A few months ago I went to a networking meeting – an opportunity to meet with other business people in the area in the hope of meeting some like-minded people who might one day be interested in collaborating on a project. To be honest I hate these events. I am not great at small talk and I feel awkward in a room of strangers. I try to make myself go a couple of times a year because as I tell my kids, it is good to step out of your comfort zone occasionally and challenge yourself to practice something you are not comfortable doing. I have also met some inspiring people doing some amazing things at these events so deep down I know it is a worthwhile activity despite my hesitation.
At this particular event I found myself talking to a lad, making small talk about his start up and the challenges he has faced in getting his vision from paper into the real world. His story was interesting and very different to mine. He was friendly and I think good hearted and I was enjoying our conversation. He asked about my journey and the barriers we face at Wingaru and I shared some of our barriers including race-based barriers that we are working to overcome. I talked about the assumed deficit that many people think Aboriginal people have – like we somehow cannot achieve to the same level as non-Aboriginal people, that we don’t quite do as good a job as our non-Aboriginal counter parts; how people incorrectly assume we have received massive amounts of funding to create our resources so our resources should be free of charge; how people continually dismiss Aboriginal education as an Aboriginal issue rather than a crucial part of Australia’s education system; and how as a business we often have to deal with racism before we can discuss our projects.
His interest in what I am trying to achieve was genuine and he confessed that I was the first Aboriginal person he had ever met. To be honest I am always a little shocked when people tell me they don’t know any blackfullas. Honestly, we are everywhere! But it is something I hear often, although I suspect that most people have met an Aboriginal person but haven’t realised because most of us don’t fit the stereotype that people are expecting. I shouldn’t have been too shocked when he suggested I pretend I wasn’t Aboriginal so that I didn’t have to face the adversity that our mob face. At least he didn’t suggest I line up for my free car or house, right?
It makes sense really. Why would anyone want to face the adversity that Aboriginal people face every day? Why, if we had a choice, would we put ourselves out there to become the subject of racial hate, disadvantage and misconceptions that continually pop up as barriers that stand in our way?
Because being Aboriginal isn’t a choice. It is part of who I am. I have always been raised to be proud of my culture and my mob. We are resilient, we are strong, we are still here despite every attempt to keep us down. I couldn’t pretend I am not Aboriginal even if I wanted to. It would be like pretending I am a duck instead of a human. I don’t know how to be anything but an Aboriginal woman. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am part of an amazing culture and a great community. I am proud of all the things we as a people have achieved.
This seemingly innocent comment highlighted just how far mainstream Australia is from understanding Aboriginal Australia. To think that it is as simple as choosing not to be who you are so that you are treated appropriately by other people feels like something from 100 years ago, not today. In the past Aboriginal people did deny their Aboriginality out of fear but surely we are past that? How are we approaching 2020 and people still think like this? Not because they are trying to be disrespectful but because they don’t know better? If there was ever an argument for changes in Aboriginal education for all Australians, this is it. We cannot have another generation not knowing. We need change.
I asked him what he thought, about being taught proper blackfella stuff. He’s nine, just recently turned, and while he has a turn of phrase to rival the greatest orator when excepting himself from homework or feeding the Kelpie, I was genuinely unsure what his response would be.
His face – muscles appearing where hair will come, eyes growing wiser by the day – split into a joyous grin, and the words tumbled out un-thought, a stream of pure consciousness that is as authentic as it gets.
“Mama, I love it! It’s all the stories about this land, stories about the creatures that live here and stories that sound like songs… and the games are great: they’re funny and clever and it’s not like school work at all but I’m still learning. Do you want to see too? I can show you?”
If you knew my child, you would know that this is solid endorsement indeed. His bright little mind whirs continually, a powerful engine of curious thought. But school? He’s not so keen. I have seen him adeptly tap out a the theme tune to M*A*S*H using four pencils and a Lego ninja while failing miserably to take in what is being said about multiplication algorithms beneath the beady eye of his teacher. Big blue eyes and a freckled smile get him a long way, and he skirts through much of the required syllabus with a wily shrug and insouciant attitude.
And yet, when we roam – swags belted, truck torqued, tarps often unravelling in a dirt-road scene akin to Priscilla – he is fascinated by the world around him, the culture and story and the application of this on Country. He was taught to make animal tracks by Uncle Kev Buzzacott on the edge of Lake Eyre. He learned to pick and cook wild rosella fruit, sticky hands dipping in and out of the pot on the fire on the banks of a lazy green river. And he will happily eat roo tail with his hands, fur and all.
This child has absorbed everything he has been taught about Indigenous Australia, because it is relates to the very heart of this land. Ask him and he will say, “it’s Australia’s story Mama, so that means it’s everybody’s story”. And while he is lucky enough to have experienced the broadest reaches of this country, this tenet remains at the core of why I celebrate the opportunity he has to receive an Aboriginal education.
I have always taught him that knowledge is power: to understand and engage critical thought to situations is powerful. The understanding that he gains from an Aboriginal curriculum is equally and notably so, as it engenders shared understanding. It encourages recognition and respect, an embracing of diversity for its strengths as opposed to restricted, closed-minded colonial mythologies that breed discrimination, prejudice and inequality.
As the oldest continuous living culture on earth, the knowledge and lore of the traditional owners of this land is of seminal importance to Australia and globally. It is something to be innately proud of, to celebrate and to embrace with every part of our national identity. That it isn’t remains a mystery to me, but I have to believe that will change.
And I know that the chance to broaden his understanding of the world with an ancient knowledge will help him navigate his future and that of those he loves in an equitable, diverse and caring capacity, a capacity that engenders reconciliation and ongoing understanding between the many, many people of the land on which he grows.
Wingaru Education believes that all children should have access to quality education about Aboriginal people and culture.