Bridging the cultural divide in Indigenous education

Last year Arnhem Land experienced a solar eclipse. A big challenge in remote education is ensuring traditional knowledge and culture are not eclipsed.

Last year Arnhem Land experienced a solar eclipse. A big challenge in Indigenous education is ensuring traditional knowledge and culture are not eclipsed.

Preface: This post was written almost in its entirety in December last year and February this year, at the beginning of the school year. I never posted it because I felt it was too pessimistic – Donald Thomson’s grim prognosis, which I’ve quoted below, rang too true. Looking back, I can see why I felt that way: most of it was written when I was deep in the throes of culture shock-induced depression about my inability to make a positive difference for my students. On top of that there was the mango madness of the “buildup”, which takes its toll on just about everyone who lives in the tropical north, especially transplanted southerners. I’ve left the post almost entirely unchanged, because it still has much of value in it (even though I now disagree with some of the things I wrote), and it provides a nice overview of my reflections on the challenges facing me. In Part 2 (hopefully later this week), I’ll talk about what I’ve learned over the subsequent eight months, and reflect on my successes (and failures!).

The Christmas school holidays gave me plenty of time to think about my experience teaching in Arnhem Land in the second half of 2012, and reflect on the many – and daunting – challenges associated with remote Indigenous education. The more I thought about it, the more all the little issues came back to one big one: the difficulty of creating an environment in which Yolngu (in my case) and other Aboriginal children can gain a successful level of Western (or Ngapaki*) schooling, whilst also maintaining a strong grounding in their own culture. I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since I arrived here, because at the moment it seems to me that many students are getting the worst of both worlds: they are steadily losing their own culture, but at the same time they are lost when it comes to making sense of mainstream Australia.

* The terms Ngapaki and Balanda are used to describe any non-Yolngu person.

My school is one of the few bilingual Indigenous schools left. The theory is that students should spend their first five years at school learning to speak, read and write in their first language, Yolngu Matha. (This is not in fact the first language for most students, but rather a common language understood by all Yolngu. Children first learn to speak in their respective parents’ clan languages, which are similar to Yolngu Matha.) By high school, they should be fluent in their own language (and culture), and receive the rest of their schooling in English, emerging confident and literate in both languages and cultures.

The bilingual model is controversial; it has been criticised by those who believe it disadvantages students by delaying the age at which formal instruction in English begins. On occasion, the NT Government has tried to impose English-only teaching, but the community has successfully resisted for many years. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual education does not disadvantage students; there may in fact be an advantage in learning in two languages. Nonetheless, the view of many teachers I have spoken to is that the bilingual model is not working. Very poor attendance and graduation rates in the secondary school would seem to bear that out.

However, my view is the problem is not one of language but of relevance and cultural appropriateness. Each day we are required to plough on with a curriculum that students seem to have little interest in, because it has very little relevance to their lives. (This problem is exacerbated by the introduction of the mandatory national curriculum, which is highly prescriptive and even further removed from the local experience of students.) Teaching the mainstream, it is easy to forget that a syllabus is not a value-free document; embedded in it are countless moral and philosophical assumptions, underpinned by a weltanschauung (worldview). Knowledge is not a set of facts that can be plucked from the air like apples from a tree; discrete particles of knowledge make sense only when they are incorporated into our existing knowledge base, based on an understanding of how the piece fits into the whole.

Reconciling the old and the new ways of life is a major challenge for Yolngu

A student uses a camera as part of a digital media skills workshop. Reconciling the old and the new ways of life is a major challenge for Yolngu.

The Yolngu and the Western worldviews are in philosophical conflict; their explanations for natural and social phenomena radically different. Thus an understandable response from some has been to see the two as irreconcilable. The anthropologist Donald Thomson, the first white person to live among and understand the Yolngu, wanted to create reserves that sealed Indigenous people away from the influence of missionaries and other whites, explaining that,

“Culturally the highly specialized and complex organisation of the Aborigines is unstable when it comes into contact with civilization. It begins to crumble, and chaos follows in every case. The Aboriginal is unable to grasp the philosophy of our life; he sees, and is attracted only by the ‘flashy’ and superficial, the less important, the material things – tobacco, clothes, alcohol, and objects of material wealth. He will sacrifice everything to gain possession of these, and when he gets them he loses his own interest in his own culture, he loses his grip, he can get neither backward nor forward, and he dies, ultimately, in a dreadful state of spiritual and cultural agnosticism, adrift in a no man’s land between the world of the white man and the black.”  (Thomson, pp. 191-93)

These words were written in the 1940s. In some ways they were remarkably prescient; in others, overly pessimistic. If Thomson were alive today, I think he would be pleasantly surprised at the resilience the Yolngu people have shown. Where so many others have lost their traditional culture, the Yolngu have remained relatively strong. Part of the explanation might be that the Methodist missionaries of North East Arnhem Land, whilst introducing Christianity, did not seek to wholly suppress Yolngu values and culture, but rather to marry two belief systems (McMillan, p. 288).

Finding a way to bridge the divide is the great challenge of today: how to preserve as much of the traditional knowledge as possible, whilst also equipping Yolngu to deal with the outside world. This is a practical necessity, as Richard Trudgen points out, summing up the view of many elders he spoke to while researching his book about the loss of pride, identity and purpose afflicting many Yolngu:

“It would have been good if Balanda [white people] had never come and we still lived according to the old ways… But Balanda are here now taking over our lands, resources jobs, everything. We must know their ways so we can survive.” (Trudgen, p. 123)

McMillan expands on the theme:

“A certain level of educational success is necessary for Yolngu to practise the kind of self-determination that will bring pride and meaning back to many people’s lives. Too many jobs have been taken over by white people, too many decisions are made by white people without reference to the wishes and interests of the traditional owners of the land. The ability of future generations to maintain their culture and their place in the modern world is being severely compromised by low attendance rates at bush primary schools and inadequate opportunities to pursue secondary education in a culturally appropriate environment [my emphasis]. Sure, the kids would prefer to be out hunting, fishing and kicking a footy around, but a Balanda education is essential if the communities are to overcome the burden of having to employ Balanda town clerks and accountants, electricians, plumbers and builders, medicos and teachers, shop-keepers and entrepreneurs.” (McMillan, p. 288)

Keeping the traditions alive: an elder tells the story of a sacred place.

Keeping the traditions alive: an elder tells stories about a sacred place.

So how do we begin to turn things around? I want to focus on the words culturally appropriate environment in the above passage. The message that has been stressed again and again by my principal and by experienced staff and community members since I arrived is that our teaching needs to start from where our students are at, rather than where a syllabus document says they should be. This means two things. First of all, respecting the knowledge that students have acquired through their traditional culture, rather than seeing them as empty vessels and their culture as a barrier to education. I’ve already spent a day and a half of this term involved in cultural awareness training, learning about things like gurrutu, the complex kinship system which explains how all Yolngu are related to one another. In turn, I’m using the knowledge I’m gaining here to construct a gurrutu matrix for students in my class, to understand how they’re related to one another (and also to me – I’m part of the equation because like many all Ngapaki who live here for a little while, I’ve been “adopted” into a family). I’m also spending time getting students to talk and write about themselves: their clan and totem, their skin name, their homeland, and so on. By doing this, I am hoping to show students that I respect their culture and beliefs; this will establish trust and allow them to be more receptive to the ideas I want to convey to them.

Secondly, we have to take the time to establish exactly where students are on the learning continuum, and teach accordingly. NAPLAN and other data shows that many Indigenous students in Year 9 have literacy levels equivalent to an average Year 3 student. In my experience, that’s quite accurate. The problem is, as my principal has pointed out, there’s a strong tendency to teach where students should be up to i.e. at age level. Thus many students who fall behind are never able to catch up, because they miss all the intermediate steps between where they are and where they should be. I’m not saying we should ignore the curriculum. But must go through the learning continuum, which means working our way back to where students are. After all, no one would try to teach a child to swim or ride a bike before he can walk. So why are we pressured to make students do things they’re not ready for? That only builds an environment in which failure is guaranteed.

The task ahead of educators in this context is daunting, because the logical conclusion to the problems I’ve outlined is that Ngapaki educators who want to make a difference need to become at least reasonably literate in Yolngu language and culture – a hugely difficult undertaking with such a transient workforce in remote communities. But that’s the challenge I’ve set myself.

I take heart from a discussion I had late last year with a very senior elder and teacher, a bicultural and bilingual lady who “walks in both worlds”. She believes it’s possible to bridge the gap between the two worlds. But it doesn’t start by devaluing one culture, by teaching students that their culture is inferior. To be strong in one, they have to be strong in both. In my next post, I’ll talk more about how I’ve tried to do this with my students this year.


A. McMillan, An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land, Niblock Publishing, 2007.

D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, The Miegunyah Press, 2004.

R. Trudgen, Djambatj Mala – Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000.


Why resistance is not futile

Anna Funder, All That I Am, Penguin Books, 2011

Anna Funder’s Miles Franklin-award winning novel All That I Am is an ambitious work of historical fiction with a strong foundation in fact. Funder brings to life a little-known but important part of the story of resistance to Nazism in Europe in the 1930s: that of revolutionary socialists forced to flee Germany to escape the brutal terror inflicted by the Nazis on their political opponents within days of Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933.

The novel’s central characters are members of Germany’s small independent socialist current, which vainly sought to bridge the gap between the much larger Communist and Social Democratic factions of the left. Some of these characters are Jewish but they see themselves first and foremost as revolutionaries, trying to repel the rising fascist tide and build a new society.

The narrative switches back and forth between two characters, both of whom were real people: Ernst Toller, a famous playwright and the president of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic proclaimed in the revolutionary upheaval following Germany’s defeat in the First World War; and Ruth Wesemann, an activist from a privileged Jewish background who managed to escape the Holocaust and live out her days in Sydney, where she became friends with Funder much later in her life, providing the author with the inspiration to write this book. Much of Ruth’s viewpoint is from several decades in the future as she looks back on her life. Most of the central characters are equally real – like Dora Fabian, Ernst’s lover and Ruth’s cousin; and Hans Wesemann, Ruth’s husband – or based closely on real people.

Refusing to succumb to the seeming futility of exile in London that was the fate of so many of Germany’s exiles, this small group works to undermine the Nazi regime in whatever way they can. Relying on contacts high up in the German government, they try to warn the world about Hitler’s secret arms build-up.

Restrictions imposed by the British government preventing exiles from engaging in political activity make their task extremely difficult; meanwhile fascist forces and German government spies are able to operate with impunity, making it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the British state’s indifference to the plight of the refugees makes it quite complicit in Hitler’s terror. (Most of the British political elites were quite comfortable, at least initially, with a Hitler-led Germany, seeing him as a bulwark against Russian Communism in the east.)  The refugees are forced to live in limbo, unable to work and constantly fearful their visas will be cancelled.

The courage of these characters is remarkable, especially Dora, a woman with a magnetic personality who organises tirelessly and inspires others around her. She collaborates with anti-fascist allies in Britain to publicise secret information like Goring’s construction of an air force in violation of the Versailles peace treaty Germany signed in 1919. Nazi operatives, unseen by characters and readers alike, but undoubtedly enraged by the leaks, seek to punish Dora and her friends. As the novel moves to its conclusion, the sense of inevitable catastrophe hangs ever heavier over the narrative. Even so, the way it is delivered feels like a punch in the guts.

Anna Funder

Funder’s novel is admirable for its documentation of the courage of these resisters; it is a welcome counterpoint to the simplistic views I often encounter in discussions of this period, such as portraying Hitler’s rise as unstoppable, or condemning Germans for their acquiescence to Nazism. Such views ignore the strong resistance to Nazism in the lead-up to 1933 and the incredible, unprecedented persecution Hitler authorised, beginning with Communists, socialists and trade unionists, to solidify his rule. The early part of the novel especially provides glimpses of alternatives to Nazi triumph and the hope that many on the political left felt during the Weimar period (1918-33). This was a period of revolutionary upheaval, of cultural and social experimentation, but in history and fiction alike it is often overshadowed by what followed. Funder’s characters are at the heart of the struggle in this period, championing women’s equality and freedom of artistic expression. At one point Dora declares a pressing need to “liberate half of humanity from the endless trivia of the household”. Her speech to a rally in 1925 demanding the decriminalisation of abortion is simply electrifying.

It is easy to feel despondent reading a book such as this, where our knowledge of what is coming only adds to the sense of futility and despair. But, as much as the historical record allows, this is a story of optimism, of the importance of individual sacrifice and political organisation. Towards the end of the book, Ruth reminds herself, and us, of the importance of her story: “I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting.” This theme is echoed in an equally brilliant novel I read recently: Elliot Perlmann’s The Street Sweeper, which like All That I Am is fiction deeply immersed in real historical events. A constant refrain in Perlman’s book, which examines the minute details of what went in the gas chambers, including an uprising by camp inmates, is to “Tell everyone what happened here.” We have a duty to remember the many horrors of our history, but we should not overlook the stories of the men and women who dared to struggle in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Further reading

David Marr’s review of All That I Am in The Monthly

Anna Funder in conversation with Richard Fidler on ABC Radio

Chris Harman reviews a book on the left-wing revolutionary upheavals in Germany in 1918-19