Bundjalung and Worimi writer Phoebe McIlwraith recently attended Wollotuka's 40th anniversary celebrations.
The Wollotuka Institute of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Newcastle is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023. Newcastle University has the most First Nations students out of any university in ‘Australia’ and this is due largely to the active role of Wollotuka, which has provided cultural leadership in higher education since 1983.
To mark the anniversary, Wollotuka held a Gyi Para cultural symposium. A Gyi Para is a concept shared by Aboriginal Nations of the Macleay Valley, Hunter Valley, upper North Coast, New England Tablelands and other groups. Gyi Para’s are spaces for delegates to come together to ‘stir it up’; constructively discuss and deal with emerging issues in the regions and plan collectively for the maintenance of cultural and community goals.
In Wolly’s anniversary Gyi Para, there were exhibitions open to attendees including drop-in weaving, photo exhibitions and the research project ‘Herein Lies Mission Country’. This project exhibited over 20 aerial photographs of NSW Aboriginal missions and reserves, taken by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1970s and 80s, to begin collecting community oral histories.
On the ground floor of the Birabahn building, there were panels and presentations remembering key figures in Wollotuka’s journey, discussing being a Blackfella in higher education and current research in the language revitalisation space.
Outside the obvious formalities, there was a lot of impromptu storytelling and reconnection for community in attendance. I couldn’t count the number of times I heard “I haven’t seen you in years!”
Wollotuka was not always like this, as Koamu woman Deirdre Heitmeyer reminded us, “When we first started, all we had was seven students and a leaky tap”. This story was even part of the illustration on the staff Gyi Para shirts, where a water tap is nestled between drawings of fish and weaving.
Back in 1983, Wolly was an “Aboriginal Enclave” of the then Newcastle College of Advanced Education (N.C.A.E.) as a support program for First Nations students. Known as the Wollotuka Aboriginal Education Centre, it was later incorporated into the University of Newcastle in 1989 at the same time as the Hunter Institute of Higher Education.
In a newsletter distributed back in 1986, it explains that “enclave means ‘a part entirely surrounded by a foreign environment’, the Enclave gives us an opportunity to be ourselves to discuss Aboriginal issues, speak Aboriginal English, as well as give each other support.”
The poster also framed the Wollotuka Enclave’s role as “to encourage a greater number of Koorie people to undertake tertiary studies”. In 1987, Gail Garvey was the first Indigenous graduate with a Bachelor of Education in Physical Education and in 2023 Newcastle uni has had thousands of mob graduate.
From the leaky tap in a small building near student services, the Birabahn Building became the more permanent Wollotuka space of operations in 2002. The building is named after the Awabakal totemic eaglehawk and Birabahn, the influential Awabakal leader and scholar. From above, the building actually forms the shape of an eaglehawk and ‘Wollotuka’ is an Awabakal word for “eating/meeting place”, so the building has a large common area and communal kitchen for students and community members visiting the university.
Since 2002, Wollotuka has developed their own institutional cultural standards;
In 2015, the Institute was also the first ever in Australia to receive an accreditation from the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC) to recognise their contributions to Indigenous education. WINHEC is an international forum for Indigenous peoples in Higher Education and this accreditation meant that our people could work with Indigenous education leaders globally.
It has also been a space of safety and family for many mob coming to university, including my mum and nan. My mum was first in the family to go to university. She eventually convinced her mother to join her, and I was nine years old when they were in the same ceremony for Nan to receive her Masters and Mum to receive her PhD. A photo from that ceremony is framed on the second floor of Birabahn, and to this day I go see that photograph whenever I visit.
My first trip to Wollotuka was as a baby carried in my grandmother’s arms, and I continued to attend the space all throughout my life, sitting in on my mum’s lectures. Now, I get to visit the institute where Mum, Associate Professor Kathleen Butler, is currently the Head of Institute.
Mum tells me that, “The 40th anniversary is an exciting opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the thousands of First Nations students, graduates, staff and community members that have been part of the Wollotuka Institute and the stories that shaped the formidable legacy it upholds today”.
“Our success is a reflection of the tireless and dedicated work of trailblazers before us”, she says.
These feelings were echoed in an interview with Dunghutti and Anaiwan brothers, Billum and Jarra Henry, who are the grandsons of Deputy Head of Institute Dr Ray Kelly Snr.
Both of the boys associated Wollotuka with memories of family. Billum said that he remembers “coming here as a child and watching [his] Grandfather tell his stories” while Jarra thinks about “the performances I get to do with my family here”.
When I asked why places like Wollotuka are important for young mob, Jarra says that he believes “access to education for mob is really important, to get a good understanding of what you’re trying to do”. Billum adds that “Wollotuka lays down a pathway to different options that our generation before us didn’t get. We need more places like Wollotuka”.