Last week a number of major national and international media outlets were outraged at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) for “re-writing history.”
Although this claim was completely unfounded, it did spark a much-needed dialogue about the true identity of Australia.
While educational institutions continue to cast men like James Cook and Arthur Phillip as heroes and pioneers of this country, Indigenous history takes a backseat.
Unfortunately, this leaves many Indigenous children and youth unsure or confused about how their identity and history fit into the story of this nation; I know it did for me.
Growing up I was always sure of my Aboriginal identity. Both of my parents had strong family ties and we would often spend time with community.
My parents, especially my Father would always give us history lessons about our families and I had a strong sense of pride in our family history.
Both of my grandparents on my Father’s side were born and raised on missions, where their families’ lives were heavily controlled
My Grandfather’s parents were forced to work away from him for rations of flour and meat. He attended school on the mission and would talk about the harsh and cruel rule of the missionaries there.
My Mother spent the majority of her younger life living in a tent or shearer’s quarters, and when her family moved closer to town she lived on the Aboriginal reserve in a tin shack with a dirt floor.
She didn’t even finish year 8.
It was hard reconciling this with the history of Australia I was taught in primary school.
As I progressed through to high school, things got worse.
We learnt about World War I and II, the Eureka Stockade and many other notable events that contributed to the “identity” of this nation.
We briefly touched on the Stolen Generation, segregation and assimilation policies, and Native Title; and yet I remember having very little discussion around the impact of these events on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Perhaps teachers felt ill equipped to talk about these issues or they believed these differing accounts were far to complex for teenagers to comprehend?
Pre-invasion history was glossed over; We were ‘primitive, nomadic people.’
Lessons on Indigenous culture were simplistic; ‘Indigenous People were one with the land.”
These are ways of describing us that fail to explore the intrinsic and spiritual relationship Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander have to the land and environment.
How refreshing is it that an educational institution is teaching the true reality of Australian history, warts and all?
UNSW introduced the Indigenous Terminology Guide back in 2012. This guide aims to help lecturers create a safe space for discussion about Indigenous history, or ‘real’ Australian history.
For Indigenous students it allows us to discuss our own identities, and in particular how our identity intersects with complex social theory and the complex history of this nation while not being required to justify ourselves to other students or educate the plain ignorant.
In my second year of university I was required to do such a thing.
During a Criminal Law lecture the cohort were asked to talk about their court observations. A classmate of mine instead decided to speak about the drunk “Aboriginal lady on the bus”, describing how uncomfortable her behaviour made this student’s trip into court.
This could have been an opportune moment to discuss the impact of invasion on Indigenous peoples and how this impact is still very real today.
Instead, the class started discussing the various homeless, drunk and stoned Aboriginal people they had encountered throughout their lives. I will never understand why this was appropriate. The Lecturer eventually changed the topic but I had already begun to cry.
I was put in a position where I had to choose between two impossible options. Should I just harden up and get over it, or suck it up and try and educate the ignorant?
Expecting marginalised people to justify their own identity and experience is the ultimate proof of privilege.
My family’s stories, and the stories of so many Aboriginal families across the country, include injustices that are very recent. The effect of invasion and colonisation continues to have impacts on the lives of people today.
Numerous studies and reports indicate that the removal of Indigenous people from their land had profound impacts on their spirituality and identity.
Additional studies suggest that removing children from their mothers and families had immeasurable impacts on generations of people. Intergenerational trauma is a real thing.
How could well-educated students have no sense of the bigger picture? This is easy to answer: our society indulges the fantasy that Australia was discovered in 1770 and settled peacefully. In doing so we are denying the true history of this country.
The question that remains unanswered is: why is it so hard for Australia to embrace the ugly aspects of our history?
Australia needs to embrace the truth about its history. In doing so we won’t lose 200 years of history but rather gain 40,000. How much of a richer culture would Australia have?
But first we need to get over our love affair with the Cook mythology.
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