Oct 28, 2013

Navigating the Territories of Indigenous Leadership

Leadership is not a neutral category. It is constructed through researcher assumptions, limitations and traditional leadership theories. This notion is at the core of Dr. Michelle Evans’ research on Indigenous arts leadership, which she presented at the Research Center for Leadership in Action in Fall 2013.

Dr. Evans, a Research Fellow at Melbourne Business School and leader of the School's research agenda on Indigenous Business and Leadership development, is currently in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship replicating her doctoral study on Aboriginal arts leadership through interviews of First Alaskan, Native American and Native Hawaiian artists and arts managers.

Using an Indigenous epistemology lens to understanding leadership, she has developed a framework of territories, which can be imagined as a series of overlapping spaces that capture the way Indigenous leadership is physical, embodied and connected to land. Dr. Evans identified the following four as the main recurring territories:

1. Authorization in a Bi-Cultural World
Gaining authorization for many Indigenous artists is a central part of their work, especially where communities, rather than individuals, “own” particular cultural symbols and the right to reproduce them. This form of cultural authorization is very important for many leaders. Conversely, often the resources necessary for the ability to lead come in the form of funding from non-Indigenous stakeholders, which can reduce cultural authorization. This territory of authorization is a space within which Indigenous artists and leaders negotiate a platform from which they speak.

2. Identity and Belonging
Many Indigenous artists are frequently challenged about their identity if their art does not conform to public stereotypes of Aboriginal art. While many want their art to stand on its own without having to explain why they don’t fit the stereotypes, identity and belonging are also often central to their work. The leadership practices in this territory capture these tensions: Indigenous artists both embody cultural identity and uphold cultural protocols in their art, but some also inhabit the lonely position of being the ‘first’ person to achieve in their discipline; both of which create pathways for future generations.

3. Artistic Practice
One of the strengths of Indigenous artistic practice is relational storytelling, in which the Indigenous body takes in these stories through the ears, eyes and heart. This process leads to the construction of non-judgmental, secure physical spaces for the creation of new work. However, artists and arts leaders must walk the line between protector and confident projection of Indigenous artistic culture, without having one trusted process to ensure cultural agreement for their work and use of cultural knowledge.

4. History, Colonization and Trauma
For many Indigenous people, direct experiences of colonization and violence against their families are vivid and real. The leadership practices we see across this territory often involve leaders working with their art and in communities to express and contain trauma. Artistic leaders create physical spaces like open and safe rehearsal rooms, but they also create safe spaces through their bodies by practicing calm, consistent, open and healthy attachments.

Ultimately, Dr. Evans proposes that identity work by Indigenous artists (i.e. forming, repairing, maintaining or strengthening a person’s identity) should be viewed as acts of leadership, when taking into consideration the impact of their work and practice. 

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