Since childhood, Professor Peter Yu has been aware of the gaps that exist for First Nations people. With an extensive career of inciting change, he isn’t slowing down now.

When two of the world’s oldest cultures come together to form the backdrop of your childhood, ‘harmony’ might not be the first word that comes to mind.

But this is how Professor Peter Yu, a Yawuru man from Broome, describes his unique upbringing.

Yu’s father, Yau Hung Tai, immigrated from China to the shiny pearl capital in Western Australia shortly after the Second World War. There, Yau met Margaret Dolby, a second-generation Stolen-Generation First Nations woman.

Risking both deportation to China and the possibility of Dolby being sent back to a Catholic mission, the two married and went on to have nine children.

Yu (whose surname differs from his father’s due to a typo by the registrant) says his parents’ ability to find harmony despite divides helped to shape his understanding of the world.

“I had a very good childhood but a very difficult one because it was under the colonial and racist apartheid regime that existed at that time. These laws were being dismantled in the period I was growing up.

“I was really lucky in some ways because I had two of the oldest living cultures, combining but not colliding. This taught me a lot of early lessons about the state of the nation we were living in and the constraints and challenges that we had to navigate as human beings.”

Gaining trust and a voice for the unjust

Today, Yu is the inaugural Vice-President (First Nations) at The Australian National University (ANU) where he leads the First Nations Portfolio, but his passion for creating meaningful change for Indigenous Australians can be traced back to his early 20s. Living and working with remote communities, he saw and felt the complex issues they faced firsthand.

“My first job after I left school was a training course with the Western Australian Museum as a trainee site recorder,” Yu recalls.

“I spent a lot of time working with very senior cultural leaders and figures, recording public cultural sites and introducing conservation methodologies in painting rock engraving and other relevant sites along the Gibb River Road and elsewhere in the Kimberley and Pilbara.

“I was very fortunate to spend most of my early career working with communities and living in a swag, sometimes walking for half a day at time along bush tracks only visited by Traditional Owners and areas you couldn’t get vehicles onto.

“At the age of 22 or 23, I worked for the Department for Community Welfare, where I ran the department’s Wyndham office, with an area roughly covering the size of the state of Victoria. That was my first real engagement at government level, and I could see what was happening politically and the problems that were occurring because of that.”

Today, Yu is the inaugural Vice-President (First Nations) at ANU. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

With an understanding of First Nation issues on a political and personal level, Yu quickly became a trusted voice for community elders. 

“I was asked by my community to represent them at the National Aboriginal Conference, the second iteration of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, the federal Indigenous advisory body,” Yu says. 

“I was elected for the West Kimberley by the senior elders who wanted me to represent their interests.”

In the years since, Yu has continued to work to advance the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of First Nations communities across Australia, including as a member of the national leadership team negotiating the Federal Government’s response to the 1992 Mabo High Court judgment.

“My inspiration comes from the honour the senior people gifted me and the trust they placed in me—it’s something that I’ve never forgotten.

“That’s why I continue to work in this space. Without that support, without that trust, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. It’s a lifelong commitment.”

Marramarra Murru: creation of pathways

As part of this lifelong commitment, Yu has been helping to pave pathways to economic self-determination for Australia’s First Nations peoples.

The Murru Waaruu Economic Development Outcomes Report, which Yu says is the first report of its kind for First Nations People, aims to succeed where other policy and frameworks have fallen short.

The report, which was developed by the ANU First Nations Portfolio, draws from the discussions held as part of the Murru Waaruu Seminar Series. Held throughout 2023, the seminars brought together First Nations leaders, industry, academics, and policymakers to develop a path towards economic sovereignty.

The Murru Waaruu Economic Development Outcomes Report, is the first report of its kind for First Nation People. Video: ANUTV

“The Closing the Gap strategy, as well intended as it is, hasn’t delivered on its targets. I started looking beyond the post-referendum environment — irrespective of the result — and asked what the day after was going to bring?” Yu says.

“Aboriginal people engaging with the economy is quite significant. What we’re doing is we’re looking at wealth creation and wealth transfer instead of trauma transfer from historical experience.

“The flow on effect of engagement in the economy is about all those things that you would anticipate and expect for the wider community. The ability to earn a decent income, to have the potential to provide security for children as well as a good education. To not always be on guard about the nature of the racism and xenophobia that exists towards Aboriginal people and others who have migrated to the country,” explains Yu.

Finding harmony

The progression of the report’s policy hinges on the recognition and support of the Australian Government. But Yu, perhaps more than anyone, is optimistic about different worlds finding a way to harmonise.

“We are moving towards an alignment. Defining what that alignment and partnership means and seeing where we land over the next 12 months will be really important,” says Yu.

The release of the report, during National Reconciliation Week, is perfect timing.

“This year’s theme — ‘Now more than ever’ — is absolutely perfect from the point of view of economic, self-determination and empowerment,” Yu says.

“We need to have economic independence to be able to fulfil our obligations to Country and our community, and to be active, constructive participants in the broader Australian economy and society.

“And we also need to ensure there’s a greater outcome for economic reconciliation, rather than just the rhetoric of reconciliation,” says Yu.

You may also like

Article Card Image

Caring for people, culture and Country: unpacking the value of Indigenous women’s work  

Research from ANU has highlighted the immense unpaid caring labour that Indigenous women do. It is time that value was acknowledged.

Article Card Image

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is determined to advance reconciliation

The Prime Minister reflected on the outcome of the Voice referendum on an episode of ANU podcast Democracy Sausage.

Article Card Image

Supporting the re-emergence of cultural burning

Traditional Knowledge on how to care for Country through cultural burning is backed up by science, ANU researchers have found.

Subscribe to ANU Reporter