By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons. (Why this warning?)
The Council of Australian Governments has conducted a national review of Indigenous socio-economic outcomes. Its recent report finds that while some measures are improving, there is still a large gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This post provides a snapshot of the findings with a focus on education and responses by the state. One of the solutions being offered to improve educational outcomes amongst Indigenous youth is to send them to boarding schools. I discuss this in relation to Australia’s colonial history and the Government’s paternalistic views on Indigenous welfare.
I review other approaches to Indigenous education, which focus on working to students’ strengths in order to improve outcomes. This means making curriculum more focused on applied skills, vocational training within remote communities, and ensuring knowledge is culturally relevant. At the same time, educational efforts must avoid “pigeon holing” Indigenous students and teachers. Instead, education needs to make leadership and career pathways more accessible, and ensure that Indigenous insights are being fed back into the education system.
Finally, my post explores how sociological teaching and activism needs to change in reflection of the history of Indigenous educational practices.
Background on Remote Indigenous Communities
Indigenous people make up over 2 percent of Australia’s national population. The majority of Indigenous Australians claim an Aboriginal ancestry (90%), 6 percent are from Torres Strait Islander ancestry and the rest are a mix of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.
Around a third of Indigenous people live in major cities (32%), an even number live in inner and outer regional localities (21% and 22% respectively), 15 percent live in very remote areas and the rest live in remote areas (9%). The distinctions between remote and very remote regions refers to the road distance to social and health services. The map to the right shows Australia’s regions mapped against this remoteness criteria. The dark blue represents the very remote areas and the light blue are remote, while the small patches of red represent the cities where most Australians live. The geographic remoteness typifying where two-thirds of Indigenous Australians live is significant given that Australia is “one of the most urbanised countries in the world,” and 69% of our national population lives in major cities.
Professor Pat Dudgeon is a psychologist who has studied the history, education and health outcomes of Indigenous people. She is part of the National Health Commission and a member of the Bardi people of the Kimberley in Western Australia. In a review of the socio-cultural and historical context of Indigenous Australians, Dudgeon and colleagues estimate that Indigenous history in Australia can be traced back to 50,000 to 120,000 years.
At the time of European arrival in 1788, there were an estimated 300,000 Indigenous Australians living in Australia who spoke 260 distinct languages and 500 dialects. Dudgeon and colleagues note that affinity to the land and a strong and complex kinship system binds all people together and reinforces their spiritual bonds to nature. The colonialists, however, did not recognise the Indigenous custodianship of the land, declaring Australia an uninhabited land (terra nullius) and launched a violent campaign that decimated the Indigenous population and imposed a campaign of cultural genocide.
Colonial History of Paternalistic Violence
Dudgeon and colleagues chronicle that in 1883, New South Wales established the Aboriginal Protection Board. The Board later enacted the Aborigines Protection Act in 1909 which granted the state the power to confine Indigenous people in missions and reserves. Other states followed with similar Boards and legislation that imposed British culture and Christianity, stripping children of access to their land, culture and Indigenous languages. Indigenous people began to be classified under a legally imposed racial system. Using social Darwinism, the state ranked children according to whether they were “full blood,” “half-caste” and so on, using this system to remove children from their families. At its heart, this legal caste system reflected the social and scientific view that Indigenous Australians were somehow lesser in their humanity than the European invaders.
Indigenous resistance movements fought against colonialism throughout this period. Dudgeon and colleagues note several significant incidents of frontier warfare; the activism of William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines League and William Ferguson’s leadership of the Aborigines Progressive Association both in the 1920s; and a maritime strike in 1936. The latter lead to the rise of the Island Councillors meeting and the revised Aboriginal Protection Act of 1939 which provided Islanders greater authority.
While other Australians had the right to vote in 1902, Indigenous women did not get the right to vote until 1962, except enrolling to vote was still optional despite it being compulsory for other Australians. (Though some individual Indigenous people lobbied and voted in protest as far back as the 1890s.) The 1967 Commonwealth Referendum finally granted Indigenous Australians full citizenship. The landmark native title case in 1992 led by Eddie Mabo affirmed the Meriam people ownership of their land. Despite these advances, the legal, cultural, social, psychological, and health damage suffered under colonialism continues to the present day.
The forced removal of Indigenous children meant that families were not only separated, but children were put into institutions that had sub-standard health and educational access. This history explains the connection between socio-economics, health and institutional racism. That is, discrimination through official social policy and the practices of other social organisations.
Impact of Institutional Racism
Citing various national indicators reports from the late 2000s, Dudgeon and colleagues note that Indigenous people are “the most disadvantaged group in Australia” along every major socio-economic measure. Indigenous people have a significantly lower household income relative to non-Indigenous Australians, they are less likely to own their homes, they have a high suicide rate, and they have higher child protection notices. Some of the statistics that are of most relevance to educational outcomes include these facts:
- Indigenous people have a life expectancy that is up to 11.5 lower than the national average
- Indigenous people are six times as likely to die through homicide, with 65% of these deaths involving alcohol. This connection between homicide and alcohol rate is three times the national average
- Indigenous people are 12 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault, and four times more likely to be hospitalised for alcohol-related mental and behavioural disorders
- Indigenous child mortality rates are up to three times higher relative to other kids, and Indigenous children are twice as likely to be admitted to hospital
- Indigenous youth are 20 times more likely to be detained in custody
- Indigenous students graduate high school at half the rate of other Australians.
Moreover, in 2012, Indigenous men were over 17 times more likely to be incarcerated relative to other Australian men (4,093 per 100,000 population versus 234 per 100,000). Indigenous women have 24 times the rate of incarceration relative to non-Indigenous women, though in smaller numbers (405 per 100,000 versus 17 per 100,000 ).
While Indigenous social welfare workers and activists have sought to address these issues in culturally relevant ways, institutional racism is both socially pervasive and impeding of progress.
A nationally representative survey by geography Professor Kevin Dunn identifies that a high proportion of Australians still see Indigenous Australians as an “out-group.” Specifically, 58 percent of respondents said that “Indigenous Australians did not fit into Australian society.” Dunn notes that various opinion polls find that many Australians hold stereotypes of Indigenous Australians as supposed welfare dependent alcoholics who have failed to “assimilate.” This stereotype fails to recognise that the historical practices that tore families and communities apart continue to impact on the poor health and socio-economic opportunities of Indigenous Australians. Stereotypes also help fuel and legitimise racist discriminations of Indigenous Australians at school, work and in public life in general.
The majority of Indigenous people that Dunn surveyed say that racism is a problem in Australia (95%) and two-thirds also noted that White people hold social privilege due to their race. The level and types of racism experienced by Indigenous people was higher than for other groups, with a third experiencing racism at work (29%) and in education (36%) and up to a quarter in housing (21%) and policing (23%). While non-English people experienced higher rates of workplace racism (36%), they reported lower incidents along the other measures, notably in education (30%).
Health and Education
The Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) released a report in June which finds a set of mixed health and socio-economic outcomes amongst Indigenous Australians. Death amongst Indigenous children has been decreasing (to 5.7 deaths per 100 000 annually), but Indigenous adults still die at twice the rate of other Australians.
Indigenous completion rates of high school (to Year 12 or equivalent) has risen from 47% in 2006 to 54% in 2011, however in the Northern Territory high school completion is lower by almost 7 percentage points. Most of the Territory is categorised as a very remote region. There are also mixed results for literacy. Reading levels have improved amongst Indigenous children in Years 3 to 7, but numeracy has decreased since 2008. The opposite trend is found amongst older Indigenous students in Year 9. While post-school qualifications have been improving for the rest of Australia, amongst Indigenous people, there has been little improvement.
Only 55 percent of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are still in school by Year 10. This is the lowest rate of educational retention in Australia in the one area that has the highest proportion of Indigenous people (30% of the local population).
One of the Government proposals to improve literacy and school retention is sending Indigenous children to boarding schools. If this is a local facility that does not take children too far from their local communities, this may be workable, however, at its heart, this idea of removal of children has troubling undertones mired by Australia’s colonial history.
Bruce Wilson, chair of review into Indigenous education system for the Northern Territory Government, says that educational facilities and administration of the curriculum is substandard in the Territory. Teachers are not adequately trained and children are not motivated to stay at school. The solution, to send children away to boarding schools, is seen as a means to improve student attrition. The premise, however, gives up on improving teacher training and infrastructure. Wilson says that the goal is to entice children to remain at school and to stay connected to their communities:
Young people need continuing contact with their culture, with their language, with their families and communities.
The boarding school proposal is controversial as it would take children away from their families. Australia’s colonial history makes this a problematic course of action.
In the early stages of European settlement, in 1911, the Government set up a Chief Protector who become the “legal guardian of every Aboriginal and every half-caste child up to the age of 18 years.” Seven years later, the Protector was also the legal guardian of all Indigenous women unless they were married to a white English-speaking man. In the mid-1950s, children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live with White missionaries. They grew up dislocated from their culture and languages, and are therefore dubbed The Stolen Generation.
More recently in 2007, the so-called Northern Territory Intervention was enacted under a modified colonialist mindset – one still operating through paternalistic views about Indigenous welfare. The Government sent the military and police to ban alcohol and restrict Indigenous access to welfare. The improvement on social life has been negligible, despite the fact that Indigenous human rights were sacrificed under the guise of protection for women and children.
The educational outcomes of Indigenous youth in the Northern Territory are connected to broader systemic racism. Indigenous unemployment is high in the Territory. As Wilson argues:
It is very hard to encourage young people who live in communities with very limited job opportunities to keep coming to school to do an education that they know will not get them a job in the community.
Making Education More Inclusive of Indigenous Knowledge
Educators in the Northern Territory have long argued that Indigenous outcomes in education and work would be greatly improved with better support for teachers and students, using a non-Western framework of learning. In 2011, senior educator Chris Garner (Scottish-Australian who grew up in South Africa) gave a talk at TEDx Darwin where he outlined the success of a program that drew on Indigenous perspectives. Garner points out that the sparsely populated Northern Territory is the size of the UK. Its remoteness is a challenge and part of the disincentive to continue with school through to graduation.
Rather than starting from a Western idea of what students need, Garner’s program focuses on culturally relevant learning practices. This includes a mix of traditional activities such as basket weaving, as well as the regular curriculum. Maths and literacy have an applied focus, with lessons based on job case studies that the students are interested in, from social work, to plumbing to construction and so on. Students also do work placements in their local communities so that they get an opportunity to build up work experience, and they are also able to join a workplace that speaks their Indigenous language.
Garner finds that the students’ confidence increases when they are judged against non-Western criteria, and more specifically, when they are graded against their local Indigenous cultures. He gives the example of students who are reticent to write because they’re afraid of being ridiculed for making mistakes. Garner encourages them to write and suspends grading their spelling at first, focusing instead on their ideas. Later, as their confidence grows, he takes the time to demonstrate why spelling is important in particular jobs.
Under this program, 96% of those learning a culturally relevant program are graduating versus only one third of other Indigenous students in other parts of Australia. Rather than being teacher-led, the last two years of school are structured around the individual needs and cultural expectations of students. Garner says this individualised approach does not need to be viewed with apprehension by mainstream education. He says:
It’s an evolution of the teacher, not a revolution of the system.
In July 2012, principal Judith Ketchell told SBS News (below) that there are around 180 teachers in the Northern Territory, of whom around half are Indigenous. She says that the problems these teachers face are part of the broader educational issues facing all Indigenous Australians. This includes getting stronger support so that they aren’t “pigeon holed” into teaching certain types of subjects, that they see clear career pathways, and that they have the potential to develop and enact their leadership. She says in the video below:
We need more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in Australian classrooms. Not only to close the gap for our literacy and numeracy, but to help our non-Indigenous colleagues develop more understanding about Aboriginal and Islander history and culture in schools.
Challenges for Indigenous Australian Sociology
Much like the challenges facing Indigenous educators, Australian sociology has many issues to address. Indigenous sociologist Kathleen Butler-McIlwraith finds that our discipline presents several problems in the way we teach, research and discuss Indigenous experiences. First, many of our key texts are written from a particular White Western perspective. For example, we continue to teach Durkheim who used Indigenous Australians as a case study of a “primitive” culture. Even when using the work of Marx and Foucault, Butler-McIlwraith must “critically” and “cautiously” approach their work as an Indigenous woman. Second, most Australian sociology deals with Indigenous issues deals via written texts that speak on behalf of Indigenous people, rather drawing on face-to-face ethnographic dialogue.
Butler-McIlwraith is acutely aware of her Otherness both in her approach to teaching and in the way in which her teaching is positioned within academia. She was reticent to introduce her own personal experience into the classroom because much of sociology focuses on the written texts of major White male figures (for further discussion, see Butler-McIlwraith’s PhD thesis). Much of Indigenous scholarship constructs Indigenous people as Other, focusing on problems, especially on rural and remote Indigenous problems. Butler-McIlwraith grew up in urban New South Wales, and so these rural experiences are as foreign to her as they are to her predominantly White students. Furthermore, Butler-McIlwraith notes that she and her Indigenous academic colleagues are mostly teaching Indigenous subjects, which reinforces that academia primarily defines and values their knowledge and scholarship in a narrow way. She writes:
Many Indigenous academics remain peripheral to the academy, other than in the position of the ubiquitous guest lecturer – the reserve army of labour for White academics to selectively include in order to handle the contentious obligatory Indigenous inclusion.
This post has been concerned with the very issues Butler-McIlwraith identifies. First, while I identify as a woman of colour I am not an Indigenous Australian, nor have I conducted ethnographic research on Indigenous education. I have plans to produce other collaborative works (watch this space!) but my interest in Indigenous education is informed by my interest in breaking down Otherness and issues of social justice more broadly.
Second, I have focused on remote Indigenous communities, which in many ways speaks to the primary image that many Australians have of Indigenous Australians. Australian sociologists have a profound respect of Indigenous cultures, but what does this mean and how do we make a real difference?
Every sociological event I’ve ever attended, such as a conference or public lecture, includes a Welcome to Country. This involves a formal acknowledgement of the traditional landowners of the place where we are, and a brief speech by a local Indigenous elder. Indigenous issues usually feature in Australian sociology textbooks, but Indigenous knowledge remains distinct. Australian sociology still relies heavily on European theorists and White Australian scholarship. In short, Indigenous knowledge is not central to the way in which we teach sociology.
This is where Australian history, academic practice and socio-economic dynamics need to change. Sociologists are acutely aware of power and discourse, and yet Indigenous colleagues are not only a minority, but a specialised labour force. Indigenous perspectives are reserved for discussions on Indigenous problems (reproducing Indigenous Australians as “Other”), but Indigenous perspectives are not integrated into the way in which we teach sociology. Butler-McIlwraith writes:
I would suggest that those currently enfranchised in the discipline should give some consideration to what a dialogue between the centre and periphery will entail. Is the centre willing to become more inclusive, or are Indigenous knowledges to remain the appendices to White thought?
My post has shown how historical policies continue to affect institutional racism and negatively affect the outcomes of Indigenous students. The lesson from the material I present here is not simply that Indigenous education is a societal problem that requires novel, non-Western solutions that are inclusive of Indigenous ways of learning. Without doubt, this is an issue affecting not just Indigenous communities, but it undermines Australian society more generally. A significant group within our nation is dramatically disadvantaged by our educational system; this requires collective action.
Beyond this central point, the problems facing Indigenous education are partly reflected in our own unexamined sociological practices. A uniquely Australian sociology should be at the centre of educational transformation, by critically addressing our engagement with the texts we use and produce, and by making Indigenous perspectives an ongoing feature of our teaching and critical thinking. While we continue to draw on the voices of European and White theorists (mostly men as I’ll show in a later post), we silence the contribution of Indigenous perspectives. To paraphrase Garner: it’s time for evolution of the sociological teacher/ activist, and a revolution of the Australian sociological system.
Learn more about key figures who fought for social, educational and legal rights of Indigenous Australians:
- William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines League.
- William Ferguson, unionist, founder of Aborigines Progressive Association and Australian Labor Party branch secretary.
- Eddie Mabo, native title activist.
- Poet and activist, Dr Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker), key campaigner in the reform of the Australian constitution, Queensland state secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and recipient of the British Order in 1970 (which she returned in 1987 in protest of the bicentennial celebrations).
- Marion Scrymgour, Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, became the first Indigenous woman elected into Government, serving from 2001 to 2012 and then a Minister from 2002 to 2009. Among other roles, she was Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Minister for Child Protection, and Minister for Indigenous Policy.
- See a timeline of Indigenous rights via the National Museum of Australia and learn more about cultural meanings and approaches to leadership via Reconciliation Australia. Scroll further below for an excellent documentary on Indigenous history in Australia.
The First Australians: A documentary of Indigenous history
Notes: About the Warning to Indigenous Readers
Indigenous cultural traditions impose different rules about how Indigenous people may be represented in public after death. This can include not using their first name, and not viewing images of the deceased. Not all Indigenous people follow the same norms, but the media have been called to observe this warning. In some cases, after the passage of time Indigenous people may be spoken about publicly, or they will be given a new name. This belief has been misrepresented in popular culture as a superstition about the soul being captured on film. This is not about superstition; it is about a communal process of honouring the dead. Read more on Creative Spirits, who quote Margaret Parker from the Punjima people in north-west Western Australia:
A cultural practice of our people of great importance relates to our attitude to death in our families. Like when we have someone passed away in our families and not even our own close families, the family belongs to us all, you know. The whole community gets together and shares that sorrow within the whole community.
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