Kinship is important to Gamilaraay mathematician Jared Field. It has been essential for his survival in academia and is the topic of his current book project. Now a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, his interest in math came both from his drive to defeat racist stereotypes and by a sense of competition. “In year 10 [in high school], I was the second highest maths class and I was given the option to move up to the advanced class, but my teacher at the time discouraged me from doing it,” he reflected. “She reckoned I would struggle [based on] all these backwards, racist tropes about Indigenous people.” Though he initially hesitated, his chemistry teacher encouraged him to sign up for the advanced class. “Once I got there, I was like ‘there’s no way in hell I’m going to let these white people beat me’,” he remembers.
He went on to study math and French literature during his undergraduate degree in Sydney before pursuing a PhD in mathematical biology at the University of Oxford in England. He doesn’t plan to stay in academia, but is using his current position to finish a book on the math and biology of kinship systems. “I saw some research on my kinship system that didn’t do it justice. It didn’t…acknowledge the cleverness that came with our kinship system,” he reflected. Gamilaraay kinship systems are unique in that they’re not vertical, but have cycles of descent. All individuals are split into four groups, which are inherited matrilineally. You take a group based on who your mother is, but a group that is different from your mother and your father. These groups are deeply important to Gamilaraay people, and determine your responsibilities, what animals you must look after, who you can marry, and more. These complex kinship networks have been studied since the 1800s, primarily from a colonial, deficit based lens. Field’s work, on the otherhand, not only uses math to prove that the Gamilaraay are genetically healthy through this kinship system, but that this was intentional and scientific. Colonial scholars, Field said, typically think “‘Oh, that interesting property keeping [the Gamilaraay] genetically healthy is a happy accident,’ as opposed to my old people designed it this way.”
Like many Indigenous people in predominantly white, colonial spaces, Field frequently deals with racism, both within the literature of his field and from colleagues. Last year, he attended a retirement party at which a colleague took time in his speech to decry reconciliation. “He used the last two minutes of his forty-five years of his career to say reconciliation had gone too far, and that we must stay vigilant of it,” said Field. “These real dog whistles of white supremacy.” The audience applauded; Field was the only Indigenous person in the room or in the math department at the time. This was just one experience of people questioning his deservingness of being in academia. Some assumed he was granted his current position purely because of his race, rather than his expertise. “I’m here because I have a doctorate from Oxford,” he said. “Oxford doesn’t have alternative entry schemes [for Indigenous people].”
Because of his experiences, Field cautions that Indigenous students interested in math should be intentional about how and why they want to engage with academia, and try hard to find a program where they can find community. “The more important thing shouldn’t be is this place amazing or not for mathematics, but does this place have an Indigenous community? Is there somewhere on campus, even if it’s just a room, where only Indigenous students can go?” he reflected. “There are brilliant mathematicians everywhere. Focus more on things that will keep you healthy and keep your soul happy.”
For Field, this has meant maintaining pursuits outside of academia and outside of math. He has published pieces for the popular press, including articles for The Guardian on academic complicity in destroying sacred Indigenous cites, how mining threatens Indigenous lands, and more. “With academic audiences, I wouldn’t get to say all the stuff I wanted to say, or needed to say,” he reflected. “Sometimes something just gnaws its way out of you…I [write] out of necessity.” Most recently, he wrote and Ngarabal/Gomeroi artist Jeremy Worrall illustrated Etta and the Shadow Taboo, a children’s book about consent and bodily autonomy using a story of Indigenous beliefs on shadows.
Self care is also important to him, and going home with his mom to Gamilaraay homelands – about 9 hours north of Sydney – keeps his soul happy. In particular, swimming in the hot springs that dot his homeland are an important form of unwind and reconnection for Field. “No matter what’s wrong, if I go back to my country with my mom, swimming in the mornings, nothing can beat that.”