In Langscape Magazine Articles

Educational Intelligence: Learning about Place and Country through Aboriginal Art and Activism in Sydney, Australia

August 11, 2017

by Stephen Houston

“We have survived the white man’s world.”

—from the song “We Have Survived,” written and performed by Bart Willoughby with the Aboriginal band No Fixed Address, 1981

Botany Bay

“Botany Bay Industrial Lights,” New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2016

Despite the intensifying market pressures on land and the lifeworld, the power of Country as a living and sustaining force is re-asserting itself in Australia—that is, even in places like the City of Sydney, where this deep lawful connection to Country experienced its earliest, blunt violations under British colonial rule. Australia’s sovereign First Peoples’ past and present connection to Country is emerging from several generations of racially orchestrated, and devastating, take-over and dispossession. The numbers in today’s jails eloquently tell the story. But a sense of Country is now leading the way with practical demonstrations of what non-Indigenous Australian authorities are beginning to learn: environmental management principles are ignored at our own peril, and respectful diversity among ourselves as a means for living sustainably with our locally unique environments is vital.

The contemporary map of Australia displaying roughly 250 language groups comprising 600 or so dialects reveals the matrices of that layered diversity within diversity. Both intellectually and pragmatically, this intricately woven strength of connection to Country has had the tenacious resilience to withstand nearly 230 years of persistent colonial efforts to ignore and extinguish it as a hindrance to commerce, industry, and development.

I am not Indigenous. So mine are not like those intellectual powers that have been passed down by generations through customary law, ceremony, song, and kinship, identifying with life in a particular place or places. But I can see the genius of that strength as a vital necessity for sustaining the Dreaming, for getting and keeping respectful, rich relations for biocultural diversity with an enduring aesthetic, spiritual, and cultural lore. And I can see the discipline that this powerful, enduring intellectual culture offers.

Botany Bay

The opening through which Joseph Banks and James Cook entered Botany Bay to “take possession” in 1770. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2016

I live on Wangal Country in Croydon, in old suburban Sydney. Ten kilometers eastward of here, back in 1770, Joseph Banks and James Cook proclaimed possession of Country at Botany Bay. Their scientific expedition on the exploration vessel HMS Endeavour, commissioned by King George III of England, brought them to the east coast of what was to them New Holland after sailing first through New Zealand, and they called it New South Wales. Everything to them was “new.” They sailed in through the headlands to drop anchor and let Banks off to gather specimens. He was a wealthy young botanist, soon to be running Britain’s imperial Royal Society and influencing an epoch of new colonial enterprise in both science and business. Knowing this place is knowing this story. But how you identify yourself is critical in what meaning it holds for you and whether it makes you smile with pride, cringe in disgust, or be confused about where you belong in the story. It can be very uncomfortable negotiating our different identities in relation to these places.

Knowing this place is knowing this story. But how you identify yourself is critical in what meaning it holds for you and whether it makes you smile with pride, cringe in disgust, or be confused about where you belong in the story.

I am a secondary school teacher. Being an educator in geography or history studies in this contested colonized place raises dilemmas about our various teacher and learner identities and purposes for teaching, learning, and assessment. Education is never culture-neutral. Whose cultural purposes are we serving? Who are we?

Teachers in some geography and outdoor education circles are embracing Place-Based Education (PBE) because they are concerned that curriculum has become too disconnected from the foundations of life and is losing relevance for real-world predicaments faced by communities. The blame is often placed on globalization and market-based capitalism and its consumer culture. One of the best-known PBE authors, Greg Smith, put forth five key themes that characterize PBE learning practices: using local conditions to provide sound foundations for curriculum; emphasizing learning experiences that offer students chances to generate knowledge, not just consume it; focusing on the students’ own questions and concerns; positioning the teacher as an “experienced guide,” a co-learner, a facilitator, or broker of community resources and learning opportunities; and breaking down boundaries that prevent school students from developing skills through participation in the community.

PBE teachers argue that education must offer practical learning to do with such daunting existential challenges as chronic and systemic environmental problems—that is, practical schooling that addresses the lack of vital local knowledge and awareness in many people’s lives. That gap has arisen from the identity shocks of economic effacement and displacement, under the pressures of property markets and labor market forces that have led to tremendous turnover of land in urban spaces. The steady, dependable identities of local contexts and ecological features have become hard if not impossible to sustain. Space simply equals commercial opportunity. While PBE addresses this disorienting logic, deep knowledge of and commitment to place in the sense of Country predates this environmentalist educational movement.

The Block

Man walking. The city behind “The Block,” land fenced off by developers in Redfern, Sydney. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2016

A prime example of enduring commitment to Country is a protracted legal battle in Sydney’s inner southern precinct of Redfern over planned property redevelopment on a particularly symbolic modern Koori place of social and land rights struggle called “The Block.” (With its daily use in such places as the Koori Mail, Koori Radio, Koori Knockout rugby league, and innumerable others, the term “Koori” is widespread as the self-identifying name for people of Aboriginal descent living in Sydney and most of New South Wales, usually preferred to the non-Indigenous term “Aboriginal.”) The Block protest soon attracted media attention and political interest. A Tent Embassy was formed as a negotiators’ space. Tents and other shelters were quickly erected to show solidarity and protest numbers. A court case followed. Now developers have an empty space fenced off, but they know they are not dealing with just anybody. Connection to Country is undeniable. It works with the immutable sense of belonging to land that long predates the City, the Commercial Business District (CBD), and speculative property values.

Now Australians are beginning to see and hear “Welcome to Country” and acknowledgment of Country as routine expressions and expectations in public life. Is this a kind of gradual systemic learning, a form of PBE? Is the colonial state ready to let go of its doctrine of Terra Nullius (nobody’s land)—not just legally but also culturally? Is it ready to wholeheartedly accept that Country exists and to enter into what David Gruenevald, another key PBE writer, calls decolonization and reinhabitation—the larger landscape of cultural and ecological politics? Undoubtedly, nothing less than sovereignty itself has been at stake, and it continues to be so.

Is the colonial state ready to wholeheartedly accept that Country exists and to enter into the larger landscape of cultural and ecological politics?

For a long time, the colonial-based education system wavered as to whether to exclude or gain the confidence of First People groups to participate and comply with the aims of curriculum. After a lengthy experience of embarrassing failures, however, post-Apartheid government education policies began to appear in the 1970s, when international human rights reports started highlighting and defining Australia’s racially-based administrative problems. An organization called the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) gathered momentum during the early 1980s. Linda Burney, later to become the first Aboriginal woman MP in the Commonwealth House of Representatives, was President of the AECG in 1982 when the New South Wales Government introduced the landmark Aboriginal Education Policy (AEP), the first of its kind in Australia.

The AEP now formally requires publicly funded schools to take responsibility for positive and high expectations in Aboriginal education relationships. All staff are required to learn about the history of Aboriginal Peoples in Australia and, most importantly, about the specific experiences, both past and present, that affect local family groups in Country. The AEP, therefore, has a strong focus on knowledge of Country and care and responsibility, and it directs local Aboriginal people to make use of this important formal policy opportunity. It urges them to assume previously unthinkable expectations of responsibility in these relationships with education institutions. Understandably, it has been a challenging policy directive to many, but it is a crucial one.

Also profoundly inspiring has been the work of First Peoples activists, cultural workers, artists, academics, and Elders, who have been providing the kinds of educational intelligence that the public has so badly needed in Australia. They remind Australians, many of us realizing we are losing our sense of local identity, of the invaluable importance of identification with Country—and of such specific identification within daily environmental, creative, and intellectual practice. Koori artists have risen to the top of Sydney’s and, indeed, of Australia’s cultural industries, finding ways to assert a sense of Country and of being Indigenous while faced with today’s circumstances. Musicians, visual artists, craftspersons, writers, actors, and dancers feature in this diverse spectrum of artistry.

Uncle Wes Marne

Bigambul (Southern Queensland) storyteller and poet Uncle Wes Marne, who has lived helping community on Darug land in Sydney for over forty years, seen at the 2017 Parramatta Eel Festival in Sydney. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2017. Reproduced with subject’s permission.

Uncle Wes Marne is one such creative force, an elderly Bigambul man from Southern Queensland who has lived in Sydney for over 40 years. He is a storyteller, poet, and mentor working in schools, prisons, and community organizations. When, during the 1960s, he began attempting to enter schools in New South Wales to tell stories, he was blocked and then severely limited and monitored for a long time. He now works with Western Sydney University and in other settings where his assistance as an Elder and mentor is appreciated respectfully. I had my first opportunity to hear the stories and poems of Uncle Wes when I met him in March this year at a newly inaugurated annual public event in Old Parramatta Town. Parramatta, located at the upper reaches of the Parramatta River in the geographical center of what is now the urban metropolis of Greater Sydney, was the “first colonial seat of government,” long overshadowed by the modern City of Sydney and the industrial docks and CBD closer to the ocean to the east.

The event, known as the Eel Festival, is staged on a key site among the historic house properties that form part of Sydney Living Museums (SLM): the Macarthur Homestead, Australia’s very first homestead, which sits on Burramattagal land in Parramatta. Few people in Sydney realize that the name “Parramatta” means “place of the eel,” so the festival provides much-needed awareness about language and sense of place. Until very recently, this SLM site focused only on the colonial history of non-Indigenous people. The homestead is a fascinating old building replete with authentically restored or refashioned period items, but now for the first time, it holds its place alongside a clear presence of Koori people and the Burramattagal in particular. Thanks to artist, weaver, and storyteller Clive Freeman, SLM Coordinator of Aboriginal Interpretation Programs, this and all other historic houses run by SLM follow the new Aboriginal Action Plan. Within that plan, Clive’s role is to “enhance the historic values” of these properties and to ensure that Koori visitors—especially the very local nearby Sydney area peoples, the Eora, Darug, and Dharawal—“can actively connect to these properties” with the support of staff.

Elizabeth Farm

The Macarthur Homestead verandah at Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, which sits on Burramattagal land (Darug Country): it looks ordinary but is unique, being the first on the Australian continent. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2017

The festival offers a highly significant opportunity to families from Koori and non-Koori backgrounds to spend time on the property and learn from the place and its story—and to do so in a much more meaningful way than through the exclusively British colonial lens that dominated the museums’ sites until recently. The event also provides a venue for more people to listen to people talking on and about Country—Country as land with deep connection, an eloquently articulated concept imbued with authoritative local cultural life and all the diversity this implies. The culinary and food gathering traditions, including giant eel traps fashioned with woven fibres from local plants, bring home a sense of the age-old seasonal gatherings known to have celebrated this particular place in Country and this unique creature, a fish that migrates here in a breeding cycle that starts in far-flung New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean and returns there over the eel’s lifespan. The festival also represents a new and potentially increasingly busy market and meeting opportunity for many Kooris finding economic livelihoods through market-based manufacturing and service businesses in the commercially focused life of today’s Sydney. The markets are growing and increasing in popularity among buyers and sellers keen to appreciate and promote Koori perspectives and their contribution to life in Sydney.

This event parallels what is happening in education circles. The colonial narratives of victorious commercial enterprise and economic development will no longer exclude the vital intelligence of the voices of the local people on and from whose Country colonial sites were or are erected. At the festival, I also met Marnie Omeragic and Joanne Somerville, both of whom work professionally in early childhood education in a suburb near my home. They participate regularly in an initiative called the “Yarning Circle,” initiated by a Sydney-based early-childhood curriculum consultant who is a Koori woman specializing in Indigenous perspectives on education. We met up two days later for a photo op at a local green space known as Wongal Park, a wetland rejuvenation project not far from where I live. This place in the middle of Sydney’s suburbia allows for enduring Wongal Country to be realized culturally with the help of local Wongal caretakers, Elders, and cultural advisors. Such networks for educators are emerging and becoming practical opportunities to learn about Country that is still alive under the colonial streetscapes of built-up blocks and properties.

Marnie Omeragic and Joanne Somerville

Early childhood educators Marnie Omeragic and Joanne Somerville at Wongal Park, in Croydon, an inner-west suburb of Sydney. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2017. Reproduced with subjects’ permission.

The Australian book Sharing Spaces: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Responses to Country and Rights, edited by Gus Worby and Lester-Irabinna Rigney, provides a wonderful array of thoughts on the critical issue of struggle between conflicting interests in various kinds of shared places—an issue that has characterized the Australian social landscape to this day. The book shows that these fiercely contested places call for education that brings people into conversation with one another to discover what they all have in common. The role of diverse languages is vital as a cultural strategy for respectfully differentiating ourselves, making sense of lived histories and relations, and keeping people together and strong in the midst of such cultural conflicts.

The role of diverse languages is vital as a cultural strategy for respectfully differentiating ourselves, making sense of lived histories and relations, and keeping people together and strong in the midst of such cultural conflicts.

In Australian public life, it is beginning to become apparent that, rhetorically, there is no sturdier-sounding voice than one speaking on Country. After a lengthy televised oratory address delivered passionately and graciously by local Elder Tina Brown in the nation’s Commonwealth Parliament House in Canberra on August 30, 2016, our Prime Minister (PM) delivered a short message in Ngunawal language, on Country, at the Welcome to Country Ceremony for the opening of the 45th Commonwealth Parliament. The historical significance of this broadcast Welcome to Country, including the replies by the PM and others, cannot be understated.

Increasingly, the kind of stance being adopted throughout Australia by non-Indigenous educators and everyday thinking citizens connects to sovereign peoples’ voices and knowledge on Country to bear firmly on specific local concerns: the places we live in and know. Gradually, it would appear that, even in Sydney where market transformations are most intense, a learning process is happening about our daily relations to places and the living worlds therein. Sustainability is a critical challenge we face. Is the intelligence of sovereign connection to Country likely to assume ever-greater prominence in education? We shall see. But what is beginning to happen, with the help of art and activism, is heartening.

Wongal Park

Left: Birds and reeds around the water at Wongal Park in Croydon, Sydney. Center: A cluster of shedding bark upon fresh bark on a eucalyptus gum tree at Wongal Park in Croydon, Sydney. Right: Wetland shrub at Wongal Park in Croydon, Sydney. Photos: Stephen Houston, 2017


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Stephen Houston teaches and researches language matters in Sydney, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, with a special interest in language planning. He has worked in the prison education system and in secondary schools with the NSW Department of Educations. He also is an Associate Member of the Australian Institute for Interpreters and Translators. Read more from Stephen Houston.

Further Reading

Gruenewald, D. A., & Smith, G. A. (Eds.). (2008). Place-Based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pennycook, A. (2010). Language as a Local Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sumner, M. (n.d.). Interview. Retrieved from–Muggi–Sumner

Trevorrow, T., & Hemming, S. (2006). Conversation: Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan — Listen to Ngarrindjeri people talking. In G. Worby & L. I. Rigney (Eds.), Sharing Spaces: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Responses to Story, Country and Rights (pp. 295–304). Perth, Western Australia: API Network.

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