‘Life-changing’ Aboriginal studies in northern Victoria

Posted on January 22, 2013

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Ms Andrews: Aboriginal knowledge is best taught in a wider setting than a class room.

Ms Andrews: Aboriginal knowledge is best taught in a wider setting than a class room

An award-winning La Trobe University Aboriginal history and culture course in northern Victoria is doing more than advancing the knowledge of students.

It’s also building an educational bridge for regional Aboriginal people who have not previously considered tertiary study. 

The week-long intensive course is called ‘Encountering Aboriginal Victoria’. It is taught by La Trobe academics and local Yorta Yorta and Bangarang Aboriginal Elders on the Shepparton campus ¬– and on Aboriginal country including the historic Cummerganja Mission and Barmah Forest.

Local participation, says course co-ordinator and La Trobe lecturer in Aboriginal Studies and Anthropology Julie Andrews, aims to build the capacity of Indigenous communities by exposing them to a greater knowledge of their own history.

‘The course is about developing greater pride in their culture, heritage and traditions, reaching out to the next generation from an academic setting, and encouraging links between Aboriginal community groups, businesses and the University.’

Authentic and compelling

The program, for which La Trobe has also won the Aboriginal education achievement ‘Wurreker Award’, brings students and Aboriginal groups together. ‘It speaks with an authenticity that students have found compelling and life changing,’ says Ms Andrews.

A Yorta Yorta woman who is completing a PhD at La Trobe, Ms Andrews says Shepparton, with around 1,800 Indigenous Australians, has one of the highest Aboriginal populations in Victoria, almost six times the Victorian average.

It is also an area of socio-economic disadvantage with high unemployment and a university participation rate well below the national average.

‘The close involvement of community Elders with La Trobe students is a good way to help build a regional platform for a better understanding of the value of higher education,’ says Ms Andrews.

About 50 students from La Trobe’s Melbourne and regional campuses as well as from other universities took part in the course, which is now in its third year.

The first three days were spent on the Shepparton campus where students dealt with topics including native title, archaeology and anthropology to social justice and climate change.

These involved senior La Trobe staff including Dr Mary Jo Fortuna, Dr John Morton and Professor David Frankel and former Koori Court Magistrate Professor Kate Auty, now Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability.

Lessons via film – and ‘On Country’

Also included was a special screening of the film The Sapphires’ about four local Koori women singers who toured Vietnam during the war in the late 1960s. Students discussed the film and the issues it raised with its writer, well-known actor Tony Briggs, via video link.

The last three days were spent ‘On Country’, which included lectures at archaeological sites with Parks Victoria Aboriginal Ranger Ray Ahmat as well as lessons about oral history, life stories, language and totems taught by Elders and other community members at the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve .

Ms Andrews says the local Aboriginal community has one of the richest political histories in south-east Australia. Their connection with the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve and subsequent history has been widely documented in literature, autobiographies and film.

‘Aboriginal knowledge,’ says Ms Andrews, ‘is different from academic knowledge. It’s a family group and community way of learning, and is directly related to one’s own country and to personal requirements of knowledge. Hence it is best taught in wider setting than just a class room.’

Ms Andrews, who has been recognised by the Australian Government for her teaching contribution to the ‘Closing the Gap’ campaign, has helped establish many of La Trobe University’s Aboriginal higher education initiatives. Ernest Raetz