Some years ago, during a stint with an Indigenous climate action group, Melody Popple learnt the Indigenous heritage coffee rule: “Some is quite black, some has a lot of milk, but at the end of the day, it’s all coffee.”
It was a moment of light-hearted clarity in what had been at times a confusing journey. Melody discovered her own Indigenous heritage at the age of 15, almost by chance.
Her neighbours at the time were part of an Indigenous heritage tracing organisation and helped her family find a connection to an ancestor from the Sydney Central West region, possibly around Bathurst. He was killed by being stoned to death according to the records they could find, but his story and the connection to Melody’s family was lost over time.
“It had been covered up. My mother knew she had Caribbean heritage and I guess at the time it was more socially acceptable to be Caribbean than Indigenous. It’s still unclear exactly what happened and why her Indigenous history was concealed,” says Melody. “There’s not much DNA in those databases or records, a lot of history has been lost.”
The discovery was a turning point. With their home in the Northern Rivers, where Melody had been raised, her family was invited to join the Bundjalung nation by local Elders.
“I did feel strange about it at the time. I was someone who grew up with what you would call white privilege, I didn’t grow up in an Indigenous community and I never really experienced racism, but my mother and my sister, who is a lot darker than me, did suffer this and I saw that.
“At the same time I didn’t want to be perceived as a white girl milking a part of my identity for a culture that’s gone through a lot of suffering,” says Melody.
Pursuing undergraduate studies in visual arts in Melbourne, she completed an installation and performance based on the concept of a Gunyah (shelter) in the Grampians National Park. The work became the subject of a thesis that she completed as part of a Bachelor of Indigenous Knowledge (Honours) at Southern Cross University last year, through Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples.
“I was exploring my writing as much as my art-making and was inspired by the connection that Gnibi has to local Elders. It seemed, for a lack of a better word, authentic. Having Elders actually engage with academics to make coursework is really quite unique in tertiary education,” she says.
“Plus, where better to study than on Bundjalung country, where I grew up?”
Her work, Gunyah, was reproduced at Lismore Regional Gallery last year, incorporating natural materials, eco-dyed cloth and visuals. “The work was about place and having a connection to place so it was interesting to see that juxtaposed on the steel and concrete of a building.
“I think what it does show though is the growing realisation of the spiritual dimension of Indigenous Knowledge and the important role it has to play. It can be a lens to look at things that we have been conditioned to think of as inanimate, like rocks or soil or water,” she says.
Studying Indigenous Knowledge in an academic setting has many parallels to traditional philosophy or social science for Melody. “The degree is not exclusive to Indigenous people, if anything it’s just as worthwhile for people who are not Indigenous. It was empowering for me to find that voice and share it.
“I think we should be celebrating that and inviting people to have an interest in Indigenous knowledge, whether they have that heritage or not. We need more Indigenous voices in the academy. Being able to articulate meaning through words is powerful and being able to understand what you are doing through constant self-inquiry is even more so.”