Why Indigenous perspectives in school?

This is an excerpt from my ACTivATE journal article, 2011


Being in Western Australia for the 2010 Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) Conference provided an interesting opportunity to reflect upon some of the state’s seminal Aboriginal authors whose works have made their way into Australian consciousness: Sally Morgan, Archie Weller, Jack Davis, Doris Pilkington Garimara, Glenyse Ward and Jimmy Chi, to name a few.  What I wondered was, if there have been so many great Aboriginal authors and scholars in Western Australia alone, why is it that the Australian education system, however inadvertently, continues to exclude and marginalise Aboriginal peoples and cultures?  Why don’t our Aboriginal leaders (in literature, arts, politics or any other field) have enough impact on the Anglo-Australian school system to make schools a place where all Aboriginal students are expected to achieve similar greatness?

Award-winning author Sally Morgan spoke to us about the Indigenous Literacy Project, whereby students produce books about themselves and record and translate the songs of their elders.  The project also supports Aboriginal authors to write books for children that are published with biographical information and maps outlining each author’s country and heritage.  Teachers have reported their students’ enthusiastic reactions to these books and the pride they felt when seeing that an author was from the same country as them.  Sally emphasised that this was an important aspect of the Indigenous Literacy Project – inspiring young Aboriginal students to write by providing adult role models.  The improvement of Aboriginal participation and achievement in the education system hinges on the ability to create space for Aboriginal cultures and voices in the classroom.

Sally Morgan’s daughter, Ambelin Kwaymullina, spoke about how important it is for Aboriginal students to “see themselves” in the classroom.  I would wholeheartedly agree, noting that in my own childhood, the classes in which I was most engaged and achieved the best results were those where Aboriginal perspectives were included.  Teachers worry about tokenism, but I think it is better to include some Aboriginal perspectives than to exclude a whole section of the population entirely.  When you have quality texts by local Aboriginal authors, as Sally’s project is producing, you have a wonderful opportunity to provide powerful, contextualised and relevant learning materials; however, when these are not available there is no reason to give up.  You can still provide texts by Aboriginal authors across the nation or with Aboriginal themes and ask your students how the text represents a similar or different understanding of the world to them, just as we do in any English classroom with any text.

In the ACT context it is perhaps more important that teachers do not shy away from including Aboriginal perspectives in the classroom just because they think that there are no ‘real Aboriginal’ students in their classes.  Ambelin Kwaymullina spoke of the stereotypes about ‘traditional’ Aboriginal people that pervade the way in which people relate to her and her writing.  She remarked on how people have always assumed they have the right to pass judgement on her identity and decide whether she really ‘qualifies’ as an Aboriginal person.

Just before attending the conference, I had been reading the literature around Aboriginal literacy for my masters research, and I was able to reflect on how the current literature echoes some of the important messages Sally and Ambelin conveyed.  Regarding the identity debate, Sharifian et al (2004) assert that communication difficulties between Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal teachers occur just as frequently in metropolitan contexts where the Aboriginal students appear to be using Standard Australian English.  Thus “cultural schemas”– worldviews influencing the way experiences are conceptualised – are also at play (Sharifian et al 2004, p. 203).  The “schemas” of many Aboriginal students (regardless of the extent of their traditional Aboriginal knowledge) are often different to many other Australians.  I can remember feeling this as a student, even though I knew how to perform in the SAE educational world.  The message is that regardless of how many Aboriginal students you have in your classroom, and regardless of your personal opinion of ‘how much’ they are Aboriginal*, it is important to include their perspectives and voices.  Besides that, cross-cultural understanding (‘reconciliation’) among all students cannot be achieved without making a place for Aboriginal voices in the classroom.


*No-one has the right to question another person’s identity and discount their identification, so if your students identify, then they are Aboriginal.  Do you question and arbitrate other students when they tell you they have some Scottish, German or Irish heritage?


Resources/further information:

Sally Morgan is best known for her acclaimed autobiography, My Place, which won the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission humanitarian award in 1987, the Western Australia Week literary award for non-fiction in 1988, and the 1990 Order of Australia Book Prize.

My Place is available in picture book adaptation and on e-book.  The original novel is generally taught to Year 9-10 students.

Morgan has written the Stopwatch series with her children, aimed at (mainly) boys 7-9, http://www.walkerbooks.com.au/Books/Stopwatch-Book-2-The-Land-of-Mirthful-9781921150784.

She has a long list of other titles, many written in collaboration with her children, at Fremantle press, http://www.fremantlepress.com.au/authors/338/Sally+Morgan

Ambelin Kwaymullina has written books for children, including the heartwarming story The Two-Hearted Numbat, teaching about the need to be kind and compassionate but also strong and tough, available through Fremantle Press, http://www.fremantlepress.com.au/authors/336/Ambelin+Kwaymullina. Her latest book, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, has just been published by Walker books and I intend to post a review on this blog shortly.

The Indigenous Literacy Project:        www.indigenousliteracyproject.org.au.  Donations can be made to this organisation and schools can celebrate Indigenous Literacy Day in September.

For more on the Aboriginal identity debate, see the recent memoir by Anita Heiss, Am I Black Enough For You? http://www.anitaheiss.com/am_i_black_enough_for_you_.html


Sharifian, F, Rochecouste, J & Malcolm, I 2004, ‘But it was all a Bit Confusing . . .’,

Comprehending Aboriginal English Texts’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 203-228.