To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. To provide a meaningful counterpoint we will also be publishing a series of creative, critical and insightful responses to these works from contemporary writers and artists.
See comic artist Joshua Santospirito’s response Other Aboriginal Realities and Myths of Education.
Driving north from Alice Springs along the Stuart Highway, only two monuments to the civilising influence of Europeans in Central Australia are encountered in the first hundred and thirty miles: the road-houses of Aileron and Tea-tree. Soon after Tea-tree, a turn-off indicates the eighty miles of track which lead north-west, through Anningie Station, to Willowra: the prosaic landmarks of the highway are soon left behind. The mountains, hills and rocks seen from the track are, for the Aboriginal people, enduring reminders of the legendary events which originally gave form to the land scape. The most conspicuous are Central Mount Stuart (Maliki-jarra kurlangu), connected with the myth of the Two Dogs; Mount Leichhardt (Ngarnka), which is a Moon dreaming site; and Mount Barkly (Pawu), where the Rainbow Serpent has a waterhole.
Our goal is Willowra Station, a property of nearly 2000 square miles, which stretches along the northern half of the Lander River (Yarlalinji). The Lander rises in the south in the Reynolds Range, and flows—in the short season of the year when it contains water—through several other cattle stations before it reaches Willowra (the Aboriginal name for which is Wirliyajarrayi). Near the boundary between Mount Barkly Station and Willowra, the river divides to form an island, known as White Stone (Liirlpari). The Budgerigar dreaming is said to have come here from the soakage of Patirlirri, some twenty miles to the west.
Patirlirri is an important site both historically and mythologically. Here, during the Coniston massacre (1928), two old men were shot dead as they clung to the sacred quartzite stone of the Moon dreaming. Patirlirri is not, however, just a place of death, but also of resurrection. It was here that the sons of the Mulga-tree men came back to life, initially in the form of budgerigars, after being consumed by their mothers at Yinapaka (Lake Surprise).1 This large seasonal lake lies at the northern extremity of the Lander River, just outside the Willowra property. From here the waters of the river disperse into the Tanami desert.
This vast landscape provides the Aboriginals of Willowra with the myths upon which their religious life and social order are based. We can therefore call them a traditional people. There are, however, several major ways in which their life today differs from that of their ancestors: they are now sedentary, instead of nomadic; they have a cash economy, instead of depending on hunting and gathering for their livelihood; and they send their youngsters (or some of them) to school to be educated.
It is schooling at Willowra which is the subject of this article; but religion is the central, co-ordinating factor of Aboriginal culture. Everything else, including the white man’s education system, has, or should have, a supporting role. The Aboriginal people of Willowra want education essentially in order to learn the skills necessary to protect their traditions. This situation is not unique to Willowra. Elizabeth Sommerlad, in her recent book on Kormilda College, has remarked that Aboriginal people in general ‘want education that places Aboriginal culture and values at the core, supplementing it by basic skills required for coping with the dominant society—most particularly oral English, reading, writing, and numeracy.’2
The people of Willowra would like their children to learn these skills not only in order to cope with white people; they would actually like to dispense with white people altogether. In the time that my wife and I have been teaching at Willowra (nearly two years), the Aboriginal council has reduced the number of white adults living here from nine to three—ourselves and the bookkeeper. The three of us are, moreover, conscious that our continued presence is tolerated because we are needed to train Aboriginal people to run the community ’s affairs on their own.
The Aboriginal people here at present handle stockwork, fencing, plant maintenance, the store and the clinic themselves; they also work with Europeans in the office and the school. Some of these things they do well, others not so well. But considerations of efficiency do not play a great part in their plans for independence. Their priorities are different to those of white people. They are not aiming primarily to run the cattle station as a profitable business, but rather as a front to allow traditional life to continue without interference.
Willowra has been associated with the cattle industry since the 1920s, when the first herd was brought by Nugget Morton, who built himself a rough shelter here, the ruins of which are still to be seen at Mud Hut Bore. Morton was implicated in the Coniston massacre—a reaction by white settlers to the concerted efforts of local tribes to get them off Aboriginal land—after which Willowra came into the hands of other cattlemen. The next was Jimmy Wickham. He was succeeded by Jack Parkinson, who built the first permanent dwelling. The latter ’s son, Edgar Parkinson, sold Willowra in 1973 to the Australian government, which handed it back to the Aboriginal people.
During their time at Willowra, the Parkinsons looked after a number of Aboriginal children, one of whom was later to become a man of some responsibility both at Willowra itself and in national Aboriginal affairs. Stumpy Martin was appointed as the first chairman of the board of directors of the Willowra Pastoral Company, when the property was restored to Aboriginal ownership. He is also the Northern Territory’s representative on the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission, which has the function of buying properties like Willowra for the Aboriginals.
Willowra itself is not Stumpy ’s country, which lies a short distance to the south at Mt. Barkly. The ‘bosses’ of Willowra are three brothers of the Jungarrayi subsection: Long Mick, Willowra Jimmy, and George. Their affiliation with this particular tract of land is connected with their ownership of certain rituals of the Budgerigar dreaming. There are, however, other important family heads among the 170 Aboriginal people living at Willowra. Six of the most influential men live, with their families, in houses built by the now defunct Aboriginal-operated Willowra Housing Association, and the rest of the people in humpies, of fairly traditional design, but constructed largely from European materials, such as galvanised iron and canvas.3
The school was established in Edgar Parkinson ’s day, in 1969. It consisted at that time of a caravan for a classroom and another as residence for the teacher. Since then, a demountable classroom block has been added, and seven teachers have come and gone.
My wife and I arrived at the beginning of 1976, as innocents fresh from teacher training, with hopes of devoting much time to developing friendly relations with the Aboriginal community, learning the language, and finding out what Aboriginal parents themselves expected from the school. It was, however, several months before we could even make a start on these projects. There were a number of reasons for this. When we first arrived, all our time was taken up with unravelling the mysteries of the Curriculum, working out what to do with all the letters, circulars and telegrams which kept arriving from the Education Department, trying to make the school’s portable crank-start generator work, sorting out stores and equipment, which formed a bristling pile in the school caravan, and coping with nearly seventy children who wanted to see how much the new teachers would let them get away with.
Besides, the Camp—as the Aboriginal section of the Willowra community is called—is situated about half a mile away from the European section, which consists of the Station, and, across the road, the School. This tends to limit informal interaction between Aboriginals and Europeans. We felt, when we first arrived, that we could not visit the Camp without a specific reason for doing so.
However, the Aboriginal adults, I think, understood our plight, and tried, in various ways, to make us feel welcome. In our first weeks at Willowra, we were invited to attend, over several nights, the concluding ceremonies of the Kajirri ritual ‘business’. The women, of course, have separate ceremonies, which my wife attended, while I was at the men’s business. This gave us the opportunity of contact with adults other than those working at the school.
We came to the field with the idea that the theories of deschooling we had read about during our training seemed particularly applicable to Aboriginal communities . Yet in our first couple of terms at the school we taught a fairly formally structured academic programme, following the Curriculum. We did so for several reasons. We were both novices, and in any case on probation, and we knew the Education Department to be rather attached to the notion of formal schooling. Moreover, the idea of school as an institution had entrenched itself firmly with the Willowra people themselves, as we discovered when one Aboriginal leader complained because we had made the wearing of school uniforms optional instead of compulsory.
Yet it became increasingly apparent to us that much of the Curriculum was irrelevant to the real needs of our pupils and the real aims of their community. We needed a strategy which would allow us to make education useful to the community, while at the same time maintaining the appearance of school as an institution. Our deliberations about this matter were guided by what we perceived to be the two major aspirations of the Willowra people: for themselves they want independence, for their culture, recovery of function.
We replanned our programme accordingly, in two parts. In the section oriented towards helping the community to independence, we began to concentrate on skills which would enable our pupils eventually to take over certain positions of responsibility in the community. For example, in teaching maths to my older pupils, I devoted a large proportion of the time to money problems, to give them the skills necessary in running a store. Subsequently the council asked three of these pupils to take over the operation of the Canteen (as the community’s store is called). In general, this part of the programme concentrates on oral English, literacy, and numeracy for the younger pupils; and for those who already have a command of these basic skills, ‘English for specific purposes’ and ‘maths for specific purposes’, the specific purposes being determined by the needs of the community.
The other part of the programme, oriented towards recovery of function for traditional culture, began with incorporation of the community ’s own language into the school programme. The language of Willowra is Warlpiri. (Some Willowra people who have affiliations with neighbouring tribes speak Yanmajirri or Ngardiji as their mother tongue, but they all speak Warlpiri as well.) English is a second language, and is rarely used by the Aboriginal people among themselves.
We initiated an unofficial bilingual education programme in 1976, which was given approval to start officially in 1977. We began by training the Aboriginal teaching assistants to read and write in their own language. This year one of them takes her own class of younger children for initial literacy in Warlpiri. The other is employed as a literacy worker, to produce books and other material for use in the bilingual programme. She has been mainly engaged in writing down and illustrating traditional stories, which the Aboriginal owners of the stories come to the school to tell, as part of the oral Warlpiri programme. She has also written some original work in Warlpiri, as an example of which I reproduce this poem:
Ngapa ka yanirni, parnkayalu,
Wiri ka yanirni payi-parnta.
Ngawarra ka parnkami wita-wangu.
Purdulu-kurralu yanta ngapa-kujaku.
Sue Napangardi-rli yirrarnu nyampu yimi.
The rain is coming, run
And build yourselves humpies.
It’s coming with a strong wind.
The children should stay inside,
The dogs should lie there too.
But a great flood is rising.
Take your bedrolls!
Take your food!
Go to a warm spot to shelter from the water.
—Sue Napangardi Martin
However in general we have considered that the recording of traditional stories in writing has logical priority over creative writing. The contemporary literature of all cultures with a written tradition has its roots in a body of classics, whether or not it consciously draws on them. These classics—epics, myths, chants, poems, religious treatises, histories—were once orally transmitted, until it became necessary, at a certain point in history, to record them in writing. So in societies which have only recently acquired a written language, it seems important to write down the oral repertoire, which is in danger of being lost, before making any serious efforts to foster a modern literature.
The dreamtime stories we work with at the school are of course of the non -secret variety. It would be a great loss, however, if these were all that survived of the Aboriginal oral tradition, the essence of which is contained in secret-sacred myths and chants. It would be rather as if all that was left of the Indo-European mythico-religious heritage was Grimms’ collection of fairy tales. At the present time, Aboriginal men would not welcome the writing down of their sacred oral literature, as they fear this would endanger its secrecy. There may come a time, however, when they begin to value the preservation of this literature above keeping it secret.
If this ever happens, and the sacred traditions need to be recorded and expounded in writing, then literate Aboriginal people should be able to do this themselves. Some excellent work on African traditions has been done by Africans (for example, Professor John Mbiti). J.O. Awolalu has written that ‘African traditional Religion cannot easily be studied by non-Africans. The best interpreter of African Religion is the African with a disciplined mind and the requisite technical tools.’4 The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Australian Aboriginal situation. However, apart from assisting Aboriginals to become literate in their own language, the school will probably not be directly involved in providing the ‘requisite technical tools’, as this is a specialised field.
There are nonetheless other areas of the culture, which we might refer to broadly as the Aboriginal arts, where the school can help directly in ‘recovery of function’ tactics. Traditional Aboriginal arts are not very secure in the situation of contact with industrial society, because, unless they are being carried out with a tourist market in view, they are seen to be interdependent with the hunter-gatherer economy, which has all but vanished. Yet we can see from a society such as Japan that formalised aspects of traditional pre-industrial culture can continue to exist alongside the worst excesses of industrialism, even if their economic or utilitarian function has been superseded. The Japanese still prize highly objects made by hand according to traditional methods, even though there is a plentiful supply of mass-produced goods which serve the same purpose.
The Japanese are aware that the cultural value of traditional practices far exceeds their utilitarian value. I think the older generation of Aboriginal people are also conscious of this fact. At Willowra, for example, the older men still take considerable pains to spin a large quantity of hair-string for ceremonial purposes, when they could more easily use commercially produced string or wool. It is, however, the younger Aboriginals who have had the dubious benefit of a western-style education who begin to regard their culture as obsolete. It is in this area that the school can perhaps help.
There is a wide range of Aboriginal arts, from storytelling and ceremonial dancing to cooking and distributing a kangaroo correctly, and using a fighting stick in the stylised traditional manner. Some of these arts can be practised by school children, others are tertiary level accomplishments which primary and secondary age children are not ready to learn. At Willowra we give our children the opportunity to participate directly in activities at their own level, for example by taking them on hunting expeditions to encourage the skills of tracking small game and gathering bush plants, or by arranging for parents to come to the school to teach simple skills such as bead-making. But we also try to inculcate an appreciation of adult arts, by encouraging the people who have these skills—for example, women who can execute the Warlpiri gesture language with grace and dexterity, or men who can spin beautiful hair-string—to come and demonstrate them at the school. We have also tried our hand at some of these arts ourselves—to the huge amusement of all onlookers.
I think it is important for outsiders to a culture to demonstrate their willingness to learn. Teachers in particular would do well to note the words of Soyetsu Yanagi: ‘We have learnt a good many things from the views of outsiders, but few people come over here to learn from our side, and still fewer are the foreigners who realise that we learn more from those who learn from us.’5 He was referring specifically to Japan, yet his words expressed very well an idea which is currently being put forward with some force by Aboriginal people.
At a recent conference in Darwin for teachers in bilingual schools, the Aboriginal participants repeatedly told the Europeans that they should be prepared to learn from Aboriginals, instead of just teaching. At the conference general meeting they put forward a motion which indicates their concern to find a way of encouraging European teachers to adopt the role of learners. They recommended ‘that the Aboriginal teachers approach Tribal Elders and Leaders to organise and establish an intensive training programme in Aboriginal culture and values for the Non-Aboriginal staff in schools.’6
The Northern Territory Education Department is aware that most teachers who come to Aboriginal schools know very little about Aboriginal culture, and has taken steps to have its teacher-trainees attend the Aboriginal Studies courses offered at several tertiary institutions. But this is not enough. Generalised courses in linguistics and anthropology are only an introduction to the real work of learning the language and customs of the particular Aboriginal community to which the teacher is sent, and this work has to be done in the field. Teachers need time and encouragement to undertake this task . It would probably help if the Education Department allotted a particular portion of the teacher’s working day or week to learning about Aboriginal culture. This might induce teachers to stay longer in Aboriginal schools. At present there is a very high turnover of teachers in Northern Territory Aboriginal schools. I am sure the main reason for this is that teachers find the communication barrier between European and Aboriginal people such a constant frustration that, if they do not succeed in breaking through it, it becomes unbearable.
Another thing which many teachers in Aboriginal communities find disillusioning is an apathetic or negative response to school among their pupils. This is more evident in large Aboriginal settlements which manifest symptoms of social breakdown than in small communities like Willowra. Nonetheless, reactions to school are not always positive at Willowra, so it is worth looking at our pupils and what motivates them.
Willowra, being a cattle station, has a definite cowboy ethos, and probably every boy who comes to the school hopes eventually to ride a horse and work with cattle. As boys approach adolescence, cowboys become the favourite subject of their drawings (other popular themes being Kung Fu fighters and rock ‘n ‘roll singers). But the school has no part at all to play in the cowboy world. It teaches boys to be obedient and studious, and tries to temper the swagger and bravado which are part of the cowboy image. Moreover, Aboriginal men engaged in stock operations voice the opinion that school is not good for their sons, because it makes them unfit for working with cattle. So the boys become aware of a contradiction between the role to which they aspire and the role for which school seems to be training them.
This obviously weakens motivation. Attendance at school tends to be a bit erratic among the boys. The young ones are periodically tempted away to the stockyards by the spectacle of cattle being branded and trucked. And the older ones sometimes mount more active resistance to school, as though in resentment at the years of their lives which school seems to have wasted. Once the boys have been initiated, the gap between the world of Aboriginal men, to which they now belong, and the world of school becomes too great, and none return to school for any length of time.
On first impressions it would seem that the girls at Willowra derive a little more practical benefit from schooling than the boys. All the Aboriginals currently employed at Willowra in positions for which literacy and numeracy are necessary are women. Girls seem to be able to tolerate the restraints of school more easily than boys, which also means they stay to a later age. But the work available for educated Aboriginals in a small community like Willowra is clearly limited. And the community is too tightly-knit for anyone to want to go away for employment or tertiary studies. So the number of girls who never put their education to use is almost as high as the number of boys in the same position.
In spite of all these factors which work against motivation, the morale and attendance record of the school are quite good, and our pupils produce work of reasonable quality. They are not up to the standard of white children of the same age, but it would not occur to us to question their intelligence, which they simply use in a way which is more appropriate to their environment. They have finer visual skills than white children, and they are much more independent and resourceful.
There remains the question of why they come to school. I think Aboriginal children at Willowra regard school as a way of filling in time. As an alternative to sitting in the Camp playing marbles or holey or cards, it has the attraction of picture-books, films, and the learning of some of the white man’s tricks, which may one day prove useful. Besides, one’s friends are all at school, and one’s parents expect one to go.
However, I believe that these things would cease to provide sufficient incentive for regular attendance if school were a threat to the children. Although the days are gone when teachers caned Aboriginal children for speaking their own language at school, prevented their attending ceremonies, and interfered in their marriage arrangements, it is still possible for school to pose an implicit threat, by setting itself up as an alternative to rather than as an extension of Aboriginal culture.
The great merit of bilingual education is that it is a major step towards aboriginalisation of the school. The respect accorded to their language allows Aboriginal people to feel that school is no longer an alien institution where they are just myalls. They begin to regard it as their school. At Willowra, there are always parents present, enjoying the shade of the trees, playing cards, helping with the little ones, and keeping an eye on things.
If we take the process of indigenisation to its logical conclusion, the school will eventually be run entirely by Aboriginal people. Our Aboriginal staff are developing teaching skills, and although they have not had enough experience of white society to be able to deal with the red tape discreetly referred to as ‘administrative procedure’, the day is nearing when they will be able to cope with it. At that point we will, quite properly, have done ourselves out of a job: for our long-term goal is to facilitate an Aboriginal takeover of the school.
1. Details of the myth of the Mulga tree men are taken from M.J. Meggitt’s Gadjari Among the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia, Oceania Monographs No. 14. pp. 58-59.
2. Kormilda, the way to tomorrow? (A.N.U. Press. Canberra 1976) p.v.
3. The issue of Aboriginal housing is the subject of some debate at the moment. Like Aboriginal education, it is seen to be a mixed blessing. The interested reader will find food for thought in a paper by a former Building Supervisor of Willowra, Graeme MacRae, entitled ‘A Personal Statement on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs in Central Australia with Special Reference to the Willowra Housing Association’. It is available from the architects Andrew McPhee and Associates, Box 75. Alice Springs.
4. ‘What is African Traditional Religion?’ in Studies in Comparative Religion, vol 9, no. 1. pp. 61-62. John Mbiti has written African Religions and Philosophies, Concepts of God in Africa, and An Introduction to African Religion.
5. From the ‘Introduction: Leach in Japan’ in Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (Faber. London 1976) p. xiii.
6. Recommendation 21 of the ‘1977 Bilingual Education Conference Recommendations’. (N.T. Education Department. Darwin) . p.3.
Meanjin Volume 36 Issue 4 1977
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