A note to the teacher
It is quite probable, depending on the location of your school, that your English class will not contain any Aboriginal students. Whilst it is encouraging that mainstream social attitudes to Indigenous identity and culture are changing positively, it is also possible, unfortunately, that some students may have formed negative views about Aboriginal people based on misinformed social attitudes. Therefore, the following introductory activities will have to be handled very positively and tactfully to gain students’ interest and involvement without potentially further alienating them.
- The content of each account in this book is a recollection of a significant event in the writer’s life. Taken together, the fifty accounts illustrate Dr Anita Heiss’ statement that ‘there is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia’ (Heiss, p. 1). This will be a focus for students’ reading of various texts.
- In her introduction to Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Heiss refers to the various texts in the book as ‘accounts’. They could also be called ‘memoirs’. However, during this unit (and especially in the Close Study section) students will be asked to explore more closely the exact nature of the texts in terms of genre, structure and language features.
- In an associated video, Heiss says that Aboriginal writing is like speech written down. Again, students will be asked to analyse at least some of the accounts in the book to see if they agree with this statement.
- Heiss does, however, add that Aboriginal writers manipulate the language features of ‘the coloniser’s tongue’ (i.e. English) to achieve their own purposes. This will be a major focus of the Close Study section of the unit.
- The title of the book signals that growing up Aboriginal is a different experience from that of other Australians. In a country that has gradually become multicultural, Australian culture is now represented in a variety of ways. However, the twin myths of ‘the bush’ and Anzac still exert a powerful influence on how non-Indigenous Australians see their country.
- Ask students to read the poem ‘Bullocky’ by Judith Wright (which pays tribute to an archetypal bush worker) or listen to the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (which celebrates a ‘swagman’ who dies resisting the power of a ‘squatter’/grazier) to explain ‘the bush’ myth.
- Show students photographs of the Australian War Memorial and Sir John Monash Centre in Western France, to demonstrate how strongly the Government celebrates Australia’s military history (significantly, the Frontier Wars between British colonists and Aboriginal people are still not acknowledged by the directors of the War Memorial, despite recent strong representation to include this historical period into their national narrative).
Begin by asking students what the word ‘Aboriginal’ means to them. This question will probably elicit a number of responses, which could then become the starting point for a lively class discussion.
It is very likely that students will have heard that Aboriginal people have lived for a very, very long time – tens of thousands of years – on the continent that is now called Australia. To reinforce this fact, show students the First Australians trailer to show just how long Aboriginal people have lived on this continent. Here are some interesting points from this short trailer to discuss with students:
- Professor Marcia Langton explains that, compared to the living cultures of Aboriginal Australia, the civilizations of the past that Europeans refer to (such as the Egyptians, the Persians and the Greeks) are all relatively young.
- Students will have heard the word ‘Dreaming’, which the narrator says began when giant beings from the sky, across the sea and out of the earth arrived and produced life in this place.
- When humans first came to Australia (as it is now known) in the Deep Time of history, they settled across the whole land mass in over 250 ‘tribes’.
- The narrator calls the English people who arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 ‘strangers’, to position viewers to understand that Aboriginal people are the ‘First Australians’.
To reinforce the idea of there being over 250 First Nations groups, show students the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, and ask them to identify the Country on which they live. For example, the narrator of First Australians explains that the place where the English ‘strangers’ landed, now called Sydney, was called Warang by the people who already lived there.
Students may be interested to listen to this podcast on Radio National’s AWAYE! program, which discusses the concept of Country. To clarify further the meaning of the word ‘Aboriginal’, share with students an article on Australia’s First Peoples.
Show students the first twenty seconds of the video ‘Aboriginal writing: literature as a political tool’. Anita Heiss, the editor of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, explains that for her the purpose of Aboriginal writing is to use ‘the colonisers’ language (i.e. English) to write about what they have done to us’. Ask students what they understand about the meaning of the word ‘coloniser’ (perhaps ‘early settler’, ‘newcomer’, invader’, etc.) and what they know about what colonisers did to Aboriginal peoples after first settlement in 1788. Remind students that the first step towards English invasion of the Australian continent was taken by Lieutenant James Cook in 1770 when he declared, on an island in the Torres Strait, possession of the whole east coast of Australia in the name of King George III (that island, of course, is known as ‘Possession Island’).
Then show students the remaining first part of the video (to 2:25), in which Anita Heiss explains the purpose of asking Aboriginal Australians to write about their experiences growing up. She says that, for Aboriginal writers, writing provides a ‘catharsis’ (a relief or release) and gives them a voice and a place in the national story. She says that the accounts are a response to historical issues such as assimilation, attempted genocide, colonisation and the struggle for survival. She also says that the stories can be sent to the United Kingdom so that British people know what ‘they did to us’. Discuss these issues with students and ask them what they think of Anita Heiss’s political project.
Ask students to read Heiss’ introduction to the book, and list some of the themes that she identifies as important to Aboriginal people today. These are very similar to those that she mentions in the video and include:
- the impacts of invasion and colonisation on Aboriginal people
- the stolen generations
- the breaking down of stereotypes
- the search for identity
It is quite possible that students will have little knowledge of these themes. The following activities will help them to understand more about each one. However, students may well be shocked or offended by what they learn about the colonial history of their country. Ask them to jot down their responses to the activities in a notebook for later class discussion.
- Show students a short segment of ‘A Conspiracy of Silence’ to explain what is meant by invasion and colonisation. This video shows how white settlers took over Aboriginal land in Queensland, but explain to students that the same thing happened across the whole of Australia.
- Ask students to read a short explanation of what is meant by the ‘Stolen Generations’. Then, refer them to an article about the film Rabbit-Proof Fence and explain that it is based on a true story about two Aboriginal children who escaped from a government settlement and fought their way back to their mother in the north of Western Australia. This short trailer will give students some idea of what Aboriginal people suffered at the hands of white colonial administrators. You may also like to refer students to Doris Pilkington’s novel, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
- Stereotypes of Aboriginal people depend a great deal on the observations of white settlers and the views of anthropologists of the time, whose theories of race had no scientific basis.
- Use this study guide for the film Beneath Clouds to give students a short summary of its plot. Focus on the two main characters’ search for identity: Lena, a fair-skinned Aboriginal girl, and Vaughn, a dark-skinned Aboriginal boy. Over the course of the film, Lena and Vaughn become friends and Lena starts to accept her Aboriginal heritage.
- One of the key issues raised in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is skin colour and its connection to a sense of identity as an Indigenous person. Look at this photo of two young Aboriginal girls to see how superficial the issue of skin colour, used disparagingly by racists, really is. Ask students if they really think that these two girls worry about the slightly different colour of each other’s skin.
Personal response on reading the text
Ask students what they think is meant by the phrase ‘growing up’. At a superficial level this should be simple enough; the phrase should surely mean each individual’s passage through time from childhood to adulthood. However, discuss with students more complex aspects of growing up, such as dealing with difficult or outstanding incidents in one’s life, and a growing awareness of one’s evolving personal self within social and historical contexts.
Explain to students that the events or incidents written about in this anthology are almost certainly based on the broad subjects of invasion and colonisation and their consequences for Aboriginal people.
The overall purpose of this anthology is to show ‘the diverse experiences and stories’ of the Aboriginal writers as they grew up. However, beyond the consequences of invasion and colonisation, Anta Heiss lists other purposes for Aboriginal writing which students will be asked to uncover in the texts they read.
Activity: responding to the first account in the anthology
As a first step in the process of identifying events, emerging themes, and the writers’ motivation(s) and use of language, read as a whole class the first text in the anthology: ‘Two Tiddas’ (explain that ‘tidda’ is an Aboriginal word for ‘sister’). Before reading you could perhaps show students this video, in which Anita Heiss talks about her book Tiddas.
- During the reading ask students to identify the event(s) on which the dialogue is based, the themes that emerge from the text and whether these are the same themes that Heiss mentioned in her video or in the introduction to the book. Also ask students if they think that ‘Two Tiddas’ is a written-down oral recount, or whether it exhibits more formal language features.
- Then ask students to write in their notebooks an individual response to ‘Two Tiddas’:
- Which event(s) prompted the dialogue?
- Was it related to issues or themes mentioned by Anita Heiss in the video and the introduction to the anthology? If so, what were they?
- Did they find information of interest in the dialogue between the two sisters?
- Did they learn anything about the history of race relations in Australia?
- Are their beliefs about Australia and its history being challenged? If so, how is this affecting them emotionally?
- Did they empathise with the sisters and the subject of their talk?
- Was there anything in the dialogue that resonated with their own lives?
- Did the sisters use any strategies to reach out to readers beyond their dialogue with each other? That is, did the sisters create a context into which students felt invited?
Activity: composing an oral personal recount (in the style of Ruth Langford Ginibi)
Return to the second part of the video ‘Aboriginal writing: literature as a political tool’ (2:25) and watch through to the end. Here Heiss explains that Aboriginal storytelling is conversational, an oral story written on the page. She mentions an Aboriginal writer, Ruby Langford Ginibi (author of Don’t Take Your Love to Town) who tells stories in this way. Share with students a short passage from one of her books that illustrates what is meant by her conversational style.
During this unit students will be challenged to decide whether, in fact, this is the style used by contributors to Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. For example, did students find that although ‘Two Tiddas’ is a written-down conversation, it demonstrated features more related to written English?
- As a starting point for helping students decide whether contributors have used this conversational style of storytelling, or have used ‘the coloniser’s tongue’ in a different way, ask them to reflect on a significant or memorable episode in their own lives that they think contributed to their own ‘growing up’ in Australia. Then ask them to prepare an oral personal recount (PDF, 134KB) to share this moment with other students in a small group discussion. Students may be reluctant to share intimate information about themselves and, of course, should be able to withdraw from the discussion if they wish. Whether participating or not, students should be encouraged not only to retell the episode or event but also to reflect on its importance to them. Some possibilities include:
- the time they stood up to a bully
- the day that a loved family member died
- the occasion when, as a member of a lifesaving club, they saved someone’s life
- and so on…
- Now ask them to reflect on a likely theme (or themes) revealed by their retelling of the episode (explain that a theme is an idea or message communicated by their account). Some possible examples from the suggestions above could include:
- the celebration of personal courage
- the power of love
- pride in an achievement
- At this point students could be invited to share their oral recounts in the style of ‘Two Tiddas’, in small groups within which they feel comfortable.
- Explain to students that a spoken personal recount has certain language features. Ask them to use the oral recount information guide (PDF, 134KB) to consider whether they have used language in this way in their own recount. They could also reread a short passage by Ruby Langford Ginibi to see what Anita Heiss means by her conversational style.
- For now, foreshadow a synthesising task at the end of this section that will require students to transform their oral recount into a written recount. Explain that they will need to edit their oral recount according to the language features of a written recount (PDF, 121KB). Ask them to brainstorm and, for now, jot notes in a writing journal to help them later.
Activity: exploring other accounts in the book
In Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, there are 50 accounts of what it means to grow up as a First Nations person in a country that does not respect them. Anita Heiss emphasises the diversity of ‘voices, experiences and stories’ contained in these texts. However, in the introduction she also refers to the elements that bind them all together.
- Begin by rereading the introduction. Then, assign to each student one of the accounts in the book (or allow them to select their own writer). Ask students to read their assigned account and, as they do so, identify the events being narrated and the themes that emerge from them. These could include references to:
- a diversity of experiences, voices and stories
- individual and communal experiences
- the impacts of invasion and colonisation
- examples of contemporary racism
- the constant focus on skin colour
- the prevalence of stereotypes about race
- the style and language features of their selected text: is it conversational or something more formal?
- Then, ask students to share with the class a very short summary of their text, referring to subject matter, themes and language features. This should give the class an overall idea of the contents of the book (spread this activity over several lessons to make it manageable).
Outline of key elements of the text
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia contains 50 short autobiographies by Aboriginal writers that reveal ‘as many of [their] diverse voices, experiences and stories … as possible’. The editor, Anita Heiss, calls these autobiographies ‘accounts’, but in the Close Study section of this unit students will analyse many of the texts in the book to define more closely their structures and language features.
A postmodernist view of the concept of ‘character’ would focus on the discourses within which one’s sense of ‘self’ emerges over time (and always remains capable of change). However, for this unit for Year 9 students, it would probably be better to apply the Romantic liberal humanist idea of one’s ‘self’ as a stable, growing identity.
The pursuit of identity is a major theme in all the accounts in this book and will be investigated further in the Close Study section.
A broad theme
Many of the themes in the anthology have already been mentioned. However, another broad theme that Anita Heiss mentions on p. 1 is ‘the impact of invasion and colonisation’ on the writers. Ask students to fill out the appropriate boxes on the following chart as they read their assigned texts. Then ask them to share their findings with the whole class.
|The impacts of invasion and colonisation on:||Examples from the text:|
|The education system|
- Transforming an oral personal recount into a written recount:
- In the video ‘Aboriginal writing: literature as a political tool’, Anita Heiss says that Aboriginal storytelling is speech written down, whereas non-Aboriginal writing is edited to suit particular literary genres.
- Begin by revisiting your oral personal recount to remind yourself of its content and themes.
- Then, following this guide (PDF, 121KB), use the language features of a written recount to transform your oral recount into a written one.
- Write a short personal response (300 words) to anything that you have learned so far about white Australia’s dark history. Have you been surprised, shamed, interested or angered by anything that you have discovered so far? You might like to share your response with other students.
The writer’s craft, including such elements as:
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is an anthology (a collection) of 50 memoirs written by Indigenous Australians in response to the question, ‘What does it mean to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?’ The writers responded to a ‘callout for contributions’ to tell their stories for an audience of ‘mainstream Australians.’ Anita Heiss, the editor of the anthology, says that ‘there is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia’ and hopes that these short texts will reflect the diversity of the contributors’ voices, experiences and stories.
The individual texts
The detailed information below about the structure of texts based on their genres has been adapted and developed from material in Reading to Learn Book 2: Selecting and Analysing Texts.
Anita Heiss calls the texts in her book ‘accounts’; they could also be called autobiographical recounts that belong to the histories genre. That is, they are texts that recount a significant event in the life of each writer. Heiss suggests in the ‘Aboriginal writing’ video that the accounts are essentially written-down oral recounts like the writing of Ruby Langford Ginibi. However, at the end of the previous section, students transformed their own oral personal recounts into written recounts to explore the slightly different structures, and especially the different language features, of these related text types. They quite likely discovered that there is a difference between spoken English and the written version of their oral recounts. Later in this section students will look more closely at the language features and style of the texts.
At this point students should consider the possibility that many (perhaps all) of the texts in the book belong to another broader genre, that of stories. Of course, stories can be fictional but in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia they are about people’s actual life experiences. Students should now reflect on whether the texts belong to the stories genre and, if so, just what sort of story is revealed by each text’s structure.
Here are the main possibilities:
|Type of story||Purpose||Stages of text structure|
|Recount||To recount a series of events||
|Narrative||To allow the central characters to resolve a complication||
|Anecdote||To share feelings about a complicating event that is not resolved||
|Exemplar||To judge a person’s character or behaviour||
Note: exemplars and anecdotes contain complications but no resolutions. Students should note this difference in structure from that of narratives.
Ask students to revisit one or two of the texts that they have already read and decide whether the texts are in fact stories – and, if so, just what sorts of stories they are.
Explain to students that, within the stages of any kind of story, there are story phases that writers use to create the plot and engage the reader.
There are three types of phases.
- Describing phase:
- Setting – introducing people, places, activities, times
- Description – describing people, places and things to elaborate the story
- Plot advancement phase:
- Episode – the sequence of events in the story
- Problem – a complication that creates tension or suspense
- Solution – an event that leads to a resolution of the complication
- Evaluation phase of what is happening:
- Reaction – the participants’ feelings about problems and descriptions
- Comment – the narrator’s comments about people and activities
- Reflection – the participants’ thoughts about meanings of events
- Ask students to identify the stages in the texts that they have been working on, and then find which phases are operating in them.
- Remind students that stories contain protagonists and antagonists. If the accounts in the anthology are stories, then presumably the protagonists are the individual writers. Therefore, who are the antagonists – a person, a historical event, an emotion, an idea?
- Now ask students to return to their own written recounts to locate the stages and phases. It could be interesting for students to re-draft their recount by elaborating on the various phases in it. Explain to them that doing this starts to turn their written recount into a story.
Later they will also be asked to re-edit their recounts and convert them into a story by using some traditional stylistic narrative devices.
Approach to characterisation
Obviously, the characters in an autobiographical recount (a ‘history’) or a personal story are considered to be ‘real people’. This is certainly true from a traditional humanist view of the individual as a stable ‘heroic self’. More contemporary theories of character interpret them as constructs playing roles within discourses and ideologies. However, at Year 9 level it is probably more appropriate to work with the former approach (though even the relatively straightforward activities below will challenge the humanist view). Notice in the activity below that identity begins with personal experience and family history, and then moves to more public contexts.
A major theme in the book is ‘the pursuit of identity’. Because all the writers are exploring what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, they know that their identities are different from those of other Australians who have grown up within the dominant mainstream culture. This is probably the best way to think about characterisation in the texts in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia: each writer is reflecting on aspects of his or her identity.
Read ‘Nobody puts Baby Spice in a corner’ by Miranda Tapsell (pp. 229–235). Then make notes in the chart below to show how Miranda Tapsell builds up a sense of herself through various levels of identity (a few examples have already been included).
|Level of identity||Examples from Nobody puts Baby Spice in a corner||Contribution to the development of Miranda Tapsell’s character|
Identify which of the four categories of story Miranda Tapsell’s account belongs to.
Imagine that Miranda Tapsell is a fictional character in a novel. Write a paragraph about her based on the information above to show how she is a complex, ‘rounded’ character who understands much about herself and the world in which she lives.
Carry out a similar analysis of another writer’s work from the book. Share your findings with other members of the class.
Carry out another analysis, this time of yourself. It would be interesting for you to go back to your written recount and see how much information about your own identity is included in it.
Traditionally, setting has been seen as simply the writer’s description of time and place. However, as the above information about story phases shows, setting also includes people and activities. It is also important to remember that setting is not simply a backdrop to the action in a story, but plays an active role in its meaning. This is especially true for the texts in this book because all the writers mention their own Country, which is of central importance to Aboriginal people.
Choose a text and then fill out the following chart with information about its setting. Then explain in one paragraph how the writer’s description of the elements of setting have brought the text to life.
|Setting||Examples from the text||Effect created to animate the text|
Use of parallels and contrasts
Many of the texts in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia refer to the fact that Aboriginal people in Australia today must negotiate a position between two quite different worldviews or cultures. One very explicit example of this is ‘Living between two knowledge systems’ by Todd Phillips (pp. 191–196). He explains that the knowledges of the Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr people on the central coast of New South Wales have been passed down through the generations. He gives the example of the knowledges of fishing and the local water systems that are passed down by the older men.
As a way of illustrating Todd Phillip’s argument about living between two knowledge systems, explain to students that Western science has its counterpart in, for example, Indigenous astronomy. Begin by sharing this article about Indigenous astronomy and then show students at least several ‘stories in the sky’. Explain to students that, for Indigenous people, knowledge of the stars goes beyond Dreaming stories to guide everyday activities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout the year.
Another example is to contrast a Western scientific explanation of how the Murray River was formed with an Aboriginal creation story on the same topic. Show students a Bangerang story of how the Murray River was made. Discuss which account of the formation of the Murray River they prefer and consider their reasons.
Ask students to find examples in other texts where the writers refer to an Indigenous view of a particular phenomenon.
Point of view
Evidently, the stories in the book are written from the Aboriginal writers’ points of view. This raises the following questions:
- What was their purpose – to illustrate the diversity of contemporary Aboriginal experiences? To show the effect of colonialism on Aboriginal people? Anita Heiss thinks of literature as a political tool. Do students think that is how the writers in this book see their stories – as an attempt to change the national social and political mindset?
- One of the writers’ purposes is to reflect on themselves and their lives. How often do they use the personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ to make themselves the focus of their own accounts?
- Is there any evidence that the writers see themselves not only as victims of history, but also as agents of change (that is, capable of changing mainstream Australia with their writing)?
- Who did they see as their audience? Do the writers acknowledge that their readers will adopt a certain point of view towards that which they are reading?
- Is there, at some point in the stories, a move from the writer’s reminiscences to an attempt to connect to readers and their interests? Do any of the writers, for example, use the pronoun ‘you’ to reach out to readers (or even ‘we’, used in an inclusive way)?
Anita Heiss has said that Aboriginal writing is like speech written down, and mentions the writing of Ruby Langford Ginibi. By now, however, students (through their own editing of an oral personal recount) will have come to suspect that writers in this book have adapted language features of various kinds to achieve their purposes. In other words, ‘voice’ depends on how each writer has done this.
This will be the focus of the following section.
Language and style
In the ‘Aboriginal writing’ video, Anita Heiss says that Aboriginal writing ‘on the page’ is conversational, a written oral story, while non-Aboriginal writers take an oral story and then edit it according to the conventions of a particular genre. Students have, earlier in the unit, edited their own oral personal recount according to the features of a written recount (PDF, 121KB).
Now choose a suitable text to read with the class, and discuss with students whether it demonstrates the features of an oral, conversational story or a more formal written recount.
Students may then find that a number of the texts in the anthology sound more written than spoken, even though Anita Heiss says that Aboriginal writing is conversational, like a written-down oral story. Students have now also thought about whether the recounts are really stories of one kind or another. Heiss adds another level of complexity by saying that Aboriginal writers use the language features of the ‘colonisers’ tongue’ (i.e. English) to ‘write about what they have done to us’. Therefore, it is possible that at least some of the writers in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia have gone beyond the language features of both oral and written recounts to use certain literary devices that heighten the impact of their stories. These narrative devices include:
- the use of dialogue
- the description of people, places and things
- the use of connotative language (i.e. suggestive language)
- the use of figures of speech (e.g. metaphors, similes)
- the manipulation of verb tense
- allusion (an indirect or passing reference, e.g. ‘He was such a good gardener that his back yard looked as beautiful as the Garden of Eden’)
As a class read ‘My father has a story’ by Tony Birch, and note whether the author has told a simple recount (oral or written) or has manipulated some of the above language features to make the story more vivid (explain to students that Tony Birch is a celebrated Indigenous writer whose novels, including Ghost River and The White Girl, have been awarded prestigious prizes).
The following texts also manipulate some of the language features of narrative writing (‘the colonisers’ tongue’) to achieve the purposes outlined by Heiss in the introduction to the book.
- Assign each of the following texts to small groups of students. Ask each group to analyse their text in terms of how the writer has gone beyond a simple recount to manipulate some of the language features of ‘the colonisers’ tongue’, for the purposes identified by Heiss in the anthology’s introduction. For example:
- ‘The Aboriginal equation’ by Tamika Worrell (p. 282) – use of stereotypical racist remarks to shock readers
- ‘The little town on the railway track’ by Kerry Reed-Gilbert (p. 197) – manipulation of verb tense
- ‘The sporting life’ by Adam Goodes (p. 100) – use of connotative language and allusion
- Again, choose a text and read it carefully to see if the writer has manipulated any of the following language features to achieve their purpose.
|How each language feature contributes to the purposes identified by Anita Heiss||Text and writer:
|The use of dialogue|
|Figures of speech|
|Satire (e.g. the use of false apology as in ‘Dear Australia’ by Don Bemrose, p. 26)|
Synthesising task 1
Rewrite your written personal recount as a story (about 300 words), using at least one of the literary devices that contributors to Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia used to manipulate the ‘coloniser’s tongue’ to achieve their meanings.
Begin by writing a short author’s note in which you decide on the type of story you will tell (i.e. its structure), the audience you will write for, and your purpose in writing. Also choose at least one literary device and explain why you think it will suit your story.
Synthesising task 2
Choose any three texts from the anthology and unpack their subject matter, their themes and the special way that the writers have used ‘the coloniser’s tongue’ to show ‘what they have done to us’.
Then write a short summary of each (about 100 words).
Ways of reading the text
The following snapshots of recent events give some perspective on the obstacles that Indigenous Australians face in their demand for acknowledgement as a sovereign people, and to be accorded human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- The mining company Rio Tinto generously funds the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. This choir features young Indigenous singers from around Australia. Presumably the funding is meant to show that the senior executives of the company respect and value Indigenous culture. However, in May 2020, the same company destroyed an Aboriginal heritage site: the Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia. This site reveals an Aboriginal presence in the area from at least 46,000 years ago. The company destroyed the caves to mine iron ore, despite the objections of the local Indigenous people (the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people). It is impossible to reconcile these two positions.
- Until recently, the Australian national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ contained the line ‘we are young and free’ – which Aboriginal people said did not reflect the fact that Aboriginal history is, in fact, at least 60,000 years old. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on 31 December 2020, changed the wording to ‘one and free’ as a response to this criticism. However, Aboriginal activists argue that this is nothing more than symbolic tokenism.
- A motion to fly the Aboriginal flag during NAIDOC Week 2020 in the Senate, the upper house of the national Parliament, was defeated. One member of the Senate said that the only flag that should be flown in the chamber was the Australian flag, which (she said) represented all Australians. Of course, the Australian flag contains the emblem of the Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). It certainly does not represent Indigenous Australians.
There has been a recent explosion of writing by Aboriginal poets, novelists and non-fiction writers that reveals (to some extent) the impact of colonial settlement on Indigenous peoples.
Several Aboriginal artists have done the same thing through a different creative medium. One of them, Gordon Bennett (an Aboriginal man from Monto in Queensland), has used some of his paintings to show how Indigenous people have been displaced by the arrival of English imperialists in the eighteenth century, and the subsequent invasion of their land by colonial settlers.
His painting ‘Possession Island’ (based on an earlier painting by Samuel Calvert on the same subject) depicts English navigator Captain Cook claiming the east coast of Australia in the name of the King George III, on an island in the Torres Strait in 1770. Standing in the foreground is an Aboriginal man holding a tray of celebratory drinks for Captain Cook and his men. The representation of the Aboriginal man is Bennett’s way of showing the subordinate place of Indigenous people in the new regime.
Bennett also painted another version of ‘Possession Island’ in which the Aboriginal man is completely erased. Nevertheless, the symbol used to block out the man is presented in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Bennett’s paintings show quite clearly what he saw as ‘the impacts of invasion and colonisation’ on Aboriginal people.
Ryan Presley is another Aboriginal artist who uses his art to give a different perspective on white colonial history. His exhibition, Blood Money Currency Exchange, substitutes on various banknotes the faces of famous Aboriginal people in place of those actually selected by Treasury. He explains his purpose with an example of one of the images that he has created, in which he substitutes the face of a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman for the face of a white woman settler who made a lot of money from the land.
Comparison with other texts
A great many books by Indigenous authors have been published in recent times. Of course, they all achieve Heiss’ aim of using literature to gain a voice for Aboriginal people. The following list is only a small representative sample of the excellent literature available.
Novels, short stories and picture books:
- That Deadman Dance and Taboo by Kim Scott
- Carpentaria and The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
- Mullumbimby and Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
- The Yield and Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch
- Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane
- Ghost River and The White Girl by Tony Birch
Plays and drama:
- Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt
- Welcome to Country and Welcome to Country (Youth Edition) by Marcia Langton
- Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance by Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen
- Beneath Clouds directed by Ivan Sen
- Sweet Country directed by Warwick Thornton
- Ten Canoes directed by Rolf de Heer
There are many other texts by contemporary Indigenous novelists, filmmakers, poets and non-fiction writers. For example, in his recent book Finding the Heart of the Nation: The Journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth, Thomas Mayor points out the powerlessness of Indigenous people and says that the Uluru Statement from the Heart has three aims:
- To give First Nations people a voice in the Australian constitution
- To set up a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreements or treaties
- To encourage truth-telling about the history of the nation
The book provides information about Mayor’s own life and contains accounts of his discussions with other influential Indigenous leaders.
Another important contemporary book is A Question of Colour: My Journey to Belonging by Patti Lees (as told to Adam C Lees). Patti Lees belongs to the Stolen Generations; because of her mixed heritage, at 10 years old she was taken from her family by government administrators to be ‘educated’. This approach was known as assimilation: the making of fair-skinned Aboriginal children ‘the same’ as white children. Tragically, this government policy led instead to sexual, emotional and physical abuse. In this book, Patti Lees narrates her journey to regain her sense of identity as an Aboriginal woman and her connection to her people. For example, she points out on p. 261 the emotional support gained from her friendship with another Torres Strait Islander, WRANS writer Frances ‘Fran’ Loban, when they both worked at the Royal Australian Naval base, HMAS Harman.
Evaluation of the text
Representative of a changing Australian culture?
Anita Heiss says that one of the reasons Aboriginal writers write is to gain a political voice. This does seem to be problematic for First Nations peoples, but on 16 July 2020 the Meriba Omasker Kaziw Kazipa Bill was introduced into the Queensland parliament by the member for Cook, Cynthia Lui, and passed into law in the week 7–11 September 2020. This was the first time in Australian history that an aspect of Indigenous culture entered into law. The law recognises traditional Torres Strait Islander childrearing and adoption practices. It will help Torres Strait people retain family connections and obtain official birth certificates, and also help Family Court judges with their decision-making. The planning for this law was carried out by Dr Heron Loban, a senior law lecturer at Griffith University who identifies as Torres Strait Islander.
This law is considered as important as the Mabo decision in 1992.
Significance to literature/the world of texts?
Anita Heiss makes it clear that her purpose in inviting Aboriginal people to submit stories for Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia was not just to tell the British what they had done to Indigenous people, from the time of invasion through to the present. It was also to reveal to Australians in general, and Australian politicians in particular, the ongoing struggle that Indigenous people suffer on a daily basis as a result of colonialism.
In her video, she lists various singers and bands who have given a voice to Aboriginal artists (she also mentions several writers and their books). Many of their songs have entered the nation’s popular culture and undoubtedly served a political purpose in influencing attitudes towards race, especially among younger Australians.
Her list includes the following:
- Songs about the Stolen Generations
- The singer Archie Roach
- The Yothu Yindi song ‘Treaty’
- The song ‘Brown Skin Baby’ by Bob Randall
- The song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ sung by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, based on the story of Vincent Lingiari
And the texts:
Identifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative purposes
During this unit, students have worked to identify the type of language that writers in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia have used to write their ‘memoirs’. They have probably concluded that the contributors have generally used Standard Australian English to, as Anita Heiss says, let English people know ‘what they have done to us’. It would be interesting, though, for students to now go in the opposite direction and explore how the writers could have used language more aligned with Aboriginal identity. They could begin with Ruth Langford Ginibi’s style of writing, what Anita Heiss describes as ‘speech written down’, as an example of Aboriginal writing (although still within the colonisers’ language).
The following activities are designed to encourage students to explore further possibilities for speakers and writers to use language, to both challenge the power of Standard English and establish their own group and individual identities.
A note to the teacher
Students will certainly need the help of their teachers to respond to some of the texts listed below, but hopefully they will find the work both interesting and insightful.
Step 1: Standard English as just one dialect of the English language
Although Standard English is usually regarded as ‘correct’, and other forms of English as inferior and sub-standard, this is not linguistically accurate. This exercise challenges the special status of Standard English by asserting that it is, in fact, just another dialect (although one widely supported by a host of traditionalists).
The poem ‘No Dialects Please’ by Merle Collins criticises the organisers of a poetry competition in Britain, who request that poems should only be written in Standard English. Ask students to read the poem and then complete some of the following activities:
- Collins says that British English is a ‘dialect’. Students should look up the meaning of this word and consider how it challenges the idea of Standard English as superior to other versions of English.
- Collins expands further by saying that English is a dialect of the Normans and the Saxons. The video ‘Where did English come from?’ provides an interesting overview of the origin of English, and explains Collins’ idea that Standard English is just another dialect. Of course, this is a direct challenge to the status of ‘correct’ or formal English.
- A valuable exercise would be to have students rewrite a section of the poem in ‘correct’ or Standard English, and then rehearse a reading-aloud of each version. The class could then discuss how each reading affects their attitudes to the speakers, and the overall status of each version.
- Next, students could discuss how the special status of Standard English depends upon the power and authority of the people who use this particular ‘dialect’: lawyers, politicians, teachers, business people, media presenters and so on.
Step 2: an Aboriginal English
The following activities move further towards the idea that some First Nations writers use words or phrases from Aboriginal languages to add authenticity to their stories.
Interestingly, the title of Anita Heiss’ latest book Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (which means ‘River of Dreams’) is derived from the language of the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales. Obviously the use of an Aboriginal language in the title of the book signals its importance in establishing identity and belonging.
- Begin by playing a short section (to 1:50) of ‘The etymology of Country’ from the ABC Radio National program, AWAYE!.
- Discuss with students the concept of an ‘Aboriginal English’, which is a blend of English and words and phrases from Aboriginal languages. Ask students what they think Jay Arthur means by ‘the shape of the culture underneath’ Aboriginal English.
- Next, play a short section (to 1:40) of ‘More than just words’ (another AWAYE! broadcast), in which Ellen Koshland (director and founder of The Poet’s Voice) describes language as ‘a whole way of knowing the world and figuring it’ – another statement that supports the importance of language in establishing a worldview.
- Students should read through a list of Aboriginal words in Australian English to see how extensively words from various Aboriginal dialects have influenced the ‘dialect’ of Standard Australian English.
Step 3: the language of the Wiradjuri people
The aim of this exercise is simply to let students know that there are many different Indigenous languages in Australia.
Introduce the class to The Yield by Tara June Winch. Explain that a central character in the novel is an old man, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, who has created a dictionary of the language of the Wiradjuri people as his legacy to them. Again, the focus of the novel is on the role of language in connecting people to their Country and re-establishing their sense of identity. Students can read a summary of the novel and some extracts from it on the Wheeler Centre website to help them understand what the author has set out to do.
Next, share with students Winch’s author note on pp. 339–342 of The Yield, especially the reference to cultural knowledge on p. 340. Then show students Albert Gondiwindi’s dictionary on pp. 313–338, and write some of the words and their meanings on the classroom whiteboard.
Step 4: an example of a move from Aboriginal English to an Aboriginal language
Share with students the way in which Aboriginal novelist Kim Scott, in That Deadman Dance, captures the sound of Aboriginal English as spoken by the Noongar woman Binyan to her ‘husband’ (Jak Tar) as she talks about the character Wabalanginy Bobby (p. 306):
He be back maybe, was all she said. Wabalanginy Bobby man now, your brother. Him a man now. Young man. Them young girls lost their promised mans, ’cause too many old people – young ones, too, but – dying. He a clever man Bobby Wabalanginy…
He then has the character go even further and translate into her own language:
…baal kaditj koombar booda mabarnngan demanger wanginy…
Note: a Reading Australia teaching resource for That Deadman Dance is available.
Step 5: the Gambay First Languages Map
Show students the Gambay First Languages Map identifying and highlighting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Explain that there are about 250 Indigenous groups all around Australia, each with its own special language.
- Ask students to locate the Indigenous group in their area. They may also be able to listen to a short broadcast from the ABC AWAYE! program giving examples of words from the language of the particular group.
Students are to:
- Choose one of the memoirs in the anthology, preferably one that they have already read and studied.
- Select a section of the text that is of interest.
- Rewrite this section in the style of spoken English. In other words, make the first move towards the way in which Ruth Langford Ginibi tells stories.
- Identify the First Nations group that the writer of the ‘memoir’ belongs to.
- Then, use information from the ABC program AWAYE!, Creative Spirits and the Gambay First Languages Map to find words that belong to the language of that particular group.
- Now try to substitute words from that Indigenous language into your re-writing of the ‘memoir’.
- Finally, prepare a presentation to the class:
- Read the original passage.
- Then read your spoken version.
- Finally, read the spoken version containing some Aboriginal words to the class.
- Explain to the class the process that you used to complete this task.
Obviously this is not a fully assessable task. It is simply an activity designed to encourage students to view language as a powerful element in the lives of human beings, rather than just a passive, transparent medium of communication. It supports the ideas presented by Anita Heiss in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia.
Synthesising the core ideas
In the anthology Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (and in an associated video) Anita Heiss explains that there are several reasons why Aboriginal people write. Two of the most important are: to use the coloniser’s tongue to show what they have done to Aboriginal people, and to show that there are many diverse ways in which people can grow up Aboriginal in Australia. Each individual writer has a personal story to tell based on their sense of identity which, for all humans, depends on: lived experience within a society and its culture; family and group membership within the wider society; and memories of the past.
However, the writers also refer to common experiences that bind them together. Many of the writers, reflecting on their experiences as they grew up in Australia, refer to restricting stereotypes applied to them based on skin colour, facial features, family backgrounds, pseudo-scientific theories around genetic makeup and so on.
An interesting feature of the anthology is that the contributors have been encouraged to manipulate the style and language features of ‘the coloniser’s tongue’ (English) to write their stories. However, it is worth remembering that in contemporary times there has been a resurgence in Aboriginal languages around the country, and that language and culture are fundamental to people’s sense of identity.
Rich assessment task (receptive mode)
Task: a letter of invitation to a local elder
Over time, Indigenous communities have either been given or have taken greater autonomy (control over their own lives). Find out which Aboriginal community your school is located within. Write a letter of invitation (300 words) to an Elder from the community to come to your class to talk about the continuous nature of Indigenous cultures, perhaps discuss Indigenous storytelling, and talk about their personal and communal history. Look up your local Aboriginal Land Council to find appropriate speakers. Remember to offer an honorarium for the person’s time and expertise; don’t expect them to do it for free. This shows politeness and respect. It’s important to leave this fairly open-ended, as Indigenous people quite rightly feel that they shouldn’t be asked to fit into your concepts of their culture. Rather, you are providing a forum for them to tell their stories in their own ways, and from which you hope to learn.
Another possibility would be to invite Indigenous achievers (artists, poets, filmmakers, writers, sportspeople, professionals, academics and so on) who may have an association with the community, to talk to the class about their areas of expertise and how their projects and work contribute to contemporary Indigenous culture and sense of identity.
Rich assessment tasks (productive mode)
Task 1: presentation of a spoken argument
During this unit you have learned a lot about some negative aspects of your country’s history, especially in relation to the treatment of the Indigenous people who have lived here for many thousands of years before the arrival of the First Fleet. You know from Anita Heiss, the editor of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, that the contributors to the anthology have manipulated the ‘coloniser’s language’ (English) to show the effects of invasion and colonisation on them.
However, the time has definitely come for Indigenous students to both learn and promote their own languages and cultures in school. Perhaps all Australian students should learn an Indigenous language and something about the related culture in order to enrich the national profile.
Brainstorm some ideas about how your local Indigenous language and culture could be introduced into your school curriculum (and additionally to the teaching of English).
Then prepare a spoken argument (about 1 minute in length) to be presented to a school council meeting.
Task 2: an open letter to the Australian Federal Parliament
In his book Finding the Heart of the Nation, Thomas Mayor visits and interviews 20 key Aboriginal people from all around Australia. He does this to support the Uluru Statement’s request to Federal Parliament for: recognition of Aboriginal people in the country’s Constitution; a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people; and an acknowledgement of the real history of colonial Australia. The interviews, like the stories in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, reveal the effects of invasion and colonisation on Indigenous people around Australia since white settlement.
Ask your teacher to explain these ideas for you. You will also find some useful information on several YouTube videos dealing with these topics. Then write an open letter (300 words) to the Parliament of Australia (perhaps to the President of the Senate or Speaker of the House of Representatives), asking our elected officials to move more directly towards meeting these requests.
Use material from three or four of the stories in the anthology to support your argument.