ethos 2022 4

First Nations cultures and histories - notes from the SEV office

A kind of primer – some of our favourite First Nations resources, readings and thinkers.

Featured to Ethos, vol. 30, no.1, 2022 – 'Voices, Treaties and Truth'.

As we were putting together ideas for this issue of Ethos the team was nervous, knowing this topic is so crucial and not wanting to mess anything up(!)

We discussed the politics of allyship, about the sometimes-clumsy attempts made at reconciliation or reckoning within the curriculum. We remembered sessions that we have coordinated where the learning offered by First Nations educators was genuinely heard deeply by our members as they also grapple with many of these dilemmas.

Alongside teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, issues and histories, a key thing that we can do is create an industry that welcomes First Nations educators. By promoting human working hours and inclusive and supportive workplaces, an industry that values difference and actively opposes racism will support and encourage First Nations teachers to join and stay in the profession.

In Decolonising Solidarity, when discussing complicity, Clare Land writes that ‘…the challenge is to admit it, to resist it, to undo it, yet also see how it provides us with opportunities to resist the workings of colonialism’ (Land, 2015). And for us, the committee and staff who have contributed to writing this volume, we have tried to be mindful of the systems that privilege our voices – particularly those that put us in front of other people, allow us to tell them what to think about and guiding them in how to think about it.

In this guide, we’ve compiled some of the resources we’ve found most useful for ourselves and our students in the development of our knowledge and skills in teaching First Nations perspectives, cultures and histories.

Some dilemmas – what is holding us back in teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, politics and histories?

Meena Singh writes that ‘Aboriginal people need our lives to be valued, and our history and culture to be known and accepted. This is the investment that lays the foundations for generations to grow stronger’ (Singh, 2021). This echoes the sentiments spoken by many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples. So, what is holding us back?

I don’t think, at this point, that the excuse of there being not enough resources or guidance really hold. There are other discomforts; the desire to avoid controversy or difficult conversations, perhaps, and a reckoning with our own ignorance about those very cultures and histories that we want to teach. An apprehension connected with the culpability that we must feel when we say, this is our system, and it’s a system that did, and continues, to hurt people.

You need to start somewhere

In recommending Gomoroi academic Amy Thunig’s excellent speech ‘Disruption is not a dirty word’, I’ve broken my own rule, which is to never encourage students or teachers to watch another TED talk (so 2017)– but I think this is worth the transgression. A resource with great potential for Unit 3 Sociology students, this 15-minute discussion of the continuing systems of oppression experienced by Indigenous people explores ideas around civility, resistance, history and genocide.

If you’re interested in exploring any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-created education resources, you need to know about Narragunnawali (it’s free to register as an educator). I’d encourage you to check out the great professional learning and classroom resources on Civics and Citizenship – I found the section on customary laws and traditional governance structures particularly valuable. Narragunnawali is the education arm of Reconciliation Australia, so you can expect to find lots of resources that can complement your school’s Reconciliation Action Plan (‘RAP’) we’ve found their tool for evaluating resources helpful when constructing our own.

As educators, particularly white educators – concepts of privilege and systemic racism are helpful to problematise some of our awkwardness around teaching this content. It’s imperative that we develop awareness from which can we act humbly, curiously and reflectively in this space.

A final introductory 'primer' for you to take a look at this resource explaining the unique connections between family, kinship and social and emotional wellbeing experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, developed by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare. This resource also does well in exploring many of the factors that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Foregrounding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voices

Invite local Elders, Traditional Owners, Koorie Education Support Officers, authors, playwrights, educators into your schools – some may not always be available to you, but it’s the best first step. AITSIS has also published a great resource on evaluating texts. We at SEV have many areas in which we’re working to improve in this space – particularly in regard to the production of our next generation of VCE textbooks.

Teaching contemporary perspectives along with Blak history

While the old adage that we can’t understand the present without understanding the past is true, we must also ensure that teaching about the past is complemented with contemporary representations and experiences. Demonstrating the ways in which First Nations people are practicing culture, engaging with contemporary issues, and centring their voices regarding deaths in custody or ‘Closing the Gap’ strategies ensures that students are not at risk of historicising and discounting them from our shared present.

Really incredible resources complied for events like NAIDOC and Reconciliation week are available. In my experience, while it can often be really difficult to present these resources at the right time (as these events can sometimes occur over holidays and be interrupted by other school events and priorities), I think ‘better late than never’ approach is needed, along with committing to delve into these weeks next time round. It’s important to remember that concepts like reconciliation are contested, and that practical actions are often at risk of being overshadowed by ‘feel good’ activities that don’t contribute to meaningful and positive changes for First Nations people.

Representing contemporary debates and different First Nations perspectives

While there are many issues that unite First Nations people, they are incredibly diverse in culture, language, and experience, with an incredible variance of different perspectives. This is important to keep in mind, as sometimes the shape of our discourse can trick us into thinking there being two sides – a white side and an Aboriginal side – which can damage our ability to develop nuanced understandings of any issues, and discounts not just the experiences of different First Nations people, but other non-Indigenous peoples with adjacent but markedly different experiences of colonisation and dispossession in an Australian context.

From the perspective of sociology, we often tend to earmark positive representations as ‘culturally relativist’ and therefore almost innately morally good as they attempt to combat explicitly racist ‘ethnocentric’ depictions. Luke Pearson at IndigenousX provides a really illuminating and nuanced discussion of this dynamic in his article about deficit reporting.

To accompany thinking about representation, Claire G Coleman writes clearly about the politics of Aboriginal art (Claire’s book – Lies, Damn Lies – also stands out as an illuminating read on this topic).

h1When teaching students about key historical events and trying to find ways to link these with contemporary cultural implications, museums present a really useful avenue to explore. Smith’s article on the tensions in museums between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘cultural revival’ is helpful for exploring this issue, and could be used for Year 7 and Year 8 Humanities.

h5Listening to Aboriginal children and young people

Durumbal and South Sea Islander journalist and children’s’ author Amy McGuire (2021) gives one account of the differing experiences of education for Aboriginal children:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children begin their acts of resistance at very young ages. Some of them stand up on tables and call out the lies. Some of them sit down during the national anthem. Some of them go up to their classmates at recess and tell them the truth. Some of them stay silent, but that does not mean they are not resisting, because silence can be a form of passive resistance as much as a survival tactic.

Many young teachers that I meet with talk about how there are no First Nations children in their schools. This may be true, however – remember that many historical and contemporary factors contribute to young people not disclosing their heritage or even learning about their heritage later in life. Teachers must teach as though there are First Nation students in their classroom, rather than engaging in othering or passive erasure i.e. ‘some of the people out there’.


Developing norms and guidelines

The idea of setting and maintaining norms in our classrooms will not be new to most of us, whether this involves a school-wide positive behaviour norm-setting, or more tailored, class-based approaches. SBS has created this resource which helps us to review our practices for norm-setting when teaching First Nations cultural and historical content. To build upon good norms, investigating some of the great online resources available for culturally responsive pedagogies is an important next step.

This extensive, fairly new resource from Ilbijerri Theatre Company, developed in collaboration with Drama Victoria, provides guidance on activities such as roleplays and ideas around ‘appropriation’. This represents incredible guidance for all teachers (not just drama teachers), and includes such simple but effective truisms (zingers?) as ‘don’t use acronyms, they are dehumanising.’


The Frontier Wars


If the documentary series ‘First Australians’ smashed once and for all the white myth that their cultures were simple or homogenous prior to European arrival, the incredible resources that have been released recently about the frontier wars, particularly Rachel Perkin’s excellent documentary series, shed a light on the violent conflicts that characterised the British colonial project. Below are some of the resources you can use to teach about this period (although do note that many of these resources include representations of armed conflict, massacres and other forms of brutality).

Incarceration Nation

Incarceration Nation is confronting but important viewing – we have used in it in Units 1 and 2 Sociology for the final SAC, where students write an essay response to the documentary.

Sample prompts for Year 11 Sociology essays about using Incarceration Nation:

  1. Using your understanding of the sociological imagination, examine why it might be argued that the overrepresentation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system can be considered a public issue, rather than a personal problem. In your response, refer to evidence from ‘Incarceration Nation’, as well as other sources. 

  2. Using your understanding of the cumulative nature of risk factors involved in engaging in criminal behaviour, discuss the how colonisation has influenced the overrepresentation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system. In your response, refer to evidence from ‘Incarceration Nation’ as well as other sources. 

  3. Punishment is a process associated with the control and prevention of crime.’

    Evaluate this statement with reference to the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system. In your response, refer to evidence from ‘Incarceration Nation’ as well as other sources.

  4. Evaluate the effectiveness of sentencing within the context of the overrepresentation of First Nations people in the justice system. In your response refer to evidence from Incarceration Nation as well as other sources.

Help – I’m about to teach Australian Indigenous Culture(s)!

One experienced teachers’ response to this challenge is documented in SEV’s Teachers’ Guide to Sociology. As we work to produce resources to support our member teachers, we’re always trying to improve our resources in this area.