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Winter 2004

Talking History

Aboriginal history is alive and well

Indigenous history is a living thing rather than the domain of museums, and it is crucial that it is taught in this way. MICHAEL WINKLER discusses the Dare to Lead educational project.

The history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is far more than a matter of Dreamtime stories, bark canoes and outback corroborees. All of this is important as cultural context, but it is crucial that contemporary teaching also includes contemporary themes.

Dare to Lead (a national, crosssectoral Indigenous education project) emphasises the need for all schools to audit the way in which Indigenous themes are taught. This means doing more than just paying lip-service to the important idea of entrenching Indigenous cultural perspectives across the curriculum. It also means ensuring that Indigenous history is taught as something that is happening now, and that everything which has occurred in the past has an impact on 21st century Australians.

Understanding history— then and now

Goal 21 of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy is: To provide all Australian students with an understanding of and respect for Aboriginal traditional and contemporary cultures.

Key understandings for teaching and learning

Traditional and contemporary. History is not just about then; it is also about now. Indigenous history is not just the domain of museums. It is a living thing, and it affects the lives of all Australians today.

It is not possible to understand and respect this land of ours without valuing the tens of thousands of years of interaction with it that the heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures provides.

It is not possible to come to terms with its present nature without some understanding of the tragedies of the last two centuries of Indigenous history. It is not possible to claim that teaching operates from a socially just or even a balanced perspective while ignoring or only nodding sideways towards these issues.

It is not possible to appreciate the richness and diversity of our current society while ignoring the continued vitality, depth and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and their expressions.

It is very difficult to do any of these things without establishing personal relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Dare to Lead: an examination of current practice

Dare to Lead is a national crosssectoral Indigenous education project that emphasises the role of school leaders in effecting change, and supports the profession as it provides leadership for the nation in reconciliation. More than 1600 Australian schools have signed on as members of the Dare to Lead Coalition. The project has three main targets. The first two are: the improvement of Indigenous students’ literacy rates at year 5 by 10 per cent; and increasing the retention of Indigenous students to year 12 completion by 10 per cent.

The third target, committing to review and, where possible, improve the quality of teaching about Australia’s Indigenous peoples as a practical step towards reconciliation involves all schools, irrespective of whether or not they have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students enrolled.

Support is being provided to Coalition member schools to turn words into action. One of the most practical methods of achieving the project’s goals is the active promotion of contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, especially among students with their peers. This is being achieved in many ways. One way is through the creation of a ‘buddy school’ system which often matches a school with Indigenous students enrolled with a school that has none. Principals can also apply to take part in visitation programs, specifying the type of school that is to be visited (sometimes similar, sometimes different) and the anticipated outcomes in terms of the project’s aims. Support is also offered in finding ways to engage schools with their local Indigenous community, and vice versa. It is via this sort of interaction that it becomes clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history is about the here and now, and that teaching and learning about ATSIC or Wik or Yothu Yindi is every bit as valid as learning about boomerangs or Dreamtime stories.

The role of the principal

Some principals have been invited on field trips to gain first-hand experience of Indigenous community life. Principals who participated in a Dare to Lead cultural tour to the Flinders Ranges in late 2003 reported back:

It became very apparent to us that, although we cannot change what happened in the past to the Indigenous people of Australia, we can as leaders make a real effort to deal with the legacy of those events by ensuring that our staff and students become conscious of how we all contribute to ongoing disadvantages today. Through education we can make our students aware that the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, from their beginning 40,000 years ago to the present day, is an integral part of the history of our country. Indeed, we learnt to appreciate that certainly, in this particular case, indigenous history is not over, it is alive, and now takes a new phase. Our role as leaders is to emphasise to our colleagues and students the incredible value and contribution this can make to reconciliation and our identity.

People as resources

Personal relationships are crucial, and hearing the stories and learning the history of others is an important route to understanding. However, it is wrong to expect an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person to be an expert on every aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, heritage or culture, and they may not necessarily want to share their views publicly. The same is true of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Attempts to use them as a resource may make them feel very uncomfortable. Ask them privately before any such action occurs, and, of course, respect their wishes.

There has been a resurgence of interest in assuring the place Indigenous studies and perspectives must have in historical and contemporary accounts of our country and in the many facets of its society. In recent times, relevant teaching materials and resources have increased in number and quality. There are at least 600 Internet sites containing material that may be of relevance. Processes and protocols for involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in learning activities are better understood and in wider use.

But there is still some distance to go. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have an acute and legitimate sensitivity about the ways in which cultural and historical matters are dealt with. In developing and improving the teaching of these matters, the involvement of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people is most important and will help to avoid important mistakes. If your school is fortunate enough to have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander teachers, Education Workers, Assistants or Resource Teachers you have an immediate resource. If your school has an Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness (ASSPA) committee, advice from its members should be sought. Otherwise, it is important to seek help and advice from members of local communities or relevant Indigenous education consultants.

One teacher’s approach

Jenny Burford teaches Aboriginal Studies at Seaton High School in Adelaide. Her teaching approach emphasises the contemporaneity of Indigenous history. ‘I get as much involvement of Aboriginal people in the teaching of this course as I can’, she says. ‘It’s essential that I show enthusiasm for it; you have to model to the students that you consider it to be important. Because I have a passion for this area, my job is to communicate that.’

‘Most of my students are non-Aboriginal. I tell them that this is not just a black history; it’s a shared history. We have to build on our (non-Indigenous people’s) stake in this.

It’s vitally important that you emphasise this is contemporary stuff. If you think Aboriginal culture is a static thing that belongs in the past, like the mummies in Egypt, then you’re not getting it. Every historical issue has resonances in the present and has effects today—the Stolen Generation is one simple example.’

‘Aboriginal Studies is not an area that’s impoverished for resources. You just have to look around. We look at websites, access newspapers, go to the Enfield Resource Centre. However we also visit Camp Coorong (a camp owned and run by the traditional owners, the Ngarrindjeri, about 120 km southeast of Adelaide), which is real and now.

‘From year to year there are bits and pieces that I teach the same, but otherwise the content changes because the world is changing. I say to my students, “If you’re Australian then this is part of your history”. Forging a personal connection is important. I have students who are refugees from places like Bosnia, and you can see that they make a strong personal connection to many aspects of this area of study. When the students undertake research, I urge them to do it in an area they’re passionate about. If they want to be a teacher, look at Aboriginal education. If they love music, look at that. If they’re mad about footy, research that area. It’s important that they get a feeling for things, not just knowledge.’

More information:


‘Cross cultural learning and interaction’, a Dare to Lead brochure.

author picture Michael Winkler is a communications officer for the Dare to Lead project, and prepared this article in conjunction with David McRae and Andrea Harms.