Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (”Indigenous” or “First Australians”) have been the traditional custodians of the land of Australia for over 75,000 years and longer by other estimates. According to the 2011 Census, Indigenous Australians make up over three percent of Australia’s national population. The majority of Indigenous Australians have an Aboriginal ancestry (90%), six percent are from Torres Strait Islander ancestry, and the rest are a mix of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.
Indigenous Australians descend from over 400 documented language and cultural groups. Due to colonialism, 145 languages survive, but only 20 languages are considered “strong” (that is, spoken by all generations).
Pat Dudgeon and colleagues
note that, at the time of British invasion in 1788, First Australians’ affinity to the land was strong, as was the complex kinship system that 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.
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 to be considered “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 contributed 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 federally 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.
Health and Education
The Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) released a report in June 2013 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 possible be workable if approved by families, 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.
To learn more about other Indigenous-driven initiatives to enhance education, head to my blog, The Other Sociologist.
[Photo: People gather at an Indigenous stall at a Survival Day event, with the Aboriginal flag in prominent display.]