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  • Writer's pictureKaren Caswell

Authenticity or Tokenism?

Do you find these words controversial? Are they confronting? Offensive? Do they make you feel defensive?

At some point in my career, I’ve thought or felt all of the above to some degree. I think many teachers have a genuine concern that the way they are incorporating or trying to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives is simply tokenism. We are unsure of if it is respectful, or are afraid of causing offense – and these concerns are real. However, allowing ourselves to use this as an excuse and instead choosing to do nothing, is more offensive than trying our best and sometimes making mistakes.

This week, I saw the documentary film “In My Blood It Runs”, which follows ten year old Dujuan as he navigates the cultural divide in education. Dujuan speaks three languages, addressed the United Nations in September 2019 and yet is not achieving in the school setting. The film’s synopsis states: “Ten-year-old Dujuan is a child-healer, a good hunter and speaks three languages. As he shares his wisdom of history and the complex world around him we see his spark and intelligence. Yet Dujuan is ‘failing’ in school and facing increasing scrutiny from welfare and the police. As he travels perilously close to incarceration, his family fight to give him a strong Arrernte education alongside his western education lest he becomes another statistic. We walk with him as he grapples with these pressures, shares his truths and somewhere in-between finds space to dream, imagine and hope for his future self.”

The film was extremely thought provoking and raised many questions for me as an educator and an Anglo-Australian. As the daughter of first and second generation English immigrants (my father arrived in Australia as a nine year old with his family as part of the ‘Ten Pound Pom’, government Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, and my mother’s family also immigrated from England at different times) my cultural background can only be described as ‘white’. I mean, look at my ancestory DNA, there isn’t a great deal of diversity to be found. I also grew up and attended school during an era when the history of our country was taught solely from the English perspective, and the atrocities and unjust actions against our Indigenous people were not acknowledged. I’m privileged and thankful to be guided in my quest for knowledge and understanding of our Indigenous culture by two amazing mentors, both incredible educators working in this space: my brother-in-law, Mitch Campbell, who is a strong Ngugi Noonuccal man leading the way towards cultural awareness and inclusion, and my colleague Cheyanne Conroy, a proud Wurundjeri young woman and passionate and dedicated educator, who is a strong role model for the Indigenous children within our school community.

As I watched the film, which is also interspersed with archival footage of media clips explaining the ‘benefits’ of missions and the removal children from their families, I experienced many thoughts and feelings. I was aghast at the beliefs and justifications for removing children, including the statement that ‘they will eventually be more like us’. I cringed at some of footage of Dujuan at school and the words spoken by the teachers, such as one teacher expressing her confusion about Dreaming stories, yet not willing to offer children in the class the opportunity to help her understand. There were many times that Dujuan wanted to share his opinion, knowledge and understanding about his culture but was ignored – it’s no wonder he disengages when he is made to feel he is not valued or respected. I was also shocked that the school still seemed to be teaching the one-sided colonised view of history, despite all that we know now, as well as being in a location where almost all of the students were Aboriginal. Our system is asking our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to leave their identify at the gates, and then appears to blame or punish them for struggling with this.

Another aspect highlighted in the film is the alarmingly high rate of Indigenous youth in detention in Australia. At the time of filming, 100% of youth in detention in the Northern Territory were Indigenous. Indigenous Australians account for less than 3 per cent of Australia's national population, but they make up more than half of all children (10-16 or 17 depending on state) in juvenile detention. According to the most recent statistics, Indigenous children are 26 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous children. While I unequivocally agree that there need to be consequences for our actions, I'm horrified by these figures, especially when the very next day, I saw a news report about local non-Indigenous teens filming themselves stealing cars and running from the police, then uploading these videos to social media, blatantly mocking and disregarding the authorities, yet being released by the court system if caught and arrested by police. Our justice system is broken.

So what can we do about it? And how do we do it? I don’t have any answers, in fact I mostly have questions, which are a vital starting point. Having questions means I am acknowledging that our Indigenous students have needs, and am seeking ways to provide for these, create a culturally safe and supportive environment and embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives within my classroom, school and our education system.

What is embedding?

  • When schools, teachers and staff, include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander points of view in every aspect of school life.

  • It goes beyond curriculum content.

  • It includes a whole school approach as well as a planning & teaching approach.

Why is it important to embed?

  • Builds long lasting, authentic relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, families and community.

  • Improves Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student learning outcomes.

  • Gives all students an understanding of, and respect for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional and contemporary cultures.

  • Builds educationalists cultural capacity.

  • Schools become culturally responsive in knowing and valuing Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

What could embedding look like?

  • Acknowledgment of Country – co-constructed with your class; a school AofC that is displayed and given at the start of meetings and events; is included in staff email signatures. Yarning Circles: Morning Time, class meetings, consolidating learning, sharing times, shared reading, can be informal in playground.

  • Group / Class Names: Totem names, Language names, local language words.

  • Using texts with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander character, and/or by ATSI authors for modelled, shared and guided reading, and available in class libraries for independent reading. In conjunction with our Librarian, I have ensured we have a range of texts and resources in the library for teachers to borrow and use with the class.

  • Dadirri - Deep Listening (mindfulness)

  • Foster relationships with families, and local community members.

Obviously, we must go much deeper, but we have to start somewhere, and these are achievable actions that can be taken immediately.

Considering Indigenous perspectives is the morally right thing to do, but let's not forget, it’s also in the curriculum. The Australian Curriculum is working towards addressing two distinct needs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education:

  • that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum of each of the learning areas, can fully participate in the curriculum and can build their self-esteem.

  • that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures cross-curriculum priority is designed for all students to engage in reconciliation, respect and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures.

What are you already doing in your classrooms where the language could be/or has already changed to embed Indigenous perspectives? I’d love for you to share, and you are welcome to contact me if you have any questions or are looking for ideas. Together we can build our understanding and capacity to authentically and meaningfully support our Indigenous students to feel seen, valued, and respected, and to learn in both ways. We have a long way to travel to break down systemic racism (whether intentional or not), but we can all take a step on the path towards reconciliation and take action today.


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