislation.
“Aboriginal people took up the political demand of self-determination and worked to address their community disadvantage, all the while grappling with the expectations of government,” she says.
For the book, Norman’s research was conducted in collaboration with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), local Aboriginal Land Councils and a number of community and academic partners. Among those partners were CEO of the NSWALC Lesley Turner, and Community Elder and NSWALC Community and Cultural Advisor Sol Bellear.
“I really enjoyed writing the book, and the endless cups of tea and conversation I shared with families and communities across NSW about the highs and lows of Land Rights and, more broadly, about the long struggle to escape the clutches of colonisation.”
For much of Australia’s history, Indigenous people have been treated as objects of academic study rather than as participants or co-collaborators. Such exploitation has generated levels of mistrust and resistance towards research.
Norman’s work, however, was different.
“When Heidi approached the NSWALC requesting access to archival materials for a research project on the NSW Land Rights network, our organisation was more than willing to assist,” explains Turner.
“There has been a lack of meaningful analysis of the cultural and political environment that informed the advocacy and the institutions that were established to deliver Land Rights.
“This is what makes What do we want? indispensable – Heidi’s research is unique in its scope and methodical in its approach.”
In recognition of her significant scholarly achievement, Norman received the 2015 Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence Through Collaboration.
Says Norman, “It’s great to gain that acknowledgement and to see UTS is a university that values contributions to improving understandings of Aboriginal worlds in all their complexity, messiness, madness and joy.”
For Norman, herself a Gomeroi woman, inquiry into social justice and inequality has been a life-long passion. It was something fostered by her upbringing in Western Sydney – Norman was the youngest of four children and a student at a progressive, experimental Catholic senior college.
“There were lots of great things happening at the school,” recalls Norman, “and we were all involved in this unique student democracy.”
It’s a feeling that academia still imparts in Norman.
“Research covers the highs and lows. At times it seems a painful, slow and monotonous struggle. At other times it’s the most fun you can possibly have.
“I mostly enjoy conducting in-depth interviews and working to make sense of the archive and ethnography. I love the tensions between the two sources and methods and the eventual clarity. That is the sweet spot; that feeling of swimming with the current.”