Aboriginal Education at Two Australian Schools: UNDER ONE DREAM

Article excerpt

Reflections in the water I see

Black and white living together

Sharing dreams of the red, black and gold

-Yothu Yindi (1999)

The countryside around Cherbourg, Australia, is low and rolling, sparsely wooded, with fields dotted with cattle and one or two emu farms. Horses roam freely along the road to the processing plant, where goat meat is prepared to Muslim specifications, to be shipped to the Middle East. Cherbourg itself, with a population of 2,000, is an Aboriginal community that was forcibly created about one hundred years ago by the state, in an attempt to gather together disparate tribal groups of the "dying race" and educate their members to become servants to the Whites (Blake, 2001).

The town of Cherbourg features such local attractions as the Bora Ring Café, the 4 Us Mob Radio station, senior and youth centers, police station and jail. The potential site for a technology hub, where community members could learn and use technology currently being piloted in the school, is a semi-abandoned storefront currently covered with Aboriginal art and graffiti. Several small dogs roam about the dusty streets, seeming very much at home.

Arriving at Cherbourg State School, I find the principal speaking in the library, where he is congratulating students on recent successes in state competitions. Chris Sarra stands in front of a few dozen students seated on the floor. He is dressed in hiking boots, gray shorts, and a whitish-gray "Cherbourg Hornets" shirt with a small Aboriginal flag on the right front pocket. Along the shirt collar is the motto, "Strong and Smart." He is of medium height, powerfully-built, light brown skin, short black hair, and dark eyes alight with an inner fire as he speaks in cadences that would make a Baptist preacher proud:

Chris: We've got to keep moving forward. Are you proud to be black?

Students: YES! (the children respond so loudly that many have to plug their ears)

Chris: Are you proud to be part of the oldest civilization on this continent?

Students: YES!

Chris: Do you know where we are? We are at a place where black kids have not been before. What are we?

Students: STRONG AND SMART!

In November of 2003, with travel support from the U.S. Department of Education, I had the opportunity to visit two schools that serve Aboriginal children in the state of Queensland, Australia: Cherbourg State School in central Queensland, and Kuranda State School in the Far North. Prior to my visit I had learned somewhat of Australia's troubled history regarding Aboriginal education, a history that has included attempts to eradicate entire cultures and languages through forcible removal from traditional lands, removal of children from parents, and severe punishments for speaking native languages (Schmidt, 1993).

I had learned of the reforms of the Whitlam Labor government in the 1970s which encouraged the development of bilingual education programs in Aboriginal communities, and of the more recent federal decisions to halt support for such programs (Schmidt, 1993; Lo Bianco & Rhydwen, 2001). I was eager to see for myself schools where Aboriginal cultures were honored and where Aboriginal languages were part of the curriculum.

From Stolen Generation to Strong and Smart: Cherbourg State School

The story of Aboriginal children taken from their families, relocated to far-off schools, and forced to drop their culture and speak only English, is recounted poignantly in Doris Pilkington Garimara's Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (1994) and the award-winning movie based on her book. This story of children forcibly removed was repeated throughout Australia during the first half of the Twentieth Century, resulting in the creation of a stolen generation, bereft of their ties to traditional communities.

The history of the mission at Cherbourg has been told (Blake, 2001; Hegarty, 1999) and the recent success of Cherbourg State School has been documented by Mark Newman (2003). …