6. Virtual Songlines and Contested Terrains in Australia

Interview with: Brett Leavy
Discussing: Virtual Songlines and Cultural Heritage in Australia
Deborah Cummins

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Growing up in northeast Australia


A kid on the vanguard of computer gaming and ICT


First Nations activism in Australia in 1970s


Links between activism, identity, facilitating community and connection to country


Bilbie Labs & Virtual Songlines


Connecting virtual reality, cultural heritage and education


Virtual reality connecting elders & youth in Canada First Nations


First Nations communities regaining connection & claiming local cultural heritage

[00.04] – Deborah Cummins

When we want to connect with each other, how do we cross the great divide of different worldviews cultures or religions? How can we work together effectively? Well, first: we need a bridge. Welcome to Bridging Peoples. In this Bridging Peoples podcast, we explore the human side of aid, development and social change work. Join me as I chat with researchers and practitioners about their work around the globe. I’m your host, Deborah Cummins.

In this episode, I’m chatting with Brett Leavy, founder of Bilbie Lab, creator of the Virtual Songlines Project, and self described Virtual Heritage Jedi.

[00:56] – Brett Leavy

And in the work that I’m doing in Virtual Songlines, which people probably don’t know about yet, I’m trying to do that – to determine identity, develop that identity in connection to country, and then it can serve multiple purposes.

[01:11] – Deborah Cummins

He’s a First Nations man from the Kooma nation in Australia.

Brett, thank you so much for joining me for this chat.

[01:20] – Brett Leavy

You’re welcome.

[01:22] – Deborah Cummins

I like to start these conversations by starting with the personal: getting to know you, your background, where you’re from, to situate you in place. So tell me about yourself. Tell me about your family. Where did you group up?

[01:37] – Brett Leavy

Well, my family is Kooma people, so descendants of the Kooma nation. And our country is west of Brisbane, way out around Bollon. So you could say Bollon is the centre of our country, and it extends from there. And that country is where we’ve got our Native Title back. So that’s important to note. I grew up.

I was born actually in Sydney, in Blacktown. It used to be called Blacks Town a long time ago. But I grew up there, and I was born there. And then after a while, mum and dad, my dad finished in the Navy, he wanted to come back to his family in Brisbane, because there was really no family down there. And mum’s family was up here too. So we came back up here, and then I basically lived in Brisbane for a short time, and then went to the Gold Coast and grew up there. But then came back to Brisbane to boarding school and off we went. And I’ve been in Brisbane really, ever since.

[02:45] – Deborah Cummins

Did you come from a big family?

[02:47] – Brett Leavy

No. I’ve got one brother and one sister. But then, we always used to visit my Grandma on my mother’s side and also my dad’s side. My dad’s got, I think, nine brothers and sisters, and my mum’s got nine brothers and sisters. So lots of uncles, all different. All different. Both families were not wealthy families, poor families. So that’s probably why my mum and dad got together, because my Dad’s a whitefella from Murray, and my nanna, or my mum’s grandmother, was a black woman from Murray. So that’s how it came to pass.

[03:27] – Deborah Cummins

How did people view the relationship at that time?

[03:30] – Brett Leavy

It was different. Totally. It was the 1960s, beginning of the 1960s. Right, at the very start of the 60s. It was, like, frowned upon. But dad didn’t care. He liked my mum, and my mum was pretty good looking, so you can’t blame him. She was pretty hot, I think.

[03:51] – Deborah Cummins

What was like for you growing up?

[03:54] – Brett Leavy

It was good. It wasn’t bad. I mean, when I said we were poor, we used to not have a lot, and we lived in like, not the greatest rental properties, and we never really had a lot to eat. But I never knew that was a problem. So my mother never complained, and my dad never complained. My dad worked hard to get what he got. My mother didn’t work at the beginning, then worked out she had to work. And let me just say: it was very hard for an Aboriginal woman to get work back then. And the only work she could get was as a cleaner, or a cook. And they weren’t the most prestigious jobs back then.

She used to cook. No, she did cleaning first – cleaning of rental properties on the Goal Coast – and then eventually cooking for a nursing home. Now, having said those two things, all the kids worked – cleaning houses and worked in the laundry of the nursing home. And to bribe us to go and work in the laundry in the nursing home, mum used to get me bacon and eggs in the morning, which is a big meal. And then on the way home, she used to buy me a bucket of chips and a chocolate thickshake. And so you had a good breakfast, and a good lunch. And I remember those – I still to this day love chips and I love thickshakes.

[05:29] – Deborah Cummins

Great. So tell me, how would you describe your mother? What was she like?

[05:37] – Brett Leavy

My mum is fiery; she is not ‘nice’. She knew every swear word in the book, and she was very fiery. So she fought. But then again, she was fighting. She wasn’t angry at anybody, she just used to be that way. But listen: mum loves her kids. She loves them. She’s proud of them. And she was good. So she made sure we had things.

And my mother used to make sure we had good clothes. So even though we couldn’t do anything, and we couldn’t really go anywhere, she bought us clothes, so we would look the part. And make sure we dressed right: had shoes on, a nice shirt, and a nice clothes, so I always had nice clothes. And any money she made, she would make sure we would fit into society. She was trying – even though we were Aboriginal kids – to make sure we looked the part. Not the sort of stereotype, that people would not accept us. So she tried to make us be accepted.

And on the Gold Coast, she tried to get us in as much mainstream stuff as we could. So eventually we did what we call ‘Nippers’ on the beach, running on the beach, and then eventually to play Rugby League. I didn’t get to play Rugby League until I was ten, which is late for many kids. Most kids start earlier than that. But the only reason we didn’t get into those sports is because they used to cost money. They cost fees. And we couldn’t afford it. And then later, I think, there were funds for helping kids, Aboriginal kids in particular, to get into sports. So she would apply for those, and get those, so she was very resourceful. She made sure we were there, and got around, and got by. And eventually we got more meals than we used to get. And that’s not a big thing.

When I look back at it, I realise we weren’t well off. But don’t get me wrong:  people think ‘oh, that’s terrible’, but it wasn’t. I was happy. I just thought that was the way life was.

[07:43] – Deborah Cummins

And your dad?

[07:43] – Brett Leavy

My dad used to just work all the time. He worked. He started off on the Gold Coast working as a barman at the Chevron Paradise or the Surfers Paradise Hotel Chevron. So that was a big place to work. And he got by getting tips, you know, getting extra dollars for doing what he did. That’s when there used to be tipping like that. And then eventually, after that, he worked out that he could get money driving cabs. So he used to drive cabs down on the Gold Coast – he was a taxi driver. And then I worked out that I could get by, by doing jobs for him. Like wash his car before he went out. So I got some money for that.

And dad was generally generous, I had a little bit of money here and there. And he used to make – I remember looking at his pay packet from Chevron: it was $90 a week. And then what happens: we lived in housing commission eventually. And then you pay 25% of your money to the housing commission people.

[08:38] – Deborah Cummins

Housing commission being public housing.

[08:40] – Brett Leavy

Yes. So I could remember, he would get $94 or $95 a week, and then give $25 a week to the housing commission. And then we’d have some money for food. And then every so often, we used to make ends meet. And if we didn’t have enough, then we’d run out. I remember running out of margarine, and running out of  vegemite. And never having milk, so powdered milk. I hate powdered milk with a passion. And so that was that. So what I’m saying is that he worked as much as he could, whatever he got he used to do that.

And then he used to like to have his little thing, he used to gamble. He used to go to the TAB, and then bet on horses to win a treble. And he won. He used to win. Not all the time, he’d just do what he did, and he just made a bet, and then he’d win. I remember he used to win $300 at a time. Huge amounts of money.

[09:36] – Deborah Cummins

It’s huge. It’s almost a month’s salary.

[09:37] – Brett Leavy

Yeah, it was. And then he’d go off and he’d buy a car. We got a car through that. And then there was another time he got a win and we got a TV from that. In 1975. Then another one he bought a fridge. So when he won at the gambling, we used to get these things that helped our lives. We bought straw matting for the floor.

[09:59] – Deborah Cummins

What was on the floor before then?

[10:01] – Brett Leavy

Oh, just wood. Just wooden boards that were cold and you could lie on. And the straw matting allowed you to lie on there, and have a nice blanket. It was a bit nicer.

[10:13] – Deborah Cummins

Fast forwarding now to the work you do in ICT. Tell me how you first got interested in this. Why did you start?

[10:23] – Brett Leavy

I’ll tell you why. It actually goes back. It goes back to one of my dad’s brothers, who was my uncle, was a guy called uncle Kerry. And uncle Kerry knew I liked to pull things apart. I would like to know how things work. And I’d ask a thousand questions of people I knew about that. So uncle Kerry bought me a game console, from his company, his electronics company, where he used to sell. And it had Pong on it. And then I got introduced to computer games. And then I learned about pinball machines, about 1972.

But that stuff, that electronic stuff, that game stuff is where I love to play games. And of course, you can escape from there. And then from there, then you’d go and find these machines that you could put coins in there to play, which are the coin operating machines that we all play now: the Nintendos, and the Segas, and the likes like that. So Uncle Kerry gave me a device, and I worked out these consoles. And as I got more consoles, things got bigger and better.

[11:43] – Deborah Cummins

So you were very much on the vanguard.

[11:43] – Brett Leavy

At the very start, before anything. Now it’s there. And hence that motivation of games. And I’ll go further. We used to visit my grandmother, and I used to be there in the 1970s when we were talking about things like: how do we advance the status of First Nations people back in the 70s. All those things back then. So that’s where my knowledge about this started: why are we where we are? So I used to be this little fella, I said nothing. You hear me talking now: I never said a word, apart from: can I have some money for this or that. I did what I was told. But I watched lots.

[12:30] – Deborah Cummins

So was she and her friends real activists?

[12:34] – Brett Leavy

I don’t think mum was. But nanna – my grandmother – was. My grandfather was. My uncles were. And then, the relations of my relations were. So they were there, at the vanguard at all those things, all the events you can imagine. The 1979 boycott. Or the riots about the Springboks playing. That stuff. When we were trying to get Senator Neville Bonner into Parliament – I was listening to that discussion. Neville Bonner was a senator – one of the first Aboriginal senators in our government. And so seeing him in place was just amazing. And I was at dinner tables, and going to see Oodgeroo Noonucal, about that stuff. And all these people that were famous, that live in history. And I was actually a little boy listening to those yarns. Hearing the debates at Sunday school – we had to go to Sunday school – it was so boring. They were talking about that in those forums.

[13:41] – Deborah Cummins

What were they saying?

[13:43] – Brett Leavy

Well, let me come back a step on the role of the church. Every church was trying to advance the nature of all people, not just Indigenous people, but any group that was sort of disenfranchised – to give them a greater voice. And so the church played a role, beyond the fact that they wanted to peddle their religion. And so you remember that Indigenous people getting involved in the church, that’s where that movement towards elders came in – through the church. You know how we’ve got Aboriginal elders? They were firstly elders of the church.

And if you noticed that in many communities across Australia, the church was involved. The Lutherans teaching, the Catholic faith, the Anglican churches. And then from there, those schools that were established. The independent schools then supported Indigenous people in those regions all across the country. So there’s a history of that.

[14:45] – Deborah Cummins

If there wasn’t the church involvement, would elders exist in the same way?

[14:53] – Brett Leavy

I don’t think so. I think that the term – it’s not an Aboriginal word. It was just something that was brought in. So there were firstly elders of the church. And so, in the World Council of Churches, they were looking at how to engage First Nations peoples. And the First Nations Peoples, don’t get me wrong, they embraced religion. There are many avid and strong religious people out there, and they see advancement in that. And so that’s important. Me? I think you can do all this, and talk about where it all leads to, but surely aren’t we talking about the health, welfare and, wellbeing, of First Nations people right here and now? And is that achieved through religious adherence? I don’t want to be controversial, but I’m wondering about that.

But I think we should be also trying to do our very best, in a Christian way (I think there’s some value in this), that you should do to others as you want to be done to yourself. You want to be treating others as you want to be treated yourself. And if we keep that reciprocal arrangement, then we’ll all be better for it. And then there’s principles about ‘thou shalt not steal’.  I don’t think those ten commandments are anything different from any culture around the world, about how they look after each other. Including if someone’s married to some woman, you don’t want to steal her. Because you’ll go to war, you know clan war. ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’, all this sort of stuff. And so there are these alignments, and I think that’s probably the way that most missionaries would have gotten a lot of First Nations people to follow that faith.

[16:36] – Deborah Cummins

So going back to your earlier experiences of listening to grandparents and others speak about activism. What did you think at that time?

[16:52] – Brett Leavy

I heard all that stuff. And activism: you’re doing something. What’s the ultimate end game? So I’m saying that the ultimate end game when you do all these things that you do about activism, it really is about identity. So you want to establish an identity, and a connection. So I think there’s two things that I’m really keen about. You want to make sure you know who you are, because you’ve got to belong. How do you facilitate community in that regard? The next: how do you manage that identity and that connection to country? And how does that tell you who you are? If you do that, then those things give you a purpose, in a sense: of who you are, how you’re part of that community. Furthermore, I think most people want to contribute to that community, to be a part of it. They want to be empowered by that. I think if you do that, then you’ve got something going for you. And then if you do that in that regard with your identity, then I think you’re free, to some extent. You feel a sense of freedom, in a sense.

Now I do what I do because I’ve worked, and then I got out of those jobs. And then I got into an area where I can do stuff, and help others. And in the work that I’m doing in Virtual Songlines, which people probably don’t know about yet, I’m trying to do that. To determine identity, develop that identity in connection to country, and then it can serve multiple purposes: where do the people come from? Where are their origins, what we call virtual ancestors? And how does that show where you belong ? And then one of those things in that land that relate to your identity, culture and connection? And that’s Virtual Songlines.

[18:44] – Deborah Cummins

Can you tell us a bit about it?

[18:47] – Brett Leavy

Well, I started thinking about this. So, you know, my history about gaming? So I’m thinking about: how do I blend gaming with culture? So Virtual Songlines is a software development toolkit. And my company is called Bilbie Labs. So Bilbie Labs is developing Virtual Songlines. And so we thought is: what is the best way of recording, and preservation, and protection of culture that we know that’s out there? And now why I’m building it (why is a very important question), I’ve got so many influences about this and I’m thinking: what solution can I bring to the many problems that I’m thinking that are out there, that people have described?And it’s not just me describing a problem. There are many people describing the problem.

[19:43] – Deborah Cummins

Give a couple of examples.

[19:44] – Brett Leavy

The Native Title Act. The Cultural Heritage Acts. And all those things that we’re not doing well, in terms of managing cultural heritage, protecting cultural heritage, and sometimes it being destroyed. The prime example of that is that Rio Tinto blew up the Aboriginal art over in Western Australia. But being mindful of that, there’s still a lot of work being done by many companies out there, which is impacting upon cultural heritage where it exists.

[20:17] – Deborah Cummins

And damaging it, destroying it.

[20:18] – Brett Leavy

Yes. Well, asking to damage it and destroy it, alright. So there are principles about asking first. Yes, let’s ask first because we’re going to build a road here – can you move your culture heritage? That’s what goes on. So what we have is a contested terrain. So the issue is, there’s a contested terrain: how do we respect and recognise that contested terrain? And what tools have we got for doing that? And my thoughts were, well, if I can digitise that stuff, at least we’re telling the story. We’re respecting the original thoughts and culture within the land. And we’re showcasing it some way.

Now, if you don’t do Virtual Songlines, which is a 3D virtual heritage landscape, you can write a book about it. Or you can do a song about it. Or you can do a play about it. Or you can make a documentary about it. Or you can simply have oral histories, where you share with your family. Or you can have a sculpture. So there’s all these different ways of telling it, and we’re not denying that that goes on. And that’s great that happens. What we do is, we take every single source of knowledge we can find about a piece of landscape, and then embed it in a virtual heritage landscape. In a sense: a digital twin or a multiverse.

And we’re working towards making that. So Virtual Songlines is a toolkit. At the moment, it’s a terrain, a virtual heritage terrain, it’s not really a multiverse yet. And it’s not really a digital twin yet. And so we’re trying to move towards that. And our pathway in the company is slowly doing R&D, finding a suite of application programming interfaces that can be patched together, to give us the ultimate goal of a virtual time machine.

[22:21] – Deborah Cummins

And where does that time machine take us? When does that time machine take us?

[22:25] – Brett Leavy

When. Exactly. That’s the question. When does it take us to? Where do you want to go? That question is for other people. Do you want to visit the arrival of the first fleet in Sydney Harbour? Do you want to see Captain Cook arrive into Botany Bay? Do you want to see the police capture Ned Kelly? Do you want to see the very first ceremony at the Laura Dance Centre, dancing up in far North Queensland? Do you want to see the Mercasins come across and trade with the people in Arnhem Land? Or do you want to see what the sites were like, before they blew them up in WA, up there with the artwork. Do you want to see, actually, the artworks being painted? This is the thing we’re building. So rather than watching a Netflix special, why don’t we put you in it? And that’s what we’re doing.

[23:34] – Deborah Cummins

That’s really cool. So tell me a bit more about some of the projects you’ve taken on so far.

[23:42] – Brett Leavy

Well, I mentioned one, the arrival of the First Fleet into Sydney Harbour. We did that for Australia Day live, with the Department of Premier and Cabinet in New South Wales. We did a big job with Cross River Rail for their Visitors Centre, which is a project here building a new underground railway connecting the south side in through the Brisbane CBD, and all that goes with that. We got an award for one up at Bankfoot House, which was one of the stopover points for the Cob & Co coaches leading up to the Gympie goldfields. We did that from perspective of the Kabi Kabi people, who used to dance for the coach people for money, back whenever that used to stop there. We’re doing another project for Floating Land, a big festival up at Noosa, where we’re reconstructing the cultural heritage connection stories for First Nations people up there. We did the arrival of Cook’s Endeavour in 1770 – they went to shore and gathered vegetables and fresh water. The stop there was important to alleviate the scourge of scurvy. But then again, I think they were roused off the land by First Nations people at the time.

We’ve done multiple projects. We’re working on projects in Melbourne, which we’ve done previously. Some of our work has been in galleries, and things like that. And we’re slowly getting commissions, and that commission gives us a bit of funding that allows us to solve one of the big problems we’ve got to make this ultimate goal. So it’s a step by step approach. There’s about 37 projects, so there are too many to mention, but all of them are following the same theme. We’ve done a project in my country based on the endangered species, just mapping that.

So it’s just another way of doing it. So, think of our work like a GIS map. And those GIS maps are generally flat, and they generally get written up in a GIS report, which is text-based. And that report goes off and makes some recommendations to government. And that’s pretty boring, and it’s generally a document that’s seen by probably a couple of dozen people. We want to take this type of report and show it to 120,000 people. I think people like to know. snd if we make it fun and engaging, then I think people can go there, and give each site some credence and careful attention. A prime example might be if there was a campsite that was frequented for thousands of years along the Nemine creek, in far Western Queensland, how far in proximity was each camp from one another, which allowed people a sense of privacy within that community? Who bothers to think about that? I think there’s something in it.

And I feel that type of question answers about the social order of that group, and how they determine where they were going to go, and how the elders who made such decisions back then would have known how that group would have been able to harmoniously live together. I’ll say in a crude way: if there’s families that have been feuding for the last few weeks, don’t put them together. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in urban areas where you’ve got neighbours who fight across back fences.

[27:39] – Deborah Cummins

Given the time frame a lot of these projects are looking at, there must be a lot of research that’s involved. How do you and your team sift through all of the various, and probably competing, sources of information that you’re getting?

[27:57] – Brett Leavy

My team don’t want to sift through it. They just want it on a platter: let us do our work, and I give it to them that way. With the various pieces of information, I’ve got a couple of historians that I engage, so they help me and they generally just dump stuff into a Google drive based on the questions we ask. So you’ve got to carefully curate that information coming to you, then curate it again into the form we need.

One particular person I work with is a guy by the name of Dr. Ray Kirkhoff. If you track him online, you’ll see that he’s done a lot of work, has a lot of published works, and he generally brings a lot of academic rigour towards it, making a statement and then backing it up with evidence. Which is generally what you need to do. What we do, is we take some of that stuff, sometimes leave some of that stuff too, and then bring it into the framework that we need to then present it. And he’s been good like that. And there’s others: Libby Connors, there are a lot of historians that I deal with. We need them all. And so from that, I would pick a moment… And with the people I deal with, the way I generally ask questions is a hub and spoke model. The hub being the campsite, because we want to know where people occupied land. And then where were the spokes? Where did they go off and hunt? Where they go off and gather? Where they go off a ceremony? Where they go off to travel to another camp or moment?

And in effect, if you look at that camp as a hub and spoke model, and also the suite of camps out there, you then come into this sort of Council-negotiated land use arrangement between groups. Now, I don’t think when you really break it down, that’s too dissimilar to the way that a Local Council in the modern day works. Where was waste management? Where were your shopping centres? What were your playgrounds? Where were your places of ceremony?

So when people look at First Nations people and think they’re backwards or whatnot, I don’t think so. I think that the sophistication of the society then to now is a continuum. But at the moment, we’ve got all these modern things, and we all think we’re all so smart for all the technologies that we’ve got. But then whilst we do that, we then sit there and then we complain about how much time we’re spending on a mobile phone or things of that nature. And we’ve got to limit this, and everybody’s making an app to solve a problem that we’ve caused. And we can talk about that all over the shop, including some of the great mistakes we’ve made in the past in terms of advancing our society. Because every step we take forward, every two steps forward there’s a step back.

[31:09] – Deborah Cummins

Do you consider your work political at all? Do you have a political agenda?

[31:16] – Brett Leavy

No, I don’t. But I do like people to ask questions, and then to spark debate, and then think about what the visions that we’re doing might trigger in terms of a memory mnemonic for people. And we want to say what went on, and then let people make a judgement. I think if we build it well, and then for instance, our work could be used in schools where people play out and walk in the footsteps of our ancestors in an application for historical Sydney, then people will then understand what was there before and what came after. And put the shoe on the other foot. Or, more to the point for culture, the feather foot – it’s just a way of covering your feet so you don’t get sore, using feathers. Feather foot. And that would be another way for people to live in that space, and then see what they decide. So on the political question, tread carefully. We don’t want to be political, but sometimes you can’t avoid it. And we’re not taking sites – as best as we can.

[32:34] – Deborah Cummins

And yet it’s potentially incredibly powerful to be able to provide a forum through which people can see a new perspective.

[32:42] – Brett Leavy

Yeah, we don’t take sides. I don’t take sides. I don’t take sides because I’ve got a dad and the mum. It goes back to that other story.

[32:55] – Deborah Cummins

What are some of the upcoming plans that you have?

[32:59] – Brett Leavy

Well, there’s actually a few big ones. We started talking with the proprietors of shopping centres, to see if we can activate stuff in their shopping centres. We’re presently talking to Lendlease about its holdings, and the Sunshine Plaza might be the first cab off the rank in that regard. They’ve got big screens, and they’re thinking about how they give shoppers an experience that is practical reconciliation with that establishment, based on the fact that it’s on Aboriginal land. So we’re looking at how we might make that work, and even using that as a way to trigger people going off into museums and galleries in the area that might be showcasing First Nations stories. So that’s pretty exciting.

Next, we’ve got a project we’re delivering as an augmented reality app for Noosa Regional Council and the Noosa Gallery, where we’re activating Hastings Street, that boardwalk. And we’re going to put four sites there, to give people a real immersion into the cultural heritage stories of that area. Which is, to some extent, stepping on the toes of their brand, it’s a Noosa Heads brand, which is not really an Indigenous brand. So we’re doing that one.

And then thirdly, we got another one. Well, we’ve got a few but I’ll do this third one, being the work we’re doing with the Gwich’in people in the Yukon. And we’re looking at taking our work from here over to Canada, to showcase the First Nations connection to country over there. In particular, their concern being that youth are spending time on their phones and gamification, or games they play. There’s nothing really about culture, and they’re not listening to their elders. So we’re trying to blend the elders’ knowledge into the gamification of their culture. And that might be we might have a good little solution for them.

[34:55] – Deborah Cummins

That’s fantastic. Was that one of the purposes as well, in some of the work that you’re doing here, sort of bridging that gap between youth and elders?

[35:05] – Brett Leavy

Yes exactly. Well, I think our people, young and old, talk to each other. There’s such a lot of sharing. People say: if you don’t capture this story from this elder, then it’ll die with them, and then it’s gone. That’s not true. It’s a good academic argument for why they want to get funding to do what they do. But the truth is that grandmother talks to grandson. When does that not happen? Or grandmother talks to granddaughter. And then they’ve got some stories to tell. They might not tell a clear instruction, but every time you get some piece of knowledge. And over the years, you gain this body of knowledge that you don’t even know you’re getting. So I just think, it’s not like it’s not going to be shared.

Just look at any dance troupe that’s going around the country, there’s someone teaching another one to dance. And then when you see these dances, you might say, ‘oh those kids that are learning to dance, that’s great, isn’t it’? They might not be any good, but in years to come they’ll be better and better and better and better. And then eventually you’ll see them being the leaders of the next generation of dancers. And the question with that becomes: what are the appropriate dances to be danced? And that’s an ongoing debate between First Nations groups.

[36:26] – Deborah Cummins

Which raises an interesting point as well. I asked about the difficulty in obtaining historical accuracy – for want of a better term, because there are so many different perspectives on anything that happens. How does that work at the community level, if you’re trying to gather stories where there are, in fact, competing stories from different groups, or different families, or different individuals?

[36:55] – Brett Leavy

I think many of the groups out there are trying to get an understanding of what their connection to country is. And if you go around – and I’ve spent a lot of time here in the country, and I’m still watching and still listening, I don’t know all the answers – but my thoughts are that people are just trying to get as best and true a knowledge as they can of their country. And understand what those rights and responsibilities are. And when we had the last NAIDOC theme of caring for country, what are the actions that we take to care for country? Dance could be one part of it, and getting the right dance and not appropriating someone else’s dance. And try to work out what that is. And I think that unless you dance, and have the debate, and then think that you’ve got the right thing, then you don’t know that you have or you haven’t. A lot of our people, they tend to be critical of another person not getting it right. But I think that everybody’s got their own cultural and personal truth. I think we should respect that. And then quietly and carefully see if we can resolve those differences.

There are so many good leaders who lead by listening. And that’s the hardest thing for people to do. They tend to gung-ho into the solution without hearing other people’s points of view. And I think in particular relevance to stories that relate to country, everybody’s got their own shared historical knowledge that they’ve been given. And some might not even have it. But a lot would have it, and then let them have that out and let them share that.

And then really, the whole lot of work that we’re dealing with is like a jigsaw puzzle. With lots of pieces missing. So we’ve got to let that jigsaw puzzle come together. And then eventually we’ll get a better knowledge. And the reason why there are pieces missing is because for so long, as I said earlier, I’ve used the term ‘contested terrain’. People have not been on country. They’re not being able to work on country, not being in action on country. And so they’re just trying to get that connection back. And the Native Title process is trying to show what those rights and responsibilities were. And that’s what we’re trying to get back too.

So it’s just an ongoing generational debate, and it’s not going to finish shortly. And let’s just try to get as much knowledge as we can, and then we’ll be better for it, and better for the communication of it, and better for the sharing of it for the next generation to come, as we get more access. And having said that, then you look at that in terms of all the industries that are trying to be active on our contested terrains. Like I said earlier: main roads, construction, mines, housing, the housing market, the councils, local councils and the state governments and the federal governments. All trying to do their best to advance our country. And First Nations people want to just be in that debate. And it grows from there.

[40:13] – Deborah Cummins

It’s such a big question. What we talk about, much more rather than contested terrain or anything that sort of gives the idea of things being really separate and contesting, we talk about reconciliation. What to you is the relationship, or the overlap, or the intersect, between these two ideas? And how can we, in fact, get deeper and less surface-level reconciliation, which is really where we tend to land at this point?

[40:51] – Brett Leavy

Well, I think that you’re right there. The only way forward is with some relevance, or some action, towards reconciliation. It’s got to be that. What did someone say to the other day? One First Nations fella saying, “we’ve got to get people trained up to be ship builders”, he said. I said, “ship builders? Why do you want to get ship builders?”  “Oh, because then we can put them on the boats and send them back!” But the thing is, it’s not going to happen. And so you’ve got to work out how, given what’s happened, how do you then reconcile some way forward? But my thoughts would be, on all of it, it’s got to be practical reconciliation.

And so people would spend a lot of time in their workplaces, organisations, businesses, government, and they’re writing up these Reconciliation Action Plans. But a lot of them are superficial, like you mentioned. And they’re just like, let’s just recognise Aboriginal people before every meeting. What does that mean? So what? So what? Are First Nations people better for that? Really? No, it’s just a word. Even ‘sorry’, it’s just a word. It doesn’t fix anything, really. It might give somebody some sense “oh, you’ve done that”. But the question that’s now being asked, and I think it’s been asked everywhere is: what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do? What action are you going to take? If you’ve got something that relates to community engagement strategies for the First Nations people, have an average one person employed doing that. People have to live. To live in this society now, you’ve got to have an economic base. So we’ve got to get to that point. And if organisations, at the very least, are doing things, put people into roles. Or sponsor projects.

If we’re talking about an environmental impact study, that relates to how do we regenerate the land after some construction, and make sure it works in with the environment, well employ First Nations people planting bush foods around that construction. All of it. All of the work that goes on can easily embed Indigenous people in that process. If you’re going to do a cultural heritage assessment and ask them to move their debitage, why don’t we actually, before we even do that work, talk about what those heritage values are, and map that in a real tangible way? But not map it with a whitefella company, but an Indigenous company that has got those skills to do that work, and engage the community in that process.

And where I was going to there was we’re always trying to improve our landscapes. To be custodians of our landscapes, so that it can sustain us. Now, that’s the principle that people say everybody can learn from First Nations people. Well, we’re doing it now to some extent, but without those First Nations people involved. So if you take a job in, say, Canberra and say regenerate a building from where it is, to give it a more community type feel, then there’s no reason why you can’t engage an Aboriginal person who is very good on bush food, and doing an Indigenous landscape design to support that. And even in the signposting of that, engage Indigenous people on how you might even name that building. And then name it for the utility that that place used to give to First Nations people since time immemorial.

[44:50] – Deborah Cummins

So who wants to find out more about your work, where should they go?

[44:54] – Brett Leavy

Our website: www.virtualsonglines.org. There’s stuff there. Then just search Virtual Songlines. And then keep watching this space.

[45:07] – Deborah Cummins

It sounds like you’ve got some really, really exciting projects coming up. Thank you again for your time.

As Brett said already, you can check out his work at virtualsonglines.org. We’ve also included links to various resources in the shownotes for this episode, which are available at our website: bridgingpeoples.com. There you’ll find resources and information on Brett’s work, as well as some of the events and issues that he mentioned during this interview.

And while you’re there, why don’t you check out our online Bridging Peoples Academy. This is a forum where I teach you everything that I’ve learned over the years as an academic, and aid and development practitioner, on what it takes to work effectively at the local level. There’s a free course that you can sign up to, that will give you some idea of what we’re about.

Thank you for joining me. This is a Bridging Peoples podcast.


Things Mentioned in this Podcast

Website for Virtual Songlines

Juukan Gorge caves & ancient rock art destroyed by Rio Tinto

Biography of Senator Neville Bonner

Biography of Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Video of 1979 Springbok Protests

Boycott of the 1982 Commonwealth ‘Stolenwealth’ Games

About Native Title legislation

About Cultural Heritage legislation



About Brett Leavy

Brett Leavy is a First Nations man and descends from the Kooma people whose traditional country is bordered by St George in the east, Cunnamulla in the west, north by the town of Mitchell and south to the QLD/NSW border.

For over three decades, he has researched how to “build a time machine” to take people back to places where the traditional knowledge of First Nations people originated. Guided by Traditional Owners, anthropologists, archaeologists, botanists and the interactive games industry, he is inspired to create entertaining and engaging systems to represent the interactions between first settlers and traditional peoples. His studies inspired him to establish a business that sought to deliver virtual reality products that merged traditional knowledge with 3D virtual landscapes to present pre-colonisation Australia with all its embedded traditional Aboriginal culture, language, artefacts, community, trade and much more.

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