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Rochelle Diver: Examining parallels in Indigenous cultures



19 September 2012

Rochelle Diver, who is of Native American descent, had always been inspired and motivated by the human rights field. Studying the Master of Human Rights at the University of Sydney opened her eyes to both the similarities and the differences in the plight of indigenous peoples here and in her home country.

Raised on the Fond du Lac Reservation, near Duluth in Minnesota, Rochelle Diver grew up feeling the pain of being an outsider in her own land. With only 13% of Native Americans graduating from university, Rochelle defied the odds obtaining a degree in Sociology and American Indian studies from the University of Minnesota. However, she still wasn't satisfied.

"I wanted to make a difference in the world," Rochelle says, "a difference for my people who didn't have a voice."

Rochelle began exploring postgraduate degrees online, before coming across the Master of Human Rights degree at the University of Sydney. The appeal was not only the chance to live Down Under for a year, but also the opportunity to further her education in the field of Indigenous Rights.

"These factors combined made the Master of Human Rights seem like the perfect fit for me," she explains.

Rochelle Diver
Rochelle Diver (photographed here at Palm Beach in Sydney) has taken what she has learnt in her Master of Human Rights back to her Native American community

Upon arriving in Australia, Rochelle was immediately struck by some of the derogatory attitudes towards Indigenous people. She quickly realised that Indigenous people shared feelings of being left socially adrift regardless of their homeland.

Rochelle explained that she was "appalled" by some of the racist jokes that she heard in Australia, and she felt that the media was biased and used bigotry in their reporting of Indigenous peoples.

Last year the University of Sydney appointed Professor Shane Houston as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Strategy and Service to help, in part, to combat such negative attitudes. The aim is to "advance Indigenous participation, engagement, education and research".

This is parlayed with AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience), an organisation set up by University of Sydney alum Jack Manning-Bancroft. It provides one-on-one mentoring between a university student and an Indigenous Australian in high school, in order to inspire and motivate Aboriginal youth to further their education.

A recent federal government report found some good news. The growth rate in Aboriginal university enrolments is almost double that of the overall population, with numbers growing by 24% between 2008 and 2011. However, there is still a lot more to be done. Indigenous people comprise 2.5% of the population, yet account for only 1.3% of university enrolments nationally.

"I was able to more clearly see the parallels in the plights of both [the Australian Indigenous and Native American] people," Rochelle recalls. "We share a shockingly similar history in extreme assimilation and extermination policies as well as similar current conditions and issues."

These include problems with alcoholism and drug addiction, poor health, the high rate of poverty and, of course, the low rate of graduation.

As part of the Master of Human Rights, Rochelle undertook an internship with the New South Wales Reconciliation Council(NSWRC). This allowed to her to see the more nuanced differences that exist between the indigenous peoples of Australia and the U.S.

"I learned a lot about reconciliation because this idea does not exist in the United States," Rochelle explains. "Reconciliation efforts are not made as we live 'separate but together'. There is an idea of 'us and them' that is generally agreed upon on both sides. Reconciliation is an effort I would really like to see happen in the United States".

The NSWRC is a small community based organisation, with just three full-time staff, that aims to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through awareness, engagement and constitutional support for the Aboriginal community.

During her internship, Rochelle worked largely on the Schools Reconciliation Challenge; a youth based art competition. The NSWRC created their own 'Teaching Kit' that was sent out to all primary schools across the state. The kit included historical facts and lessons for teachers on reconciliation.

"We received a record amount of entries this year," says Rochelle of the competition. "The amount of love and soul that was put into these works on reconciliation, by children of all backgrounds, was truly inspiring."

While she concedes there is much more work to do with Aboriginal people in the areas of law reform, education and health care, Rochelle says she feels lucky to have been able to participate, contribute and learn. The Australian strategies implemented for the aim of equality have stuck with her.

"Native Americans still have not received an apology, nor have they [non-Native Americans] accepted any level of responsibility for our stolen generations, loss of land and loss of language. The U.S. government holds our sovereignty in their hands and they can take it away with the stroke of a pen."

Now back on the Fond Du Lac Reservation, Rochelle is working with the reservation's Natural Resource Department to fight multinational mining corporations that are polluting the land's water, wild rice crops and soil. Yet, the international experience Rochelle gained studying at the University of Sydney has provided her with the dream to help Indigenous causes not only in America, but around the world.

"Ideally, I will continue to work toward securing the rights of Indigenous People beyond domestic remedies, working closely with the United Nations and its Indigenous mechanisms."

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