A few thoughts on teaching about #Indigenous #Australia

A short while back I started reading The Greatest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia. What a remarkable book this is. Its author, Bill Gammage, systematically deconstructs the convenient myth of Aboriginal backwardness in this excellent history. He accumulates layer upon layer of historical source material, drawn from the casual observations of European explorers and settlers who started to move out into the world’s greatest estate from 1788 onwards.  He also uses observations from earlier European visitors as well.

“Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos” by Joseph Lycett, from the National Library of Australia. Intention to published notified. http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2962715-s20

Amongst the visual resources of early Australia Gammage relies on the work of the work of Joseph Lycett ‘Drawings of Aborigines and scenery, New South Wales‘, ca. 1820. Lycett’s work wasn’t new to me when I encountered it in the book I’d seen it before in various texts. What I’d always found interesting about it was the clear sense of order in the Australian landscape that Lycett chose to conveys. Mistakenly I’d always interpreted that sense of order an artistic imposition of a European way of viewing the late 18th and early 19th century landscape of Colonial Australia. Not till I read Gammage’s work did I begin to understand that Lycett and others were recognising and recording the order of Aboriginal land management.

Gammage use of the term ‘estate’ is purposeful and its also ironic. An estate is area of land, in the European sense of 1788 it was an extensive area of land in the country, usually with a large house, owned by one person, landed gentry or aristocrat. The term also implied management of the land, of a sequence of steps responding to seasons, of certain land having certain purposes or uses that might change through the seasons. It suggests an orderly system for managing the ownership, exchange and inheritance of land implying that appropriate laws were in place and that there was a general acceptance of the rule of law.

Gammage isn’t casual in applying this term to the Australian landscape, at the outset he explains there are three facts on which this book rests:

1. ” . . . about 70% of Australia’s plants need or tolerate fire (ch3).  Knowing which plants welcome fire and when and how much, was critical to managing land.  Plants could then be burnt and not burnt in patterns, so that post fire regeneration could situate and move grazing animals predictably by selectively locating the feed and shelter they prefer.”

2. This meant that grazing “animals could be shepherded in this way because apart from humans they had no serious predators.”

3. “There was no wilderness.  The Law – an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction – compelled people to care for all their country.  People lived and died to ensure this” (1)

The underlying principles of land management in this greatest of all estates, he condenses this into three basic rules:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Male plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local. (op cit 94)

“What plants and animals flourished where related to their management. As in Europe the land was managed at a local level. Detailed local knowledge was crucial. Each family cared for its own ground, and knew not merely which species fire or no fire might affect, but which individual plant and animal, and their totems and Dreaming links. They knew every yard intimately, and knew well the ground of neighbours and clansmen, sharing larger scale management or assuming responsibility for nearby ground if circumstances required.”  (2)

Uncovering Indigenous pasts in the present

This past winter has been a time of reading, research and digital construction for me. After developing a research unit on the Sioux’s survival, last year , I turned my attention to building a short unit on Aboriginal survival. I wanted this to be a learning project that avoided the generic introduction, typical of many school text books, that imposed a homogeneity to the life of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) history before contact. It was also necessary to ensure that the sections dealing with Contact and Post Contact history were constructed so that students were encouraged to draw on the rich digital resources that are now becoming available. I built both the Sioux and the ATSI units learning units using a template supplied by the NSW Teaching and Learning Exchange (TALE) managed by the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre

Front page of the learning unit built in PowerPoint

One frequent problem with school texts is their use of the term ‘Dreamtime’, as something that happened back in antiquity that was all ‘done and dusted’ by the time the ‘ Whiteman’ arrived and is now only represented in song and dance. It’s true that some contemporary Aboriginal Australians accept this terminology, but for others  The Dreaming is ongoing just as creation is on going.  It didn’t only happen back then but is still unfolding now. My challenge was to allow my students to experience the Dreaming in this sense.

Several things help in conveying this sense of the presence of Creation, there are probably many but I chose:

I’ve probably said enough about The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia so it’s the other three areas I’d most like to explore.

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia (MAIA)

I’m not certain just how this work is received by Indigenous Australians, none that I’ve spoken with have been critical of the work, but to date such conversations have been limited to colleagues. Needless to say this work attempts to cover vast subjets.  It need to be explored for one to gain a sense of just how much it attempts. Probably the most important understanding I’ve derived from the book, to date, is the background on The Dreaming, that I’ve already addressed.

The MAIA attributes early attempts to describe The Dreaming to Baldwin Spencer.

Reading through the atlas I learned that the term ‘Dreamtime’ was started by an English anthropologist, Baldwin Spencer.  Dreamtime is Baldwin’s translation of an Arrernte word altyerre which means both ‘time of creation’ and ‘dream’.  From this this limited meaning the idea of the ‘Dreamtime’ was developed. The term is widely used all over Australia by many Indigenous people as well as non-Indigenous people – to refer to the Indigenous time of creation.  However, in many – even most – Indigenous languages, there is no connection between the word for ‘dream’ and the word for ‘creation time’, and some Indigenous people object to the use of ‘Dreamtime’.  Torres Strait Islanders do not use the term.

Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu

Alerted to this wider sense of Dreaming I began to listen more intently to the songs of Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu. Several things started to emerge when I did this but two were particularly significant for me.  I began to realise that I understood some of his lyrics. While Yolgnu languages are from the Pama-Nyungan family of languages and have connections with other Aboriginal languages there’s also an Austronesian influence in Yolgnu languages. The same influences can be found in Indonesian and in low Balinese for example, a language in which I’ve a small vocabulary. I can’t say whether this influence is from connections with the Macassans and the Bugis alone or whether the connections are more ancient. It seems reasonable to me that this wasn’t the only contact across Manbuynga ga Rulyapa (Arafura Sea).

What I understood amounted to mere words and occasionally fragments that I could guess at, but it focused my attention and caused me to look more deeply into his lyrics. It was then I began to realise that he is often singing about The Dreaming, that for him it is in the present as well as in the past. One song that strongly appealed to me is Baywara. The lyrics of speak for themselves.

Here is an example of his work and extraordinary presence. Djarimirri concerns his own creation “I am a child conceived and carried by Wititj a rainbow child ” Wititj is the Ancestor Rainbow Python.

(1)  Gammage, B. – The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin. 2011. pp 1-2 

(2) op cit pp. 3


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