WHV Australia: Teaching my Indigenous friends…

To travel and not fully immerse yourself in that countries culture is not really travelling at all.

I made a vow to myself before coming to Australia that I would do my best to learn about the culture and not just use it as an extended holiday (as all you non-travellers like to say!) So many times on my travels I have heard, ‘Australia is boring, it doesn’t have any history or culture’ or something along the lines, (admittedly I may have fallen into this bracket when first entering the country). This is, in fact completely wrong; if you delve a little deeper, visit the local museums, speak to Australians, meet people from all different backgrounds, you soon learn there is a rich, interesting but harrowing history to this popular country.

There are many stories, describing the European invasion on Australia and the impact it had on Native Australians and Indigenous tribes living here. After my trip to Fraser Island I did a bit more delving, to discover Indian Head Lookout was where many ‘Butchulla’ People (islands native people) fell to their death in order to escape the torturous and unruly Europeans. Whilst in the NSW Art Gallery I studied ‘Hunter’ an incredible piece of contemporary artwork that attempted to lessen the gap between white Australians and the indigenous people. And whilst visiting Karijini National Park on the West Coast I learnt about young aboriginal boys who were stolen from their families and forced into homes miles away from their hometowns.

This article is a little tribute to one experience that forever changed my travels and one I am extremely grateful for. Throughout my time in Sydney I was extremely lucky to be offered a role at an Indigenous Centre as an Activities Supervisor/Educator. The programme focuses on teaching/assisting 6-12 year olds, from a notoriously rough suburb in Sydney. Aussie friends had sort of scoffed when I told them I was working there and said something along the lines of ‘it’s rife with drug problems and interesting characters’. (I would just like to say now, the entire time I was working there, I didn’t at all ever feel uncomfortable or threatened. It was clear the area had problems, but nowhere near as bad as I had heard).

The area is inhabited by the ‘Eora’ People, the name given to the coastal aborigines around Sydney. Eora means ‘here’ or ‘from this place’ and the territory covers today’s CBD and strecthes from South Head to Petersham. Also referred to as the Cadigal (or Gadigal) people, they were known for their dependence on the harbour for providing most of their food and were one of seven clans living in Coastal Sydney that spoke a common language (In the late 18th Century there were over 250 different aboriginal languages and dialects in Australia).

On my first day I got handed my name badge – I was the Supervisor for Team Truganini – sounded pretty epic to me! I would later learn of the importance of this female figure in the aboriginals lives. Sometimes referred to as Queen Truganini, she was born in 1812, on Bruny Island, South of today’s Hobart. I was overwhemled when I read that her mother was killed by whalers, her husband died trying to prevent her abduction and both her sisters were taken to Kanagroo Island, off South Australia and sold as slaves. She lived through a period when aboriginals were shot on sight, tortured and forced into slavery and she was and still is a huge icon to the Eora People – I felt pretty privileged to be given this title!

I was teaching sessions aimed at and focused on Aboriginal beliefs. The morning consisted of ‘Yarning Introduction and Team building’ (at first I had no idea what a Yarn was – I now know it is a fable or story!) We all sat around in a big circle and shared events from our weekends – a lot of the kids had been to the Easter Show in Sydney! The first week we were lucky enough to have the Inidigenous All Star Rugby League Ladies come in and run a workshop with the kids – which of course, I thoroughly enjoyed too! I learnt all about the Australian Indigenous Paralympians and the various tribes still living in isolated parts of Australia.

One day we learnt aboriginal language & dances with a tribal warrior and the next we played traditional indigenous games – although as expected, most of the time the kids just wanted to play basketball or climb the football nets/wind each other up! (They’re just like English kids really!) One afternoon I sat reading with a small group, they were showing me the Gooniyandi Wordbook. My favourite was the word for butterfly: birrbindibindi, bit of a mouthful! One of the volunteers also taught a lot of the students how to play guitar, so many of them were captivated by the sounds and spent all afternoon perfecting their skills!

It was interesting meeting the parents, one day a dad showed up to collect 12 children, they all belonged to him! This was quite common, aboriginal people tend to have very large families (two brothers is enough for me, thanks!) It was pretty obvious that social problems within the community had at times, led to drug/alcohol dependence. This is often an issue within the aboriginal society as there are very little employment opportunities, which can lead to a vicious downward spiral of abuse. One mum struggled to walk and had scratches and bruises all over her body – it was pretty hard to see and was definitely having a knock on affect on the daughters behaviour.

However, what striked me the most whilst at the Centre was the sense of community: it was all-encompassing and incredible to see. The kids genuinely cared about each other and were proud to be related (every child had about 10 cousins, who all went to the Centre!) They worked together on projects to design giant Aboriginal flags and had woven together a blanket with hands on it which covered a tree at the entrance of the centre. Every last Friday of the month they have a community night – parents, children and entire families would come along for a sing song, games, free food and entertainment, it was especially humbling to be accepted so easily into their tribe!

At the end of April we took the kids on a trip to the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience at Darling Harbour, this was an experience to say the least! Having taught a variety of ages and backgrounds before; I have certain ways of handling students and it was extremely hard to take a back seat (sort of) and allow the chaos to happen at times. There was very little discipline, partly due to the fact a lot of the students have behavioural problems and come from broken/abusive families: many of them being displaced or fostered. We were warned that raising a voice or seeming somewhat threatening could potentially upset them. We survived the tour (with a few grumpy grannies getting irritated) and the kids had a great time pushing buttons and studying the old relics!

I think no matter where you are in the world, if you have a love for kids, you will always enjoy your time with them. I will forever remember their cute faces and smiles; the time I greeted them on the playground and they were so surprised yet ecstatic to see me again; the sense of achievement they got when completing their homework the same day it was set and the time they covered me in stickers as part of my ‘initiation’ into the group. I think what I will take away with me most, is that  although I was the educator in this situation, I am pretty sure I learnt just as much as the kids did in those few months, if not more and that is why i’ll forever be grateful for the experience.

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