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Avoiding the trap of cultural tokenism

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NAIDOC week (originally scheduled for 5-12 July) may have been postponed for now, but celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is something early education services should be doing every day.

Finding ways to celebrate in culturally respectful ways can sometimes be a difficult space to navigate.  Educators may feel the pressure of ‘getting it wrong’ or of being accused of being ‘tokenistic’ in their efforts. This fear is genuine, and indeed, it is understandable. It is not, however, adequate justification to deliberately steer away from engaging altogether with Indigenous topics.

Deborah Hoger, a Dunghutti woman and early years indigenous educational resources specialist, shares how we can celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture in an authentic way.


By Deborah Hoger

In the past, it has not been uncommon to see Indigenous culture being put into the ‘too hard’ category when it comes to the classroom. Ultimately, it is the children who miss out when this happens. When students are denied an opportunity to learn about Indigenous culture, history and perspectives, they miss out on a unique opportunity to have their education enriched by 60,000 plus years of knowledge.

What is needed to address this fear and anxiety which sometimes surrounds Indigenous perspectives is support for and education of our educators. We need to equip educators with the knowledge and confidence to engage authentically with Indigenous culture in their classrooms and to communicate Indigenous content appropriately to their students.

“The importance of absolute genuine, Indigenous-led embedding of culture is vital for the future of our children and culture. Deadly champions and allies alike working together with the lessons of our Ancestors reaching out from the past, informing our shared future” says Dunghutti man and Aboriginal Education Mentor, Matthew Hammond, Gawura

Make a start by staying local

Given the fact that there are over 500 different First Nations around the continent, each with distinctive cultures, beliefs, languages, histories and protocols, the idea of bringing Indigenous Australia into the classroom can seem like a daunting task.

It need not be, however, if you look to incorporate Indigenous Australia into your classroom in terms of the inclusion of your local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture.

Taking this approach will minimise the opportunities for your inclusion to be ‘tokenistic’, and under the guidance of Indigenous people, be it a local Elders group, or Aboriginal community organisation or business, the chance of ‘getting it wrong’, is minimised.

Context is key – avoid ticking boxes

‘Cultural tokenism’ occurs when aspects of culture are acknowledged inadequately or simply because someone is trying to ‘tick a box’; the result is an activity which is devoid of any real meaning and worse, can actually contribute towards perpetuating stereotypes of a particular cultural group.

An example would be in placing some boomerangs on a table at the entrance to your classroom during Reconciliation Week as a sort of ‘display table’, but failing to engage your children with a discussion or conversation around a) Aboriginal people b) Aboriginal culture and history or c) the topic of Aboriginal tools. What then is the purpose of having the boomerangs in the room at all?

Without context, engagement and knowledge, the objects are meaningless and indeed, ‘tokenistic’.

For this particular example, we can provide our children with context through a range of ways, which could include:

  • Inviting local Aboriginal people into the classroom to share their own specific cultural knowledge around the boomerang or other tools, learning about the materials used in your local area in Aboriginal tool-making.
  • Reading stories or watching videos about tool-making, thus deepening knowledge of Aboriginal tools and their cultural connections.
Knowledge and context help us to attach valuable meaning to objects and activities.

Ensure you are adequately informed before you tackle topics with children

There are several dates throughout the school calendar which are of particular significance to Indigenous Australia, notably, Reconciliation Week, Sorry Day and NAIDOC Week. For various reasons, these periods mark important dates in our history, and also provide an opportunity to celebrate the contemporary achievements of our First Nations as Living Cultures.

The nature of the historical context of many of these dates means that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, these can also be culturally sensitive times of the year, bringing up a wide range of emotions. For an educator caring for young minds, the complexity of these times can present a challenge in terms of how to engage appropriately in these times of the year.

Knowledge is power, and for an educator to explore sensitive topics like Sorry Day with young children, they themselves must first have a solid understanding of the topic at hand, and in particular the historical, contemporary and also political nature of the topic. This means educating the educator so that they have the capacity to not only develop culturally appropriate content but also communicate this knowledge to their students in age-appropriate ways.

Sustain celebrations to foster an appreciation

Celebrating these special occasions becomes tokenistic if we set these specific days as the only times when we bring Indigenous Australia into our classroom. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are diverse, multi-layered, living and always changing. To acknowledge it only once or twice a year fails to attribute it the value it deserves.

“It’s important to incorporate wherever possible Aboriginal content in other topics, for example, when children learn about seasons, to also talk about Aboriginal seasons, or when learning about animals, mention that some come from Aboriginal names such as kookaburra (gugubarra) and wombat (wombad),” says Uncle Larry Brandy, Wiradjuri storyteller.

By sustaining the focus on Indigenous Australia throughout the year through activities and excursions, and new books and activities that engage across a range of diverse topics, we can help foster in our children a well-rounded knowledge of Australia’s First Peoples, and help them to develop a respect for diversity and an understanding and appreciation of cultural difference.

 

Author Bio: Deborah Hoger is a Dunghutti woman and owner and director of Riley Callie Resources, a business specialising in Indigenous educational resources. She is passionate about using early childhood as a platform to introduce children to the rich depth of knowledge and unique perspectives that Indigenous Australia has to offer.

 

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