28 April 2014

Teaching Australia's True History to Young People

Many people are willing to admit they’re ‘bad with names’. Whilst I’m not too shabby in that regard, I have to confess, I am absolutely pathetic at remembering historical dates.
When was World War 2? No idea. What year did Bert Newton retire from Good Morning Australia? No idea (although I was so devastated I really should know). When was I born? OK that I do know, but probably because I’ve had plenty of practise writing it on a form. In fact, I only learnt my mum’s birth year a few years ago to be able to key it in to pay a phone bill. Point proven- my brain’s memory malfunctions as soon as I hear any four digit number directly after the words ‘in’ or ‘on’.
Anyway, I know there are plenty of you reading this nodding in agreement, that you too, are ‘bad at dates’. Which is why I’ve created a very brief (and I use the word  very because I’m probably missing some vital events that would outrage historians) timeline to lowlight some key dates in Australia’s history that have had devastating effects on the First Australians, the Indigenous people.
I’ve sourced the dates and information from the SBS documentary series ‘First Australians’. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to gain more insight into the mistreatment of the Indigenous people and learn about the key figures (both Indigenous & Non-Indigenous) who worked tirelessly to ensure the Indigenous race did not die out.

One thing I’ve come to recognize after researching information and developing the timeline is that most Non-Indigenous Australians, some-what unknowingly, prioritize stories and events that revolve around the white man, whether they are good or bad. I felt an immediate sense of guilt upon realising that although the ‘First Australians’ series introduced me to several courageous, intelligent Indigenous figures, I neglected to note down their name unless their actions had considerable effects on the historical outcomes of the white people. I’ve thought long and hard about why this is and have compiled a list of possible reasons; some of which I don’t necessarily believe to be true, but think are valuable to consider.

1.       Most historical Indigenous people go by one name only. In most cases, their names are difficult to spell and pronounce, as their letter combinations don’t reflect the English language. This may sound silly, but perhaps the unfamiliarity delayed my immediate reaction to write a name down before deciding whether or not it was purposeful for what I was doing.

2.       Australia has such a shameful history in regards to the treatment of the Indigenous people; it’s difficult not to focus on the role the white man played in the Indigenous peoples’ demise.  Most historical events involved the white man because the Indigenous people were never given the opportunity to speak or act on their own behalf.

3.       The Indigenous people share their experiences through song and verbal storytelling and therefore there are very little written historical records expressing their opinions and recollection of events. This forces us to draw our knowledge from the experiences recounted through the eyes of the European settlers.

4.       During my own schooling, the curriculum barely addressed the existence of the Indigenous people and therefore it’s subconsciously ingrained in me to stick to the ‘traditional’ retelling of Australia’s shiny history; starting with the daring Captain James Cook and ending by pointing out how lucky we are to be living in ‘developed’ Australia in such a functional, wealthy society all thanks to a stable, reputable government.

5.       People always assimilate best with their own culture, so being aware of the fact I am of European decent, I’m instinctively more interested in my own ‘peoples’ history.  

Whatever the reason may be, I feel like I’ve learned something from writing this post. It’s brought to my attention that educators like myself must push aside our own previous experiences and personal beliefs in order to mindfully teach the ‘true’ history of Australia.
 This term I am teaching an integrated studies unit called ‘Australia! Our Home’. I’ll be trying my best to provide my students with the most accurate representation of Australia’s history; the good and the bad. I’ll ensure through my planning that I not only speak the names of the Indigenous people who shaped our history, but together we will learn and celebrate their achievements and acts of bravery and resilience.

25 April 2014

What is Machado-Joseph Disease and How is it Caused?

‘Groote Eylandt Syndrome’. The first time I came across this term, I thought it was referring to the relaxed state of the people living here and their innate love for all things outdoors. However, luckily before I adopted this term as a way of describing how much I loved my new lifestyle, I learned that it’s actually the common name for a horrific neurodegenerative disorder called Machado-Joseph Disease (MJD).
 MJD is one disease you’ve probably never heard of and will never have to worry about personally. That’s because it’s a hereditary disorder mainly carried by Indigenous people living in the Northern parts of Australia.
MJD causes progressive deterioration of muscle control and coordination and can affect children as young as 10. The first symptoms of MJD can appear at any stage of life and once those symptoms are present, it can take anywhere between 5-10 years before the sufferer is no longer able bodied and requires full-time care. The initial symptoms of MJD are feeling unbalanced, vision problems and a loss in arm and leg strength. MJD is said to be in the same ‘family’ as Huntington’s disease.
Carriers of the MJD gene have a 50/50 chance of passing it on to their children. Sadly, these shocking odds are not the only devastating thing about the transmission of the gene. When it’s passed onto the next generation, the disease is typically expanded, causing the symptoms to appear 8-10 years earlier and of greater severity.
Although Australia has the highest known rate of MJD sufferers in the world, there are many theories as to where the disease originated. Initially it was believed that the Portuguese sailors passed the gene onto the Macassans in Indonesia, who in turn, passed it onto the Northern Indigenous tribes whom they traded with throughout the 16th and 17th century. Researchers have recently argued the validity of this theory and are trying to determine whether links can be drawn back to Asia.
Another theory floating around, more scandalous and less publicised, is that manganese (a black rock embedded deep in the earth) may have had a poisoning effect on those living and growing food crops in the soil directly above it. Groote Eylandt has one of the world’s largest known deposits of manganese.  BHP Billiton has been leasing the land from the Indigenous people since 1965 to mine it around the clock and export it on to Asia and a number of other countries. Manganese is considered so valuable due to its ability to strengthen steel used for heavy construction. It is also used in the production of batteries. 
So, how does manganese allegedly link to MJD? There have been reports of manganese poisoning, termed ‘Manganism’, affecting those working amid the material in the steel industry. Whilst the symptoms of Maganism are likened to that of Parkinson’s disease, one of its effects is damage of the striatum which is a part of the brain that coordinates movement. Is the sharing of this symptom between Manganism and MJD just a coincidence, or could it be that for decades the Indigenous people were unknowingly poisoning themselves? Whilst extensive research has apparently been carried out by BHP, some people are sceptical as to how in-depth the tests went. After all, if it were found out that manganese played a role in the development of such a horrific disease, the whole multi-billion dollar operation would be placed in jeopardy.
There are approximately 30 people on island currently suffering with MJD and 130 at risk. There is no known cure for MJD. I encourage you to visit the MJD Foundation website which is where I gained a great deal of my information from. Mjd.org.au
Here is a map showing the approximate number of people affected with MJD worldwhile.
Sourced from mjd.org.au
The information presented in this post does not represent my personal opinion regarding the underlying cause or origin of MJD. The information is purely presented to help educate others of its existence within the Groote Eylandt community.

19 April 2014

Adapting to Life on Groote Eylandt

As I pedalled my clunky 70s Repco bike up the hill towards the Dugong Beach Resort, a wallaby bounced along only metres beside me. We stopped suddenly, turned and faced one another with caution and questioned who was following who. The wallaby quickly decided the risk was too great to find out, and bounced off into the low, nearby shrubs.

There’s a great deal of wildlife on the island, most of which I’ve only ever seen in books. Because I’m forced to walk or cycle everywhere (although I’d usually choose to anyway) I’ve started to become more aware and appreciative of my surroundings.
I study the branches of the frangipani trees. My eyes track all sky activity, just in case something colourful or unusual glides overhead. I walk cautiously in long grass, eyes peeled for scales. I’ve been warned that the island is teaming with a variety of venomous and non-venomous snakes; I cannot decide whether I’m relieved or mildly disappointed that I’m yet to see either type.
I never had a genuine interest for wildlife when I lived in Melbourne. “Hey, look, a pelican” I’d say in a ‘been-there-done-that’ tone. I think it’s because the stimuli never leaves the city. It never sleeps, hibernates or requests some peace and quiet. It’s there for your viewing pleasure 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Time seems far more precious in Melbourne. “Never enough time in the day” so it seems. There are so many alluring outlets and events begging for your precious time; their lights shining, flashing brighter than their competition, promising more fun, more excitement, more of an ‘experience’. Something worth photographing and smothering social media with as it happens in real-time. Precious moments must be captured or else it’s practically a waste of your time. Parties, galleries, shops, bars, restaurants, laneways, beaches, libraries, cinemas, water, sun, day spas, health centres, looking good, feeling good, self-help, self-education. Want to learn about your inner chi? Or is it ‘chai’ like the tea? Better yet, combine the two activities to save your precious time.
 I may sound like I am mocking city folk, but of course that’d be silly because I’m one of them. My taste buds are already requesting holiday leave, arguing that they can’t handle floury tomatoes and frozen bread. I love all that the city has to offer. It’s kept me stimulated for 25 years. So much so, that Earth’s creatures have become second rate to glorious, amazing, exciting technology!
Without the glitz and glamour, the gourmet food and the 24-hour trading, I guess the act of studying plants and wildlife crawls up the entertainment scale by default.
Whilst I’m trying my hardest to capture some photographs of my new fury, shrieking, buzzing, bouncing, flapping, scuttling neighbours, unlike hormonal teenage girls, they are not as willing to pose for a happy snap.
Here are some scenery shots I took whilst touring the town yesterday. I hope they can retain the attention of your wandering mind long enough to appreciate the small details within them. How long are you willing to look at a photograph without thinking ‘been-there-done-that’?

18 April 2014

Missionaries, Monetaries & Misfits Living on Groote Eylandt

“What do you do?” is the standard (almost obligatory) question you ask upon meeting someone in Melbourne, despite whether you’re actually interested in listening to the answer. Often, awkward questions follow such as “What is that exactly?” or “So, do you enjoy it?” until a socially acceptable amount of time has passed and you can move onto trying to determine how you may have mutual friends (discussing ol’ mate Jono will keep the convo rolling).

On Groote Eylandt however, no questions are asked without an amount of intrigue and curiosity by both short and long term residents. “So what brings you to the island?” is always drawn out of the question barrel early in the game. Closely followed by “Are you here alone?” 
According to my neighbour, there are only three distinct answers to the first question.

A)     Missionary. You want to change the world for greater good & will do anything to see social justice prevail.

B)      Monetary. You want to make more money & get free rent by doing the same job you do back home without the perks or wage.

C)      Misfit. To put it simply, you are a misfit within mainstream society.

Or alternatively, my neighbour says he resonates with D, all of the above.
As I have only been living on island for a mere 10 days, I can only comment from my experience so far. Many of the residents here are the most energetic, interesting, knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, up-for-a-chat-any-time people I’ve come across in my 25 years of life. Coming from icy Melbourne, it’s a novelty having complete strangers say a warm hello as you pass them in the street. Furthermore, having them offer you a hand or inviting you around for lunch is considered outrageous through the eyes of a can’t-spare-a-moment-to-sms Melbournian. So much knowledge about teaching, living remote, Indigenous culture, politics, life quality and equality has been imparted onto me, I feel like my thoughts are whirling inside my head like an overloaded washing machine; only ceasing after hours to let the operator rest.
In good time I plan to blog as much of this new information as I can without causing offense or sharing confidential information. Please be patient as I research into some aspects of what I’ve been told, as I want to ensure the information I provide is accurate and can be used to educate others. Some of the information I’ve found most interesting relates to the Indigenous peoples’ cultural beliefs and family structure along with how health and educational services are implemented to assist those living in the town of Alyangula and areas that Non-Indigenous people are prohibited to enter.
 Indigenous folk that live on Groote Eylandt have a unique living situation due to the mining agreement with BHP Billion. Non-Indigenous residents are of varying opinion as to whether the payout agreement is a help or hindrance towards giving the Indigenous people the greatest opportunity to address their ongoing struggles.
On a lighter note, I’ve had a wonderful four-day working week with my new grade 3 students. The class is comprised of a number of children with an Indigenous background, some of South African decent and many from various nooks within Australia. Together we equal a class of 19, all of which come with very diverse experiences and knowledge. Whilst majority of the students speak English, the Indigenous students speak Anindilyakwa as their first language.  Approximately 1200 Aboriginal people speak Anindilyakwa. They are part of the Warnindilyakwa clan. I will talk about the language more in a future post, but for now the purpose in telling you this is to highlight that I have some students with very limited knowledge of the English language, which of course brings great challenges to the classroom.
The four short days I’ve experienced so far  have in some ways seemed like the longest school days of my life (that includes being a student myself and boy, didn’t school days seem to go forever!). Having said that, I’ve already had some memorable moments with my Indigenous students as they’ve shown me a different sort of persistence and way of communicating that I’ve never experienced before. Whilst I am there to teach them, I have a feeling they are going to teach me a whole lot too.
Here I am, 10 days in and I feel as though I’ve stumbled across something rather special. I’d of thought it would take much longer to feel settled, but I already feel a bit like the enthusiastic, curly redhead ‘Annie’ when she arrives at Mr. Warbucks’ mansion and belts out “I know I’m gonna’ like it here!”
If you’re still wondering whether I’m here for A,B or C, perhaps like my neighbour, I don’t fit into any of those options. I’m going to ruin the playful alliteration and add ‘People’ to the list of possible answers. As I’ve mentioned to friends back home, so far I haven’t seen much outside the walls of my school. I’ve also said that I’m loving it so far. That must say a lot about the people who work and learn within those walls.

9 April 2014

My New Home: Alyangula on Groote Eylandt

The weather is warm and sticky and I couldn’t be happier. I departed cloudy Melbourne at 8:30am and arrived in Groote Eylandt nine hours later. Alyangula is confined to a small area west of the island and after driving around for five minutes, I’d travelled down most streets in both directions.

This is the view from the end of my street.

Many community buildings have been decorated with murals & artwork.

The plant life is luscious and green. The air has a familiar damp, tropical smell with the delightful addition of frangipani wafting in and out. There are no footpaths so I choose to risk walking on the road in trade of getting my shoes soaked through.

Miners’ four-wheel drives and utes casually roll up and down the streets. Coming from a metro city bursting with lights, sounds and a population well over four million, I find the streets here eerily quiet. As I cut through park land to get to my school, I can hear a whipping, crackling noises, like that of an angry power pole. I’ve seen a sort of dragonfly- looking insect, which at this stage I’m accrediting to these unusual, yet amazing electrifying sound effects. I’ve come across quite a few entertaining creatures so far, such as a comical lizard running on its hind legs like a mini T-Rex. I won’t even begin to tell you how many not-so-entertaining creatures reside in my kitchen.
In the morning I hear birds that sound like a high-pitched alarm system crossed with a squealing, distressed child. Along with this, in fear of having his title reneged as the most irritating bird, the rooster accompanies the screaming birds during the latter part of the early morning.

For the next few days I will be familiarising myself with my new school; Alyangula Area School. With 19 names to learn and colourful displays to be constructed, I won’t have time to do much else. Hopefully by my next post, I will have captured a photo of my new friend, the comical lizard.

Leaving Melbourne to Teach on a Remote Island

These photos were taken during my last weekend as a Melbourne resident. Friends gathered to say goodbye and wish us well on our adventure ahead. Whilst we all said our goodbyes, it was, and still is hard to imagine not seeing them face-to-face for the remainder of the year. Whilst I am sad to say goodbye to old friends (for now), I look forward to meeting new ones. Hopefully they will be at least one third as hilarious, extravagant, creative and kind-hearted as those who came to share food, stories and laughs one last time.

Adrian & I enjoying our friends' company.

I wouldn’t expect anything less from these creative, spontaneous women- Tam & Liz.
Catch ya laterz Melbourne.  xoxox

1 April 2014

Aboriginal Artefacts Teaching Resource For Primary Students

The moving van is well and truly on its way to Groote Eylandt . Can you find and name the Indigenous artifacts packed amongst our belongings? Hint: there are 12 objects to find!

WARNING: The answer sheet is just below the activity sheet.

Could you find all 12?

Check your answers below and find out the significance of each artifact to Indigenous culture.

1. Turtle Shell - Turtles are a traditional food source for Indigenous people. The meat is cooked over hot coals and other parts of the turtle are turned into combs, spoons and fishing hooks. Turtles are usually hunted with a spear from a canoe or small boat. The turtle egg is also eaten and is said to be very nutritious.

2. Boomerang - A carved wooden object mainly used as a weapon for hunting. The boomerang has a curved design so that when thrown correctly, will return itself to the thrower. When used in this way, it is usually for recreational purposes (for fun & games). It can also be used as clapsticks to create musical rhymes. 

3. Shield - Carved for use in ceremonies, dances and defensive combat. Large broad shields were used to protect the holder from spears and other missiles during battle. Shields can be left natural or be painted with clan designs.

4. Spear - Hunting spears are usually made from vine. The vine is heated over the fire to dry out its moisture and allow for shaping. A hard, jagged object is then attached to one end to create a sharp weapon. A carved stone or animal sinew is often used for the tip. The spear is usually around 1.7 metres long.

5. Traditional Dot Painting - Indigenous artists use dots and lines to tell 'dreaming' stories and convey messages to one another. Many traditional dot paintings are created on flattened, dry tree bark or used to decorate wooden instruments and tools.

6. Ochre Paint - Indigenous artists and those attending ceremonies traditionally use Ochre paint to create art or paint their bodies for dances and celebrations. Ochre paint is a mixture of ground-up rock and some form of liquid (water, egg, saliva or animal fat). Berries and plants are then added to change the colour. This is why the paintings have lots of earthy tones such as red, yellow, brown and black.

7. Possum Skin Drum - Dried possum skins were stretched over a hollow log to create a drum for ceremonial use. They were traditionally made by women of clans in Victoria.

8. Didgeridoo - The didgeridoo is a musical instrument made from the stump of a hollow tree. It is cut and shaped using an axe and knife. Bees' wax is melted to one end to create a soft mouth piece. The player blows into the hole whilst using circular breathing (a difficult technique involving constantly blowing outwards) to keep producing sound.

9. Woomera - A woomera can be used to launch a spear. The spear is placed on the hook-like end whilst the thrower grips the other. It helps launch the spear with extra force and gain greater momentum, causing the spear to go much further and faster. This increases the throwers rate of accuracy and success towards hitting the target. The woomera also functions as a cutting and sharpening tool when a sharp rock is attached to the end.

10. Clapsticks - Solid wooden sticks used to create a beat for song and dance.

11. Coiled Bowl - Women make coiled bowls and baskets out of dried reeds and grasses. They use tree roots to colour the grasses, allowing them to create various designs and patterns. The coils are weaved together so tightly, the products are strong and hard-wearing. Woven products are still produced and sold in various Indigenous communities throughout Australia.

12. Possum Skin - Possum skins were traditionally used to make cloaks in the South-eastern part of Australia (due to the cooler climate). The fur of the possum would provide warmth, whilst the outer skin would act like a water-proof jacket. The cloaks were used during healing ceremonies and often Indigenous people were buried with them; which is why there are very few cloaks remaining today. An original cloak can be viewed in Museum Victoria's permanent collection.

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