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Embedding Indigenous Perspectives

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Embedding Indigenous perspectives

The traditional conceptual view of Australian history is one of progress, European progress. Generations of Australian students have been indoctrinated with a version of Australian history that underestimates or overlooks events and subjects concerning Indigenous people. The favoured triumphalist account of Australian achievement and success has relegated many violent and tragic Indigenous events and issues to a part of the nation's hidden history. More recent histories written about Australia's past have attempted to balance the celebrated success of the Australian story with the Indigenous peoples' account of modern Australia. All Australian states and territories now accept Indigenous studies to an important area of study in schools and openly encourage teachers to expose their students to Indigenous perspectives. To reveal a fuller picture of both Australia's past and to foster a deeper understanding of the Indigenous dimension of Australian history, schools are now obligated to educate students from the 'view from the ship and the view from the shore.' Although the once prevailing attitude that relegated the Indigenous experience to a mere footnote in history has been largely discredited, it is an issue which has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. Research has sadly shown many teachers and schools are still reluctant to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum for a variety of reasons -anxiety about cultural sensitivities, lack of interest and/or knowledge, bigotry and concern about the more contentious aspects of indigenous history.

For decades, the Indigenous population of Australia was written out of official versions of the nation's history. If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples appeared, it was either only fleetingly or to act as foils to valiant British settlers braving the elements and 'savage natives' in a new harsh landscape. School textbooks often began with a concise chapter on the customs and beliefs of Aboriginal peoples and occasionally made reference to some well-known Indigenous people such as Woollarawarre Bennelong who was taken to England and introduced to King George in 1972. In talking of the early colonial settlements and farms, one popular history textbook from the 1960s tilted 'The Land They Found' referred to the original inhabitants of the lands only in the context of the difficulties and troubles they posed to the British settlers. Like most school textbooks published in the pre-Mabo era, it followed a similar storyline. Australia was presented as a land that was only scarcely inhabited by Indigenous people, who through no fault of the British settlers began to die off after colonization. The paternalistic British settlers did the best they could for the natives and attempted to civilize them through Christianity. However, Indigenous people were inherently inferior and doomed to existence based on Darwin's theories. This particular textbook was emblematic of the treatment that was given to Indigenous people and issues in Australia during this period. Australian history was presented as almost a purely white affair, the Indigenous Australia population ceased to exist after the introductory chapter.

This phenomenon was rationalized in one particularly infamous textbook from the 1920s. The author of the book Sir Walter Murdoch, a renowned academic, strictly defined the subject of Australian history as an entirely 'white' history - a history that only came into existence in 1788. Murdoch stated that Indigenous people were not to be included within the pages of his book because they had no actual history to tell; just 'queer' legends and unsubstantiated myths spread through word of mouth. He went on to argue that:

Change and progress are the stuff of which History is made: these blacks knew no change and made no progress, as far as we can tell. Men of science may peer at them .... But the historian is not concerned with them. He is concerned with Australia only as the dwelling-place of white men and women, settlers from over seas. It is his business to tell us how these white folk found the land, how they settled in it, how they explored it, and hope they gradually made it the Australia we know today.

Although Murdoch expressed this view in the early part of the twentieth century, the attitude that the Indigenous experience did not warrant study stayed entrenched in the cultures of most Australian schools until the middle of the 1970s. Very little was taught in schools about Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander history, culture or perspectives. Like many settler nations that have a darker side to their past, the national story taught in schools was glossed over in order to celebrate the progress of the country. Australia's history was sanitized as teachers failed to educate their pupils about Indigenous dispossession and massacres. The historical narrative was cleaned up and dissenting Indigenous voices silenced in order to present to students a story of a nation united by its heroic struggles, not by its convict stain or its oppression of its Indigenous population. The Australian historian Henry Reynolds has argued that this widespread approach adopted by schools has led to a common refrain of 'why weren't we told?' by adults who were educated in this propagandistic system. W. E. H. Bill Stanner, an Australian anthropologist, coined the term the 'Great Australian Silence' to denote this deliberate process to omit Indigenous perspectives in order to construct an overly positive Australian narrative. Reynolds maintains there is a direct correlation between this 'Great Australian Silence', the lack of Indigenous content in school curriculums, and the lack of understanding and respect many generations of Australians have today for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Fortunately, Australian schools and textbooks can no longer teach that there is no value or nothing to learn from the Indigenous population and their history. Teaching students about Indigenous cultures and perspectives has been identified nationally as a key factor to ensuring improved outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Australia. Victoria in particular has made embedding Indigenous perspectives a priority. The Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) mandates that all Victorian students between the levels of Preparatory to Year 10 be taught about the nation's original inhabitants and Australia's shared history with its Indigenous people. As the main curriculum framework for the state of Victoria, VELS aims to promote an understanding of the first Australians with the inclusion of Aboriginal history and perspectives on events and issues. In the belief



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