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An Indigenous school in Shepparton, Victoria, is leading the way in incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies into the curriculum. By Alana Rosenbaum.

Teaching Indigenous culture in schools

Shania McEntee, a student at ASHE.
Credit: Alana Rosenbaum

In the lead-up to the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations, Tui Crumpen wore a T-shirt that read “Don’t celebrate ’88”. As a Torres Strait Islands teenager, she knew that the event was cause for mourning, not celebration, but she wasn’t clear why. Of her own history, she was largely ignorant. But her identity was beginning to rub up against enshrined truths of white Australia. “I was taught in school that Captain Cook discovered Australia. But at the same time I was saying, ‘I am an Indigenous person.’ ”

Crumpen is now Indigenous partnerships manager at the Academy of Sport, Health and Education (ASHE), in the northern Victorian city of Shepparton. With a background in sociology and Aboriginal health, she came to ASHE, a school with 90 per cent Aboriginal enrolment, and was tasked with devising an Indigenous studies curriculum. Her approach was to recall her own teenage incomprehension and ask herself: “How could I have been better prepared to understand what was going on around me?”

Crumpen’s resulting course, taught over four semesters, provides an overview of 60,000 years of Aboriginal history. It covers Aboriginal science, religion, culture and astronomy, considering sky, land and seascapes. It includes excursions to sites of cultural significance and puts students in touch with elders. For now, it is taught to 40 students at the upper levels of ASHE, but there are moves to adapt it for mainstream classrooms.

Shepparton is home to 2082 Indigenous people, according to the 2011 census, representing less than 3 per cent of its population. ASHE, with a student body of 80, is the only school in the region pitched to Aboriginal children. At lower levels, it conducts programs for students enrolled in mainstream schools. At the upper levels, full-time students study the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL), a hands-on alternative to years 11 and 12 overseen by TAFE.

Crumpen’s course fits into the VCAL stream and is based around 24 booklets she assembled. When designing the curriculum she drew heavily on her knowledge of sociology. She didn’t want to replicate the approach that many high schools take to Indigenous studies, marginalising it as an elective.

“If students take anything away, I hope that it’s that Aboriginal people weren’t just wandering and ranging loosely over the landscape. I want them to understand the rich and intricate social organisation that developed over an extraordinarily long period of time,” Crumpen says.

Earlier this year, representatives of a working group of 50 schools across Shepparton and the neighbouring Shire of Moira met with ASHE staff with a view to adapting Crumpen’s course for mainstream classrooms. Tim Warwick, a humanities teacher at Wanganui Park Secondary College in Shepparton, who attended the meeting, said that one of the strongest elements of the curriculum is its on-country learning component, in which students meet elders and visit places of cultural significance. Warwick recalled teaching a class on the impact of colonisation when he started at Wanganui. He wanted to bring in a speaker to describe life on an Aboriginal mission, but didn’t know who to contact. Many other teachers, he said, face a similar dilemma.

“There are times when schools want to get elders in but don’t know where to find them. Often they’ll end up taking a default approach, getting information from a textbook or off the internet,” Warwick says.

Most secondary schools from prep to year 12 are bound by directives of the Australian Curriculum, which places Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures among three “cross-curriculum priorities”. The other two are Australia’s engagement with Asia and sustainability. This means Indigenous studies is not taught as a stand-alone subject, but rather as part of other disciplines, such as history and geography. Warwick says that under the Australian Curriculum structure, Crumpen’s course could be offered to year 10 students as an elective. Alternatively, elements of it could be woven into broader disciplines. Traditional dance, for instance, would have a place in performing arts and Indigenous storytelling in English.

Warwick lamented the dearth of local Indigenous history taught at schools in the region. His own school, for instance, is about 60 kilometres south-east of the former Cummeragunja mission, in 1939 the site of the first Aboriginal mass strike. According to Warwick, the historic walk-off should be on the syllabus. “We are recognising what needs to be changed, and trying to rectify it,” he says.

Shepparton has the highest youth unemployment in Victoria, with 20 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 out of work. But among Indigenous youth, joblessness is as high as 50 per cent, according to some estimates. ASHE was set up a decade ago with the intention of closing the gap. Director Leonie Dwyer said that its founders had noticed many kids were attending sports training but skipping school. ASHE, which has partnerships with the University of Melbourne and the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club in Shepparton, used sport as a carrot to draw teenagers back into the education system.

“Most of the young people who come through ASHE – not all, but the majority – have felt broken down and have felt that mainstream schooling wasn’t suitable for them and wasn’t addressing their needs,” Dwyer says.

The school is founded on the premise that a strong Aboriginal identity is key to success, Dwyer says. “To meet and be taught by Aboriginal people, who students see as role models, starts to lift them. And then we have conversations about their identity, their family history, who their people are.”

When 17-year-old Shania McEntee began at ASHE a year ago, she knew little about the Aboriginal side of her family. Her father, a Yorta Yorta man, lives in Canberra. She speaks to him regularly over the phone but is estranged from his relatives. During her first few months at ASHE, McEntee discussed her lineage with staff and discovered she was related to one of her teachers, Corey Walker. McEntee plans to take Walker up on an offer to meet other family members. “I’ve promised myself I’ll do it by the end of the year,” she says. “I’m nervous the family will be like, ‘We don’t know who you are’, but I know that a lot of Aboriginal families are more accepting than that.”

McEntee, who is studying horticulture as part of VCAL, has been on a steep learning curve at ASHE. When she began at the school, some of the lingo baffled her. Classmates would talk about “having a yarn”, which she later learnt meant an intimate chat (“like a D&M”). And when she visited Cummeragunja mission on a school excursion earlier this year, she knew little of its history. “When they take us out, a lot of people know stuff and I feel dumbfounded,” she says. “I feel a little out of place … and like a white person.”

Crumpen’s classes, McEntee says, help her to catch up. Today, she’s among 15 students attending a presentation on the Murray River. Corey Walker refers to the waterway as Dungala (meaning “big water”) and tells the legend of its formation: Biami, the creator, dispatched his wife from the high country with a giant serpent in tow for protection, and when Biami sent down the rains, water pooled in the trail that the serpent made, slithering across the landscape. On the overhead projector, Walker shows a bird’s-eye view of the Murray. “It looks like a snake, doesn’t it?” he says to the class. “It looks like a big snake has been through that country.”

When Walker sits down, Crumpen takes over, with a more conventional explanation on the formation of waterways. Students refer to a booklet that includes a photograph of Snake, by Sidney Nolan, displayed at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. Rivers, the text explains, start in mountains as trickling streams. They travel through valleys and plains and feed into rivers, lakes and oceans. Crumpen then goes on to teach about the broad-shelled long-necked turtle, the formation of billabongs and the Kati Thanda, also known as Lake Eyre. She tells of how, as a child in Kununurra, she saw a crocodile taking sun on the banks of the river. “It’s the ones you can’t see that you should worry about,” her father had told her. Referring back to the booklet, she asks the class: “So, how many countries does the Nile cross?”

Crumpen later describes her approach as “earth science through an Indigenous prism”.

“We know we have two worlds to walk in. We give information from two perspectives so that students can understand and live with the benefits that both worlds have to offer.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "Learning country". Subscribe here.

Alana Rosenbaum
is a Melbourne-based writer and video journalist.