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Why our kids should learn Aboriginal history

The national history curriculum implemented across Australia from 2011 provides the opportunity for educators to comprehensively tackle for the first time 50,000 years of Australia’s history. The future…

Traditional Owners and the 20,000 year old Willandra footprints. Michael Amendolia

The national history curriculum implemented across Australia from 2011 provides the opportunity for educators to comprehensively tackle for the first time 50,000 years of Australia’s history. The future of this innovative new approach to understanding Australian history is potentially threatened by moves from the new government to review the national curriculum.

It is not yet clear how this review might reshape the history curriculum. The Federal Minister for Education has stated that the legacy of Western civilisation needs greater acknowledgement, but what does this mean for the Aboriginal past? There are currently conflicting voices about the relative weighting given to different aspects of Australia’s past, but the last 50,000 years of Aboriginal history needs to be the start of the Australian story.

Australia’s ‘Ancient History’

The archaeological history of the First Australians is a truly remarkable story. At a time when Europe was still the domain of Neanderthals, the earliest Aboriginal societies were establishing complex religions, burying their dead with elaborate rituals, engaging in long-distance trade, making jewellery, and producing magnificent works of art. Over the ensuing millennia these societies witnessed huge changes, including the mass extinction of the megafauna and the intense desertification of Australia during the last great Ice Age. They changed and adapted and rose to these significant challenges. They made social and economic choices, developed sustainable ways of living, undertook significant engineering feats and created one of the most unique ‘civilisations’ in the world.

Unfortunately, very few Australians are aware of this story. It does not easily fit with the colonial mythologies around which popular histories of Australia have traditionally been constructed. Indeed the very use of the term ‘civilisation’ in relation to Aboriginal Australia will no doubt confound some readers. Perhaps the most insidious myth perpetuated about Aboriginal society is the idea it was ‘primitive’, ‘stone age’, ‘nomadic’, or ‘unevolved’. This type of thinking feeds racist stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes which continue to marginalise and disassociate Aboriginal Australians from the national identity. The archaeology of our continent directly refutes this type of thinking, but until recently the monuments and achievements of ancient Australia have remained largely invisible to the mainstream public.

The national history curriculum

Australia’s Aboriginal history is a story over 50,000 years in the making, but one that has generally been excluded from Australia’s school education system. The new curriculum provides significant opportunities for reconfiguring Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal history and overturning the legacies of this ‘excluded past’.

The benefits for true reconciliation through teaching future generations about the past 50,000 years are enormous. The history many of us carry into our adult lives is that which we are taught at school. If the stereotypes around Australia’s human past prior to the British settlement in 1788 can be deconstructed, and the archaeological history of Australia placed into its global context, then we will move towards a greater respect for the significant achievements of the First Australians.

The national curriculum takes a chronological approach, and places the world’s historical experience in perspective by mapping cultural changes through time. There is no doubt that building a global perspective of humanity’s trajectory since the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa some 60,000 years ago is no small feat. Discussing that story in a classroom context is a challenge, but at the same time an intensely exciting one. Teachers in the classroom will certainly require support and new resources to achieve the aims of the curriculum.

How then do we respond to the new governments proposed changes? Throughout Australia teachers and educators have already begun implementing the new curriculum and are already bringing a new national story to the attention of future generations.

Students undertake a simulated archaeological excavation at Ipswich Primary school. Courtesy Stephen Nichols

New resources are needed to support the acknowledgement of the deeper Aboriginal past and should extend to investment into sophisticated education and research facilities in landscapes, such as the extraordinary Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area-, that will help connect people to this 50,000 year history. The centenary of World War One has seen Australian governments of all persuasions commit millions of dollars into the commemoration of this global tragedy, which gave birth to the Anzac Legend. There is little doubt that it is an important historical event to acknowledge in a meaningful and thoughtful way. The commemoration of 40 years since the discovery of Mungo Man also occurring this year is another important historical event Australians should acknowledge. And this is why the new Australian curriculum is such an important document - it offers a path to new understanding.

Empathy and reconciliation

One of the most important skills promoted by historical inquiry is that of empathy, a feeling of sympathy and engagement for other people from different time periods and cultures. Empathy is a very powerful emotion that helps us recognise and understand diversity. As such it is an important prerequisite for achieving reconciliation in our society. If students can develop the knowledge of why cultures are different it will help develop empathy and encourage an appreciation for diversity, and hopefully, undermine growth of racist viewpoints. Focusing only on the Judeo-Christian account of Australia’s heritage reflects an old adage that history is written by the victors. This reduces our capacity for empathy and ultimately deprives us of a more comprehensive appreciation of our humanity.

History should be deeper and further reaching, and responsible education needs to encourage broader appreciation for the diversity of history and culture. In this light the Australian history curriculum is a gallant, bold approach to tackling Australia’s place in the global context. It is something that we should work towards embracing. The rewards will be far deeper for future generations of Australians. Of course Western Civilisation is an important part of our history and it has a strong presence in the curriculum. But Australia’s history is more than this, and the grand story of the First Australians is an important starting point for a truly Australian narrative.

Students, Elders and archaeologists learning together at the Mungo Youth Conference Courtesy of the Mungo Youth Project

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127 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Read

    logged in via Twitter

    I visited New Zealand during high school, and one of the most striking things was how much the Pākehā embraced and celebrated the Māori culture. They spoke Māori, proudly sang Māori songs and danced the Haka.

    It would be great to teach native Australian languages in our high schools, even if only to stop them from dying out. But I suspect the opposite is what our current government want to achieve. They're interested in an assimilation at all costs: "resistance is futile" approach.

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    1. Rebecca Graves

      Teacher

      In reply to Craig Read

      There are a few programmes teaching Aboriginal languages in schools here is SA but its not very widespread.

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Rebecca Graves

      Rebecca are those schools largely schools with many Aboriginal students, or more mainstream schools, which just happen to offer an Aboriginal language as part of its LOTE options?

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    3. Bruce Reyburn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Craig Read

      After going to Primary School in NSW and Queensland i did my High School in New Zealand/Aotearoa in the early 1960s. There was an awful lot about Maori Pakeha history we were not taught as i later discovered at Uni on Wellington.

      But in the 4th Form my English teacher was a gentle Maori man by the name of Mr Smiler. That could never have happened in Australia at that time. We thought nothing of it. Par for the course in N.Z.

      A bi-cultural spirit is a wonderul thing.

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  2. Gary Luke
    Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

    thoroughly disgusted

    "Focusing only on the Judeo-Christian account of Australia’s heritage reflects an old adage that history is written by the victors. This reduces our capacity for empathy and ultimately deprives us of a more comprehensive appreciation of our humanity."

    A paradox - The history of Aboriginals in Australia is an European construct based on a view and methodology which has been developed only within European Judeo-Christian cultures. Our knowledge of the Aboriginal past is not an Aboriginal way of speaking of or of understanding the past. Aboriginal history has been written by the victors and has become very empathetic.

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    1. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to Gary Luke

      Certainly that has been the case in the past, and undoubtedly goes on, but increasingly I don't see the ideas are actually that much in conflict. Certainly they sometimes are, but there are Dreamtime time stories and Rock Art that document events, and sometimes the archaeology provides further evidence to support these stories, it actually provides stronger links. I think of Bruno David from Monash Uni et al work in the TSI with the rock art and the local stories of raiders from other lands. When…

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    2. Gary Luke
      Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      thoroughly disgusted

      In reply to David Zyngier

      "Focusing only on the Judeo-Christian account of Australia’s heritage reflects an old adage that history is written by the victors. This reduces our capacity for empathy and ultimately deprives us of a more comprehensive appreciation of our humanity."

      "... the Judeo Christian heritage of this country they are talking about a fabrication a false construction ..."

      Code words don't matter in this unless you want to stick them in the way for some reason or other. The history of Aboriginals that we read today has been researched by the victors from Europe and written in terms invented by the victors from Europe, and, the reverse of the author's proposition, this has increased our capacity for empathy and increased our respect for their own versions of their tales.

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    3. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to John Phillip

      HI David, don't mind Grumpy John's response ... he appears to be suffering from neo-Coalitionism, that rather strange affliction under which the 'sufferers' believe that they alone are in-step in the army of life.

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Nah, Jack, just pissed off that someone who claims to be a senior lecturer can put such a petty, childish and inaccurate representation into print. As a teacher of over 25 years, this guy has just implicitly identified the agenda that seeps into and through our teacher training institutions - it's not about pedagogy - it's ideology all the way.

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    5. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to John Phillip

      Sorry but what are you contesting here john? My dismissal of the false Judeo Christian construct or calling Pyne a liar?

      Both are evidently true based on research into the recent past references to the JC term and Pyne's own on the record statements.

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to David Zyngier

      David I suggest you consult the first 30 books or so of The Bible.

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    7. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to David Zyngier

      David, first point - referring to Pyne as 'Pyneoccio' doesn't do you any favours. It is juvenile in the extreme and indicates your personal dislike and bias against the man.
      Your attack on the term "Judeo Christian" is a pedantic diversion. The term has been in common use for some years and serves to distinguish the many cultures that have derived from that particular monotheistic background from others.
      Your use of the term 'fundamentalist' is an inaccurate exaggeration and pejorative in the sense that it is applied.
      Additionally, you completely ignore the idea of de-cluttering our curriculum - something that is long overdue and barrow that Donelley, in particular, has been pushing for decades.

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    8. Anna Young

      Project Manager

      In reply to John Phillip

      John, you might be interested in reading this article about the term "Judeo-Christian".

      https://theconversation.com/curriculum-review-where-did-judeo-christian-come-from-21969

      An excerpt in case the link doesn't work:

      "The term doesn’t even appear until 1974. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s it is used in only a handful of contexts without any apparent consistency in its meaning. In fact, the vast majority of the 855 results the search generates are dated from late 2001 onwards. Until…

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    9. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to John Phillip

      Oops!!! How silly of me, David ... missing your very appropriate pseudonym ... watch out for the TC PC Censor coming to protect the guilty.

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  3. Gwenda Blackwell

    Retired

    I am very interested in our Indigenous history, and read up on anything I find. However my knowledge is very disjointed. Could you recommend reading material which would give me an overview, a structure into which I can fit my bits and pieces of knowledge?
    Thank you

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    1. Lois Achimovich

      Doctor

      In reply to Gwenda Blackwell

      Some of the books that I've found interesting (and often shocking) are Broken Song by Barry Hill, Conspiracy of Silence by Timothy Bottoms, A Cry in the Wind by Ken Austlin, Too Many Tears by Heather Vicenti, This Whispering in my Heart by Henry Reynolds, Broken Circles by Anna Haebich, any film by Ivan Sen, Shadowlines by Steve Kinnane, That Deadmans Dance by Kim Scott.........

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    2. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to Gwenda Blackwell

      There are a few good books around, Peter Hisock's Archaeology of Ancient Australia is very comprehensive but pretty heavy going, it is not really a popular book but has immense technical details.

      Josephine Flood has written a more popular account in more recent years, not Archaeology of the Dreamtime or The Riches of Ancient Australia which I can see on the shelves behind me, but another one which I seem to have misplaced/loaned out to someone (I hate losing books).

      John Mulvaney and Johan…

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  4. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    Michael, you are conflating long/well-established distintions between the disciplines of pre-history and history. As you well know, the divide is based on the eistence of written evidence in one, but not the other.
    "This type of thinking feeds racist stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes which continue to marginalise and disassociate Aboriginal Australians from the national identity."
    This is a pretty annoying distortion of another long-established and scholarly understood concept, whose definition…

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, why do you descend into trivial academic distinctions compartmentalising what is really the same time continuum? The development of writing on materials may be a significant event, but so is rock painting in symbols, likely a pre-cursor to written script.

      Then, your "civilisation" definition appears largely irrelevant because it requires stationary populations and agriculture in fixed locations creating surplus populations that are celebrated as being the paramount achievement of mankind.

      FYI there were over 500 clan groups recognised in Eastern Australia by about 1830, with many more already extinct thanks to European diseases and genocide policies west of Mt York during pastoral expansion after 1820 that were studiously ignored by government until the Myall Creek massacre in 1848.

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    2. Gary Jackson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      I have read Jared Diamond and agree he makes a good argument but in his concentration on environmental determinism he overlooks the influences of being human. Who in their right mind would wish to spend their days on a hoe or harvesting with a stone tool when they could be out hunting, fishing or picking fruit. If a group, such as the Australian Aborigines, decide to take the latter option I don't think we can look down on that decision. They had time to imagine and invent some pretty impressive aerodynamics when it took their fancy.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Gary Jackson

      "I have read Jared Diamond and agree he makes a good argument but in his concentration on environmental determinism he overlooks the influences of being human."
      This is an oft-made criticism of Diamond. In fact, one of my first essays as a History student was to review GGS, and while I was mostly extremely favourable, I also devoted quite a bit of space to non-environmental factors, such as culture. Though my paper was well regarded, I was marked down (quite justifiably I agreed, after I considered…

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    4. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Hello Andy

      Archaeology has attempted to build a system of identifying stages of progression, tied in with strat, artefacts, fossil hominins, architecture, mortuary practices, evidence for exchange networks etc etc. It has to do that to bring some order to the discipline, to be able to test hypotheses etc.

      For much of the 1900s Australian curators like Tindale at the South Australian Museum and McCarthy at the Australian Museum tried to build a system of how can we categorise Aboriginal hunter-gatherers…

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    5. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to Gary Jackson

      Gary I think you are pretty close to the mark here.

      There are drivers for change, and in Australia some archaeologists say that we see shifts in economic patterns in Australia over time. Particularly in SE Australia an archaeologist called Harry Lourandos looked at the type of archaeological interpretations that were going on in the Near East during the Neolithic and wondered if similar patterns were going on here. There were certain types of sites such as mound sites and much larger Aboriginal…

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Michael Westaway

      Michael, thank you very much for that detailed and fascinating clarification! Our differences are certainly not scholarly. I think very much like a "Big" historian. Unlike you, I do not think our history teaching should start at 50,000 BC. I think it should start at the Big Bang! Like you, my method is definitely biophysical. I am very excited by what recent technological advances - GIS, bioarcheaology, the use of satelllites, orthoarcheology, the mapping of the genome, and neo-Malthusian demographic…

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    7. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Michael Westaway

      "People like to know where they have come from and we all came here on boats, just some had their ancestors 50,000 years ago, mine from Devon in Sweden in the late 1800s, and others from Indochina following our defeat in the early 70s."
      Indeed. What a great advance it would be if we all had our DNA details. Though, politically, it could let off a bomb when we analyzed the 300,000 or so self-identified Aborigines who live among all Australians, especially in our large cities. In the US, "Finding Your Roots" host. Henry Louis Gates jnr" did precisely this for several American high school classes. It was quite confronting for many of the "black" kids to find out how varied their roots really were.

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  5. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    Excellent article.

    I grew up in rural NSW - classmates of Indigenous background - in the assimilation era of the 1960s neighbours, too. But study - there was virtually nothing. Images promoted stereotypical one-legged stance holding spear. The most empathetic treatment came from the Pictorial Social Studies series of the latter 1950s - a set of which I was given by my maternal grand-mother - one of which dealt with an Indigenous family living on the shores of Sydney Harbour. But at school - nothing…

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Jim KABLE

      Thanks Jim for the correction. Ruth Nicholls at ACAE was another outstanding lecturer at that time.

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    1. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      "But 12,000 years ago people in the middle east took a great leap forward with farming of grains, raising of domestic live stock, permanent dwellings, villages, cities, etc.,. Regretfully, the existing inhabitants had hardly advanced socially or technologically from where Australia's inhabitants were 40,000 years ago".

      A great leap forward which initiated the Anthropocene. A period when Ponzi population and resource consumption policies and practices started western civilisation and global biodiversity…

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    2. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris, we have science and technology and some of us brilliant minds that are very creative and can solve insurmountable problems when there is the will. Man kind can handle any issue when the facts are put before it. A the world gets better educated we can expect exponential growth in new developments that you could not imagine.

      Presumably you have chosen to reside in our high tech society given you have the internet rather than go and live as a nomad off the land.

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    3. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Uhm ... some demurrers Terry.

      1. The original settlement in 1788 did bring European diseases etc, but after about 1860 there are records of deliberate genocide tactics by some pastoralists handing out diseased blankets to Aborigines and poisoning water-holes. See (i) Bloomfield, Bal Balboa; the End of the Dancing (date unknown); (ii) Bruce Elder, Blood on the Wattle (1988) and other local histories.

      2. After the 1820 western pastoral expansion there was an unofficial government policy of…

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    4. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack, one minor correction. Smallpox was actually an oriental disease, brought to Europe from China via India. The Black Death was carried along the Silk Road to Europe, and finally England. So given northern Australia's Aborigines has long contact with traders who would travel south from the orient, they were susceptible to several smallpox vectors.

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    5. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, I think your porposal may be speculative rather than an objective reporting of data. Still, it is worth considering.

      However, remember, the about 500 'tribes' had localised geographic ranges, so the few contacts between Aborigines in NW Australia and Asian traders would not pass resistance to small-pox from populations in NW Australia across the continent to Aborigines in SE Australia due to lack of contact between populations. Hence the disastrous and deliberate loses caused by exposure to diseased blankets in SE Australia.

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Actually Jack, I am reporting science. You are misremembering events from the "Indian Wars" in North America.

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    7. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack, there were isolated alleged cases of poisoning of Aboriginal watering holes and handling out diseased blankets. As if graziers or squatters were going to poison the water they or their animals needed to drink from. too,. And where did they bet these so-called diseased ridden blankets?

      I like almost everything you write on TC but Australia is a very large area of land and we did not have widespread poisoning of water holes or passing around blankets that would likely kill the giver too…

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    8. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      HI Terry, thank you for your kind words.

      My source is Bloomfield., "Baal Bal Boa, the end of the Dancing", a book written from the station logs kept by early settlers in keeping with the master mariner model.

      Bloomfield was castigated for exposing these 'secrets' becuase he was a member of the grazier set and considered to be sympathetic. he was pursued to bankruptcy by the New England establishment, if you believe Bloomfield in his later years.

      Do you have any data supporting your assertion that aborigines ( and women) had the vote before South Australia in 1892?

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    9. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      "Do you have any data supporting your assertion that aborigines ( and women) had the vote before South Australia in 1892?"
      Come on jack. This is primary school level common knowledge.

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    10. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Not just SA either. Aborigines could vote in NSW from 1862.

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  6. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    Awesome overview and comment, Michael. I'm so heartened to hear moves in this direction, though disheartened to guess that the White Christian Coalition will probably want to stamp it out.

    Having worked with and for indigenous Aussies in the Centre, the Top End and the Kimberleys, it was a long process for me to even begin to approach an appreciation let alone any kind of understanding of Culture. Your article speaks vibrantly about the past and reminds us of our diverse human roots.

    Maybe in another generation we might even be able to restart the talks about a treaty between blackfellas and whitefellas, and begin true reconciliation.

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    1. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      There can be no treaty. There is nothing to sign it over and nothing to discuss. There are no authentic representatives of the the original peoples untangled with western culture.

      There is no aboriginal history.

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Kerry List

      Kerry, you appear to have overlooked several notable academic treatises on Aboriginal history that date back to at least 1830, and possibly before. Even Manning Clark acknowledges Aboriginal history.

      "There can be no treaty" ... why not?? I suggest that your opinion is poorly based because there is over 200 years of occupation only partly recognised by Native Title legislation that demonstrates you are in error.

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    3. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      I am quite serious.

      Even the word aboriginal is the word applied to the inhabitants before Europeans to Australia.

      I guess there is the history of aboriginal peoples after 1788, and maybe some specks in relationship to other visitors before that, e.g. dutch shipwrecks, macassan traders, but what of the history, recorded by aboriginal people themselves?

      This is what I seriously mean.

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    4. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Kerry List

      Okay, Kerry, I'm going to assume you're not pulling my leg or being incredibly ironic and take this seriously.

      Yes, there can be a treaty. There was a war, undeclared, but a war nonetheless. We need a treaty to acknowledge that. Our shared history contains a great deal to discuss, that has, for the most part been denied a voice. John Howard's attempt to silence historians by claiming they took a 'black armband view' of history and condemning them for it is one example of that.

      Indigenous…

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    5. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Dear Ben

      First of all I do not say these things to deny the existence of a race or set of cultures.

      I am coming to terms with the words "aboriginal history". I consider this term to be an oxymoron.

      I think it more properly should be called "pre-history" because there are no identifiable events in aboriginal history which we can say statements of the sort: "X did this in 1743".

      I think you acknowledge that there was no written record. Australian aboriginals were a collection of stone…

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    6. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Kerry List

      Hi Kerry,

      I think the disconnect between our points of view lies in a few areas, one of which is the answer to the question - "what is 'history'?"

      For whitefellas like me, being able to open a book and point to a page with a written record from, say, 1743 constitutes 'history'. For whitefellas, anecdotal and oral history isn't 'real' history unless it's been verified by opening a book and pointing to a written record.

      I was raised to believe this. I no longer believe it. Why? People…

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    7. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      I define history as verifiable past events that we can link into narratives.

      Where is the verifiable stories of aboriginal history?
      Where is the time line?
      Where is the evidence?

      History may not be the "solid carved rock we might like to imagine" as you put it (I like how you put it btw) but at least it is SOMETHING to hang our hat on.

      Right now we have NOTHING! Nothing without reference to visitors to this land!

      The closest thing I've probably gotten to experiencing an aboriginal history story would be the movie "10 Canoes"

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    8. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Cultures are not all equal Suzy, as you wish to imagine.

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    9. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Kerry List

      Hi Kerry,

      as writers, we tell stories - narratives if you will. Every history book we've ever read is a series of stories woven into a narrative, a mix of both verifiable and unverifiable. Not fiction entirely, but faction. There are never absolutes.

      Again, 'verifiable' only means as told by one person or one group of people. Other truths have been ignored in the process of telling the history story, just as, I'm afraid, you seem keen to do with fifty thousand years of indigenous history…

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    10. In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Comment removed by moderator.

    11. In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Comment removed by moderator.

  7. Kerry List

    Writer

    To the teachers of aboriginal history.

    What happened in 1787? I'd like to know?

    Perhaps ummm let's say 1585.

    The year 230?

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    1. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Kerry List

      Kerry, interesting point! Can the "experts" pushing this please identify what the extent of cultural development had taken place 40,000 years ago and to what extent had it changed by 1877/8 when the first fleet left England and arrived at Sydney Cove. Also what were the major advancements in between, for example the wheel! This may read a bit brutal but if there are important historical facts, identify them. Otherwise every one is till going to go along with the view that Australian Aboriginals were essentially simple hunter gatherers that roamed within tribal areas of Australia.

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Kerry List

      Oh dear ... Kerry, in 1788 the European 'settlers' nearly starved to death because they refused to eat local game species while the Aborigines fished and hunted and lived well. See Phillip's diary.

      This tells you that the settlers were unthinking and wrote the history.

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    3. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      No no, I wanted to know what happened in 1787. 1 full year before Phillip arrived.

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    4. Gary Jackson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Terry you appear to correctly oppose the concept of simple to that of complex. Your focus is cultural development but appear to value it in material terms. We know that the Aboriginal culture is a non-material one so I suggest you might look in a different direction.
      I have lived and worked with Aboriginal people for a long time. They are the same bloodline that existed prior to colonisation. I have learned a little and continue to learn. Their everyday inter-personal culture is a very complex…

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    5. Gary Luke
      Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      thoroughly disgusted

      In reply to Kerry List

      I'll take a guess at the import of your question - "what happened in 1878". It's probably a round about way of stating that Aborigines don't have their own history in the way that we mean "history". They had no chronological knowledge of their past endeavors or of their influential leaders and/or thinkers. For instance, do we know the names and the deeds of any Aborigine who died at least two generations before 1878? Did the rainbow snake form the great dividing range before or after the crocodile…

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Gary Jackson

      "We know that the Aboriginal culture is a non-material one so I suggest you might look in a different direction."
      Really? I've known and met a lot of Aborigines in my time, but one lived in a "non-material culture". Imagine telling Anita Heiss she was "non-material"!!

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    7. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Gary Luke

      In other words - Aboriginal history is really a white European method of telling tales about Aboriginals.

      Yes exactly. There IS no such thing as aboriginal history.

      Full stop.

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    8. Gary Jackson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kerry List

      Do you think the term 'oral history' should not include the term 'history', Kerry? It seems to be a matter of semantics and not advancing the argument of what is taught in schools.

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    9. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Kerry List

      Kerry, I think you need to openly define your understanding of history. There certainly is aboriginal history, but you may not perceive this as a faculty subject of "Aboriginal History" within a determined set of parameters. As long as your parameters remain undetermined, you don't really make a valid point.

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    10. Gary Jackson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Phillip

      You have got me there John. I admit I don't know. We could use our imagination I suppose. I imagine the rich lived longer than the poor in 18th century England. I also imagine the rich lived equally as long as the Aborigines given their better diet and distance from the contaminating poor. I imagine the poor did less well than the rich and the Aborigines. I am only imagining though. I assume there is a history of this somewhere that isn't imagined. We all know the modern health problems of Aboriginal people.

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    11. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to Kerry List

      Hello Kerry

      Palaeontologists reconstruct Natural History. What's all that about then?

      The English also have a National Museum of Natural History.

      I think the main thing I was pushing was the understanding the complexity of the Aboriginal past in a global context can be helpful for deconstructing stereotypes.

      There are reasons why agriculture evolved and there are reasons why competition drove change such as increased sedentism and more segmented societies. Societies collapsed, some survived…

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    12. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Kerry List

      heheheheheheh ... well Kerry, you had better ask the local Aborigines who were there and just hope like hell that their descendants survived long enough to pass down the information as part of their oral history of the events of that time.

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    13. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Oh Suzy you really make me laugh.

      I have to discuss a date somehow don't I? I'm sorry that I didn't put it into the aboriginal equivalent date...

      Oh wait...what WAS their calendar again?

      That's right, didn't have one.

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    14. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Michael Westaway

      Hi Michael

      "Palaeontologists reconstruct Natural History. What's all that about then?"

      Well, that is a different field, Michael. It is a disanalogy. Natural history is that of plants and animals. Contrast this statement:

      "Historians reconstruct Aboriginal History". Well no, they don't because I can't tell what the hell happened in the area now known as Sydney in 1405.

      It may be more accurate to say "Anthropologists/Archeologists/Palaeontologists reconstruct Aboriginal History." (Because…

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    15. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Gary Jackson

      Well, where is it?

      Where is the oral history from 1200?

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    16. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Indeed. And because they don't survive, their history is lost.

      Aboriginal history, as a corollary, does not exist.

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    17. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Kerry List

      Are you now implying that use of a calendar you find acceptable defines a culture's history?
      But i get it, any culture that does not comply with your Western-based view of what 'culture' is (i.e. Uses the same methods to record history as you do) does not 'qualify'.
      I struggle to see what good a history is that was written down and dated when it silenced most others in its records and its lessons are not applied to develop the present towards better harmony.

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    18. James Hammond

      Ecologist

      In reply to Kerry List

      What a load of rubbish this is. Using semantic arguments in a manner that undermines the concept of better teaching of aboriginal occupation and activity in Australia prior to 1788.

      Having an incomplete understanding of aboriginal history is the best we can hope for. That doesn't mean that it is of no use. Even for those cultures that do have written accounts for a particular date, it would be ridiculous to claim that was all there was to know for that point in time.

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    19. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Are you now implying that use of a calendar you find acceptable defines a culture's history?

      No, I'm not. I asked a simple question.

      I said "what happened in 1787?"

      If Aboriginal history was a real discipline, it would be able to tell me this. Since it is not, it cannot. This is my point. You seemed to misinterpret me to say that I can't talk about Aboriginal events with a Gregorian calendar, what rubbish!

      What I am saying is that to talk about the past you need some sort of reference point, and I can talk in the Ethiopian lunar calendar or the Gregorian calendar or even the Mayan calendar but chances are you understand Gregorian dates as you speak English and are ostensibly Australian.

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    20. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to James Hammond

      My point was that there is no aboriginal history written for and by themselves prior to European contact.

      There are no historical events that aboriginals have self defined. There are only dates and events with reference to settler contact.

      There are things we can broadly know, eg. boomerangs were used, ropes were made. But we don't get the EVENTS!

      I am trying to stop the language being hijacked by sophists who would use it to not represent the truth for political correctness reasons and special pleading to interest groups.

      If you call it history, I want to see the events, I want to see politics, I want to see culture, I want to see dates!

      Else it is prehistory!

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    21. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Kerry List

      Why don't you define "real discipline" for me?
      Does Fine Art, Philosophy or Futures count as a "real discipline" in your world view?
      Does history only exist if someone is there to write it down? Obviously for you, it does. Yet how reliable is a written record anyway? But for cultures with bad memory skills records may be necessary - whereas other cultures may not require written records to record their history.
      I hear that you require calendar references to talk about the past - that this is a requirement for you - what is lacking is the awareness that this is only one view and not universally shared across all cultures. Unfortunately this has never stopped some to impose their views of right and wrong on others they perceive to be more primitive than themselves.

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    22. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Kerry List

      Oh dear ... do we have another Howard black armband historian in our midst?

      I hope your writing is better than your disjointed argument.

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    23. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Oh dear.

      I'd love you to well perhaps debate what I've said, but I must have tired you out, or annoyed you, or both. I guess you can't muster a counter argument, except for a little ad hominem.

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    24. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      "Cultures" do not have "bad memory skills". Only people have memories. Don't try to give concepts properties they can never possibly have. That's quite sloppy thinking.

      Death usually terminates one's memory. The propogation of knowledge despite death is why we have progressed from oral traditions, to writing, to printing, to electronic media, to (Insert next form of information transfer here). Since it is difficult to remember one's life after you have died, this probably one of the reasons why writing was invented.

      You're right, only cultures without calenders can't talk about the past, because they cannot differentiate it from the present. It is not cultural relativism that this cannot happen, it is just impossible. Without a calendar, how can I know it is last year? How can I record events? How can I record history? How can it be verifiable?

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    25. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Kerry List

      Yes, some people do have bad memories and therefore assume everyone else has too. Just like some people think/assume that a written history is an accurate history and superior to any other form. Unfortunately most recorded history is highly selective and based in the historian's culture, world view, gender, ideology, etc.
      Since your view is also embedded in your culture, ideology, etc, your view is imposing your concepts on another without acknowledging that there are different ways of recording events.
      I see the listing of events by date as of little relevance to the purpose of keeping a record of history - to remember the past in order to apply the lessons and learnings to the present and to improve the outcomes in the future. If indigenous history has a means of transferring knowledge for this purpose, then it fits my concept of 'history', even without Gregorian/Julian/Mayan/etc calendar dates.

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    26. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Kerry List

      No Kerry, I am always up for a solid debate with knowledgeable people. I have a mate who refuses to debate anything with anybody who knows everything. My mate believes that they cannot learn anything from them.

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    27. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      I have never said I knew everything. Stop projecting onto me!

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    28. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      However Suzy, that "meta" outcome (the lessons learned) requires data if you're talkign about history.

      A list of events is the basis of historical information.

      We can also learn from proverbs and myths. They do not have any data to support them, however.

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    29. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Kerry List

      A list of events is the basis of your historical information.
      But this kind of historical data is not always reliable due to of cultural/gender/class bias (mentioned earlier), making "historic data" less than certain.
      However, this uncertainty does not prevent one from using the information within its limits. The same applies to other ways of knowing and recording history, including indigenous methods.

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    30. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      I guess which is it do you think is less certain?

      I think it is less certain where there is very little evidence, and no documentation.

      Correct me if I've got the wrong impression, but the way you talk about history is highly relativist, as if there is no such thing as historical truth.

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    31. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      We have a fundamentally different idea of truth.

      Thanks for clearing that up.

      I beileve in the correspondence theory of truth. Ah, Putnam. You would be more of a Richard Rorty follower.

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    32. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Kerry List

      I don't consider myself a follower of anyone. I observe and develop my own understanding.
      Since white people have been in Australia only for a relatively short time, they would do well to learn from those with much longer connection to the country if they want to know their location better.
      To discard this source of knowledge over an interpretation of terms grounded in determinist vs indeterminist philosophy for me just misses the point of what the purpose of history is.

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  8. David Mayes

    Urban Planner

    "The archaeological history of the First Australians is a truly remarkable story. At a time when Europe was still the domain of Neanderthals,..." So the Neanderthals were the real primitives? Their story is not really remarkable?

    And is it really a story? A global scientific community of archaeologists, geneticist and linguists has painstakingly gathered, sifted and debated evidence to form hypothesize and theories into a fascinating reconstruction of the course global human social evolution…

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    1. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to David Mayes

      Those scientists, palaeontologist, archaeologists, historians, biologist etc that use the material and written evidence of the past and can weave it into a dialogue that provides a convincing argument/hypothesis and then translate it into a story, where the conflicting evidence is presented, well they do the world a great justice I think.

      Oppenheimer's book 'Out of Eden' is a brilliant story. Science communicators put facts in accounts that engage people that usually couldn't be bothered…

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    2. David Mayes

      Urban Planner

      In reply to Michael Westaway

      Completely agree Michael that for schools the science needs to rendered in compelling stories that will engage young minds. But caution is needed, because as with the current Climate change debate, the counter scientific side is content just to make up a compelling story without good evidence.

      And I agree to that the telling of the deep social history of Australia will and should disrupt the prejudices and expand the understanding of Australians about our first peoples. But it will cut both ways and, if well told it will also do the same for the contemporary descendants of the Australian first peoples. We come to a new shared perspective on our deep pasts.

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    3. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Michael Westaway

      Nicelt said Michael. Perhaps I could speculate that "civilisation" was initiated in the southern hemisphere because the most "primitive" societies surviving at the turn into the 20th century were all located around remnants of Gondwanaland, the Tasmanian Aborigines, the Indigenous Tera Del Fuegans and the pygmies of Southern Africa. All hunter-getherer societies having an oral history tradition that has been lost over time thanks to European invasion of their homelands.

      19th century Europe was fascinated by Africa so the Afro-centric view of human evolution is likely to be later than the original societies. End of speculation.

      BTW, this speculation is supported by botanical evidence found in the evolution of the Australian flora.

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  9. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    Michael, can you explain the following assertion:
    "Perhaps the most insidious myth perpetuated about Aboriginal society is the idea it was ‘primitive’, ‘stone age’, ‘nomadic’, or ‘unevolved’. This type of thinking feeds racist stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes which continue to marginalise and disassociate Aboriginal Australians from the national identity. The archaeology of our continent directly refutes this type of thinking"

    Can you show the evidence that refutes the description of…

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    1. Anna Young

      Project Manager

      In reply to John Phillip

      I think you illustrate the point of the article.

      It's my understanding that Australia was more like Europe, with many different languages, cultures and ways of life, than the convential understanding of a homogenous bunch of nomads roaming about.

      Australia's landscape is incredibly diverse and it's my understanding that the landscape largely dictated how much people moved about and how they lived. Those that lived in places where food and resources were sparse moved around a lot, those that…

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    2. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Anna Young

      Anna, couldn't you say the same about any social structure? The proscription of certain terms based on ideas of political correctness/ideology merely serve to make differentiation impossible.
      The argument you put forward with respect to the term 'primitive' falls down when one accepts the fact that all human existence to relies upon the interaction with the environment.
      To say that a society lives within the constraints of the environment has to be a given, regardless of the level of technological…

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    3. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to John Phillip

      Just quickly John, stone tools were used but most objects were likley organic, these don't preserve in the archaeological record, well very rarely. However ethnogarphic collections that can be seen at museums (and one of the best exhibits is at the South Australian Museum) can give you an idea of the diversity of the tool kit, its variation across different environments, and its different functions. Very few everyday objects were stone, it is just stone artefacts were what the archaeologists found…

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Michael Westaway

      Michael, thank you so ,much for the gracious use of your time. Your answer builds beautifully on the original article and claifies a couple of key points for me. In the context of this, I'd like to apologise for coming across as so defensive. I get frustrated that some words/terms carry the cultural burden that they do - it robs us of the linguistic tools we need for accurate description and leads to a degree of cynicism. Cheers. John.

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    5. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to John Phillip

      No worries John, you only have 800 or so words to try and explain yourself in these essays and I find that a tricky task, you are always bound to leave something out that probably needs further explanation. Or rather I should say, I am always bound to leave something out that needs further explanation!

      I am just thrilled that people have found it an interesting enough topic to generate so much discussion, and that is always a good thing.

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  10. Paul Watson

    Policy Advisor

    For me learning about Indigenous history also provides a means by which we can better understand the very different (different from the mainstream) Indigenous perspectives which continue to be prevalent today. I learnt nothing about Indigenous people, culture and history at school and all I leant at University was to see them as victims. I’m not sure which is worse.
    Aside from the very important aspect of reconciliation, our lack of understanding of the Indigenous perspective inhibits our ability…

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    1. Gary Jackson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Watson

      I agree entirely with your post Paul. The old Aboriginal men I speak with feel that school is unintentionally destroying their culture. Schools teach a whitefella curriculum taught by white teachers. This insistence that black children go to these schools is designed to change cultural views away from blackfella ways. So if the kids want to go fishing instead of going to school the old people might not influence them to attend. I believe an answer is to fund Aboriginal ceremonies to redress the lack of Indigenous schooling.
      We do help fund opera that is sung in a foreign language to a select group so why not help Aboriginal ceremony and teaching?

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    2. Lois Achimovich

      Doctor

      In reply to Gary Jackson

      I like the idea of ceremonies. Aboriginal children have been forced into 19th century classrooms. Let them run around as much as they like until something takes their fancy. ( Wouldn't be a bad idea for Wadjilah kids too - then the diagnosis of ADHD - and the treatment with drugs - would be a thing of the past.)

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  11. Theo Utzinger

    Volunteer

    Not to teach the pre history of indigenous Australians is a deliberate attempt to dehumanise these people, to deny their humanity or even existence.

    Not to teach the history of Indigenous Australians after European arrival is a deliberate attempt to deny future generations to learn from foundational events in Australian history, with respect to cultural integration, resource management and political integrity.

    Raymond Evans writes, that Queensland began as a colony with 7½ pence in its Treasury…

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  12. Lois Achimovich

    Doctor

    Gangulu Elder Ms Lilla Watson said in Big Ideas (ABC July 11, Timothy Bottoms "Conspiracy of Silence) that the history of Australia is the history of convicts and the history of Aboriginal people IS the history of Australia. Someone of the Big Ideas website suggested a truth commission so that the truth of the invasion can be written into our history. We now have many publication which one can look for, but we need changes to the Constitution regarding Aboriginal people - among many other things. It's tragic that the Coalition is so unreconstructed about race - of any kind.
    Great conversation . Thank Michael

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  13. Tony Miscamble

    logged in via Facebook

    It is odd in my experience to find a person who is uninterested in our collective human past, whether that be human origins, migrations (Out of Africa, Polynesia), diversity (Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis), monumental architecture (megaliths, pyramids), or the customs, cultures and life ways of those both unlike and similar to ourselves. It may even just be one's family tree. We want to understand ourselves through our past. It is why archaeology, among other disciplines, excites great public interest…

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  14. Alethea Kinsela

    Archaeologist, Teacher, Writer

    Great article, Michael. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written here.

    Something that might interest you - in May/June this year, I'll be releasing a high school history textbook titled 'Ancient Australia Unearthed' which comprehensively covers the past 50,000 years of Australia's ancient past using archaeology as the foundation. It's pitched at Year 7 (for the depth study area 'Ancient Australia'), but can be adapted for other year levels.

    Here's a link: www.ancientaustralia.com.au

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    1. Michael Westaway

      Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University

      In reply to Alethea Kinsela

      Well done Aletha, I have had a quick look at your proposed book and I think it is wonderful that you have delivered such a resource. I will have to grab a copy when it becomes available.

      I hope it does very well and loads of teachers start to use it, as you say there are very few resources about!

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  15. Jenny Bowler

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Michael, it has been a while since we have been in touch! I was just made aware of your wonderful article and wanted to let your readers know of the work that has been done to date regarding History resources aligned with the Australian Curriculum, based on research at Lake Mungo.

    There is currently a comprehensive and classroom ready curriculum resource available to support the History strand in years 4 and 7. The source document used is the multi-media CD, 'Lake Mungo - window to Australia's…

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  16. Darren Yorston

    Student @ UQ

    Fascinating topic! So much to learn so little time, curse my short life!

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  17. cath south

    filmmaker

    Can you tell me Michael what the curriculum requirements are on Australian schools? I had heard that all was being re-designed post this new Fed Govt.? excuse my ignorance but is it State or fed who determine what our kids learn? I guess I am wondering where we are at the present with requirements (or not1) for teaching the Aboriginal history of our country?

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