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Inside Teaching : April 2010
Inside Teaching | April 2010 INDIGENOUS EDUCATION 14 Identity: it’s arguably the most critical issue that confronts all of us in relation to the delivery of Indigenous education. By identity I don’t mean a form of personal singularity, I mean the diversity of identity that characterises Indigenous education. How do we identify ourselves individually and collectively? How are we identified, individually and collectively, by others? What do we identify, as teachers, when we label our students as ‘Indigenous’ or ‘non-Indigenous’? What do we identify, as teachers, when we use the term ‘Indigenous education’? However we answer those questions, at some level we’ll end up talking about, and hopefully valuing, diversity and difference. It’s our understanding and valuing of diversity and difference that enables us to deliver effective Indigenous education services or, in truth, any effective education. Without it, we’d only ever see the world through our own eyes, blinkered by our own values and beliefs, incapable of moving beyond our current attitudes and practices. The optimist in me assumes that we educators do understand and value diversity and difference, but the fact is that the identities of Aboriginal Australians as individuals or clan groups have, since 1788, not only not been valued, but have been actively denigrated – and our education systems have played and continue to play a lead role in this in classrooms across the nation. If you don’t think the question of Aboriginal identity is contentious, it’s worth reading John Gardiner- Garden’s paper, ‘Defining Aboriginality in Australia,’ prepared for the Commonwealth parliament in 2003. As Gardiner-Garden notes, ‘Two very different definitions are concurrently in use. One, predominating in legislation, defines an Aboriginal as “a person who is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia.” The other, predominating in program administration but also used in some legislation and court judgements, defines an Aboriginal as someone “who is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia, identifies as an Aboriginal and is accepted by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal.”’ The emphases are mine. Critical, among many changes that occurred after the 1967 referendum, was the establishment of consultative bodies in Aboriginal education, demonstrating a recognition of the need to engage Indigenous people in the education of their children. In 1977, the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC) was established as an advisory body to the Commonwealth Minister for Education. This all-Indigenous committee drew representation from all states and territories, with members selected for their experience in formal education or for their value as community representatives. This was a critical body in the history of Australia’s Indigenous education for, following the long and persistent history of Indigenous exclusion and neglect, this representative group defined an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as ‘a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he lives.’ While we might, of course, usefully add ‘she lives’ the NAEC’s agreed definition was a critical step in addressing the failure of the educational system to cater for the needs of Indigenous students for it indicated an acknowledgement that non- Indigenous people weren’t necessarily the best people to speak about Indigenous educational needs and that it was critical to involve Indigenous people in educational decision-making at the highest levels. In highlighting the diversity of Indigenous peoples and their needs, the NAEC also supported the stance of the former Aboriginal Consultative Group that reported to the Schools Commission It’s time we recognised, understood and valued the diverse and different identities of Indigenous people, if we want to improve Indigenous education, says Jeannie Herbert. of 1975, that Aboriginal people wanted education that would enable them to operate successfully in both their own culture and the wider Australian society. Unfortunately, many Indigenous students participating in education programs in Australian schools continue to have their identity as Indigenous Australians regularly questioned by their fellow students or, worse, by their teachers. The time has definitely come for our schools to accept their responsibility to provide leadership through education to effect the attitudinal change that will enable genuine reconciliation in Australian society. The critical first step is for us as teachers to understand and value the cultural differences that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and also between individual Indigenous students. By recognising and valuing such difference, at an individual and collective level, we teachers can be more effective and powerful collaborators with all of our students. ■ Professor Jeannie Herbert holds the Chair in Indigenous Studies at Charles Sturt University, New South Wales. REFERENCES Gardiner-Garden, J.2003. Defining Aboriginality in Australia. Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra. www.aph.gov.au/library/Pubs/ CIB/2002-03/03cib10.pdf House of Representatives Select Committee on Aboriginal Education. (1985). Aboriginal education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. Available at www.aph.gov.au/ house/committee/atsia/education.pdf Indigenous insights invites discussion of a range of issues relevant to Indigenous education. 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