Module 2


'Best Practice' in Coastal
and Marine Studies





Reading 1 Guidelines for Including Aboriginality in Environmental Education


Reading 1

Guidelines for Including Aboriginality in Environmental Education

Source: Swartz, J., Craig, L. and Walker, L. (1997) Guidelines for Including Aboriginal Perspectives, Draft Paper, TAFE ATSI Curriculum Consortium, Cairns.

A number of concerns need to be considered when working with Aboriginal people, including issues such as ownership of cultural information, cultural sensitivity (in cross-cultural communication) and cultural equity (respecting western and indigenous knowledge equally). These key elements will dramatically affect the success of the programmes you choose to conduct. Following are five basic premises that we think non-indigenous educators should keep in mind when incorporating cultural aspects into environmental education programmes.

1. Speaking for country - Contacting the right people

Many non-indigenous people do not recognise the diversity of cultures that exist within Aboriginal Australia. They wrongly assume that one Aboriginal person can speak for all Aboriginal people. This is not the case - different Aboriginal people have connections to particular places or country. Therefore in your area (rural or urban), there are Aboriginal people who have traditional links to that area.

It is your responsibility to make sure that you speak to the right people for the right 'country' when planning your environmental education programme. If you want to include Aboriginal learnings/perspective in your education programme that are directly related to the area (eg a visit to a coastal park or reserve) you will need to contact the traditional people. If you are in a major developed urban area, the traditional people may not be present or there may be Aboriginal people relocated from other areas.

You need to obtain advice from your local Land Council or Aboriginal Corporation or community group about the best person to contact about your needs. They can tell you if there are traditional people present for the area or can suggest other Aboriginal people who, although they cannot speak for the country concerned, can still assist you in providing a general Aboriginal perspective for your programme.

2. Invisibility - Making local links with Aboriginal people

Aboriginal people are not invisible but sometimes non-Aboriginal people behave as if they were! Utilising the community for environmental education is considered best practice but it is sadly too rarely applied to the Aboriginal sector of the community, especially in large urban centres.

As educators, you need to make personal connection with local Aboriginal people. They are there - they are not invisible - and they can offer the chance for ongoing involvement in your education programme. It is important that your students benefit from personal interaction with Aboriginal people instead of second-hand information from a book. Do not reach for Kakadu Man from the bookshelf; contact your local Aboriginal group/corporation for appropriate people to get personally involved in your programme. The richness of their experiences as Aboriginal people in contemporary society, the unique indigenous perspective to challenge non-indigenous world views and assumptions; and their special connections to the environment can be an invaluable addition to your programme.

3. What is real? - Defining Aboriginality

Non-Aboriginal people mostly do not recognise that Aboriginal people are as varied as non-indigenous people. When thinking of an image of an Aboriginal Australian, they think of someone like 'Kakadu Man' - Big Bill Neidjie (a Gagadju Elder from the Northern Territory) - as a 'typical' or 'real' Aboriginal person.

Without being disrespectful to Mr Neidjie - he is not the face of Aboriginal Australia; he is the face of a Gagadju Elder. This traditional stereotype does not acknowledge the diversity of people who define themselves as Aboriginal people. Aboriginality is not found in appearances; rather it is based on spirituality. Such a definition forces us to not only look at many different Aboriginal faces such as Cathy Freeman, Noel Pearson, Mal Maninga and Lois O'Donaghue .... but also beyond those faces and to understand what it means to identify as an Aboriginal person in today's society.

So how can educators address this issue? Traditional stereotypes should be challenged rather than reinforced. Attempt to link up with Aboriginal people living contemporary lifestyles in your own area and seek to involve them in your education programme. In this way students will learn firstly that real Aboriginal people exist (in a range of guises) and come to appreciate the diverse cultures that exist within Aboriginal society as part of a living contemporary culture.

4. Owning information - Showing respect

Indigenous information is owned by indigenous people similar to the way that an idea has copyright attached. Cultural copyright has become an increasingly heated issue as Aboriginal people assert their sole rights to cultural information. It is no longer acceptable for non-indigenous people to inappropriately use or refer to Aboriginal information without the prior consent of Aboriginal people.

Non-indigenous people are mostly not aware of the responsibilities that are associated with owning cultural information. In indigenous societies, information and knowledge are not commodities that are freely accessible to everyone. Particular people can speak for certain areas; and different information can be given to different people. For example, some information will only be shared with indigenous people when they are ready to receive it; some information is gender-specific; and non-indigenous people are likely to only ever hear very general information of no special significance. Therefore the cultural information shared with you depends on who you are.

This idea that information carries certain responsibilities can be a difficult concept for non-indigenous people to grasp. It is therefore important for educators to remain respectful and acknowledge that they cannot obtain and use cultural information without prior consent from the relevant people.

When contacting Aboriginal people to become involved in your education programme, do not expect to be given information to use in your teaching. That is not why you have contacted them. Rather, your request should be 'What would you like to teach non-indigenous people about this place/about your culture and how can we best do it?' The solution should ensure that Aboriginal people remain involved and in control of the educational process. This may mean that you invite them to speak to your students or to become involved in a more on-going manner in your programme or simply that they are present when you visit their country.

5. Your role as educators will be different

Including indigenous learnings into your education programme changes your role as an educator. Assuming all goes according to plan, and you have made contact with appropriate Aboriginal people, and they have indicated willingness to help your students to understand more about the world from an Aboriginal perspective, how will you determine your role? By accepting that you are not the expert, you immediately show respect and pave the way for a productive working relationship with Aboriginal people. You will need first to develop trust and understanding based on mutual respect and a shared interest in promoting the value of indigenous knowledge and views to your students.

Depending on your situation, Aboriginal people or community may be happy to present talks and discussion sessions, conduct dance, language, art and craft workshops, lead cultural walks or demonstrate cultural skills. Others may prefer to share certain information with you that you can incorporate into your environmental education programmes. Whatever the outcome, at all times you will need to be aware of your responsibility to facilitate the process in a way that is culturally-appropriate and achieves the best outcomes for promoting and valuing Aboriginality to your students.