Can an Aboriginal school break the vicious circle?

Aboriginal people in small towns in NSW are overwhelmed by hopelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, child crime. "You name it, we’ve got it." Is education a way out?

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By Michael Anderson

You name it, we've got it

Screams of pain and fear piercing the night. Children roaming dark streets afraid of home where sexual assault awaits. Parents taking money to let their children be abused.

A snapshot of Aboriginal life in several small towns in northwestern New South Wales overwhelmed by hopelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, child crime - you name it, we've got it.

Teenage girls deliberately getting pregnant to collect the government's $4,000 bonus, then neglecting the babies because they don't have the caring skills.

Many Aboriginal women on anti-depressants and getting weekly psychiatric counselling by telephone. I'm told they couldn't survive without it.

A pharmacist closing down and leaving after several break-ins. Teachers posted to the area burning out within a year. A youngster saying he aspires to be on the dole when he grows up.

Five ten and 11-year-old boys recently breaking into a long-abandoned store by kicking in gable and ceiling panels, nearly electrocuting themselves. One found holding on for dear life to a ceiling fan while his brother cried in fear for him.

Towns with bars on shop windows looking like prison compounds and many abandoned buildings rotting away.

"We'll be here a long time"

It pains me as an Aboriginal leader to write of these things. But they need to be said if we're to have any hope of turning things around.

And don't expect governments to help us try to do that. A study has found that only eight cents of every dollar spent on "Aboriginal affairs" has ever reached the people on the ground.

The bottom line of government policy still reflects the 1937 conference of federal and state governments that decided to breed the colour out of Aborigines. Minutes of that conference are in the national archives and can be read at

The crucial quote from those minutes is:

This Conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.

— 1937 Conference paper

The aim was—and I contend still is—to make us disappear, to keep a few of us as museum exhibits and tout our culture internationally for white gain.

Well, we're not disappearing, and as a wise old man told me years ago, "Son, be patient, we'll be here a long time after the white man's gone."

And he was right.

Bleak future for young Aboriginal children

An Indigenous child smiling.
Indigenous children and young people make up about 60% of the Aboriginal population, yet many have poor employment prospects. Photo: hagit,

Recent media reports had up to a fifth of the whites moving out of the Murray-Darling Basin. In many western towns more than half of the children in kindergartens are Aborigines.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently that whites are taking children out of public schools because of the dominance of Aboriginal children and the level of racism increasing.

We are having several times as many children as whites. Maybe that is scaring them?

But I worry about those children. At least half, and closer to 60% of the 420,000 of us are aged from 15 to 25. And most of these youngsters face bleak futures: poor schooling, poor employment prospects, poor health, dysfunctional families.

I fear that the pent-up anger and frustration of these young people will explode and when it does we will see carnage on a scale unprecedented in this country, with our people copping the worst of it.

Where are the young leaders?

We Elders have been too busy with the struggle to groom new leaders to succeed us. That leaves these restive youngsters practically leaderless, cut off from their Aboriginal roots while not fitting into white society, either—people without an identity, without a cultural home.

Many who managed against the odds to acquire strong work skills and sought jobs in Sydney or other cities just couldn't take the racism that hit them there and returned to hopeless rural lives.

Call a spade a spade: this is an apartheid country in all but name.

We need to bring up young people with purpose, passionately loyal to their communities, with a sense of belonging to their traditional country, with skills needed to assert themselves in our time while drawing strength from their heritage.

I don't see that kind of education happening for Aboriginal youngsters anywhere across Australia.

Government "buys" many of our brightest young people into the civil service even before they finish their studies and usually they are lost to us forever as they join the mainstream of mortgage slavery.

Who can blame them? Better that than doing it tough or unemployed in Goodooga, Moree, Brewarrina, Walgett or Dubbo.

Make Aborigines excited about education

The forced assimilation to the white system that followed the genocidal colonial invasion gives no regard to our culture, the oldest living one in the world. In the education of our children no attempt is made to integrate the old with the new.

The aftermath of the invasion is whitewashed. Our dispossession is the root cause of the Third World conditions we live under in one of the wealthiest countries.

Our children's school attendance rate is abysmal, their grades are far below average. The system sets young Aborigines up to stay life-long under-achievers.

We need to get young Aborigines excited about education again and break them out of their "what's the use" lethargy that has resulted from the failure of short-sighted governments to develop and promote the bush.

My vision: A school teaching both ways

I don't claim to have all the answers for Aborigines everywhere, but my vision is to set up a cross-cultural school for youngsters aged 12 to 18. It wouldn't be the kind of school any government would fund, you can be sure of that. We'd have to get private sponsors on board. So, let's have your ideas.

I am fortunate—or perhaps guided by the Old Ones?—to be farming 87,000 acres of my ancestors' country across the NSW/Qld border near Goodooga and Hebel.

It's an area rich in sacred sites and Dreaming stories. Many parts are still pristine natural.

I want this school on this land to have all mod cons and to produce broadly educated young people conversant with old and new ways, confident about the future, proudly Aboriginal and keen to lead. Ultimately I want the school to be a beacon and a pilot across Aboriginal Australia.

There are not many of us and good or bad news travels fast and far among us. What would work here, would work elsewhere.

I am the leader of the 3,000-strong Euahlayi tribe and elected spokesman for the 16 clans making up the Gumilaroi nation. Through my national political activities I am well connected and respected among Elders nationwide.

At my invitation they would be willing to come to teach languages and culture and to use their influence to recruit Aboriginal teachers. Many teachers have told me they would jump at the chance to work at such a school.

Child drawing a picture, pens in foreground.
Aboriginal languages, handicrafts, politics and traditional knowledge would be taught at the school. Photo: Bianca de Blok,

My vision of an school for young Aboriginal kids

Here's my vision of what goes on there:

  • Rise at dawn and go to the bank of the river running through this property to study tracks. What bird, what animal, what insect, what falling twig made this mark? Training the power of observation that works even in a city suburb--what is out of place in my surroundings?
  • A daily hour in the students' Aboriginal languages, taught by Elders. Elders across the nation are especially keen on this because our languages, and with them our cultural knowledge, are disappearing.
  • Obviously Western subjects like the three R's, English, natural sciences, computer skills, Aboriginal Australian history.
  • Woodwork, metalwork, bushcraft, farming skills.
  • Australian and international politics.

I want graduates equally capable at building a fence and standing up to bullying police, equally capable at arguing the toss with government officials and teaching lore, cooking a meal and minding kids, understanding what makes the white system tick and how Australia fits into the international scheme of things.

Our message needs to get out into the world. Although Australia has signed up to nearly all of them, it breaches with impunity just about every United Nations provision even vaguely related to human rights. We need the kind of international scrutiny and pressure put on Australia that ultimately overthrew apartheid in South Africa.

Ultimately the hope is to attract a TAFE to the same area to teach the rural technical and rural managerial skills needed for life in the bush.

Probably not the kind of curriculum to enthuse [Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd or [Minister for Indigenous Affairs] Jenny Macklin but as a private school it will hopefully qualify for the same kind of government funding as other private schools do in Australia.

To nip the usual suspicions in the bud: I have no pecuniary interest in this project. My farming income sustains my extended family and me and suffices to occasionally employ local people and to support local charitable, sporting and other community activities.

About the author

Michael Anderson

Michael Anderson is the last survivor of the four 1972 founders of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

He is a leader of the 3,000-strong Euahlayi tribe, one of the 16 that make up the big Gumilaroi nation whose country is in northwest New South Wales and southwest Queensland.

Contact details

Michael Anderson
Phone 02 6829 6355
Fax 02 6829 6375
PO Box 55, Goodooga, NSW 2831
[email protected]

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Can an Aboriginal school break the vicious circle?, <>, retrieved 14 June 2024

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