A letter from a nine-year-old Canberra girl (‘turning ten’) to the ACT Education Minister, Yvette Berry has really struck a chord with readers of the ‘local rag’, the Canberra Times. The spelling isn’t great and the grammar not much better, but the sentiments – with the simplicity of innocence – provide an entirely new perception of what’s important in the Australian school curriculum.
‘What I want to talk about,’ she says, ‘is how we should learn more Aboriginal language and culture at school. I mean, we learn French, Indonesian, Chinese and etc, but what does that really have to do with Australia? Okay, this is the point where you disagree with me so I should probably rewrite that sentence: They are important, but Aboriginal culture is more important for Australia.
‘The Europeans owe a huge debt to the Aboriginals, one so huge there’s no way to be able to do it. That’s why we must acknowledge them threw (sic) every way we can and learning is a way…I’m not actually Aboriginal but I know there are many out [there], many whose relatives were killed when the first fleet arrived, many whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents were taking (sic) from their mothers. My ancestors may be come from Ireland, Itally, cornwell and palstine but I still care.
‘Remember, kids can make a difference…if you want to write back.’
And, I’m happy to say, write back the Minister did. In fact, she also sent a copy to the ACT Education Directorate with instructions to work with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to discover how best to bring first languages into schools.
It is always possible that it will come to nought. But the letter is so searingly honest and to the point that it has to be taken seriously. It really hits home to your columnist who has just returned from a journey across the Kimberleys from Darwin to Broome. It’s the area where once the Aboriginal people lived in their many thousands, where seafood abounded, where they managed the land with fire to preserve and promote the game they lived upon.
Now there are none, except in the towns where they’re barely tolerated, while the State Government tosses incendiaries out of planes and helicopters that roar through the landscape leaving a trail of blackened wasteland. The Aboriginal people survive only in the fabulous Wandjina and the much earlier Guoin Guoin rock paintings scattered through the country.Their presence is shaming to the whitefella. It’s hard to believe that our forebears were so cruel.
Of course, we should teach Aboriginal language in our schools, and we should come to know the culture of the people who populated and preserved the continent over the millennia before the strangers came. But we must realise that there were more than 250 languages across the many Aboriginal nations so no doubt there will be arguments about which languages should take priority.
I have no quick answers, but it’s a conversation worth having – and not just among adults but the children to whom it is offered. For without their input we’re sure to get the same reaction as that of my granddaughters who at seven and eight are studying Chinese and ‘hate it’. But when I brought back for them a stone axe discovered in a Kimberley creek bed, it seemed to matter so much more.
Or maybe that’s just grandpa’s wishful thinking.