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Indigenous Learning

Australia is paying a heavy price for excluding indigenous learnings and knowledge from its education system, according to Professor Mark Rose, executive director, Indigenous Strategy and Education, La Trobe University.

“The country is schizophrenic; we haven’t defined ourselves,” he said, adding that we have a mix of three identities as British colonial outpost, a part of Asia and home to the world’s oldest living culture.

“We’ve got young people being radicalised or being ostracised and forming gangs,” he told the RMIT Strategy Week session on indigenous learning. “A connection to country would have matured us. I will boldly say we are not mature.”

Strategy Week - Indigenous learning

Since 1872, when free, secular, compulsory education was introduced, indigenous learnings have been ignored, Rose said. Nowadays, the average person knows very little about indigenous culture and it’s a battle to get any space in the curriculum.

Rose calls it “the silent apartheid”. He also says (white) Australia has been robbed of a much richer, deeper and more meaningful system of education, based on holistic, spiritual and cultural tenets that allow people to connect to mother Earth.

“It’s an exchange of knowledge, not through transactions but through relationships,” he said. “The learner becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the learner, in a very dynamic exchange.”

For RMIT, Rose urged a more audacious approach. The most common reaction from incoming students to La Trobe’s compulsory one-hour online inclusion program, introduced in 2015, was: “Why weren’t we told earlier?”

A university that was comfortable about its own identity could make the gutsy move to sell one educational system and tolerate another at the same time, he said. “As educators, are we going to collude with silent apartheid? Will we collude with the past or can we engage with other knowledge systems?”

Professor Barry Judd, Indigenous Studies Unit, RMIT, also urged an audacious approach from RMIT, based on its founding principle of making education available to all. “Let’s make RMIT a great institution again by ensuring indigenous people become a core part,” he said. “It’s ludicrous to assert a position as a global and great university if students and academics don’t know our local environment or any aboriginal nations.”

This meant engaging academics to understand it’s not just about student support and a few courses. It also meant research and ARC funding, community engagement and “getting our hands dirty”

Judd outlined details of his five-year research project about sport at the Papunya aboriginal community near Alice Springs. Its football team had joined the regional league and had to travel into Alice Springs each Saturday, a journey of hundreds of kilometres on unsealed roads. Players would get into trouble in town and be jailed for several weeks.

“There’s a high economic, cultural and social cost,” Judd said. “The elders feel it’s creating criminals not footballers.”

His research is looking at the white Australia myth that being involved in sport is always good for you and the community and how Papunya people are dealing with the problems. One option being considered is an on-country football league with eight local communities playing amongst extended kinship groups.

Strategy Week - Indigenous learning

“In the context of the intervention, the Northern Territory is basically a police state; with football, aboriginal people can govern themselves in quite a free way,” he said, noting that the aboriginal style of play is fast, open and attacking, with little tackling. “We’re seeing football as an opportunity for an assertion of who they are.”

Associate Professor Libby Porter, Principal Research Fellow, School of Global Urban and Social Studies, College of DSC, RMIT, emphasised that she was speaking as a non-indigenous person and therefore from a position of great privilege in the dominant culture.

“To me, the first step in being an ally is to understand that privilege,” she said. “My journey begins with acknowledging that and my responsibility is to call it out when I see privilege in operation.”

Institutions needed to design and deliver education that exposed, deconstructed and repackaged that privilege, she said. This required sustained, critical engagement in each field of practice to feed that way of thinking into courses.

“The disciplines are silent and in denial really,” she said. “They reproduce Colonialist systems and marginalise indigenous people.” For example, urban planners are interested in place-making, but when indigenous students join the course they hear nothing about themselves or dispossession.

“My job is to educate non-indigenous people about how that feels,” Porter said, adding that it is our job to teach our own history, it’s not the job of indigenous scholars. “It’s a capacity-deficit with non-indigenous society. We’ve been educated in a way that means we are blind and deeply ignorant of facts.”

It also requires sustained and engaged relationships with indigenous communities, she said, to bring them right into the heart of teaching and research. “We need to unlearn our privilege as loss and understand the missing links in our blindness and ignorance,” Porter said, noting that this bit had to be done by indigenous communities.

Strategy Week - Indigenous learning

Richard Frankland, Associate Dean, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, also urged a bold approach from RMIT, to be an agitator and stirrer. “When you have a voice, that gives you some freedom and with freedom comes responsibility,” he said.

The indigenous “cultural safety net” – including the ability to speak languages without fear and condemnation – had survived for 2000 generations but been trashed and smashed in less than 10 generations. Now, it was more likely that an aboriginal man would go to prison than to university.

Over the past eight years, Frankland, who is also a singer, songwriter, author, poet and film-maker, has delivered sessions on cultural safety and lateral violence (where those on the bottom rung punch sideways rather than upwards). When he asked indigenous people in those sessions to describe how they were seen, they used words like “dirty”, “thieves”, “problem”, “uneducated” and “invisible”, as well as “good footy players” and “artists”. They said police, society and the media saw them that way, but eventually it came out that they saw themselves that way too.

“We see ourselves like this; as victims and mere survivors,” he said. Frankland quoted style="font-weight: 600;" figures from Professor Michael Chandler’s research in Canada on youth suicide and colliding cultures, which showed that a rate of 140 suicides per 100,000 people dropped to one suicide per 100,000 when they had control of their health, education, culture and land. “When we control our own voice, that’s very important,” he said.

We need processes to enable voice and culture and change the identity of the nation, Frankland said, adding that it was about unity, collaboration and courage. “Challenge the racist in your family, the doctrines of institutions, challenge yourself,” he urged.

“In Australia, we are collectively grieving about those colliding cultures. Fundamentally, grief is love. We have to refocus our cultural safety net so we can create a nation we all call home. This is about hope; about who we can be. It’s very exciting.”

Audience member Dr Margaret Heffernan, an RMIT management lecturer, said this was a very exciting day for RMIT. “But if we are going to be serious about implementing this strategy, we have to acknowledge that the majority of academics here at RMIT are culturally unintelligent,” she said. “What will be done to make us intelligent, to stop this “othering”, so we can walk down this path? I’m worried it will fall back into the tokenism box. What are some practical things to put in place?”

A thread through all the talks was the nature of education and knowledge itself, commented another audience member. We have preconceptions about knowledge and the western world assumes that knowledge is freely available to everyone. “A different conception of knowledge could be a very valuable idea within a university setting,” he said.


  • Green ArrowThe heavy price of excluding indigenous learnings and knowledge from Australia’s education system is a lack of identity and maturity
  • Green ArrowThis “silent apartheid” robs us of a much richer, deeper, spiritual and cultural education and a connection to country.
  • Green ArrowThe first step for non-indigenous people is to understand the privilege of belonging to the dominant culture, call it out, and recognise it as a loss.
  • Green ArrowEducation must expose and repackage that privilege and feed that thinking into every course.
  • Green ArrowRMIT should take an audacious approach to engaging with indigenous knowledge systems and make indigenous people a core part of the university. It should be an agitator and a stirrer.
  • Green ArrowThis requires sustained and engaged relationships with indigenous communities, to being indigenous people into the heart of teaching and research.
  • Green ArrowIt also requires practical steps to increase cultural intelligence amongst RMIT academics.