(That picture there, by the way, is the logo for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.)
It’s the custom, since I’ve had children, that at any event we attend, we’re reminded that the land we stand on is indigenous land. In the slightly patronising way of the coloniser, I’ve approved. Explained it to the kids. There’s even been a slight bowing of the head, as if I’m a respectful non-believer in a church.
The last time it happened was at my daughter’s school. And this time I got it.
My education was better than in generations past. I knew this land was inhabited before our arrival. And yet, ‘Aborigines,’ as we were taught to call them, were presented to us as creatures from the past, even as we read or studied their lives in our present. It’s taken an education more than three decades later, the one I provide to my ten year old son, to teach me and make me see.
Fifth grade means Australian history – it’s a subject that has to be done. Most of us sigh over it, knowing that it starts with Captain Cook, ends somewhere around the invention of the stump plough and bores us stupid in between.
In the bookshop, just before term began, I saw a glossy hardback. Australians All, it said along the spine. I had that book on the counter with my debit card out before you could say ‘I think this book just made my curriculum planning easier.’
Written by the well known Australian children’s author, Nadia Wheatley, this history begins with the Law of the Land.
In the beginning was the Law. And the Law held the balance in the land. Through the forming of rocks and the soil, through the making of mountains and the river, the Law held. Millennia came and went. The continent changed its shape. But the Law ruled.
(The Law encompasses a complex set of interactions between indigenous people and the environment, aimed at keeping social and natural environments in balance. )
Wheatley then takes the child-reader back 40 000 years, telling us the story of a family living at Lake Mungo. She weaves a lively narrative, through the end of the last Ice Age, across centuries and across the land, and everywhere she takes us, children are living, dreaming, playing.
By the time she turns her attention to the Industrial Revolution, in far away England, Wheatley has left our imagination peopled with others we can see in our mind’s eye. As a child grows up as if in Dickens, breathing fibre dust from the great cloth factories, we know that across the oceans lies a child like her, in an unlike world, one where the Law still holds life in balance. When the white devils arrive on their ghostly ships, we hold our breath. No longer are we remote from this story. This beach, on which the white men land, is the same beach that holds the footprints of the indigenous child, alive to us, beckoning. And because she is alive to us then, she is alive to us now. Her hopes, her thoughts, the family with which she lives, her community, the technology she uses, her way of life…part of us now.
Wheatley’s empathetic, accurate, informative but above all imaginative narration builds the bridge my ignorance could not.
The next time I hear the acknowledgment of country, I’m in a school hall. It’s matter of fact. There is no poetry. And yet, this time, I feel it in my body. What country means is gratitude. This stolen land is being gifted to me over and over again by those from whom it was stolen. Underneath the soles of my shoes, the floor, the foundations, the gravel and the sand is the land. If I could touch it now I would.
This land and its Law, it holds all of us. My feet, they stand on Gadigal land.
Australians All can be found at your local bookstore, or, failing that, on Amazon.
Another imaginative and narrative national history I highly recommend for those looking to study British history is by the incomparable Noel Streatfield, yes, she of Ballet Shoes fame. It’s called The Fearless Treasure, and although sadly OOP, can be found on AbeBooks.
What books have helped you or your children feel truly connected to the time or place being studied ?
Melissa is a part-time uni student and mother of three, living in Sydney, Australia. She has home educated various combinations of her children since 2003.