Winds of change for Aboriginal education

Scott Coomber

Unlce Ralph Naden runs Balladoran's cultural camp. Photo courtesy The Gilgandra Weekly

When Ian Geyer started teaching at Woodenbong Central School in 1979, most Indigenous students were leaving by Year 8. But through a series of transition programs and relationship building, the school’s completion rate now stands at around 98 per cent.

“That’s great but there is a lingering issue for Indigenous kids here,” Mr Geyer, a member of Federation’s Aboriginal Members Committee, said. “The judgement of the community and the school is that too many of the kids, when they finish Year 12, reach the end of the elevator ride and they’re back in the community and there’s nothing there.”

Mr Geyer is referring to Muli Muli, a settlement 6km from Woodenbong, where the Githabul people’s community is centred. Githabul has deep links with tradition — in 2007 they were the first peoples granted Native Title in NSW by proving they still openly practiced their tribal laws and ancient culture. “We’re isolated, we’re rural and what do people do when they have too much time on their hands?” Mr Geyer asked. “They start to make wrong choices and old models get repeated.” He tells the story of Gabriel Boota, a Woodenbong Central student and talented footballer, who finished school, took a gap year and “started down the wrong road”. He ended up in gaol.

Indigenous youth camps

Through a combination of the local gospel church, Gabriel’s father, who is one of the pastor’s there, and the land granted under the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (much of which is national park) a program was set up that proved to be Gabriel’s salvation, the Githabul Rangers. The Rangers provide a land management program — from spraying and clearing of invasive vegetation, fire management to replanting and flora and fauna monitoring — for the Githabul lands. They also get funding for Indigenous youth camps.

“Gabriel’s turned his back on his criminal life,” Mr Geyer said. “He said he doesn’t want to see the young people of Muli follow examples like his, there’s a better way. So his passion, and his wife’s, through the funding for the Githabul Rangers, is the cultural camps that focus on the youth of Muli and surrounds. They have a series of workshops that might be Githabul language, Indigenous culture, health, education, career planning, respectful relationships, all these really positive things and Gabriel has formed a committee and representatives from all of those sectors are on the it. He is determined to make a difference for these kids after school.”

Local language

Gilgandra High is making strong progress in Aboriginal education by offering a LOTE course in Wiradjuri for all students. Teacher Tony Wilson said the course includes a cultural excursion that takes in the Burra Bee Dee Mission near Coonabarabran, land granted as an Aboriginal reserve in 1912 to local elder Mary Jane Cain by Queen Victoria, then to Gulargambone, where Wiradjuri and Gamilaraay country overlaps, followed by a sleepover at a camp run by Uncle Ralph Naden at Balladoran. The students are able to connect with country, possibly catch up with relatives and immerse themselves in their culture. “Uncle Ralph teaches them about culture, with respect to Aboriginal artefacts, story-telling, sacred sites, sacred trees, the significance of smoking ceremonies and men’s business, women’s business,” Mr Wilson said. “It really embeds with the kids what Aboriginal culture is about. There’s a sign at the front of Ralph’s camp which says ‘Yindyamurra’, which in Wiradjuri means respect, and that’s Ralph’s ethos.

“Staff at Gilgandra have been trained in Aboriginal pedagogies, the eight ways of Aboriginal learning, which has enlightened a lot of the teachers and helped with their programs. It’s the recognition that Koori kids do learn a bit differently and bring to the table a different sort of skill set, not too dissimilar to non-Indigenous kids but we have to be aware of that.”