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Learning from the elders of our nation

 Learning from the elders of our nation - article

Author: Lindall Watson, Inclusive Education Coordinator

 19 Oct 2016

It’s only now, after my recent foray into the Northern Territory, I feel I am coming to terms with the mystery and complexity of Indigenous Australia.

In February 2008 my husband and I took what was intended to be brief leave from our jobs and seven children. We were going from leafy St Ives to the Tamani desert to find answers to questions the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention had thrown up. What we found there was so intriguing we came back to Sydney and packed up our lives in order to go and spend five challenging and rewarding years in this remote, unique place.

We lived in two equally remarkable locations, Lajamanu in the Tamani desert about halfway between Katherine and Alice Springs, and Gapuwiyak in Arnhem Land, on the northeast tip of the Territory. Once our breathlessness at being so small in the vast landscape passed we enjoyed extraordinary sunsets and sunrises, massive vistas of purple and blue and the ominous azure water of the Top End.

The Warlpirri and Yolgnu people with whom we spent time were very willing to share their complex knowledge about their land; in fact they were proud and excited to do so. My husband and I were given the skin names of Nakamara and Japalajarri and were often involved in rituals around preparing, cooking and eating turtle and goanna; the vast intricacies involved with the funerals and burials of community members, and adolescent boys’ circumcision ceremonies.

Warlpirri Elders taught us the importance of the night sky, including where to find the flying emu and how the stories of the stars link to their survival. From the Yolgnu we learned how to make a yidaki (the local name for didgeridoo); which roots can be boiled to make yellow and red dyes; and some of the song-line stories that accompany each individual through life.

During our time in the Territory I occupied both Deputy Principal and Principal positions in Lajamanu and Gapuwiyak. My initiation into the leadership of Gapuwiyak School was a world away from the kind we might have at Wenona. Rather than a chat over morning tea, this took place in a secluded waterhole where I was rubbed down with sand and dunked under water as three women ‘sang me into the land’– a profound and meaningful experience.

There was a constant tug between the need to provide a contemporary western education and the need for the children to absorb cultural knowledge and indigenous language. Fortunately my devotion to the learning theories of Lev Vygotsky and Paulo Freire, my intense interest in research and my broad experience in education prepared me for the challenge. I developed significant partnerships with the Stronger Smarter Institute, founded by Dr Chris Sara; Professor David Rose from Sydney University; Dr Ruth Deakin-Crick from Bristol University; and the Territory’s own Batchelor Institute. I also met regularly with community elders; regional and local health providers; the Business Manager of each community; and regional councils, in particular the local Land Council, as we worked together to foster the standing of the schools.

The media often carry stories that emphasise the difficulties of remote community life; my husband and I feel very fortunate to have experienced its richness for ourselves.