A plea to all Australians to “know your country”

A campaign to place a First Nations educator in every Australian primary school would be a game-changer if it got traction.

The wondrous 2013 movie Charlie’s Country, which aired on ABC last week, is about rediscovering old Aboriginal ways, and the most poignant expression of that theme is the repeated urging of David Gulpilil’s character, Charlie, that he “teach the kids to dance”.

Eventually he does, joining with the children of his settlement in a joyous celebration of the Yolngu culture of East Arnhem Land.

In that simple request is a question for the ages, and for all of humanity. How do we preserve the things that work for us – and for our land and the whole planet – in the face of the temptations offered by the trappings of modernity?

Charlie’s Country is in many ways about Gulpilil himself. Brought up in a traditional culture, his life was transformed when his dancing prowess and acting potential caught the attention of a movie director and won him world acclaim as a movie star.

Gulpilil, now in his late 60s, has a foot in two camps. Having learned the old ways of hunting and living off the land – and dancing – he also entered the world of the white interlopers who took over his country.

As a celebrated film actor he travelled Australia and the world, meeting famous people and respected everywhere for his artistry. But he has also had to confront non-Indigenous Australia’s double standards and its trivialisation of First Nations lives and traditions. 

The film is an arm-wrestle between two worlds which we know must ultimately find common cause. We hear again and again how First Nations peoples have benefited from western learning and technologies, but we don’t hear enough about the benefits that flow in the opposite direction. 

Childhood is where our most basic impressions are formed, and filling in the yawning knowledge void about Australia’s First Peoples, their histories and their cultures must start in the early years of school. History generally has had a raw deal in our schools, but First Nations history is almost completely absent.

“Know your country” is a campaign led by First Nations organisations and convened by World Vision. It aims to place a First Nations cultural educator in every primary school across the country, on the basis that every child in this country deserves to learn about the rich and diverse cultures of First Australians including local traditions and lives.

Children who have regular, positive contact with First Australians will be set up for lifelong appreciation of Indigenous cultures and histories, in keeping with the principle that the benefits of this wider awareness accrue to all of us, especially non-Aboriginal people.

Under the proposed educational scheme, First Nations educators in every school will give all teachers the support they need to deliver authentic, locally relevant First Nations perspectives in the classroom.

Systemic racism stems from ignorance and unfamiliarity. Reducing its pernicious impact is an obvious positive outcome from better primary education about Australia’s First Nations, from which we will all benefit. If “Know Your Country” gets traction in our schools it would be a big step on the path to reconciliation.

For non-Indigenous Australians, there’s a deeper benefit. Our forebears came here believing they were a positive asset to the land they “conquered”. Any student of natural Australia will tell you they got it completely wrong. From the standpoint of species and ecosystems, this continent is now in far worse shape than it was before 1788.

“Heal country”, the theme for NAIDOC Week 2021, is about rediscovering and recovering this land’s inherent goodness, which Indigenous peoples acknowledge but which non-Indigenous Australian practices have done so much to damage and destroy.

For all our sakes, we must do more to ensure Indigenous knowledge, values and practices are respected through legally recognising First Nations’ relationship to lands and waters and acknowledging custodial knowledge and skills built up over tens of thousands of years.

Gulpilil’s character in Charlie’s Country, denied the right to kill for food, takes himself off to live in the wilderness. For a little while – a blissful, hopeful moment in time before being eventually forced back to town life – he reconnects with the plants and animals he had known as a child all those years ago.

Justice for Indigenous Australia is also justice for the environment. The sooner we understand that the sooner we can begin the process of healing this damaged country.

Learning about First Nations values will necessarily mean unlearning many of our own, especially in light of the multi-faceted environmental crisis now facing us. That adds up to a huge task, and we need to get cracking.

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