True Tracks: Dr Terri Janke on her new book

August 11, 2021

Dr Terri Janke is a Wuthathi/Meriam woman, and an expert in Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP). She started her law firm, Terri Janke and Company over 20 years ago.

Her new book, True Tracks: Respecting Indigenous Knowledge and Culture is a resource which aims to address how ICIP theft can exploit Indigenous people, identity and culture. We spoke to her about writing these protocols, and the importance of recognising and valuing Indigenous people for their knowledge.

Congratulations Terri on publishing such an important resource! When did you decide to write True Tracks, and how long as it been in the works?

I had the idea of writing this book about 10-11 years ago. That’s how long this takes. I started writing it, and it had a different name but it was substantially the same book.

I spent weekends and nights writing this manuscript, then got really busy and put it away. Then, I started my PhD, and I did that part-time. Nothing ever really went to waste. I wrote so much that not all of it went into the PhD.

I was also well supported by the team. Over the last 10 years the team at Terri Janke and Company has grown and so the examples in the book and the stories represent a team effort. I am blessed to have had an amazing team member, Gabriela Dounis who is a great researcher, writer and editor.

After the PHD got submitted, I had the opportunity to work with UNSW Press. They were interested in how protocols can be used in book publishing. It’s so important to get Indigenous people’s stories and histories published.  They decided to hire us to create protocols with them, and that was a fantastic project because they were so engaged.

They took it to that next level, and I thought that was a great opportunity because they became advocates for True Tracks and the principles even before the book came out. True Tracks gives people a different way to think.

What impact are you hoping to make with the release of this book?

I want people to value Indigenous knowledge and to empower pathways for Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaboration. I want people to get a real understanding of how important arts, culture and knowledge are for Indigenous people and open their insights. The protocols are a pathway that people can follow to work ethically with Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, and to involve and engage Indigenous people.

The protocols don’t solve all those problems, it’s not a one-stop solution but it gives people a way of thinking. I guess that’s my training as a lawyer, you’re trained to think. You’re never going to have all the answers to everything, but you’ve just got to have a way of thinking through things, and that’s what the True Tracks process is about, to try and give people a different lens and framework to enable them to respectfully engage when using Indigenous knowledge and culture.

Over the years there have been steps in the right direction with the Indigenous Art Code, and the introduction of the ‘Boomerang tick’ (label of authenticity). Do you think we will see a mandatory code to protect artists in future?

The Indigenous Art Code has been a great way of promoting artist’s rights and raising the awareness of consumers of art. Galleries and retailers are embracing the use of the Indigenous Art Code. The label of authenticity was a certification mark model for Indigenous artists which is no longer in use. I think it was a good model, but it didn’t work in the implementation in the early 2000s.

There are still rip-offs that are occurring in the Indigenous art market. Artists and their supporters still want to see a mandatory code or a new law. I think that the support will come from the consumers and the people who care. They care about Indigenous artists being treated fairly.  In the 20 years I have been looking at this issue I think this generation is more aware. This younger generation especially. They care about the environment, they want to do meaningful work, they want to buy things that don’t exploit people and they want to respect culture and diversity.  

There’s a consciousness that is happening now. People are wanting ethical processes, to make sure people have a fair go. Consumers also don’t want to be hoodwinked; they don’t want fake stuff.

The discussion around new laws for Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property has been going for over 40 years. Will there be new laws? I think there could be soon with the work that IP Australia is doing with the Indigenous Knowledge Project and possibly also internationally with the work of the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Intergovernmental Committee on Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expression.

In True Tracks, you mention that ‘Copyright favours the person who picks up the pen’, meaning stories that belong to Indigenous people have often been retold, published and therefore owned by non-Indigenous people. What can we do to ensure the ownership of stories, whether written or oral, are correctly attributed and benefit the people and culture they belong to?

Firstly, put them in a position where they can be the storyteller and the author. It’s been great to see publishing houses like Magabala Books – they were always opening up the opportunity for Indigenous authors to tell their stories. There’s also been a rise in mainstream publishers picking up Indigenous authors and that has made a big difference. A lot of them have gone on to win major awards, and for a small section of the population it is amazing.

Enabling Indigenous writers and voices, providing opportunities to make sure that if we are retelling these stories, we need to be linking them back. To ensure there is this track back to them all the time. It’s about having regard for the fact that this is an oral story and it may not have copyright, but it’s the same thing!

I’d really like opportunities for there to be more writers, and I love anthologies. They can give people chances to start small and write, as well as scholarships for Indigenous people to write. There is a bit of a focus on fiction. It would be good to get that opportunity to go into non-fiction. I know biographies and memoirs have been well explored, but Indigenous books on histories, opinions and thought leadership are needed.

Do you think there’s a lack of Indigenous non-fiction books because there is a fear in people that they might not do it right?

Oh yeah! I struggled with that too, because you must do a lot of checking, research and a lot of time goes into it. I had a lot of help with my team, being able to go back and forth checking with Indigenous people on the content, and it is a lot. It can be hard to write a book like this, and this was my second go. The consultation just made it so much better.

I am grateful that the people who I included in the case studies wanted to engage and would clarify information and have those conversations. I think that it’s very helpful to fact check and check cultural sensitivity. Even in creative fiction, letting people engage with the work so that they can guide me was so helpful, and I was lucky to have people who could do that for me.

The Australia Council’s protocols have been very helpful in creating awareness in the Australian literary scene. Australian publishers are looking at them, and then the writers have to engage with them if going for funding. The protocols give more ability for that authentic Indigenous voice, not appropriated and put out wrong, like so many Indigenous content has in the past.

Finally, how do you see Australia (and the world) progressing in the next few years, with further education to protect Indigenous culture and people from ICIP theft?

Social media has been such a big player in some of those big call-outs on cultural appropriation. The world has become so small, whereas you look at some of those early cases we had, you could have someone take Aboriginal art to another country, copy it and sell it somewhere else and the Aboriginal artist would never know about it. It’s so much more visible now with how small the globe has become with the internet!

People are more aware of appropriation and identity theft with education more available online. It’s getting people to think at that next level – like the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement, has led to (in my opinion) all sorts of industries embracing diversity and inclusion; from modelling or fashion, for example, writing, or even lawyers – people are shifting their consciousness.

Protocols can give people that pathway, I see models like True Tracks being able to not just educate but to also get people to think about solutions and new ways of doing things that I haven’t even thought about.

It’s not just engaging with Government; we are now looking at industries being educated and being responsible. Now you get collaborations with the right people and amazing new stories, and that serves to educate people. 

It still fascinates me after all these years. There is so much potential, (if you get it right) to have good partnerships and for there to be great economic benefits for Indigenous people, and valuing Indigenous people for that knowledge. In turn, that’s got to be leading us to create better stories, new medicines, solutions to climate change and all that we haven’t thought of. If these two ways of thinking could come together, value each other, have mutual respect and shared benefits. I think that’s exciting, and that’s the reason I wanted to do this work.

True Tracks is published by UNSW Press and is available now in bookstores and online. For further information and resources by Terri Janke and Company, visit their website here.


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