Next week Australians will be celebrating Australia Day on the 25th January. Australia Day represents a national holiday where all Australians can come together to celebrate what it is and means to be an Australian. Unfortunately, Australia Day also represents the aniversary the English settlement/invasion of Indigenous Australia, a continent and islands that contains a deep cultural significance for the oldest continuous race of peoples that have ever existed on Earth.
Successive Australian governments and the media give the appearance of acknowledging indigenous culture, but what impact has this had on existing indigenous Australians? The poorest performance in education (NAPLAN, 2008) and the lowest life expectancy (ABS 2007 cat. no. 3302.0) of any group of Australians.
Yesterday, I went looking for a large Aboriginal flag to fly on Australia Day. My wife had bought an Australian flag earlier for the same purpose. I was unsuccessful and every shop (and cultural centre) told me that they did not stock them as there was no demand. During my search I was struck by the absence of indigenous publications in the bookshops and indigenous symbology in all but our local cultural centre.
Recently I attended an international conference in Auckland, New Zealand and there was a great deal of Maori symbology evident across the city. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland (a white fella) gave much of his opening address in the Māori language (te reo Māori) in which he was obviously fluent.
I know that successive Australian Federal and State governments have allocated a great deal of funding in areas designed to improve outcomes for indigenous Australians, but what has actually been achieved?
Black (2007) and Vinson (1999) assert that Education is the key to overcoming social disadvantage which is characterised in Australia by poor educational, health outcomes and high levels of incarceration. Pearson (2009) in his Quarterly Essay 35, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia makes the same assertion. Pearson suggests that without a comparable level of education indigenous people are subjected to a life of pauperisation.
There are of course some big challenges in indigenous education, particularly in remote indigenous communities. Teachers need to understand the cultural influences and indigenous perspectives and be able to adapt their teaching to suit these large differences. Ironically, when they do this, no students are disadvantaged. Indeed many non-indigenous students who see school as an alien and unfriendly environment respond very well to teachers who make their learning meaningful and respect indigenous culture and perspectives.
Other challenges include attracting and retaining good quality teachers. Some remote communities are alien to many white fellas and most often it is young male teaching graduates who elect to travel to remote communities, mostly for the extra remuneration and to secure a teaching position at a "good" school in a capital city. Many of these teachers are inexperienced and have little interest in developing strong and respectful relationships with the community. This is of course a generalisation and there are exceptions. One of my pre-service teacher students has elected to do all of his teaching practical in remote Northern Territory communities.
While there are challenges they are not insurmountable. Attracting older more experienced teachers can occur with by offering appropriate remuneration (much more than is currently offered) and targeting teachers who are closer to retiring age who have no dependent children. Older people often have a desire to experience new places and to begin to give back to the community. This is evidenced by the number of "Grey Nomads" that adorn our roads in Northern Australia during the winter.
But back to the issue of ignorance and indifference of many non-indigenous Australians and how we might bring about change in this area. This kind of change will clearly need to be generational as it's difficult to change the perceptions gained through a long lifetime. These perceptions can be innocent in the case of those who view issues only through their own cultural lens, or they can be openly destructive in terms of overt racism. For me, school education is again the key to changing perceptions. It is only when all Australians learn about indigenous culture, land, language and indigenous perspectives will we begin to show indigenous Australians the respect they deserve. The showing of respect and the honoring of indigenous culture, language and land brings with it a pride for indigenous Australians and it that pride and wider acknowledgment that will lift indigenous people out of the poverty and the socially destructive mire where many of them now find themselves.
There are challenges here also as each tribe and clan of indigenous people have their culture, land and language. Australia is not like New Zealand where the Māori language and culture is fairly homogeneous. Indigenous Australians have some common cultural practices and beliefs like: responsible custodianship of the land; extended sense of family connection; hierarchy of eye contact and connectedness to the land, but there are many differences that include language and life cycles related to the land.
While this is a challenge, it is not too difficult to overcome if all school curricula have integrated indigenous perspectives and the appropriate training for teachers on how to teach these perspectives. Uncle Ernie Grant is an Dijirabal/Djirrabal Elder and statewide cultural Research
Officer for Education Queensland is the developer of "My Land My Tracks: A framework for the holistic approach to indigenous studies". I have had the great honour of meeting with Uncle Ernie and with the support of the Indigenous Schooling Support Units in Rockhampton and Cairns, Uncle conducted a workshop last year for our pre-service teaching students and local school teachers.
The issue of variance between indigenous peoples land language and culture is not insurmountable and can be achieved relatively easily by having students develop Web-based resources for their area, and having all of these publicly available for teachers and students to use in their learning and teaching. Just imagine the difference it would make if all Australians understood and respected indigenous land language and culture. A publicly available Website, organised by regions and populated by school students from all over Australia would allow all Australians to develop their understanding and best of all, it provides students with authentic learning opportunities that engage them and make their learning worthwhile.
On Australia Day I will say a small prayer for my indigenous brothers and sisters and ask that the Federal Government see the wisdom of these relatively inexpensive ideas.
I'm also in the process of making my own Aboriginal flag (from material I bought yesterday) so that I can proudly fly it to honour the Darumbal people of my region and the Woppaburra clan who are the traditional custodians of the land on which our house is built.
What will you do for Australia Day?