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Another Government Review. Another Disappointment.

According to a recent article in The Australian, “Indigenous issues have been cut from parts of the curriculum, and students will no longer be taught about Harmony Week, “National Reconciliation Week, or NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) week… The Year 6 study of the contribution of “individuals and groups” to Australian society will no longer include a reference to indigenous people or migrants, and will be confined to the post-Federation period.”

Educator and parent, Leesa Watego, reflects on these changes, and what they tell us about Australia’s inability to understand and respect the Indigenous peoples, cultures, and histories.

This morning I was sitting at my kitchen table catching up with an old friend over a cup of tea. Both Murri parents of teenagers, I was saying how now that I’m in my mid-forties, I find myself having to keep my cynicism in check. I was recounting how I was worried that I was on the verge of becoming jaded and bitter. A state of being that I did not want to be in. So imagine how I felt when only an hour later I read this article in The Australian. Rather than cynical, I find myself angry and tired.

With a baby photo of my four children on my desk as I type this, I look at their faces, and I am angry at this nation. I’m angry not because yesterday the curriculum was great and today it’s not. I’m angry because today’s announcement is again another slap in the face reminder that the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ stories, histories and voices are presented to the next generation of Australians is under the control of another.

As a parent of four children who have attended schools in Queensland (two have now graduated) I can tell you with 100% certainty, that Yesterday’s Curriculum was not perfect. There have been many instances over the past 15 years where I have had to correct inaccurate teaching about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, as well as many instances since the introduction of the Australian Curriculum where I have done the same. As a family, we have dealt with the stereotypes, gaps and inaccuracies, often around dinner table, or even in those quiet conversations with each of the children just before bedtime. Sometimes as parents we’ve even lamented the need for inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives because there’s so much that we need to unteach. Having to explain to my own child this past week about the context around the 2007 Andrew Bolt article she was given as part of her history assessment preparation is something I wish I didn’t have to do. But I have no choice.

In addition to being angry, I’m also tired. Tired that everytime there is a perceived step forward, a change of government, or a change in mood, will inevitably drag us back to the past. Perhaps the tiredness is actually disillusionment. Maybe the role of government is to provide broad sweeping frameworks, and it’s up to individuals and communities to add the flesh? Yet the refreshed curriculum isn’t value neutral is it? There is apparently a need for a ‘greater focus on Western civilisation’. Cause clearly this country isn’t White enough.

Systems are made up of individuals. Each of us responds to and acts upon different stimuli. This refreshed curriculum will no doubt influence many to remove things we believe should be present. Regardless of these changes, many educators will continue to work towards developing meaningful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, voices, and texts. And many will do it on their own time and out of their own purse. And they will do it not out of a perceived sense of White Guilt, but because they want to better educators. They will do it because they know that their students are up for big conversations and bigger ideas. They know that ALL Australian students benefit from having exposure to as many sides of the story as possible.

I refuse to let our children be pigeonholed by other people’s stereotypes. Like many Murri parents, we know our children have multi-faceted identities and lives. Similarly their culture is multi-faceted, does not and should not be made to simply conform to “where they naturally fit”. In the refreshed curriculum Indigenous “references” are to be contained in history, geography and art. Such an approach flies in the face of our children’s humanity, failing to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as fully human. ‘Aboriginal’ thus becomes an historical issue, a geographical phenomena or an artistic approach. There is no science, economics, mathematics, political or legal dimension to Indigenous knowledges. Dr Christopher Matthews from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance (ATSIMA), a Quandamooka Mathematician is doing groundbreaking work with communities across Australia, empowering children, their families and communities, to see Mathematics as cultural practice.

Today’s announcement is a huge disappointment. It reminds us how insular and narrow we as a nation have become. As a mother I refuse however to be swayed from believing that we can be much more than that. I will keep my cynicism in check and remain focused on the future that lies far ahead of me. I commit to continuing to provide support to these dedicated educators as much as humanly possible. While as a family we will continue to work to develop the critical literacies that each one of our four children needs to develop in order to survive and thrive in this country.

I know that many teachers share our frustrations. Let’s move forward in solidarity.

IndigenousX reached out to Dr Chris Matthews from ATSIMA to see if he would also like to comment on the regressive changes named in the Australian article. His statement is included in full below:

After reading the article, I was appalled about how much Indigenous content will be stripped from the national curriculum. The only conclusion I can come to is that the current Australian Government and the Australian Curriculum Authority simply do not understand the significance and importance of Indigenous content in the curriculum. Like all curriculum topics there must be a clear reason why we include certain content in the curriculum. This process is reflected in the article, in a very positive way, by the inclusion of “respectful relationships” in the curriculum to address the issue of domestic violence; a very important initiative. However, what seems to be missed by our educational leaders and policy makers is that Indigenous content is also about “respectful relationships”.

At this point in our History, Australia still lives under the shadow of Terra Nullius or empty land; the doctrine under which Australia was colonised. This doctrine is the start of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. It is our shared history. This history had two main effects: 1) the devaluing of Indigenous cultures and peoples as being simplistic and irrelevant; and subsequently 2) non-Indigenous people have very little understanding of and knowledge about Indigenous people in Australia. This void of knowledge created by Terra Nullius is filled with stereotypes and misconceptions that continues to devalue us and our cultures. This creates a cycle of oppression that needs to be broken and breaking this cycle is the fundamental purpose of having Indigenous content in the national curriculum. It is our hope for a positive future.

Including Indigenous content in the national curriculum is for ALL students. It provides a platform for Indigenous people to see their culture, their language and their way of life valued by the education system. It provides a mechanism for having bilingual education, to support language and culture revival and, consequently supporting the identity, and health and wellbeing of Indigenous students. It provides an opportunity for non-Indigenous students (and families) to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people and participate in cultural activities alongside Indigenous people. It provides an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to learn our languages, to dance with us, sing with us, hear our stories and gain insight into our ancient and contemporary knowledges. It is about respectful relationships with clear benefits for us as a nation.

So when the article talks about no longer including Indigenous people in “contributions of individuals and groups to Australia society”, that this topic will be further confined to the “post-Federation period”, and that Indigenous content has no relevance in the maths and science curriculum, this sends a clear message that Indigenous people will continue to be silenced in the curriculum. Students will not get the opportunity to know about David Unaipon, Indigenous astronomy or how Indigenous people partner with scientists on climate science, land management and the development of modern drugs to name of few. Sadly, we will be reverting to a curriculum that is based on the doctrine of Terra Nullius which will maintain the chasm between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

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