Acknowledging and embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures into early childhood settings is something I have always felt is the ethical thing to do. Doing this embedding with the respect and understanding these beautiful cultures deserve is another thing, I did not want to be another “whitey” doing “it” to the Aboriginal people, doing my version, patting myself on the back when I did what I thought was the “right thing”.
I grew up in rural Victoria; my Great Aunt lived in Dimboola, she was a nurse and had always been a trailblazer. She looked after the older male geriatrics in the thirties and forties when women shouldn’t be looking after men in such intimate ways. She also did not like the way the Aboriginal people were seen in her community, especially the women and children. She supported them, worked with them, advocated for them. This ignited in me a natural curiosity of First Nations People and their country. We had a boarder come to live with us; she was an Aboriginal woman among many other things, who needed to move away from her family to work. She became a part of our family for a short time. Evie* stayed with us for approximately eighteen months until she married. A person, no different from us, with a great sense of humour, someone we came to love. A person who was not to be scared of or feared.
Then in high school I met a teacher who fully ignited in me a sense of social justice that has carried through the rest of my life. She showed us films of what was happening in Soweto, South Africa. She was a rebel back then. She also told us about what was happening in Australia. I was alive in the ‘60’s, I knew about the “farms” ‘the Aboriginal people’ came from, I wondered what would happen when Aboriginal people were given the vote. I remember overhearing adult conversations – it was as if something catastrophic would occur if Aboriginal people were given the vote! I was overwhelmed. I hated what I saw on film and then to know that it was occurring in Australia – how could this be happening here?
Fast forward forty years and I am now a preschool teacher in an outer east Melbourne kindergarten with an Aboriginal name and two children with Aboriginal heritage. I have also been given the opportunity to join a project funded by the Department of Education to increase the participant rates of Indigenous children in preschools. My local government council was managing the project. Many things were discussed however we came up with the following:
– We needed to increase the capacity of educators and their services to ensure that they were welcoming spaces for our Indigenous people.
– We wanted to develop a model that could be used to ensure that early childhood spaces were welcoming and understanding of Indigenous people and their cultures across Victoria.
The work in this space still continues.
This led me to some deep critical reflection. I too wanted to challenge “stereotypical colonial constructions of ‘Indigeneity’ (Atkinson, 2016, p. 147). I did not want to exercise my ‘white middle class power’; I did not want to use my “privilege” as a teacher. I wanted to show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that I wanted to work with and for them to ensure that their children feel safe, respected and supported. I wanted to do this in a way that truly reflected their family values and not from a place of privilege. I made some major shifts in my thinking, I could almost feel the “click” inside my being.
Firstly, many early childhood teachers and educators work hard to be welcoming of all people, their backgrounds, traditions, culture, their Ecological model (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) if you wish. We have that capacity. I was always welcoming of Indigenous people, I included them as I would any family in the group, it is the right thing to do. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the First Nations People, they own this land, they are the custodians, they nurture the land and the future Elders of the land, so I am always welcoming. This is one reason why meaningful Acknowledgement of Country is important in my daily practice as a teacher. It occurs whether there is an Indigenous family in the group or not. The flags are present, I teach the background of the flags, I revisit it many times over the year with each group.
The second point I’d like to make is about the tokenism of Aboriginal cultures. This is a hard one as we all travel at different rates through belonging, being and becoming (DEEWR, 2009, p. 7). There will always be someone willing to tell you that that is not the correct way to embed Indigenous culture, but not always someone willing to give you the answer. There is no answer. We have to ‘own’ this journey, you have to feel ‘right’ with what you do, you have feel ‘right’ with how you do it. You also need to remain open to new learning in supportive relationships with community and your colleagues. ‘Pragmatic’ me asked several Indigenous people on the committee what they thought a welcoming service looked like. “It is subtle”, “it has to be genuine”, “you have to make a connection”, they offered. “An Acknowledgement of Country should be displayed”, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags”. Building on the committee’s suggestions, we have the meaning of the flags visible, we have samples of Indigenous writing symbols available for the children, we use local Indigenous art as background for notices and signs, we have the translation of our service’s Indigenous name, we used Indigenous themed fabric for our hat pockets. There is an ongoing focus of embedding of Indigenous cultures at our service.
However, my next “click” came with my teaching and pedagogy, the delivery of curriculum. This was where reading and reflecting on Indigenous values and sense of family and connection to the land was important to my thought patterns. My family was not a typical suburban family, far from it, but I constructed a family through mentors and friends to nurture and support me. I was using people to “support and guide” as described by Annette Sax (2016, p. 253) in her chapter of The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (Scarlet, 2016). This is what I do with my families. I attempt to build a relationship with families that is us working for and with each other for the child, the bubup of our service. I link where I can to the land, taking only what we need and leaving some for oth-ers, not stripping bare the environment so that it cannot recover. I use this when a child wants to take a bug home from kinder, I explain the place this bug has in its home at the kinder, the im-portance to the environment and how taking it away will change many things. I relate it back to the child, about being taken away from what they know and how they would be affected. A gentle in-troduction to the Stolen Generation. We look for Bunjil (the creator) in the sky, along with Waa (the crow), carrack (magpies) and gilaa (galahs). I build a community within our group where eve-ryone matters and the actions of all affect and effect the group. Where everyone is a mentor, a leader, a future elder.
I see my role to be with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. To be ‘with’ Indigenous Australians in their continued struggle for reconciliation and recognition. To be ‘with’ non-Indigenous Australians, to plant a seed, to nurture it, especially with the children and families in my service for the short length of time I am with them,, to give them the opportunity to connect to country in a small way. I took my kindergarten children to a Smoking Ceremony in Reconciliation Week. Many things stuck with me from that day four years ago. One was a parent who related to me that her husband had not wanted their child to attend because he didn’t agree. Whilst she was undecided, she came as it was part of the kinder program. Afterwards she thanked me for the ex-perience, she was so moved by the ceremony and Welcome to Country by Elder Perry Wandin, by Kutcha Edwards’ story of the Stolen Generation, of Aunty Joy Murphy, Wurundjeri Elder inviting our Possum group to sit on her walert walert (Sax, 2016, p. 253,) and Mandy Nicholson’s explana-tion of the dance and invitation for all in attendance to participate. She was so moved, it shone from her eyes, her being, I believe she was connected to country that day. Building on Aunty Joy Murphy’s invitation for the children, my Possum Group, to sit on her walert walert. My connection to country came then, it felt that the whole day was done just for this moment, that all the effort with risk assessments and regulations was worth it. The photo I took did not come out, but the photo in my mind of the joy on those children’s faces, the smile on Aunty Joy’s face and the feeling of family still stays with me. That was another “click”.
I am still learning, listening and refining what I do to learn from and equally support Indigenous people and cultures with the children who attend the service. I feel the colours and the Dreamtime magic. I feel the pain and embarrassment of what has gone before, I hope the seeds I plant with the children grow into true reconciliation.
Atkinson, S. (2016). The challenges and successes of Indigenous parents as decolonisers of ‘main-stream’ early childhood spaces in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. In R. R. Scarlet (Ed.), The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (3rd ed., pp. 145-156). Erskineville: MultiVerse Publishing.
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia ACT: Commonwealth of Australia
R. R. Scarlet (Ed.). The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (3rd ed.) Erskineville: MultiVerse Publishing.
Sax, A. (2016). Acknowledgement of Country, In R. R. Scarlet (Ed.), The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (3rd ed., pp. 253-254). Erskineville: MultiVerse Publishing.