Five minute yarn with kate harriden, MSDI Water’s Research Fellow – Indigenous Water

kate's companion dog, Ruff.

In a recent meeting, many team members from different parts across MSDI gathered to catch up on the latest news and turn email signatures into faces on screens.

And as we settled into our ‘working from home’ spaces or offices, placed on different First Nations’ lands, we had the opportunity to meet an MSDI Water Research Fellow for Indigenous Water, kate harriden.

Kate was interviewed by Terence Chu, MSDI Operations Manager.


Terence: Hi kate, how are you going? You joined MSDI Water a couple of months ago. And you finished your PhD a few days before joining MSDI. 

kate: A whole ten days, plenty of time!

Terence: That’s a lengthy break! How would you describe your PhD to a high school student?

kate: My PhD is about trying to find ways to incorporate Indigenous science practices into urban water management with a particular emphasis on how we look after rivers and streams in our cities.

Terence: Can you give us an example of how Indigenous knowledge can change the way we think?

kate: The really big one that’s top of mind is the fundamental difference between Indigenous science and “western science”.

“Western science” is so human-centred. And not even every human, it’s certain groups of humans, classes of humans, and geographically positioned humans versus the country centred understandings and approaches of Indigenous sciences.

If we can move from that really narrow human-centred – sorry to be so bold but, white northern-hemisphere male human component – if we started making decisions about what country wanted rather than what a specific group of human beings wanted, I think that would be a very big change in all sorts of ways that we practice things.

Terence: I suppose that’s an area of personal significance for you. You told me that you didn’t know you have Indigenous heritage until a lot later in life. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

kate: My mother dragged us up to the middle classes and got us a pool. We had a pool built in the backyard when I was in early high school. Even for Brisbane standards, we spent a lot more time outside than usual.

We all started getting very brown and I actually said to my dad one day, “Are we Aboriginal?”. And he said, “Oh no, we’ve got a Hawaiian princess somewhere in the family tree.”

A couple of years later I read Sally Morgan’s My Place and she talks about an Indian princess in her family. I was like, “Now, hang on!”. So we had a bit more of a serious conversation. It turns out that we are wiradyuri.

But my grandmother, from where my wiradyuri heritage comes, never wanted to talk about it. She left country for reasons that she never shared. We never really spoke about it openly until she died, which is about 15 years ago.

In my early 40’s, I started to come ‘out’ as Indigenous. I mean, the family knew and I had told some close friends. And I’d certainly always had a different perspective to my non-Indigenous friends on many aspects of the world. There were many things that stood me apart from my cohort as a younger person. Then when you look back you think, “Ok, that makes sense”.

There were about 15 years where I was struggling to figure out my Indigenous heritage and identity. And then I started my PhD. It’s ironic how, given how colonised our academic institutions are, my PhD experience has given me opportunities and opportunities that I’ve created to help cement a deep, abiding confidence within me about my wiradyuri-ness.

Terence: Thanks for sharing your story with us. One more question: I always know when you’re in the office because there is a beautiful dog sitting on the deck ready to accept my pats. Can you tell us who that is and how we can engage with him?

kate: That’s my companion dog, Ruff. I didn’t name him, I got him as an older man. He was already nine years old when I got him. Sometimes when he sleeps, he lies there and goes, “Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!” with his legs moving as he chases something in his dreams.

He’s my companion dog and he helps me manage my depression. You’re welcome to engage with him in any way that’s nice. He loves a cuddle and a pat. He does love treats but he’s not really allowed a lot of treats.

Please, feel free to give him a pat and say hello. He will always have a hello to give back in return.

Terence: Thank you kate for being really generous and sharing your story with us.