CAOIMHE DEERING, 18
Caoimhe Deering, from Sydney, Australia, has always been an avid reader and writer, using her writing as a way to have her voice heard. She feels very passionately about multiple topics but one in particular is the treatment of Indigenous Peoples and the education of Indigenous culture and history. Deering learned extensively about Aboriginal culture and history after attending a predominantly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary school in Sydney. In 2015, Deering embarked on a leadership and reconciliation trip to Central Australia where they worked with Aboriginal communities and learned of the disparity between their lifestyles.
Deering continues her work by volunteering at the Sydney Story Factory, a non for-profit tutoring organization. Story Factory’s center in Redfern works with many Aboriginal students from disadvantaged backgrounds, simultaneously nurturing their interests and education. Deering has played a small part in their ongoing mission and was even nominated by the organization for the 2018 New South Wales Youth Volunteer of the Year Award. She is one of their official youth ambassadors and her activist efforts have broadened to the environment. Deering serves on the Environment Executive Council at her high school and leads initiatives such as Earth Hour and Clean Up Australia Day. She feels that young people weighing in is essential in today’s society as it is these younger generations that are the future leaders of our world.
Deering plans to travel and broaden her understanding of the world and point of view. She hopes this will better prepare her for studying journalism at a university. She hopes to use her knowledge, passion and speaking skills to make a difference in the world.
Planting the Seeds for a Better Nation
by Caoimhe Deering
“We acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Gadigal people. We pay our respects to the elders, both past present and future. For they hold the memories, the traditions, the cultures and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. We must always remember that under this concrete and stone, this is and always has been traditional Aboriginal land.”
– The Acknowledgement of Country.
We were made to recite this every day at our routine assemblies in our small school on the top of the hill. With a cohort of majority Aboriginal descent, it was not only fair but imperative that we were ingrained with the respect that Australia’s Indigenous people deserve. The acknowledgement of country is a small speech given by people who are holding an assembly, conference or gathering in Australia. It allows them the opportunity to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which the meeting is taking place. At the time I didn’t know what the words meant and quite frankly I didn’t care. Like every other year 3 student, I was unbeknownst to the injustices suffered by those around me. Little did I know, in my later years, I would come to treasure the wealth of knowledge presented to me, by that little school on the top of the hill. For so much of my life, this was the long paragraph I knew by heart that meant “something”. I just didn’t know what. Now as I hear it more and more, I feel it has become shorter, more routine and even more meaningless.
My transition to high school was as much of a shock to the system as for any other 13-year-old. I was excited, nervous, eager and terrified all at the same time. Aside from the typical changes one experiences when joining the ranks of higher education, one particularly important change stood out. There was no long paragraph, memorised by heart, that was recited at our weekly assemblies. Instead we had a one line, “I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this meeting takes place,” said not by the whole cohort but by the principal upon her address. There were no Aboriginal culture classes and we didn’t learn about bush foods or tribes or language. There simply was no teaching of Aboriginal culture. At the time it wasn’t a big deal to little year 7 me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I really noticed just how much of an injustice this truly was.
In Year 9 history class, we had just finished weeks of detailing Australian federation. We learned about how Australia became a whole nation in 1901, how the different policies affected migration, we even learned about the curious disappearance of infamous Prime Minister Harold Holt. What was absent, however, as I’m sure you can guess, was the history pertaining to the Aboriginal people. If you asked me to recite to you the key dates of federation in Australia, I would have no problem. Ask me to list the first 20 prime ministers, that too would be a simple task. Ask me about the history of Aboriginal Australia, however, now that would be difficult. Just as Captain Cook’s “conquering” of Australia had immense effects on the Aboriginal people, so too did Federation and the policies and social changes that came with it. So why, I thought to myself, was it that we had barely touched upon the effect of all of this on the Aboriginal people? I thought this was odd, but the thought disappeared as quickly as it came. I continued into year 10 history, where the Civil Rights movement in America took precedence over the one in my own country and yet again, we barely touched on the past and ongoing fight for civil rights in Australia. This was the defining moment for me. It became apparent that I had undergone four years of schooling, learned about everything other than Aboriginal history and had only realised it. Here I was in year 10 learning about the ‘white’ history of Australia, when the true history of Australia was so much more than that.
At the time I wondered, had I not acquired the knowledge from primary school, would this even be something I would question? Have my peers come to the same conclusion as I? Or am I simply the lucky one because I have been able to notice just how little we are learning about our nation’s first people? My primary school education certainly didn’t fail me, but is this the case for every Australian child? Or did my school just adjust to its demographic? Planting the seeds of appreciation and respect for the Aboriginal people at a young age is imperative. We are impressionable, more open-minded, and all the more ready to sit and listen to the dream-time stories. We are ready to hear these stories, yes, but we are not ready to hear the “real stuff”, real-life injustices, issues and problems suffered by the Aboriginal people.
With the knowledge I acquired over the years allows me to know this much: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait People are still fighting. Still fighting against the bad hand they were dealt in the very beginning. This disadvantage may have immediate social, economic and cultural determinants but it most certainly has a deeper underlying cause: trans-generational trauma. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia have higher rates of infant mortality and lower life expectancy. About 62% of Aboriginal students finished Year 12 or the equivalent compared to the 86% of non-indigenous, leading to lower employment rates. They have lower median incomes, higher incarceration rates and more deaths behind bars than any other group in Australia. It is apparent that the issues faced by the Indigenous community are broad and certainly not something to be overlooked. Yes, the Australian government, in an attempt to ratify these injustices, made a formal commitment to address Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. It was and is a great step in the right direction, however, it is simply not enough.
We need a scheme that allows for all Australians to grow up with the appropriate knowledge in order to combat the future. A scheme that allows all Australian students to be taught the factual history of their country, because to me and so many others, the importance of understanding a country’s true history, is just as important as understanding its ‘white’ one. It has been proven time and time again that education is the best weapon. It is crucial that Australian students are taught the Aboriginal history of Australia and not as a subtopic. This doesn’t just apply to the Indigenous people of Australia, it applies to all indigenous people, all marginalised people, all struggling people. If we educate younger generations and inspire them to want to make change, change is bound to happen.
I am so grateful to my primary school for teaching the things they did, nurturing me as an Australian student to go forth through life respecting and fighting for the Aboriginal people. Without the education I had a young age and the drive it instilled in me to learn more as I grew, I do not think I would be writing this as a second-generation migrant, hoping to make change for the Aboriginal people of Australia.