Aboriginal poets: beyond Oodgeroo

Oodgeroo Noonuccal is an important figure in the Australian literary landscape, and her work has been on school syllabi for a long time now.  But has your school moved beyond “We are going?”  Because Aboriginal people have!!!  Show your students contemporary poems which move beyond lamenting loss of land and culture and move toward reconstructing new ways of living and being Aboriginal.

A good starting point if you are looking for poems by Aboriginal authors is at http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/arts/aboriginal-poems/

More to follow soon.

Review: Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane

This is a warm and funny novel about two Aboriginal sisters growing up near Gundagai in the 1960s.  Raised by their nan and aunties with limited connection to their free-spirited, ‘restless’ mother, the girls grow up in a loving environment under the older womens’ strict moral guidance.  These women have been through the protection era and have worked hard to establish their financial independence and create a better life for the girls.  They are strong women who love to read and take an interest in politics.  For a brief episode, the girls’ mother, Petal, returns and takes them to Queensland to live with her and their father, an Anglo-Australian man with whom she has an unstable relationship. The girls are exposed to racism and the questioning of their identity (their father defends Petal to his mother: “Looks to me like she’s less than half abo, and the kids you can hardly tell”), but they are not there long before Petal gets restless again and sends them back to their nan and aunties.

Based on Jeanine Leane’s own childhood, this novel is very easy to read and engaging.  It makes references to a range of issues/events which could be studied further within a classroom study.  Topics it touches upon include:

  • Christianity, in particular its role in Aboriginal lives (part of protectionism in the mission era and then adopted into many Aboriginal communities as an important part of their identity)
  • Environment and sustainability – drought, farming, Aboriginal knowledge of the land
  • Life in a small country town
  • Welfare/protection era
  • 1967 referendum
  • Older womens’ stories about the war, the Depression
  • Racism from the Anglo-Australian side of the family and at school

The dialogue is carefully crafted to show the structure/style of Aboriginal English, which we are encouraged to consider within the Australian Curriculum: “All students will develop an awareness and appreciation of, and respect for the literature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples including storytelling traditions (oral narrative) as well as contemporary literature…Students will be taught that there are many languages and dialects spoken in Australia including Aboriginal English…” (Cross-curriculum priorities in English, http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/English/Cross-Curriculum-Priorities#Aboriginal-and-Torres-Strait-Islander-histories-and-cultures )

As a Wiradjuri girl with family in Dubbo, I identified with the depiction of country life and the no-nonsense, straight-talking older women.  Reading it was like being back home on holiday, spending each afternoon hearing a new story over a pot of tea.  The story flows quickly and the different threads weave around each other effortlessly.

This would be great for Yr 9-12 students as part of an Australian Identity/Life stories unit and is nice and short at just over 150 pages. It won the 2010 David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing and is published by Penguin Books.

Helena Kadmos from Murdoch University has completed some excellent literary analysis of Leane’s work, as well as the work of Mununjali/Yugambeh author Ellen van Neerven:



Review: Riding the Black Cockatoo

Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis is the true story of an Anglo-Australian man’s journey of reconciliation.  In adulthood, John began to question his family’s possession of an Aboriginal skull, and embarked on a journey to connect with the traditional owners and return the skull.  This non-fiction book (which reads like a novel) is marketed by Allen & Unwin as a book for young adults; however, it had a powerful effect on one of my good friends and colleagues, Viviane Gerardu, who believes all teachers should read it as part of their professional development.

In this ‘review’, I have posed a few questions to Viv about the book’s impact on her personally and how it has enhanced her understanding of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives:

1. What impact has this book had on your attitude to teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom?

After reading the book I felt I had gained a better understanding and awareness of this perspective. I felt excited and comfortable with the knowledge I had gained and was looking forward to using pages from the text in my class room. I thought they would make excellent discussion triggers. Another outcome from reading the book is that we now have the Aboriginal Australia map in our class rooms and when we talk about place in Australia we refer to the map for its Aboriginal name. This came about because in the novel the author writes about the fact that he knew the names of more African and American tribal nations that Australian ones. I really connected with this statement and felt it was important that students learn tribal names and where they are on the Australian map.

2. In what ways has reading this book improved your knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people/issues in Australia?

The book has made me more aware of the intricacies of culture and the relationship of the land of Indigenous people. I had no idea how much protocol was involved in the repatriation process or a smoking ceremony. The book also gave me insight into a white person’s perception of the European invasion of the land and massacre of the Aboriginal population and its comparison with other countries. One comparison was with the Nazis. Another one revolved around street names and its link to famous English explorers “whose expeditions opened the country up to waves of settlers who in turn pushed the original inhabitants from their homelands” (p. 111).

3. How will the book inform your teaching of Indigenous issues?

I have had discussion with my colleagues on the value of the book for teachers and shared numerous pages that could be used in classrooms. We plan to incorporate some into our Australian Identity unit. When we discuss issues in Year 10, we will use pages from the text as a stimulus for class discussions and activities. For example Aboriginal etiquette and culture, about country, the rights of the dead, the Stolen generation, racism, limited Aboriginal voice, perception of the media – there are two great events in the book where the media portrays negative images of Aboriginal actions and how the white author is very upset about this and tries to correct the accounts – how children do not see coloured skin, stereotypes, etc.

4. Would the book be suitable for use in the classroom – if so, in what year/topic/context?

I would love to make this book compulsory reading for all teachers. It is insightful and full of information and knowledge a from a white person’s perspective, yet also includes Aboriginal voices. At one stage the author writes about his experiences on prac where a teacher is having her students draw famous explorers and the Australian bush. He suggests to her that he could do a lesson an Aboriginal art work in which she replies “Well, we aren’t covering any Indigenous units this year, so that wouldn’t really be appropriate.” (p. 221).

There are sections of the book that can be used for all levels but I would suggest that the book is more suitable for Years 11 and 12 as there are references to the author’s past that younger students would not understand. Also the last section is about the author’s problems with depression and I found this detracted from the central idea of the book.

For more information and teacher’s notes:



Review: Things a map won’t show you

‘Things a map won’t show you: stories from Australia & beyond’ is a short story collection edited by Susan LaMarca and Pam MacIntyre, published by Puffin Books in 2012.  It is beautifully presented in a fun ‘map’  theme that is reminiscent of a snakes and ladders game; however, when you look below the surface it’s not the best source of Indigenous texts.  The Indigenous authors showcased are listed below with a comment about their piece.

  • Obed Raggett, Two Little Round Stones – a simple dreaming-style story about boys finding stones which help them to navigate their landscape on a hunting trip, but with a dark twist as the boys reject their stones for ‘better-looking’ ones and nature retaliates by killing them.  This would be a challenging story to teach to young readers but if the content could be explained without disturbing students it would be good for storyboarding.
  • Jack Davis, Integration – Davis is an important figure in Australian literature, well known for his poetry and his play The Dreamers.  Integration is a poem about reconciliation and moving forward together as a united nation.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal, All one race – another important figure, but one who is already in most English syllabi somewhere (Noonuccal has made the crossover to ‘mainstream’ literature classrooms where many other Indigenous authors haven’t).  All one race is about us recognising our similarities with all people across the globe as human beings.
  • Tara June Winch Cloud busting – Winch is a fantastic young author but I was disappointed that this book just included a chapter from her novel Swallow the Air, which I’d already read and would recommend for older students (Year 10-12) as a whole text (see the following for some good teaching ideas http://hsc.csu.edu.au/english/area_of_study/belonging/3717/swallow_the_air.htm).
  • Pat Lowe, an English born writer who married Walmajarri artist Jimmy Pike, Yinti’s Kitten – this is an engaging and fairly simple story about the relationship between humans and animals, looking at the introduction of cats to Australia and telling the story of an Aboriginal boy who takes in a sickly orphaned kitten and nurtures it into a good ‘hunting cat’.  There are only 3 sketches by Jimmy Pike, so his contribution appears to be limited (although he may have contributed to Pat’s story); nonetheless I think this story would be enjoyed by Yr 6-7 students.
  • The highlight as far as pushing boundaries and stretching our understanding of Indigenous literature goes is the inclusion of Brenton McKenna’s comic The Art of Hunting, discussing the modern practice of hunting cruelly for fun.  It’s quite a confronting piece and the drawings are gritty, so this could in fact be more suited to a Yr 9-10 audience.  There is a lot in it to unpack (myths and realities about ‘Aboriginal sorcery’, pre-colonisation traditions around seeking permission to visit other people’s land as compared to today’s reality where Australians travel all over the country virtually uninhibited, notions of hunting in traditional Aboriginal vs modern non-Aboriginal contexts).  This is also a great example of the traditional comic style.

As a source of short stories by Indigenous authors, this offers fairly basic fare and I suspect there will be much better collections published in the near future as educational publishers focus on supplying resources for the National Curriculum.

As a general collection of stories, there are a few gems: James Roy’s Out of the Yellow (sibling rivalry never gets old); Sonya Hartnett’s The Second-last Baby Tooth (the ordinary events of a summer holiday and a baby tooth falling out are told with warmth and humour); Tanveer Ahmed’s The Exotic Rissole, a rib-tickling story about a boy cringing at his father’s “1970s Bangladeshi fashion” and trying to fit in with Aussies who add ‘o’ or ‘y’ to the end of each others’ names.

Consider purchasing a copy or two for the school library, but perhaps hold off on purchasing class sets until a few teachers and classes give it a test run to see how it fits within your school context.

For more information and teachers’ notes, see:


Media links – Triple J stories on Indigenous affairs

National youth radio station Triple J’s Hack program often includes stories relating to Indigenous affairs.  The podcasts are available for download and sometimes there are videos to accompany stories.

Here are some of my picks, on various topics.  The short sound grabs and videos are always useful for discussion starters in the classroom.

Bush bands


Charcoal lane, Melbourne, Archie Roach, community


Josh Sibosado, Footballer


Leaders, Largest Urban Indigenous population, Miimali program


Music, Hip hop


Music, Yung Warriors


NT Intervention


Politics, future leaders

http:// www.abc.net.au/triplej/hack/stories/s2985391.htm

QLD Rivers


Racism, Aussie Entertainment Industry




Women workers in Alice Springs