Associate Professor Kathleen Butler

Associate Professor Kathleen Butler has been implementing culturally innovative pedagogy seeking social impact for 25 years. Her work spans disciplinary focus in sociology, anthropology and Indigenous Studies; broad leadership in Indigenisation of curriculum; and cross-disciplinary engagement with STEM. At the University of Newcastle, Kath has worked within mainstream Humanities, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, supported the Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Portfolio and currently heads the Wollotuka Institute which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Her teaching ranges from large-scale core courses, small post-graduate cohorts and guest lectures in both online and face-to-face offerings.

About Associate Professor Kathleen Butler

Associate Professor Kathleen Butler has been implementing culturally innovative pedagogy seeking social impact for 25 years. Her work spans disciplinary focus in sociology, anthropology and Indigenous Studies; broad leadership in Indigenisation of curriculum; and cross-disciplinary engagement with STEM. At the University of Newcastle, Kath has worked within mainstream Humanities, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, supported the Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Portfolio and currently heads the Wollotuka Institute which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Her teaching ranges from large-scale core courses, small post-graduate cohorts and guest lectures in both online and face-to-face offerings.

Kath bases her scholarship of teaching and learning in place-based pedagogies which have expanded for local, regional, national and international impact and recognition. Her teaching is linked to providing meaningful practice- that extends to culturally capable students and transforming the environment in which graduates will work. This includes providing research and evaluation on success in schools in NSW Public Education; including Indigenous people in urban planning internationally, Aboriginal Community Language Planning and Aboriginal youth mental health innovations. While this cycle of teaching and community impact has been recognised with awards, fellowships and grants, the longevity of change and impact is the most valuable achievement.


Ahmat, N., Kirby, R., Clare, J., & Butler, K. (2023a). The federal government is offering every First Nations tertiary student a Commonwealth-supported place at the university of their choice. NITV News: Nula. TVNEWS.TSM202307210008.

Ahmat, N., Kirby, R., Clare, J., & Butler, K. (2023b). The federal government is offering every First Nations tertiary student a Commonwealth-supported place at the university of their choice. NITV News Update. TVNEWS.TSM202307220003.

Belling, N., & Butler, K. (2009). Woman Saved by Emergency Services After Flash Flooding: A Melbourne woman has praised emergency service workers after she was pulled from her car in flash flooding. Ten 5pm News. Tvnews.tev20094604768.

Butler, K. (2000). Keeping the world safe from naked-chicks-in-art refrigerator magnets: the plot to control art images in the public domain through copyrights in photographic and digital reproductions. Intellectual Property Law Review, 32, 309–381.

Butler, K. (2000). Overcoming Terra Nullius: Aboriginal perspectives in schools as a site of philosophical struggle. IELAPA, 93–101.

Butler, K. (2012). Rabbit Proof Fence. IELAPA, 22–25.

Butler, K. (2016). Rethinking Sociology, Social Darwinism and Aboriginal Peoples. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies; v.9 n.1 p.17-27; 2016, 9(1), 17–27.

Butler, K. (2016). Rethinking sociology, social Darwinism and Aboriginal peoples. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies, 9(1), 17–27.

Butler, K. (2020). Sociology Teaching and Indigenous Issues : final report. . Aeipt.227272.

Butler, K. J. (2009). Teaching an indigenous sociology : a response to current debate within Australian sociology. . Aeipt.178337.

Butler, K., & Young, A. (2009). Indigenisation of curricula : intent, initiatives and implementation. Proceedings of AUQF2009 : Internal and External Quality Assurance : Tensions and Synergies : Alice Springs, Australia 1-3 July 2009. Aeipt.180248.

Carvalho, K., Millar, L., Addison, S., & Butler, K. (2009). Cash for Clunkers delivering positive results: A scheme encouraging Americans to switch from fuel guzzling to efficient cars seems to be working. ABC News WA. Tvnews.tew20093100180.

Feng, L., Towney, N., Stewart-Assheton, K., Weldon, Y., Kelly, R., Butler, K., Tahu, P., & Marne, W. (2023). The Voice: New South Wales is home to the largest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of any state and territory. ABC News NSW. TVNEWS.TSM202310060115.

Henderson, I., Millar, L., Addison, S., & Butler, K. (2009). Cash injection: A scheme to chance the habits of American consumers and change what they drive from fuel guzzling to efficient cars seems to be working. ABC News Victoria. Tvnews.tev20093101825.

Kirby, R., Ahmat, N., Clare, J., & Butler, K. (2023). The federal government is offering every First Nations territory student a Commonwealth supported place at the university of their choice. NITV News Update. TVNEWS.TSM202307230011.

Lemke, L., Millar, L., Addison, S., & Butler, K. (2009). Cash for Clunkers delivering positive results: A scheme encouraging Americans to switch from fuel guzzling to efficient cars seems to be working. ABC News NT. Tvnews.tef20093100110.

Raines, S., Bennett, J., Butler, K., Blake, P., & McGuinness, A. (2009). Welcome Rain: Melbourne experienced its wettest Novewmber day in four yearse as thew Statew emergency service recewived hundreds of calls for help. ABC News Victoria. Tvnews.tev20094604691.

Schacht, J., Millar, L., Addison, S., & Butler, K. (2009). Cash for Clunkers delivering positive results: A scheme encouraging Americans to switch from fuel guzzling to efficient cars seems to be working. ABC News WA. Tvnews.tes20093100408.

Young, T., Pearse, A., & Butler, K. (2011). Indigenising Curricula: Lessons from Tourism Studies. In CAUTHE 2011: National Conference: Tourism : Creating a Brilliant Blend. University of South Australia. School of Management.

Young, T., Pearse, A., & Butler, K. (2011). Indigenising curricula : lessons from tourism studies. CAUTHE 2011 National Conference : Tourism : Creating a Brilliant Blend. Aeipt.187768.


Video Transcript

How would you like to introduce yourself?

… I’m Kath Butler and I’m the  head of the Wollotuka  Institute. I belong to the  Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of  coastal New South Wales.

What study did you do that led to your PhD?

So I started with a Bachelor of Social  Science with majors in Sociology and  Anthropology and also Linguistics. My  dream was actually to become a linguist  but circumstances happened and I was  approached by the head of Sociology to  work with them and to complete a Masters  program with them. Once I did  that I was offered an academic role and  as part of that academic role it  required a PhD. A PhD wasn’t really  something that I had ever considered and  certainly not in Sociology and  Anthropology. So I think that one of the  things that I found though was that  Indigenous knowledges are transferable  skills. So whatever discipline that you  go into the foundational elements of  building relationships, of being  reflective and understanding your  process are really critical skills that  you can take to any project. So my PhD  was on the pedagogy of Indigenising  Sociology. So I have a really keen  interest in the scholarship of teaching  and learning as well as a broader  interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander histories and cultures and so  marrying the two of them together was the  foundation of my PhD. I was really  lucky to have supervisors, one who was an  anthropologist and one who was in the  discipline of Aboriginal Studies so it’s  a true multidisciplinary work and I  think that that’s probably how I think of  myself as being an Indigenous scholar  who really delves across  and within disciplines.

How did you find the experience of undertaking your PhD as a First Nations woman?

I think that what I felt  most strongly was opportunity.  And the opportunities that arose for me  was predominantly around, you know, what  we call the service  element of being in a university.  So I was invited to head the university’s  indigenisation of  curriculum working party.  And that was, you know, quite out of the  scope of what I had done before to lead a  whole of university process.  Having said that, I think that probably  slowed my progress in the PhD as well as  having a couple of children.  So… my friends the kookaburras there.  Yeah, as well as  having a couple of children.  So I think that what I found was I didn’t  really have the opportunity to focus  predominantly on the  production of the thesis.  But I think that every experience that I  had enriched the process and also  enriched the authenticity of my voice.  Because particularly, I think when you’re  doing a PhD as a younger person, rather  than, you know, as it used to be the  capstone of a very long career,  you are really interrogating the future  as well as what you’ve, you know, what  you’ve already achieved.  So having those opportunities to grow in  leadership was a really important element  of giving that authentic voice.

Can you discuss your contributions to the teaching of sociology?

So, you know, there was a question which  was posed by Maggie Walter and Priscilla  Pyett: Where is the  sociology of Indigenous issues?  And that really was a call to arms, I  think, for Indigenous people who were  working not just in the discipline of  sociology, but in its  cognate disciplines.  So I was really fortunate, I think, to  have some mentorship, particularly from  Maggie and also from Professor Aileen  Moreton-Robinson around the National  Indigenous Research and Knowledge  Network, which was called NIRAKN.  And through that, I think that I was able  to draw on the intellectual leadership of  some really amazing indigenous women.  And so I would encourage anybody that is  looking to enter the field, you know,  whatever field that might be, to find  those people that you admire, to reach  out to them, to learn from them.  And the opportunities that you’ll get  from that, you know, are  really amazing opportunities.  And what we also then we start to develop  is this genealogy of knowledge, you know,  so I can see in my own work where those  ladies have influenced me as a thinker.  I can and I can now see when I read some  other people’s work that through my work,  they’ve, you know, those ideas live on.  And I think that for us, as an oral  culture, and as a culture that’s  particularly concerned about the  multi-generational transmission of  knowledge, that  that’s particularly strong.

What are some of the ways you have contributed to the Indigenisation of curricula in tertiary education?  

So I was really lucky to be able to do  that work here in my own  university, to work with  non-Indigenous colleagues in strategy  planning and performance,  and we developed a piece  of work that shaped how the university  would approach indigenisation.  And I was then approached by the Deputy  Vice Chancellor Academic  to speak at the Australian  University’s Quality Audit, or AUQA.  And again, what was really amazing, I  remember being at that  conference where the majority  of people were pro-Vice Chancellors,  Deputy Vice  Chancellors, Vice Chancellors.  There I was, this young Level B Sociology  Academic, and when I  went to give my paper,  the Vice Chancellor sat in the front row  directly opposite  where I was speaking, and  the Deputy Vice  Chancellor sat in the back row.  So I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had  that senior support,  you know, and I think  that that’s really one of the strengths  of the University of  Newcastle, is that whole  of university commitment.  So I know that I possibly have a  privilege that other  people, you know, might not have  access to, but I think it’s about finding  champions in your  university, and in every  university executive, there will be a  champion for Indigenous Knowledges.  And again, you know, and I’ll probably  keep saying it, it’s  seeing yourself as an ongoing  learner, and probably saying yes to  opportunity, you know, so things that you  might not necessarily  think that you have the expertise for or  feel confident with,  not being afraid to take  that chance and to  learn from other people.

Would you say University of Newcastle is a leader in the Indigenisation of curriculum?

I felt really lucky to get a National  Teaching Fellowship to  look at the indigenisation of  curriculum and to be able to do some  national travel and some  workshops around the indigenisation  of sociology, but to also  see that as transferable.  And I think that probably one of the  points of difference with  that particular piece of  work was that we didn’t just talk to  tenured academics, we also  talked to casuals, because  we know that our casual staff are often  on the front line of  that teaching, needing to  try and be innovators while, you know,  they experience, you  know, what can sometimes be  a fairly precarious workplace situation.  And then I also bought in people who were  in industry as well.  And I think that sometimes when we look  at the humanities and  social sciences, we don’t  think about industry and community  partnerships, perhaps as much as some  other disciplines do.  But we have people there from the, from  Enrose, which looks at,  you know, violence against  women.  We had people from cognate  disciplines like social work.  So it’s really about seeing yourself not  in a silo, but as part  of that broader community,  part of industry partnerships, and also  part of the academy.  And I think that one of the things which  Indigenous knowledges and  Indigenous practitioners do  really well is we understand that  everyone is, you know, and the  contribution of a whole  different range of stakeholders is what  makes an intellectual  tradition, not just the university.

What are some of the changes you have seen in the last 10 years in terms of integrating Indigenous knowledges within academia? 

So I think when we look at groups like  Universities Australia, which is the  group of the Australian  Vice Chancellors and some of the  commitments that they have made around  Indigenous knowledges,  and here at the university we were one of  only a few universities  to do cultural competency  framing that were used as best practice  models for the sector.  So not just making the strategy but also  then providing people  with the time and also  the resources to be able to develop those  models is particularly important.  We know for instance that Indigenous  staff often do that on  top of their ordinary roles.  So it’s absolutely critical that groups  like Universities  Australia commit to providing  time and resources.  So I think that that’s one thing.  The other thing would be  Reconciliation Action Plans.  So again if you are in touch with the  stakeholders in your region,  you’ll find that many of them  have Reconciliation Action Plans.  And so those are really valuable  opportunities for work integrated  learning but also for  research to enable them to understand  what are the needs of the  communities that they’re  serving.  And also to really strongly have that  conversation that research  and academia is a service.  It is a service to our community.  So I think that’s a really  positive way to approach it.  I think that we now have a lot more  disciplines that are open  to Indigenous knowledges.  So if I looked at say around 2014 I  worked for ACARA which  is the National Curriculum  Body for Schools.  And a lot of people were saying, one of  my favourite stories is  a maths teacher who said  I don’t think that you can have  Aboriginal and Torres  Strait Islander perspectives in  maths.  What we need is we need cutting edge  recent maths scholarship.  And I said to him, well my  daughter will be very happy.  And he said, why?  And I said, because she  won’t have to do Pythagoras.  And he went, oh no, I  didn’t mean Pythagoras.  And I said, did you not say we can’t have  ancient knowledge, it  all has to be new, it  all has to be cutting  edge. By your own definition  Pythagoras doesn’t fit that.  I think that in this last 10 years we’re  no longer having to make  the case that Indigenous  knowledges are  relevant in the STEM sector.  I think that there are a lot of people  saying how can that happen?  And that’s probably the  middle part of our journey.  But people are not just saying no, it  shouldn’t be in there at all.  I think that some of the work that we’re  now doing around STEM,  around including Indigenous  knowledges in urban planning and those  kinds of things, are  really pushing what we knew  was relevant, but the sector has taken  time to catch up to us.

Can you talk about place-based pedagogy?

So I think that when we think about  Indigenous knowledges, we  really need to understand that  they are place-based. And by place-based,  I mean understanding, you  know, our local Country,  understanding our traditional owners and  understanding the needs  of particular communities  and not attempting to homogenise a  particular perspective. If I  was going to think about a way  that, you know, that I do something  that’s place-based, so one  of my people is the Bundjulung  people of northern New South Wales. We  have a particular type  of tea tree. So if you’re  familiar with tea tree oil, as many  people are, that actually comes from a  tree that only grows  naturally in the Bundjulung region. And so  we have particular  knowledges, in particular women’s  knowledge, around the use of that tree,  because it’s also, it’s  antibacterial and where its leaves  fall into water, so it tends to grow  around, you know, water. Where the leaves  fall into the water,  it actually infuses that water with  health. So when we say things like  country makes us healthy,  it’s not a metaphor, it’s an actual  practice. And if I was to  think about indigenisation of  curriculum, you know, I often see that if  we look at the body of  knowledge that is known as that  water source, I think that, you know,  Indigenous peoples and our  knowledge, we are those leaves  that will fall into the water and will  infuse it with health.

What are some of your research and leadership aims for the future?

So we’ve really found that partnerships  are incredibly important.  So one of the key partnerships that we  have at the moment is with the Institute  for Regional Futures.  And so a lot of those staff have  experience around, say, urban sociology,  but also around planning.  We’ve been doing some work. We did some  work for the City of Sydney.  We did an international research report  for the Greater Cities Commission  on including Indigenous  knowledges in urban planning.  And so I think that there’s a really  important space for us to push into,  for conferences, for publications that  people in the industry can use.  Because I think that one of the things  that we’ve really  discovered with our stakeholder work  is that through search engines like  yours, people are  searching the literature.  So maybe there’s actually quite a  different audience to  what they traditionally was.  That’s what we’ve certainly found.  So, you know, having our outputs publicly  available is really critical.  And being able to bring community voices  into places where they  weren’t heard before.  And also taking the university out to the  community in long-term relationships,  not fly in, fly out expert relationships.  But seeing that different people are  bringing expertise to the space  and the ways in which  we’re going to recognise that.  That’s the new frontier, I think.

Do you have any recent projects between Wollutuka institute and community you’d like to share?

Yeah, so one of the things which we do  here, myself and another  staff member, sit on the  Barang Regional Alliance, which is the  alliance of six of the seven major  Indigenous organisations  on the Central Coast.  And that includes groups like Darkinjung  Local Aboriginal Lands  Council, Eleanor Duncan Aboriginal  Medical Service and a  range of other groups.  One of the things which Barang has really  led is data sovereignty.  So the Central Coast sits between Sydney  and Newcastle and quite  often the data that is  gathered is pushed into one of those data  sets and it becomes  very difficult to know  what’s actually happening  in our place in the world.  We know that the Central Coast is the  fastest growing  Aboriginal community in New South  Wales because there is a large number of  people that are moving into the area.  So it’s absolutely critical that we are  there being part of  those discussions around how  we’re going to use data, how we’re going  to disaggregate the data  and what that’s actually  going to mean for the community.  So finding out what their priorities are.  One of our staff members here at the  University, Jake McDonald,  is working with Eleanor Duncan  at the moment in his PhD work,  translating the Healthy  Dads, Healthy Kids model to a  particular Aboriginal community setting.  So we really see that we’re creating  again those place-based responses.  What is it that a  particular community needs?  And I think that that’s a  really exciting move for us.

Can you tell us about the Wollutuka institute and its scope?

So the Wollutuka Institute has just  celebrated its 40th  anniversary this year.  We started with seven students and a  leaky tap. That’s been  our theme for this year.  So it began as a student support arm and  with the support of  the university and also  an amazing number of Aboriginal elders,  Aboriginal academics  and community people,  we’ve grown to have recruitment. We also  look at retention and  student advancement.  We have an academic school, so we have  our own degree program, the  Bachelor of Global Indigenous  Studies, which also has double degrees  with Law, with Development  studies, are our major partners.  We have research-high degree students and  we also have  international partnerships as well  as community partnerships. So  Wollutuka seeks to  support Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander students but to also educate all  students on the importance of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander issues. So we also sit in some  compulsory core courses in  other degree programs as well.  But we might draw students from  environmental science, development  studies, social work,  criminology, you know, all of those  students may choose to  do our courses as well.  What you may not know is that the  University of Newcastle  consistently has the highest number  of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander  students in the country. So  in the last few years, over  1500 students every year, which is quite  high in the sector. So  we really see our role as  forming those relationships. But, you  know, also we’ll have  researchers who come to us and say,  could you look over my ethics? Could you  give me some advice on moving into a  particular community?  So also I think, you know, playing an  important role along with the  Office of Indigenous Strategy  and Leadership in making sure that the  ways in which we approach  our communities is ethical  and culturally appropriate.

And what kind of impacts are you seeing of centres like Wollutuka on Indigenous students’ retention and on research?

So I think  one of the things that you’ll find  about the University of Newcastle is its  really strong history in Health.  So at one point, the University of  Newcastle graduated over 50% of  Australia’s Aboriginal  and Torres Strait Islander doctors. We do  have a specific unit  called Thurru. And so they do  alternative entry and also support the  students going through.  But from that, and from the  University’s partnership with the Hunter  Medical Research Institute,  HMRI, we have a really strong  history and track record in medical  research. We also, led by Dr. Ray Kelly,  have great strengths  in Aboriginal languages. And then, you  know, there’s the work  that we’re doing with regional  futures, which is really bringing in the  voices of urban  Aboriginal people as well.  I’d also say that, you know, we’ve  graduated more Aboriginal and Torres  Strait Islander teachers  than any other university. And we also do  research and consultancy  work for the Department of  Education in reimagining evaluation. So,  you know, when I look at what we’re  doing, it’s always about  being grounded in culture, being grounded  in place, no pun  intended, and trying to speak to  those institutions which already exist  and to have them see that Indigenous  knowledges are a strength,  you know, so often, you know, and you’ll  see in the literature,  people talk about the deficit  discourse. We’re very, very  strength-based. We believe that  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander  knowledges are transformative knowledges,  are the knowledges that  should underpin things like  the Sustainable Development Goals. You  know, when I look at my  language, there is no word for  poverty. Yeah, so obviously, there’s a  way to say I don’t have  something, but there’s no word to  explain that that could be structural and  multi-generational. So if  we look at something like  the Sustainable Development Goals, which  at its heart is about  ameliorating poverty, you know,  I think that we should be asking the  cultures that don’t even  have a word for poverty,  not the cultures that take poverty across  the globe for those answers.

What do you see as some of the most exciting research currently being done by Indigenous scholars?

I’m a big believer that Indigenous  history is important and I  think as we look at a period  of global warming, speaking to cultures  that actually remember  the last ice age through  oral history that understand rising sea  levels, that have the  ability to be resilient in the  face of that change is particularly  important. I think one of the  things that we see as critical  is that Indigenous peoples, particularly  in the Pacific, are at  the forefront of impacts  of global warming. So, you know, our, if  you like, our cousins in  the Torres Strait Islands  and the Torres Strait Eight and the  challenges that they’ve  made around rising sea levels,  but also understanding and I think being  really flexible around  those Pacifica peoples  that will be displaced from their lands  in our lifetime through  rising sea levels. And  so I think that there’s going to be a  really important space  for understanding what it  means to be Indigenous, not on your  lands. What does it mean  to be Indigenous when your  lands are underwater? And I think that so  many people see, you  know, things like the  dreaming or our histories as only being  past oriented, but we know  that they’re past, present  and future. So through and drawing on  those histories and  traditions, you know, Indigenous  peoples are going to remake and reshape  their relationship to  where they are. And I think  that that’s a really important space.  Allied with that, then I  think that there are global  political and social elements such as the  United Nations  Declaration on the Rights of  Indigenous Peoples to really consider how  we can uphold  Indigenous sovereignty. But as  I was just raising, what is Indigenous  sovereignty going to mean  when your land is underwater?  And when your land is underwater from the  impact of industry  and actions that you had  no part in, you know. So I think that we  as global Indigenous  people are going to be an  incredibly important voice in the rest of  this century and I would hope beyond.