By Lina Frunck, Holly Knight & Leif Enrique Salinas
In the Tweed Valley, surrounded by mountains and centred by the sacred Wollumbin - now known as Mt. Warning - was home to Indigenous tribes over 10,000 years ago. During the colonisation and the injustices that followed, their population dwindled like other tribes across Australia. Knowledge and heritage were lost. The repercussions continue today. Indigenous people are currently disadvantaged in school, discriminated against in workplaces, and their culture forgotten. This story is about communities coming together in different ways to right the wrongs in Australian history in terms of Indigenous culture. Meet young Indigenous students as they learn; elders who want to pass down their knowledge; and mentors who are motivated to help.
In the middle of her career as an Indigenous teacher, Janette found herself walking down the hallway of Grafton High School to the principal's office. She had used the ‘I’ word.
“A kid went home and was talking to his mother about the history of this land, saying: ‘the teacher said that Australia was invaded!’,” she explains. Janette was that teacher and saying the invasion was not allowed.
More often than not, Australian students are taught about the first settlement rather than invasion, and the word itself suggest it was a peaceful transition.
“It wasn’t peaceful. We were the first to die of diseases, to be massacred, to be raped, to have our old people killed,” Janette explains.
The older generation was vital to pass down information to the future generations and their loss had major implications.
“Our old people, were our computer systems: they were our memory, they were all our languages. The whole lot went with them.” As a result, Indigenous people in Australia have limited knowledge on their own culture and their languages are still dying.
Janette understands how confronting the word ‘invasion’ can be, especially in relation to Australia Day. For her, and the indigenous communities, it’s called Survival Day. Despite the current challenges that Indigenous people face, Janette is confident in their ability to overcome anything as a collective.
“We are still here, they tried to get rid of us,” she continues, “and we breed really well!”
School is not always a friendly place for Indigenous teachers.
“Especially if you’re the only one,” Janette adds.
Janette points out that the young, non-Indigenous students are not the problem; it is the older generations who never received proper education on Indigenous matters. Like the student’s mother in the example above, or the principal.
Before the national curriculum was put into effect and Queensland had its own curriculum, students in year 9 to 12 did not have to complete a history course, it was an elective. According to Janette, the young students at that time did not learn about Australia’s first history.
Today, in the national curriculum, history is mandatory for all grades. However, Janette mentions that they do not necessarily include aboriginal studies - it is still an elective and usually only available in year 11 and 12.
Plenty of teachers, however, are not comfortable teaching such a course.
“Every single syllabus tells you that you must teach lessons with an indigenous perspective,” she says, “but many teachers, because they’re non-Indigenous, feel really like a fish out of water.”
As a result, non-Indigenous teachers might skip over that material or work through it quickly to get it over with. This leaves Indigenous and non-Indigenous students with little knowledge of a prominent culture in Australian society.
Nerang High School Staff Interview
Janette was called to her son Jackson's school because he refused to participate in dance class. Jackson told his mother that his teacher - a non-indigenous woman - was showing them the Kangaroo dance all wrong. Jackson was not allowed to dance it the way he had been taught by his Indigenous community, so he had refused to dance at all.
“I had to support him in that! And then, I had to try to talk to that principal, who I’m sure still hates me today,” she recalls.
Janette thinks the school should have had an Indigenous dance teacher come in instead, but often they are not paid for their services.
“They want to teach Japanese in that school, they’d find someone who was Japanese and speak Japanese and they’d pay him.” It should be the same for Indigenous people.
“I really like being a mentor at AIME because I think it’s important for these kids to have role models and I love giving back to my community where I can and helping people succeed and have opportunities after high school.”
"As a mentor, i enjoy having the opportunity to hear each mentees individual story and in return share with them my own journey through high school and AIME. It is so rewarding watching students grow and progress when they realize that they have the ability to achieve what they desire after school."
“I love coming to AIME because AIME helps me know what I want to do in the future. They question me and help me think more into what I want to do.”
Program Coordinator - Bond University
“I like working for AIME because it gives me the opportunity to impart some of the wisdom that I’ve picked up over the years, that I think the next generation, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids, might need to hear to help them become the leaders of tomorrow. I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do that in any other capacity, other than with AIME”
“I really like mentoring, especially with AIME, because it gives Indigenous communities the opportunity to show who they really are and aspire to do better than what the general population of Australia thinks they can be.”
“I like coming to AIME because I get to reconnect with my culture that I don’t really get to be surrounded by at school, and am able to make new friendships with people I don’t usually see.”
“I would recommend AIME to other Indigenous people because they can learn a lot from this program and it can lead them to what they want to do when they grow up. I think it’s a good way to inspire indigenous students because it’s just a great program, and everyone here is amazing.”
“I love being a mentor at AIME, mainly because of the relationships and connections I have with the kids. It’s always exciting meeting new students and hearing about the journeys they have been through, and I love being able to help them through that journey.”
“I find I’m not very good at communicating with kids this age, so it’s a good opportunity to learn about this age group and really try and give some of my skills and experiences that I took from high school and hand them on to these guys to see if they can use them to do alright at school.”
“I like meeting all of the mentors. They are here to help us which is pretty cool.”
After 28 years of being an Indigenous teacher, Janette has had enough of restrictions and racist comments.
“I have no faith in the public education sector,” she says. Janette has worked to improve conditions for Indigenous people her entire career with little to no impact. She has put her energy into mentoring programs for Indigenous students which can help them to go to university when the time comes. As an elder in the community, she is also involved in the playgroup run by Lara and Charrie. She sees the playgroup as a great opportunity for young Indigenous children to learn about their cultural language.
“The kids that are involved in these groups are way ahead of any kid intellectually, even in high school, because they have language,” she claims.
They have language, dance, and culture that most Indigenous children do not receive in school or at home.
While in the past, the Indigenous communities have lost a large chunk of their cultural heritage. Their future is focused on gaining it back and sharing it, just as they do in the playgroup.
“This is our cultural intelligence that nobody can take away from us,” Janette says.