The Lowitja Institute – open for business

Volume 7 Number 5 May 9 - June 5 2011

So much has changed for the better: Professor Ian Anderson at the Welcome to Country ceremony now held annually at the Parkville campus to mark the beginning of the University year. Image Peter Casamento/Casamento Photography
So much has changed for the better: Professor Ian Anderson at the Welcome to Country ceremony now held annually at the Parkville campus to mark the beginning of the University year. Image Peter Casamento/Casamento Photography

The official opening of Australia’s National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research points to a better future for Indigenous health. Gabrielle Murphy reports.

In the 25 years since he graduated as the University of Melbourne’s first Indigenous medical graduate, Ian Anderson has been witness to monumental changes in Aboriginal health practice and research.

His personal and professional experience, and what he has discovered along the way about the history of Indigenous health, education and research, culminated on a typical grey Melbourne day in late March when, in the face of a bracing wind and threatening rain, Professor Anderson was one of 200 people to hear local Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy welcome guests to the opening of Australia’s first dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research centre.

“The official opening of the Lowitja Institute is a landmark day,” says Professor Anderson, the Foundation Chair of Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne, Director of its Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, and Director of Research and Innovation with the Lowitja Institute.

“When I first came to the University of Melbourne, Aboriginal health was a marginal issue, the concern of a few committed people. Now here we are, front and centre stage,” says Professor Anderson.

“The Lowitja Institute is a giant leap into the future,” he says. “It’s an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led research organisation that puts the know-how of Australia’s first peoples on the national agenda, to not only effect health change, but health gain. I just couldn’t have imagined this when I was a student here at Melbourne.”

Perhaps nothing points more directly to the new strength and continuing resilience of the Indigenous community than the nature of the laneway party itself – this was no stuffy indoor occasion like most formal launches.

Emceed by the Lowitja Institute’s Chief Executive Dr Kerry Arabena, hosted by Chairperson Pat Anderson, and graced by the presence of patron Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue after whom the Institute is named, the celebration had a uniquely Indigenous feel, with dignitaries, guests, students and kids running freely. Dr Arabena said in her welcome, including to “members of the general public who don’t know what’s going on, but who’ve come for a look…this is great, a day of celebration.” And as Aunty Joy put it, “This is a wonderful get together…it reminds me of old Fitzroy days, all being together in the streets.”

The keynote speakers were University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Michael Wooldridge (who, as Federal Health minister in the Howard government, first met Dr Arabena when she worked with communities in Central Australia some 10 years ago) and Yorta Yorta elder Paul Briggs OAM who, sadly, was unable to attend due to the recent death of his mother, Mary (nee Kelly), at the age of 96.

Performers included the Koori Youth Will Shake Spears dance troupe, followed by jazz singer Lisa Maza, and singer/songwriter Lou Bennett. Lou was joined on stage by Uncle Herbie Patten who accompanied her in his inimitable style on one of the gum leaves left on stage by Aunty Joy after her Welcome to Country.

On this day of celebration, also Australia’s National Close the Gap Day and, coincidentally, the opening of the AFL football season, emotions and feelings were mixed, with a vein of sadness running through the palpable sense of pride and achievement.

This was encapsulated by the performance of Archie Roach and his son Amos, still grieving the untimely passing of Ruby Hunter, Archie’s life and professional partner and Amos’ mother, who a year ago died at the age of only 55. Their closing performance featured a series of Archie and Ruby’s songs harking back to the mission days of bad food, poor hygiene and stolen children, and highlighted the tears of joy his uncle shed the first time he was treated by an Aboriginal doctor, something the old man thought he’d never see.