Indigenising university mathematics, 20-21 September.

Personal reflections.

October 6, 2021

This is an amended version of a piece, entitled `IUM Takeaways (with free quiz!)', that appeared in the MQ Maths and Stats department October 2021 newsletter. Many thanks to Judy-anne Osborn for her thoughtful modifications, that are listed in full below the text.

Photo: Gundabooka National Park.

Indigenising University Mathematics was the theme of an (online) symposium, hosted by Judy-anne Osborn and Nathan Towney at the University of Newcastle, that took place on 20 & 21 September. Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants joined from all over the world. A wealth of fields, including academic mathematics (in the broadest sense) and maths education, Indigenous education, policy, and arts, were represented.

From the welcome addresses to the closing thoughts, this was an honest, creative, (mathematically) inspiring meeting, provoking a mixture of critical awareness, pain and joy. Dialogues, that led into (audience inclusive) Yarnings were used to explore six core themes, with provocations and scene setting by duos/trios of Indigenous and non-Indigenous theme-leaders. Other contributions included a characteristically brilliant lecture by Rowena Ball (ANU) – who taught us why Indigenous maths is the maths of complex systems – and live music from Microwave Jenny. We even had a physical reasoning/dance lesson!

Whilst there is so much that I am bursting to share, it would be wrong for me (particularly as a non-Indigenous, non-Australian European) to condense and paraphrase the important and substantial work of the contributors into a poor summary of what was said and by whom.

Instead, in the participatory spirit of the meeting (and the inquiring way of our discipline), I'll offer some questions for you to ponder, that arose for me out of the meeting.


Questions (and, following UOW's Jade Kennedy, the odd provocation) are italised. Many will be familiar. There are no solutions or right answers.

Be honest with yourself. How do your theoretical answers align with your daily (subconscious) assumptions? Sit with those questions that challenge you the most, or where you observe contradictions. Take note if you feel uncomfortable or defensive. Why?

Now find people to yarn with (I'm available). Seek out and prioritise different opinions. Listen Respectfully, Responsibly and Reciprocally. What happens next?


If mathematical truths are universal (are they?), does that mean that maths is a-cultural?

How much of mathematics depends on being able to articulate it? What are appropriate forms of mathematical articulation (i.e. what actually counts as maths)? Some suggestions to ponder: proving a theorem algebraically, proving a theorem pictorially, accurately navigating vast distances or extraordinary feats of engineering with or without technological aids, intuition for the accuracy of statistics quoted in the newspaper, weaving a basket, catching a ball, ….

What consitutes rigour? Is it universal or cultural? What are its limits (e.g. is it useful for catching fish)? What is the value of `rigour' for Community, for Country?

On a different note, what constitutes human language? How do children learn languages?


What is your role as a teacher? Why (and for whom) do we prioritise maths in education? Is there a correct way or order to teach maths? On what principles are our teaching structures and assumptions built?

How do we know what our students will need in their futures? What are their hopes, dreams and fears? Does our teaching/curriculum address these? What improvements can we make?

III. MATHSING (research etc)

Isn't Indigenisation only about education? What has all this got to do with research?

Why are you a mathematician? How has your mathematics been informed by your Country: (family, community, education, history etc)? Does this influence your research priorities, how you present your work, your interactions with colleagues? Who are your colleagues? How do you behave when you're feeling (mathematically) insecure?

Why is your work valuable, who does it serve, what are its pitfalls? What is the history of your discipline? Statisticians: what are your base assumptions? Who controls data and how it is used? Applied mathematicians: what perspectives inform your choice of methods, and simplification? What consequences can this have? Pure mathematicians: Is our work anything more than a socially elevated leisure pursuit? (No mentioning prime factorisation!)


What do you care passionately about right now? What keeps you awake at night? What are your hopes and fears for your community, your wider society and the world?

What can you do about these things? To what extent are these issues related to your research and your teaching? What power do you have?


How does all this relate to Indigenisation specifically? Who is Indigenising for? Why does it matter?

Indigenisation sounds like a nice idea, but surely it only benefits Indigenous people? Isn't it just about `closing the gap' (what does this mean?), or just increasing participation? What can I do anyway?

It is only fair to close with a couple of my own reflections on these questions.

Whilst any `Indigenisation process' must centre Indigenous perspectives and (self-determined) needs, it does not only serve Indigenous mathematicians.

Like everyone here, my own story involves considerable good fortune. Still, I know that I am not alone in the experience of being a `mathematician' in spite of, not because of, my formal maths education. Indigenisation benefits me personally, because it provides a framework for a broader understanding of the nature, value and function of mathematics, and one that includes my own mathematical experience.

Can Indigenising mathematics benefit you too? How?

Whatever our personal struggles and frustrations, as mathematicians, we are among the most respected, and hence powerful, people in society. And, closing the conference, Professor Bob Morgan, emphasised the important role of mathematics: to our society, to our environment, to building our shared future.

How does this fit with your answers in IV? How do (y)our own values, and (y)our Country, relate to our research and teaching?

(More meetings like this one are currently being planned, and information will shortly be available on

Changes to version that appeared in the MQ Maths and Stats department newsletter:

With the exception of the changes to formatting, all the modifications below were suggested by Judy-anne Osborn, and I thank her for her invaluable contribution.

  • Nathan Towney's name was erroneously omitted from the first paragraph of the newsletter version. The capitalisation in Judy-anne Osborn's name was incorrect.
  • The text "inspiring meeting, provoking a mixture of critical awareness, pain and joy" in the second paragraph, replaces "inspiring, frequently painful meeting". As well as being much more elegant, this phrasing emphasises the purpose of the word "pain" to signify that any conversation about our colonial history and its enduring legacy is, by its nature, painful. The new phrasing thereby also avoids potential misunderstandings that the meeting was in someway harmful.
  • In the second paragraph, the word "Yarning" has replaced "Yarning Circles". This is because, as explained by Indigenous collaborators in the planning of the meeting, critical elements of true Yarning Circles were missing. ("Yarn" or "bits of Yarn" could also be used.)
  • Also in the second paragraph, the phrase "with provocations and scene setting by duos/trios of Indigenous and non-Indigenous theme-leaders" has been added and linked to the homepage of the meeting. Please take the time to visit the page learn about the amazing theme-leaders.
  • The phrase "physical reasoning/dance lesson" replaces just "dance lesson" since there was not sufficient time to develop all aspects that would normally be included in a dance lesson
  • In the third paragraph the phrase "that arose for me out of the meeting"."" has been added since the questions and provocations in this piece are my own responses to the meeting, and do not claim to represent the feelings or intentions of the speakers and other contributers.
  • The link to CARMA has been added for more information. Please feel free to get in touch with me too!
  • Posted on:
    October 6, 2021
    7 minute read, 1299 words
    See Also: