For Professor Heidi Norman, understanding the past is vital in informing evidence-based policy that can transform outcomes, experiences and futures for Indigenous Australians.
Heidi’s primary body of work focuses on land justice and rights in New South Wales and how communities presently manage their land estate. She recently completed a study comparing land rights in south-eastern Australia under the inaugural EG Whitlam Research Fellowship.
“Aboriginal people’s experience of the loss of land over a period of almost 200 years occurred without compensation or agreement, and as only recently as 1983 were statutory land rights recognised,” she says.
“I’m working to provide a rich account of the benefits of land rights and the incredibly varied place-based approaches that are being explored by Local Aboriginal Land Councils. The history of land recovery has been highly constrained and some Land Councils are yet to see any benefits from the laws, while others have recovered significant land. The stories reflect local histories and the patterns of land use and include land degradation, urbanisation and movement of populations.”
Her 2015 book What do we want: a political history of Aboriginal Land Rights in NSW was the first published work to methodically document the political struggle of activists and the unprecedented involvement of the state’s Aboriginal people in government and governing. The ways in which they have negotiated with the state offers lessons for other Australians.
As Professor of Social and Political Sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), Heidi is making a tangible contribution to Indigenous excellence at UTS, enabled by a strong framework that supports a growing university-wide base of exceptional Indigenous leaders — many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
“I think UTS has always been quite a radical player in research and higher education, particularly in understanding the rich interaction of research, teaching and impact,” she says. “And FASS is a real leader in this; where Indigenous academics are meaningfully engaged in faculties, researching and communicating their research to students.”
The university’s long-term emphasis on social justice also plays an integral part in supporting and amplifying the impact of her work.
“The fact that social justice is part of the core business of the university means that it becomes everybody's project, regardless of what faculty or unit you are in — it's about creating a framework that we all operate within,” she says.
The fact that social justice is part of the core business of the university means that it becomes everybody's project, regardless of what faculty or unit you are in — it's about creating a framework that we all operate within.
A Gomeroi woman, Heidi is passionate about advancing Indigenous knowledge to place the power to lead change into the hands of the next generation. Her student-focused approach to teaching centres on drawing theoretical and practical insights from Aboriginal worlds across all disciplines, unconstrained by the field of Aboriginal Studies. Her innovative outlook and methodology earned her the Neville Bonner Award for Indigenous Education in 2016.
“For me, Aboriginal history is the most exciting area of any discipline because it’s always in contestation mode; the very presence of Aboriginal people in western disciplines forces them to renegotiate themselves,” she says. “We have to think carefully about how we engage a new generation of students and scholars.”
Photographer: Andy Roberts