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Aborigines Make New Beginnings in Outback Schools

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies twin goals for the education process: the full development of the human personality and the strengthening of respect for human rights. The two go hand in hand. In this the final year of the U.N. Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004)—a decade dedicated to empowering people to stand up for their rights and to respect the rights of others—it is appropriate to consider whether these interrelated goals have been realized in the indigenous realm. Guest edited by the University of Kansas’ Bartholomew Dean, this issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly speaks to new beginnings.


A wide range of international covenants and conventions reference indigenous peoples’ rights to education in their own languages and cultures and utilizing indigenous methodologies. International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 (Article 27), for example, declares that education programs for indigenous peoples shall incorporate indigenous knowledge, histories, and value systems. It also states that there should be a progressive transfer of responsibility for the conduct of educational programs to indigenous peoples. Governments shall also recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to establish their own educational institutions. Likewise, the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights obliges states to provide an acceptable and adaptable education of sufficient quality and content to ensure the attainment of the twin goals of the Universal Declaration. How are indigenous peoples placed in relation to the achievement of these goals? A case study from one of the more isolated parts of the indigenous world reveals the nature of the challenge, and the victory, over the past 10 years.


In the mid-1980s during a staff meeting at an Outback Australian school to discuss a new curriculum relevant to the needs of Aboriginal youth, Aboriginal teachers sat cross-legged on the floor, scattered, at the back and sides of the auditorium. Non-Aboriginal teachers sat in chairs in orderly rows facing the speaker, the non-Aboriginal principal. Aborigines at this remote community could speak English as a second language but the non-Aborigines could not reciprocate—so the language of communication was English. Aborigines appeared uninterested in the proceedings. Some were mumbling under their breath, while others fell asleep. For many there was burning dissatisfaction at their lack of voice.


The Aborigines had difficulty expressing their ideas in English. They lacked self-confidence and could not describe in any depth their feelings on life and learning in a fledgling township of just 2,000 people, in which the members of 15 different clans were living side-by-side for the first time. They wanted to speak in their own language, on their feet, but the setting was wrong. Motivation was lacking. If the language of the meeting were Aboriginal, then the whole power structure would have been turned on its head. Opinions could have been brought forward, discussed, challenged, and an idea might have emerged to be developed into a policy that all would embrace. Yet in the mid-1980s there was largely silence from the Aborigines. Aboriginal opinions were not solicited or, if they were, the Aborigines did not believe they would be taken seriously. Whatever thoughts they might have had would remain private for the time being, perhaps to be brought up later that night around the campfire, among friends, or maybe to just vanish into thin air. Under the bright lights of the auditorium it was as if the Aborigines were struck dumb. The meeting was a travesty, a farce. It was a waste of time. And how do I know? I was a teacher there.


Aborigines did not know what “whites” wanted for, or from, their children, and yet they allowed these outsiders to determine local educational priorities. They gave the outsiders free rein to spend “Aboriginal money” and did not openly dispute the outsiders’ self-assigned leadership role. Why? Aborigines wanted the best of both worlds—to glean what they could from non-Aboriginal teachings while maintaining the essentials of their own traditions. But now they had lost confidence in themselves. And this Aboriginal school was progressive—even exceptional.


A bilingual program funded by the government permitted the teaching of one Aboriginal language to the kids on the understanding that they would gradually “progress” to English with each succeeding year, applying the skills of language acquisition (reading and writing) to the dominant Australian language. But 15 languages were in common usage in this community and many Aboriginal parents were concerned at the culture loss associated with having their children fluent only in someone else’s Aboriginal language—a language that, while familiar, was not that of the “songlines” that define a person’s links to the country, ancestors, and “countrymen.” To speak a foreign tongue at that place where your spirit emerged from the soil or water is to be a stranger to the ancestors—and to the birds, the animals, the fish, and other creatures with whom you share a totemic essence. In other words, what had been introduced as an important step in facilitating cultural preservation and empowerment had become a step whose real benefits were being hotly debated by Aborigines. Many Aboriginal teachers argued that a “dialect” program to allow for the full participation of parents in the education of their children was a fundamental human right. Such a program would recognize the significance of students’ Native tongues in terms of their personal growth, and encourage respect for the rights of other language speakers.


A nationwide Aboriginal land rights campaign in the 1970s had resulted in allowing a lucky few Aboriginal communities in the remotest regions, including this community in the Outback, to have a controlling hand in the management of their day-to-day affairs. The Christian missionaries had departed and temporary administrators had packed their bags for their own homelands. Aborigines were soon to find out, however, that they had little or no say in what their children were learning in the classroom, how they were being taught, or who was teaching them.


Today, an education revolution is underway. “Gray hair” Aborigines are reclaiming their role as educators and are once again seeing themselves, and being seen as, the community’s greatest resource. The Outback Aboriginal school now has an Aboriginal principal and Aborigines hold most senior positions, though the institution itself remains a largely non-Aboriginal one. The dramatic and noteworthy change is in the way in which Aborigines working beyond the confines of bureaucracy have embraced the concept of “education.” Twenty years ago, a non-Aboriginal “adult educator” performed the essential tasks of arranging for contractors who would teach people how to repair car engines and outboard motors, how to obtain a driver’s license, basic literacy, and so on. In 2003 a new generation of Aboriginal adult educators have stepped forward. This story is typical. I am not only referring to the growing number of Aborigines who are undertaking tertiary studies at universities and regional colleges of advanced education in such subjects as health, teaching, and administration, and then winning positions of responsibility in various government instrumentalities. The most exciting developments are from society’s bedrock—for example, a group of Aboriginal women have developed a Yalu, or “nurturing center,” where they teach the children those subjects not included in the formal curriculum but deemed essential for physical and spiritual growth. These topics include the importance of family, the obligation to share, and the meaning of the sacred. Likewise, the men of this community have established a “knowledge center,” a place where young and old gather to tell stories and learn about their history and culture. The kids learn what they can from the non-Aboriginal system for one part of the day, and then the nurturers take over. Also significantly, in what is described by Australian IT as the world’s first software system being tested and perfected by indigenous people seeking to map their own knowledge, Aborigines are striving to electronically capture the intricacies of cultural information and human networks of unparalleled complexity. Everything from ecological information, to dance steps, to music and song and photographs are being recorded and stored online as a resource for present and future generations. A supportive state government has been an essential ingredient in ensuring these stunning developments, but it is not the most significant contributing factor. In the late 1990s, a growing number of Aborigines stopped doubting themselves or their rights to education in their own languages and cultures. No longer would they allow others to decide what was in the best interests of their children. They decided they would be consulted on all educational matters and ultimately determine the structure of the schooling process.


The turnaround over the past 10 to 20 years at this Outback Aboriginal community has been inspirational, but it is just one example of the transition currently underway in indigenous settings around the globe. In this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, the reader will recognize just how great these developments have been. The growing awareness and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples by formerly recalcitrant governments is facilitating a growing confidence in the rights of self-determining communities to develop their own curricula and teach in a manner they determine. Of course much more work needs to be done, but this is a good beginning.


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Ian S. McIntosh is senior editor for Cultural Survival.

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