opinion

"Our history is not dark and shameful." The education system is re-colonising Aboriginal kids.

While 2021 was a hard year for all of us, I ended my year with a tiny new bundle of joy. Ochre Yuluwirri. Her beautiful name raised questions with my 74-year-old Nanna. She asked, “what does it mean?” I immediately had feelings of sadness and I’ll admit, embarrassment.

I explained what it meant to her; it is earth pigment, and it’s the foundation for Aboriginal Art, is used in ceremony and traces back to over 20,000 years. I finished by asking “how do you not know this?!” 

Her answer made me think. She told me: "I wasn’t allowed to learn about it." 

This made me reflect on my own experiences in school and gave me the idea that our education system colonises Aboriginal youth, at least that’s how it feels for me. 

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The generational effect it had on my family meant that because my Nan was not allowed to learn anything about her culture, she didn’t have the answers for her own children. This brings me to the Year 6 excursion that haunts me to this day, a day at the Maritime Museum in Sydney. 

The standout for me was the Endeavour - I can remember the guide telling us how the convicts slept in hammocks, and how they always kept cats on board to keep away rodents. I remembered that part because I’m petrified of mice.

But it was far more memorable for other reasons and when I learned the true meaning of it, I felt like a traitor.

Old Parliament House for the Aboriginal Leadership Camp, 2002. Image: Supplied. 

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This was 20 years ago and since then there have been veiled attempts at equality, even Specific Aboriginal Student Liaison Officers in schools. This is partly because of the report in 2005 that urged the government to “Close the Gap” in the commitments regarding education. 

There is a list of things proposed by the government, involving attendance, education and all-around cultural, social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in school. This is why I say veiled attempts, because while the Aboriginal Student Liaison Officers work tirelessly to bring culture in the school - they are working against an outdated curriculum where students are told of great explorers who founded Australia.

Finally, in 2021 it was proposed that Aboriginal History be taught in classrooms, but there was a backlash that the move would be teaching children hatred, despite (to me) this false narrative just reinforcing racist ideologies. 

Campbellfield High School, 2000. Image: Supplied. 

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In the years following my own schooling, I have surrounded myself with many strong Aboriginal women who have shared wisdom with me along the way. There is one thing I will always remember when speaking about culture: “To get it back, we must give it away."

While some things in Aboriginal culture should remain sacred, not everything about Aboriginal History is dark and shameful.

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Because of colonisation and many Aboriginal people moving around NSW, I have found myself learning more about where other people are from and customs other than my own. This has taught me how to respect others' customs and appreciation for sharing it with me. 

I would love to see all school utilise the incredible knowledge the local Aboriginal people of their area have, with Aboriginal history being mostly oral, capturing student's attention is never a problem.

In 2020, I had the opportunity to do this at my daughter’s school. At first the students were prompted by the teachers to ask questions (remember how you would get picked to do that?). 

It wasn’t too long before they all had questions, and the two Aboriginal students that were present came up afterwards to tell me where they were from. My fear of public speaking felt worth it knowing that they felt proud of where they were from in an assembly of students, unlike how I felt at their age. 

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” — Greek Proverb.

Maybe if we make these changes to the curriculum, our children might see a society that has more empathy and understanding of our Aboriginal people, and Aboriginal children can be confident in their identities and feel heard.

Also, to my Year 6 teacher - I haven’t amounted to "nothing" like you said I would! 

Feature Image: Supplied.

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