Aboriginal affairs

Connecting to culture

JESSICA CUMMINS

“The big thing that brought me back from certain death was connecting to culture.”

Ingrid Cumming looks at me with sincere, brown eyes as she takes the last bite of her hamburger.

We are eating lunch at Settlers Tavern in Margaret River. Situated on Wardandi country, as the Whadjuk Nyungar people call it, this area is renowned for its abundance of wine, pristine beaches and world-class surf breaks along the south-western coast of Australia.

Cumming (pictured) recalls her days as a lost teenager at this very spot as she struggled to find herself and her life.

She is now CEO of her own company, Kart Koort Wiern, which does research and consultancies on cultural awareness, reconciliation and youth leadership, among other things. Through this work, Cumming aims to engage young people by offering better understanding of what it means to be Indigenous today.

But her achievements have come after many turbulent years of depression, drug abuse and suicidal thoughts.

“I was respectfully asked to leave in Year 10 at John Curtin College of the Arts … because I was such a problem. Drugs and mental health were becoming an issue,” Cumming says.

“I ran away from home at 15, went to Narrogin a year later and couch surfed until I was about 19. In that time I jumped on buses and trains to Sydney and just floated basically. I was lost. Very, very lost.”

Cumming says although she travelled thousands of kilometres across Australia to find herself, the answer was closer to home.

“All I had to do was look within myself,” she says.

Kart Koort Wiern, meaning head, heart, and spirit in the Whadjuk language, symbolises three principles Cumming says are needed for non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians to move toward reconciliation. These principles are about acknowledging everyone’s knowledge, compassion and culture.

“The point is that this young person, who had all the odds against them, in the end turned their life around. By really diving into culture, both western and Nyungar, sitting with elders learning language and dance, I found myself. And this is what I’m passionate about – helping young fellas to find themselves.”

Associate Lecturer at Curtin University’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Ken Hayward, says youth leadership and cultural awareness programs are important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

“Being of Aboriginal identity myself, and having lived my experience, I feel it is important for everyone in our society to know something about our Aboriginal people,” he says.

“The majority of Australians do not know enough about the oldest living culture in the world.”

Hayward’s statement is backed up by figures from a 2012 Reconciliation Australia and Australian Youth Affairs Council report. The study, which conducted the first national survey of young people’s attitudes towards reconciliation, found that 81 per cent of young people think students should learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island history and culture in schools.

As I relay these statistics to Cumming while we sit in the shade of the Settlers Tavern alfresco area, she stares off into the distance before speaking.

“The gap is there because Indigenous education has not been made mandatory yet. Just ask yourself, if the majority of people have never had an ongoing interaction and understanding of Indigenous culture, then where the hell have they been learning about it?”

The question leaves me stumped. Here we are, two strangers eating lunch together in a town three hours away from our home in Perth, and I have learned more about Indigenous culture and history from one conversation than I ever did during the four years I attended high school in Australia.

I’m left with questions: Is Indigenous culture not taught the right way in schools? What is the right way? How are teachers taught to teach Indigenous education?

Graeme Gower, senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Indigenous Culture, says that, in the past, teachers were not taught how to teach Indigenous culture at school.

“They felt uncomfortable and unqualified and so would teach Indigenous history and culture in a shallow way, like how to cook damper or [they would] get students to draw dot paintings,” he says.

“Teachers didn’t teach the meaning behind these cultural practices and protocols. And if there was not a curriculum to guide teachers then they would overlook it.”

Judy Hocking, former rural community teacher at Halls Creek District High School, graduated from teachers college in the 1980s with a major in intercultural studies.

“The focus of that stream was around cultural understanding, ensuring educational inclusion and maximising opportunity for all students, in terms of our future teaching careers. Within that major, we could select either migrant education or Aboriginal education,” she says.

“At that time I had a lot of interest in foreign languages and other cultures so I chose migrant education. However, we also shared about half of our lectures and classes with students from the Aboriginal education stream, and so there was a huge amount of common ground. But this training was not universal for all teacher trainees at the time.”

Hocking says that during her seven years living and working in Halls Creek, a small Kimberley town of about 1200 people, she did not spend any of her time teaching Aboriginal culture.

“We did however respect it, and I think most of my peer teachers wanted to learn about it too and found it interesting,” she says.

“We were living and working in an environment where traditional Aboriginal culture still played a strong role in the lives of Halls Creek students. Our relationships with them were strong and they interacted with us naturally and freely. Their home was our world, and so it was very easy to want to become a part of it.”

Although Indigenous education was not taught in the classrooms at Halls Creek, Hocking says all teachers were taught aspects of Aboriginal culture relevant to their roles.

She says the training for teachers included information about many aspects of Aboriginal culture, including language, behaviours, prohibitions and taboos, such as those surrounding death and its impact on families. They also learned about family structure and relationships, and appropriate relationships with students and their families.

“With the encouragement of the principal we also had the tremendous liberty to incorporate activities such as a weekly Friday afternoon excursion to a water hole or bush setting out of town, in which we would play, explore and generally enjoy the end of the week. This often included activities such as swimming, looking for ‘sugar bags’ [Kimberley nature beehives] and ‘crocodiles rides’ [courtesy of the teacher!],” she says.

Hocking says she believes the inclusion of Aboriginal history and culture is needed in schools to broaden the understanding of all students but that anything more than history should not be taught by non-Indigenous teachers.

The 2012 Yarn about Youth report found that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identified racism, discrimination and prejudice as the most important issues facing Australia today, compared with non-Indigenous youth who classified it as the second-most important issue.

This shows that without the understanding and knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture, Indigenous children are more likely to experience often unintentional racism, discrimination and prejudice by non-Indigenous Australians during their schools years.

Ken Hayward grew up during the 1960s in Collie, a small country town in Western Australia’s Southwest. He describes himself as being of mixed heritage, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, and says he experienced racism when he was at school, even though at the time he didn’t understand what it was.

“I’m more aware of what it all meant now but at the time, because I was young, I didn’t understand. There was racism, and sometimes you experienced it in the playground and sometimes you experienced it from the teachers,” he says.

“It was magic when you got a good teacher who treated everyone equally.

“That’s why I will always remember my grade-five teacher Mr Boyd. He treated everyone equally. He was this magic teacher who helped me realise my worth. There’s nothing like building self esteem.”

Hayward says he knows what it’s like to feel segregated and marginalised as ‘the other’ in a society dominated by white mainstream culture.

“For whatever reason, [young Indigenous people] have got something wrong with their mind. It may be that they have experienced racism and that has caused them to be angry. It has caused mental scarring because that is what putting other people down does,” he says.

“Or, the issue may be that they come from dysfunctional backgrounds by virtue of their parents not being accepted, or their parents not having employment, or their parents being in poverty. All of those things make up a multitude of issues that are faced by our youth and I don’t believe it’s just an Aboriginal issue. I believe it’s an Australian issue.”

Hayward says it is important for youth leadership programs to build self esteem, and to show young Indigenous people they can do anything they set their minds to.

Steven Brown is a descendant of the Bundajalung and Yuin nations from New South Wales. He grew up in a family marred by domestic violence with his mother dying at a young age, which meant he had to take care of himself.

These days, Brown works full time for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in Canberra while studying a degree in business administration.

He has attended many international conferences, including the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in New York.

He says his personal vision is affected by his involvement with the Australian Leadership Centre, a non-profit company owned and controlled by Indigenous Australians. The centre offers accredited courses in Indigenous leadership and non-accredited short courses in leadership skills and diversity mentoring.

“By the end of the course I felt like I could do anything. It has made me feel comfortable to put myself out there without fear of failure,” he says.

“My personal vision was impacted by my involvement with the course as I have grown to be self-reflecting and to not be so hard on myself.

“My ability to view the world through others’ eyes has supported me to understand others and work towards improving the lives of others.”

Ingrid Cumming says Kart Koort Wiern works to give Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people another lens to look through.

“It’s not just about non-Indigenous people learning about Aboriginal people, but Aboriginal people learning about non-Indigenous people as well. It is about creating those spaces where open dialogue happens, where people can get to know each other as individuals and not as stereotypes,” she says.

“It’s a space where everyone has a right to express their feelings and have their say. If they have had a negative experience we will talk about it.”

For Cumming, it was a phone call from her dad telling her to return home and go to the Kulbardi Centre, Murdoch University’s Aboriginal Centre for Indigenous students, that connected her to culture.

“He told me to do something for myself. His words were a changing point in my life and it was not long after that I was on a plane back to Perth.”

Once she returned, Cumming enrolled at university.

“There was a big Welcome to the Country performance at the Perth Festival in 2006. We sat with elders and learnt dance, women circle stuff – it was really powerful for me. I was 22 at the time and all these cultural interactions started happening. I was connecting to culture and it was almost by accident.”

The warped perception of culture she experienced during her childhood was finally starting to change. Gone were the days where she didn’t feel “black enough to be a blackfella” or “white enough to be a whitefella”.

“I look back and think if I ever bumped into me at 19 I’d be like, ‘Who the hell are you, and what have you done to Ingrid?’.”

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