PhD Stories Vanessa Cavanagh

Women's engagement in cultural burning practices

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story,

Vanessa Cavanagh is a proud Bundjalung and Wonnarua Aboriginal person from NSW, Australia. Her research interests are in Australian Indigenous Geographies. Her PhD explores Aboriginal women's engagement in cultural burning practices in NSW. Her PhD supervisors are Associate Professor Michael Adams, and Dr Laura Hammersley.

When did you commence HDR study?

The working title of my thesis is ‘Aboriginal women and cultural burning in NSW’. I enrolled in my PhD in Feb 2018, but in reality I have been developing my study ideas over a longer period of time. I am an Aboriginal woman from NSW, and I have been active in caring for Country (including fire activities) and empowering Aboriginal women, and young people, for over two decades.

Please give a broad description of the topic you investigated as part of your research.

There has been a recent revival of cultural burning activities in many areas of NSW. This revival is occurring due to both, Aboriginal peoples’ self-determining initiative to respond to relationships with, and responsibilities to Country; and developments in natural hazard management.

My research is about empowering Aboriginal women to be involved in cultural burning in NSW where appropriate. Through my research I am seeking to understand if Aboriginal women are participating, how they want to participate if they desire to, and identifying what challenges and blockages exist that are preventing them from participating. I am using Indigenous research methodologies that centre Aboriginal women’s agency to ensure that this research maintains appropriate goals, processes and outcomes.

Taking a step back, my research is about empowering Aboriginal women to be involved in caring for Country activities, with cultural burning being the specific activity that I am focused on. This encouragement is feasible and necessary, because currently in NSW caring for Country activities are male-dominated.

Can you provide some background on how and why you were drawn to HDR research?

I completed my undergraduate degree before I had children. At the time stepping away from academia and having a family was my highest priority and something that I was able to allow lots of time for. Once my youngest child started kindergarten I returned to commence my PhD.

I am role-modelling for my kids (and others) the ways in which Indigenous success can manifest, and participating in the academy is something that is challenging, necessary and rewarding. The experiences, knowledge and capacity I have as an Aboriginal woman in the caring for Country space is extremely valid and sought after, it is a way I can contribute to Indigenous leadership in Australia and more broadly. Attaining formal qualifications will increase my leverage in this regard, it feels like I’m able to hold the door of opportunity open so that others can come through. And finally, there are very few Australian Indigenous people holding positions in Australian university geography departments, which is fundamentally and tangentially problematic.

How did your approach to research change over that time? What's your view is now?

Research and having time to ponder, has sharpened my focus on the impacts of colonisation and its pervasive toxicity. Over time I have increasingly developed my understanding of this and simultaneously gravitated towards research that empower Indigenous leadership and decolonsation. Specifically, I believe that increasing Indigenous leadership in caring for Country at all levels and approaches, will result in multifaceted beneficial outcomes for all peoples and Country itself. The role of Indigenous women in this process should not be underestimated or omitted.

What were some highlights and lowlights of your HDR study?

Some highlights include bringing my two kids along with me in my research. Given that part of my argument is that involving Aboriginal women fosters intergeneration knowledge transfer, and knowing the role that Aboriginal culture has in a range of health outcomes, having my kids there has brought me a lot of peace and affirmation.

Another highlight is participating in the community of Indigenous scholarship. I have just returned from Aotearoa which was sponsored through a Global Challenges travel grant. While I was there I attended the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association annual conference and preconference Indigenous Doctoral gathering. Both these events were outstanding, in the honouring of Indigenous peoples, our ancestors and future generations; as well as the level of Indigenous scholarship that exists around the globe. This trip, will be a marked point in my academic development.

Experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’ and levels of anxiety are somethings that have bothered me. It is relieving to learn that it is very common and that there are ways to mitigate it, various Twitter threads and social media accounts have helped with this. But more importantly having strong relationships, with my family members, my supervisors, and with others in academia has been critical.

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

For me, the skill of saying ‘no’ and having boundaries has been really important.

Having strong supervision and mentoring relationships has been key, by this I mean not just supervision in regards to my topic, but understanding me as a whole human with all my humanly attachments (family and community, work, capabilities etc). When I first enrolled, my primary supervisor said to me that I needed to do regular physical exercise as part of my PhD practice. I was surprised at this guidance because exercise is ‘physical’, and I was regarding scholarship as being ‘mental’. However, it has been something that I have taken to, I joined a running group soon after, and now on average run 10kms each week. Running is free thinking time, or thinking free time and no doubt it has given me stamina and clarity which is useful for my academic journey. I also joke that I am running away from my PhD! whereas in actually fact, I am running through it.

I feel like a fraud even saying this but, writing every day is essential, but so too are taking breaks and family holidays etc.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

In addition to what I wrote above, I was advised before I started to ensure that my home life was in order. That strong home foundation is needed to get through, having a partner who does the fair share around the home and with the kids is a no-brainer. Having my family understand my PhD in terms of it being ‘a full-time job’ has helped. Also reading my work to my mum has been useful. Even though she is not a geographer she can see how my work relates to Indigenous experiences and her insight has influenced me on numerous occasions. She sees things I don’t see, or can’t quite define, and she tells me if it makes sense to her or not. She also guards my time with regard to other family responsibilities, and takes on extra time with my kids so I can work. Being able to shelve or file away the issues that are come along during the journey, even though they are really, really appealing or feel important – I ask myself ‘is this going to help me finish my PhD?’ if the answer is ‘no’ then it needs to get shelved until the PhD is finished.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Indigenous knowledge and systems of caring for Country are increasingly being acknowledged and valued around the globe. My research contributes to this in various ways. In general, Australia needs to improve the way fire is related to and understood, my research promotes an Indigenous led approach. My research empowers women and Indigenous people, thus it has feminist and decolonial intent which aims to disrupt white male patriarchy.