Lester Rigney - Building Stronger Communities PDF Print E-mail

Yunggorendi First Nations Centre for Higher Education and Research
Flinders University, Adelaide, AUSTRALIA

COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, UNITED NATIONS
Sub-Commission on the Promotion & Protection of Human Rights
Working Group on Indigenous Populations
Session 19, 23 - 27 July 2001
Geneva, Switzerland

AGENDA ITEM 5
Review of Recent Developments Pertaining To the Promotion and Protection Of Human Rights And Fundamental Freedoms Of Indigenous Peoples
General Statements, Including On Land Issues, Education And Health
Presented: 25 July 2001
Speaker: Lester-Irabinna Rigney (Narungga Nation)
Director of Studies - Indigenous Studies

This is the full version of an article that appeared in Voice of the Land, volume 21.

Intervention Title: Building Stronger Communities: Indigenous Australian Rights In Education and Language

Lester Irabinna RigneyLester Irabinna Rigney

(Brief introduction in the Indigenous Australian language of KAURNA):

Ngankinnna meyunna! Na marni purrutye? Ngai narri Irabinna Kudnuitya Rigney.
Ngai Bukkiyana ungko worni. Ngai yaitya meu, Narungga/Kaurna/Ngarrindjeri birkounungko. Martuitya Kaurna meyunna Ngai wanggandi

Thank you Madame Chair

Today I bring you greetings from the Narungga, Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri peoples of Australia. As is our cultural custom I acknowledge all Indigenous brothers sisters here today and thank them for sharing their struggle. I also acknowledge the chair and organisers of this the19th session, of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. I also thank ATSIC for their financial sponsorship for me to attend this session.

Madame Chair, the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples form the basis of any development strategy or definition. Development means improving the quality of our lives. However, the concept of development in relation to colonised peoples cannot be meaningfully discussed outside the context of Education and Language. In other words, the ideals of Indigenous rights to development cannot be realised if the house of education that trains the future architects of Indigenous culture is in decay. Let us not be misled by the mischievous assumption that the right to development can occur in absence of quality Indigenous education. Therefore, to compliment the discussion on Indigenous rights to development I wish to speak on education and language rights.

I begin with education first. Schooling is one of the largest industries within member states. The Education Departments of member states are one of the largest units of the State. Millions of dollars are spent on education that is rivalled only by private enterprise and corporate business. Equally, education is a major cultural force with equal power to mass media and popular culture. Education in countries like Australia has local and global markets leading to the exporting of educational methods, curriculums and technology to other countries. Education is simply big business for member states.

We Indigenous peoples realise the role western education has played in our colonisation with its alignment to the policies and priorities of member states. However, we also realise that the twentieth century has seen a shift toward the integration of Indigenous education. More recently, Indigenous peoples have embraced non-Indigenous education as a tool for social and economic mobility, although with some reservation. Education is fundamental to prepare Indigenous peoples with the necessary skills not only to promote, protect and nurture Indigenous cultures but also the preparation of the next generation for the ever-changing modern society. Therefore, the right to Indigenous development can be realised both by education and through education. Schools are knowledge producing factories that can equip colonised peoples with tools to contribute to Indigenous development. Some examples are:

Back to Basics:  Reading, Writing, Arithmetic (three "R's") in Indigenous and non-Indigenous languages

Cultural education:  Promote, protect and maintain Indigenous cultures

Work education:  Experience/education for employment

Technology education:  Internet/Email

Sex Education:  Health/Environment/Aids/contraception

Driver Training:  Safety/eliminate drunk drivers/speed kills

Lifestyle morals:  Decent citizens and the role in society

Immunisation:  Preventable diseases

Economy:  School follows the trends and need of society to be competitive on local/global markets.

Such skills are important for Indigenous peoples engaging in development and assisting Indigenous peoples in decision-making affecting them. What we know from research and experience is that if member states education systems fail our peoples, Indigenous unemployment rates rise contributing to extreme poverty and reducing the potential for Indigenous development. The employment/population rates in Australia are substantially lower for Indigenous peoples at all ages than for the general population. Literacy and Numeracy skills of Indigenous Australian students are well below those of the non-Indigenous students in primary and secondary schools. Educational outcomes for Indigenous peoples are much worse in some regions of Australia than others, particularly in rural and remote areas in the interior of Australia. Indeed, many Indigenous peoples in remote communities continue to have no direct access to secondary school education.

Factors such as racism, poor health, crowded housing and extreme poverty contributes to poor educational outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Equally, discriminatory structures implemented by member states that are unjust and impede Indigenous peoples progress in education are also prevalent. To illustrate this point, I will use the recent cuts to Indigenous Bi-Lingual education in the Northern territory, Australia.

The Northern Territory's bilingual education programs, in which local Indigenous Australian languages and English were used side by side in a minority of Aboriginal primary schools in remote northern Australia, came into being in 1973 under the broader policy language of 'self-determination' for Indigenous Australians. Twenty-five years later, in December 1998, the Northern Territory Government dismantled these unique programs in a top-down decision, without consultation with the affected communities. Axing bilingual education programs in Aboriginal schools in the NT was replaced by ESL (English as a Second Language) which could be interpreted as the return to English only education. The programs' closure was effected on the recommendation of a Review Panel made up of four government appointees from outside of those communities, and against the stated and often-expressed wishes and cries of protest of the Indigenous community members. Since the official closure of the programs, some of the schools that were formerly bilingual have been trying to 'go it alone' in order to keep their bilingual education programs alive and operational.

Finally, Madame Chair I wish to briefly draw your attention to the state of endangered Indigenous languages in Australia, as Language rights are essential to Indigenous development. The world's Indigenous languages are in crisis. The way things are going, only a few hundred languages, amongst the world's 6,000 or so, look like surviving in the long term. The rate of extinction of languages and cultures far exceeds that of fauna and flora. And Australia has one of the worst records. Indeed, Indigenous activists argue that if our languages were like animals under threat of extinction there would be global outcry. The silence is deafening. It is no crime (as far as the law is concerned) to speak an Indigenous language in Australia in public. Sadly, this is not the case in other countries (eg. the Kurdish people in Turkey, whose language is banned outright). However, in some areas of Australia, there are racist attitudes that persist which make people ashamed to speak their language in public. It took in Australia until 1994 before an Australian Indigenous language was offered for accredited study at senior secondary school level. Prior to this, some 34 languages, including languages such as Estonian with very few students, had already been accredited. Similarly, another issue that needs urgent attention is in regard to the statistics held by governments. Neither the 1986 nor the 1991 census data collection, data on the numbers of speakers of specific Australian languages to accurately reflect the crisis at hand. What was recorded only was how many people spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. Therefore those Indigenous groups whose remaining language speakers total a number under five could not be identified. Moreover, such communities whose languages are under the threat of extinction could not be recognised statistically in government records under the current census system. At the same time, speakers of other small languages like Nauruan or Tetum were counted. In the 1996 census, some 48 specific Australian languages were counted (in SA only Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Kukatha, Adnyamanthanha and Arabana). No NSW, Victorian or Tasmanian languages were counted.

Australia's Indigenous languages remain outside the official language status of the country and therefore receive little financial resources compared with international economic languages of French, Japanese and German. Nor are they recognised as national languages. ATSIC's financial contributions to Indigenous Languages Centres to reclaim and maintain languages are well under resourced. More funds are urgently needed to begin to arrest the extinction of Indigenous Languages.

Other issues can be recognised in the following. As a result of no official language status recognition, government naming policies and practices in relation to newly formed parks and public spaces disregard and ignore Indigenous naming practices. Which continue to over-ridden Indigenous cultural values and naming of land and seascapes.

Therefore Madame Chair I conclude by suggesting that Indigenous Rights to development draw on the educational and Language Rights enshrined in UNESCO declarations.

When our children engage in the journey of education that does not do violence to their culture, it teaches them to dream of possibilities and not to be a prisoner of certainty. It teaches our children to be the best they can be. Education that welcomes Indigenous identities reinforces Indigenous cultural views of the world. Let me be clear. Education is a sacred activity and must be done with extreme care. There can be no development without human beings or the education of human beings. Bright futures are only possible from strong pasts. For being strong is what it means to be Indigenous.

Ngaito Yungadalya Yakkandalya (thank you)

 

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Dr Rob Amery and Dr Christine Nicholls for their assistance in this intervention.

Lester-Irabinna Rigney (Narungga Nation)
Director of Studies - Indigenous Studies, Yunggorendi First Nations Centre for Higher Education and Research
Flinders University
GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001, AUSTRALIA
Ph +61-8-8201 2951
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