It’s been an age since the colonial school system, and yet it is clear that mainstream schools are still assimilating Indigenous children, Laurie Bamblett writes.
Australia celebrates being the home of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures while persisting with a school system designed to wipe out these same ancient cultures. If things keep going the way they are, one day we may all truly regret the loss of Aboriginal cultures.
Since the earliest days of the colony, schools have been used to coerce Aborigines to become European. They are the battering rams of assimilation. Special Aboriginal schools were even established to physically and psychologically separate Aboriginal children from their culture, heritage and, importantly, from the land as a source of knowledge, language, and strength. In those early days, Aboriginal parents, grandparents, and elders avoided the schools and clung tenaciously to their own ways of teaching and learning.
As the colony expanded, it became impossible to live Aboriginal lives. Our people were forced to trade cultural continuity for physical survival. We are still doing it. In spite of successful experiments in two-way schooling and the inclusion of content about Aboriginal histories and cultures in the Australian Curriculum, mainstream schools are still assimilating Aborigines.
As governments annually track the benefits of Aborigines engaging with the European school system, some of our people keep track of what we lose by ‘coming in’ to the European way of life. They note how each generation moves further and further from our ancestors’ ways. A Wiradjuri grandmother once described it to me as the ‘white man winning’ when she lamented that her grandchildren, while becoming English literate and succeeding in European schools, knew much less of our people’s ways than her parents and grandparents did.
The Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred uses the metaphor of a rock to describe this same process as it happens among his people. He says that earlier generations, who lived distinctly Mohawk lives, were standing on a huge cultural rock. Subsequent generations, whose knowledge and ability to live Mohawk lives has been diminished by colonisation, may soon stand on the smallest piece of cultural rock, barely connected to their ancestors. This happens because the Mohawk people have to trade cultural continuity for physical survival, as do Aborigines in Australia.
A better way would be to incorporate a plan for land-based cultural restoration into Aboriginal education policy. It would require a large-scale radical shift in schooling to return teaching to the land and regenerate culture.
Alfred’s work to restore cultural practices and end cultural dislocation among his Mohawk people shows that a better existence can be found away from the mess of colonisation. To do it in Australia would require schools to support an agenda to re-culture our nation. It must go beyond deepening understanding, beyond recognition and reconciliation as it is currently conceived in the Australian Curriculum. A process of acknowledgment alone will not fix the damage caused by colonialism.
This is about our people living rather than just learning about Aboriginal culture and history. It is about all sectors of the community, including the school system, supporting Aboriginal people to relearn and live our own ways.
It is a big task to make changes on such a scale, though it’s not without precedent. In the 1950s, policymakers asked all sectors of the community to cooperate in the assimilation of Aborigines. As we know, that dark task was accomplished with the support of the school system. We now need people to back a policy to support Aboriginal people to reconcile more fully with our ancestors.
Such a shift will benefit all Australians because cultural resurgence will mean that colonisation will not be the dominant story of Aboriginal lives.
Some who have taken the time to get to know our people and learn our ways describe Aborigines in glowing terms. One observer described Aborigines as the dreamers of humanity and the poets of the universe. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from rebuilding a larger cultural rock and standing on it, a little closer to the poets of the universe?