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'I never saw myself represented on TV growing up. But my kids do now.'

What a difference growing up as a little girl in the late 70s and early 80s a cartoon series like Little J & Big Cuz – Australia’s first Indigenous animation series – would have made to my life.

I vividly remember the one video we watched at my high school about Aboriginal people – a historic video that showed in great detail the attempts of Aboriginal genocide. The Nuns watched over me, ecstatic and proud that they had shown it — not because of the horrific content, but simply because it featured Aboriginal people.

To this day I am still traumatised by the adult content we witnessed in that video, re-enactments of the appalling treatment Aboriginal people endured. There was nothing included in that footage that celebrated our culture and history.

Those images will stay with me forever. It changed the way I felt about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been treated throughout Australia’s history. The traumatic content really waivered my culture confidence, especially being shown it at a time when Indigenous people didn’t have role models to look up to on TV because it wasn’t social practice.

I never brought it up with my family around the dinner table, even though I had an age appropriate understanding of my people’s history. I truly think I was in shock from the images and pushed them down deep to be dealt with as an adult.

role models for indigenous children
"Growing up, Indigenous people didn’t have role models to look up to on TV because it wasn’t social practice." (Image: Supplied)
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I look at the difference in education my 10-year-old son Taj now receives, compared to my education at school of one video and no follow up discussion. Taj is a Fire Carrier at his school; he is a leader who attends workshops with other students from local schools. At these workshops, kids of all walks of life learn about their cultures and then go back to their schools and pass on the knowledge they have learnt. Taj’s school has Aboriginal totem poles decorated by all the students. His school is very respectful about Aboriginal history, and all cultures are celebrated and learnt about throughout the year.

Taj challenges our history and our future with his hard questions, passion and love of his culture. No teacher or student feels uncomfortable at his school as they encourage this thinking and line of discovery. As a teacher myself, I believe education is the key to a better understanding of our past and of our future. To see the change in the curriculum over the past 20 years and how much Indigenous content is being taught to students across Australia is brilliant.

Listen: The Binge interviewed Miranda Tapsell about the need for diversity on Australian television and her struggle to get work as an Indigenous actress. (Post continues after audio.)

We still have a long way to go and I believe a cartoon series like Little J & Big Cuz will benefit children and teachers alike. The fact that every episode has free downloadable resources for teachers is perfect. Let’s be honest, it is hard for some teachers to teach Indigenous Studies, especially if they had the same school education as me. Many are afraid so they avoid it. This series is a supportive way for them to educate children about school life, culture, community and country.

Little J & Big Cuz features the voices of some of the country’s most prominent Indigenous talents, Miranda Tapsell, (Little J) Deborah Mailman (Big Cuz), Aaron Fa’Aoso (Old Dog) and Ningali Lawford-Wolf (Nanna); and follows five year old Little J and his cousin, nine-year old Big Cuz, as they explore themes of Indigenous identity, connection to country, traditional knowledge and cultural practices.

Guided by their wise and wonderful Nanna, their enthusiastic teacher Ms Chen, and accompanied by their Old Dog, Little J and his Big Cuz navigate lessons of bravado and humility, impulsiveness and patience, shame and confidence, selfhood and empathy – themes that are common to childhood everywhere.

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Little J & Big Cuz features the voices of some of the country’s most prominent Indigenous talents. (Image: Supplied)

Miranda Tapsell and Deborah Mailman are already child entertainers in their own right having starred on Playschool, however are also known for their roles in The Sapphires, Love Child, Offspring and The Secret Life of Us. They, among other well-known Indigenous actors, now make up 5%* of main characters in TV dramas, with children’s programs and comedies tending to be more diverse (Screen Australia).

This is a great start considering Indigenous Australians make up for 3% of the population. It’s also a remarkable shift from the 90s, when there were no Indigenous Australians in sustaining roles on Australia TV** (Screen Australia).

Little J & Big Cuz is so valuable to Indigenous children’s connection to culture, community and country, the program offers a proud and positive view of Aboriginal Australia and select episodes are even voiced in six Indigenous languages, including Djambarrpuyngu, Pitjantjatjara, Arrernte, Walmajarri, Yawuru and Palawa kani.

A study published in Communications Research*** found that, ‘children are affected when they don’t see themselves represented on TV’ and further, ‘it affects them when the young people who look like them are seen doing something wrong’. This resonates so truly with me, and I would have loved as a child to simply see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on TV in a positive and warm light.

My son has many questions about his culture and people and it’s wonderful that Australian television is starting to answer many of them.

Shelley Ware is a proud Yankanjatjara and Wirangu woman from Adelaide. She currently lives in Melbourne and is a presenter on NITV’s Marngrook Footy Show, a primary school teacher and a mother; she has a son called Taj. NITV has created Australia’s first Indigenous animation series, Little J & Big Cuz, which explores themes of Indigenous identity, connection to country, traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Shelley discusses why it is so important that Little J & Big Cuz has been created and what it means for her son and other Indigenous children.

Little J & Big Cuz will air in the family-friendly spot of Fridays at 7.30pm and the kid-friendly spot of weekdays at 4pm.

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