Fronting up to frontier history

It’s quiet. Only the sound of the wind rustling the leaves can be heard. A mosaic of green stretches out over the landscape. The red and cream of the kodjet’s (pincushion hakea) flower contrasts against the trees’ dark leaves, hanging in groups of globular shapes. Biara (banksia) stand strong with their rough barked trunks and candle-like flowers. It’s Djilba, the Noongar season to symbolise a transitional time of year. A time of birth, an explosion of flowers and baby birds.

It’s hard to believe this is the site of a massacre that saw more than 30 Indigenous men, women and children killed.

Students on-country at Kukenarup. Photo: Amelia Searson

Curtin University student Tessa Purdy and 20 other students are attending a cultural immersion camp. They are standing in a place hauntingly significant to Australia’s Aboriginal people. They are at the Kukenarup memorial, about 15 kilometres west of Ravensthorpe.

And not one student has visited anything like it in Australia before.

Walking through the site, the students are pensive as they read through quotes imprinted on silver metal signs.

“I remember dad whispering about the story of the massacre – almost like you were not allowed to talk about it. I remember hearing stories of people hiding in caves… I heard of Noongar people running and trying to hide and again of being shot as they ran.”

– The Nelly family.

For Purdy, it is also the first time she’s experienced an Aboriginal person teaching about Aboriginal history. Elder Roni Forrest is a Minang Ngadju woman from the south-west of Western Australia and was instrumental in the construction of the Kukenarup memorial. She shares the site’s story with the students. A settler named John Dunn attacked and raped a teenage Aboriginal girl in 1880. In response, the local Aboriginal group speared and killed him, which was the appropriate tribal punishment for such a crime. Dunn’s brothers and a group of armed settlers retaliated by rounding up and killing more than 30 Aboriginal men, women and children. This is now known as the Kukenarup massacre.

Student Tessa Purdy wearing traditional face paint during a ceremony. Photo: Amelia Searson.
Elder Roni Forrest wearing the traditional face paint made from ochre. Photo: Amelia Searson.

The massacres, the stolen children and the attempted eradication of culture are just some of the content taught by Aboriginal leaders, on-country, at a property called Nowanup in WA’s south-west.

The concept of a ‘bush university’ came to Noongar Elders Simon Forrest and Eugene Eades as they sat around a campfire one night. Mrs Forrest says her husband didn’t want to teach in a classroom anymore, while Eades introduced the idea of learning outdoors. Art is taught in a studio and science is taught in a laboratory, so it makes sense for Aboriginal studies to be taught on-country. Through this, the total immersion of Aboriginal culture in an outdoor learning environment grew, with Curtin University becoming involved too.

Some significant events for Indigenous people in Australia. Timeline: Amelia Searson.

Cultural immersion is also being introduced in schools. And is set to increase. In October 2020 the state government extended the Partnership, Acceptance, Learning and Sharing program, which aims to promote reconciliation in WA classrooms. PALS has been giving $1000 in grants since 2004, so schools can introduce more Indigenous culture and history to the classroom. This can include cooking lessons with traditional bush tucker or creating a book in the local Indigenous language.

Nowanup provides immersive experiences for people to learn deeply about Aboriginal culture. Video: Amelia Searson.

Ingrid Cumming is a fiery, passionate, intelligent Whadjuck Balardong woman from Noongar country. She’s recently become the Noongar cultural advisor at Curtin University. Cumming says she took her nine-year-old daughter to her first immersive camp in late September 2020. Her daughter, as a young Noongar girl, asked why she didn’t get to go on similar cultural camps at her school. Cumming says more on-country teaching needs to be introduced into schools, so the next generation can have a deeper understanding of Aboriginal perspectives.

Cumming says immersive cultural experiences can help get students out of their comfort zones. Photo: Amelia Searson.

“The earlier you can start planting that seed, you’ll find that as grown adults, we won’t have to do this [cultural] training and sit there, having an internal struggle, questioning why we didn’t already know these things, when we’ve lived here our whole lives,” Cumming says.

According to Cumming, the confronting side of Australia’s real history, such as the massacres of Aboriginal people and destruction of their culture, is important and should be taught in schools. But she says the incredible knowledge and strength that comes from Indigenous cultures across the globe should also be shared with young people.

“I would love to help facilitate and see that happen, where we bring young kids down, like we did with my daughter and watched the glow in her eyes, to see there’s a whole experience and knowledge waiting for her to learn, that she finally has access to.”

Kelli Schmitt is a Noongar woman from south-west Boojarah and works as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer at Bunbury Catholic College. Schmitt says her school has seen benefits from the PALS grant over a number of years, from the development of resources to helping create a cultural safe space. But, she says more opportunities to get students on country, immersed in what they’re learning are still needed. They can have significant benefits for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Schmitt has been instrumental in setting up more cultural programs at her school. Photo: Amelia Searson.

“I don’t think the White world has yet understood the deep-rooted connection that Aboriginal people have to their boodja (land) and the effect it has on them.

“Taking students and school staff to a place where that connection can be explained and shared would be a great benefit to all involved.”

Schmitt’s school is working to get more students immersed on-country by partnering with the not-for-profit organisation Madalah, which offers educations scholarships for Indigenous students. The aim is to have students going into different Aboriginal communities and learning about culture from Elders, rather than a textbook in a classroom. Throughout Schmitt’s experience in the education system, she’s noticed many non-Indigenous students don’t have much to do with Indigenous culture. Taking them onto the boodja, they can be exposed to everything the world’s oldest uninterrupted civilisation has to offer.

“They might have some preconceived notions about what Aboriginal people are or what they’re about,” she says.

“So, by taking them out onto boodja, land, they can learn more about themselves and this helps them ask questions they might be too embarrassed to ask in a classroom environment.”

Cumming agrees. She believes the PALS funding provides valuable cultural resources to schools, but says the key is to ensure the content being taught is correct, and that it encourages schools to work alongside Elders and the Aboriginal community.

Embedding Aboriginal knowledge into school curriculums is important, but there also needs to be better support for teachers to deeply learn about what they’re teaching. A students’ access to understanding about Aboriginal history and culture often depends on their teacher’s enthusiasm about the subject. The WA Department of Education declined to comment when asked whether it would consider taking teachers on culturally immersive camps or sessions to give them a better understanding of the content they’re teaching.

Cumming reflects on what happened to her daughter during National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Week, when her teachers didn’t have the adequate cultural understanding, even when they were trying to help. Every NAIDOC Week the school puts on damper and kangaroo sausages for the Aboriginal students to have. But Cumming’s daughter’s totem is a kangaroo, so she has a strong cultural connection with the animal. Part of that relationship means it’s unacceptable for her to “eat the flesh” of a kangaroo. So, she became upset when her teacher’s tried to offer the sausages to her. Cumming says the teacher’s didn’t understand why her daughter was so upset, and she had to explain the concept of totems to them.

Teachers study for years to get the qualifications to specialise in areas such as English and science. But Cumming says she’s still having to explain Aboriginal cultural practices to her daughter’s teachers. She argues there needs to be widespread understanding, which will lead to teachers becoming more proficient educators who can spread the knowledge to the next generation, on our path to reconciliation.

The closest Purdy came to learning about Aboriginal culture during her 12 years of schooling was in a classroom when her white teacher taught the students about colonisation and settlement in Australian history.

Purdy attended a Catholic high-school in Perth’s south and recalls her experiences attending church for school masses. She says whenever you enter a church, you’re compelled to be reverent and respectful. Even though she’d been to church hundreds of times, the compulsion to keep her mind still and reflective at the Kukenarup massacre site was so strong, she says even whispering felt intrusive.

“The intense silence that comes unexpectedly from a group of bustling young university students had the ability to have a million thoughts and emotions racing through my head and yet I couldn’t focus on one for more than a second, it was so overwhelming.

“There is just something completely different about being out in the open and confronting great loss and cruelty whilst taking in such peaceful and beautiful landscapes.”

Purdy recalls the group of students sitting around the burning embers of a campfire one evening, as they reflected on the day they’d had. None of them had been to an Aboriginal massacre or burial site before. Most of them had never been taught Aboriginal studies, by an Aboriginal person. But all of them agreed they would’ve loved and embraced the experience earlier, had it been offered to them at school.

It’s important to recognise the 60,000 years of Aboriginal culture that existed before settlers arrived. Across Australia, Aboriginal groups are still speaking their language and expressing their deep-rooted connections to country, despite Western efforts to dilute their culture. Cumming believes that if students can learn so much from the Elders at Nowanup, in just five days, the body of kaartdijin (knowledge) accumulated over thousands of years, would have benefits for everyone.

“The more we can engage with Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous learning, then the more access to fantastic ways of working and solutions in every sector.

“From land management, sustainability, human rights, engineering, science, the whole lot.

“No matter what industry you’re working in, you’re going to work with Indigenous people and you will have access to 60,000 years of Indigenous knowledge.”

Elder Simon Forrest reflects with the students next to a river. Photo: Amelia Searson.

Noongar Elder Roni Forrest describes herself as a child of reconciliation because she grew up with a Noongar mother and non-Indigenous father. She believes while White Australia still has to front up to its frontier history, there is hope for the next generation.

“Reconciliation [and] Aboriginal studies starts at that very young age, early learning years.

“We want to see a future where kids just think being respectful and understanding Aboriginal people is normal, because they’re not ignorant to anything anymore.”

Forrest, Cumming and Schmitt each believe once the kaartdijin is properly passed onto the youth, Australia will be closer to reconciliation.

Australia’s road to reconciliation is not dissimilar to the Noongar season of Djilba. They are transitional times and both experience warmth and coldness.

Cumming says 2020 has hosted the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter and issues surrounding mining giant Rio Tinto destroying the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge Aboriginal site.

“There’s a bit more of a spotlight now on, you know, if things like this are still happening in 2020, then collectively as a global community, we need to think about how we can address these things.”

She says there has been a lot of reactive work done, but leaders in all sectors need to work together in a more proactive way. Corporate and wider Australia is on notice and more action needs to be taken to move forward, together.

“As Australians, we should all understand who we are and how we can work with each other.

“That starts with building really strong relationships and having really strong understandings of each other,” Cumming says.

As Djilba progresses and the days get warmer, the flower stalks of the Balgas emerge to prepare for Kambarang season.

“All we can do is we just plant that seed, give it a really strong foundation for the seed to grow and, and hope that we come back in years to come to see a beautiful Balga, beautiful grass tree growing and making its impact, like the students and any participants will definitely do being part of the Nowanup experience.”