Its been a year since I’ve written anything here. I have no good explanation for that except maybe I thought my attention would be so taken up with trying to publish my book that I wouldn’t have time for my blog. As it happens I’ve had time for neither. I’m still working at the health clinic in Yirrkala which takes most of my energy.
I had a surprise this week, when an old friend from Aurukun showed up in the clinic. Vera, along with six other women, were visiting Yirrkala this week to learn about Bilingual schools. I got to spend an hour or so with them at a bush medicine demonstration and had a quick chat. Now, after reading up on both Yirrkala and Aurukun schools I wish I’d spent more time talking with them. Education in both these schools is a vast and interesting topic.
Yirrkala is in the East Arnhem land region of the Northern Territory, Aurukun is on the Western coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. I’ve spent almost equal time in both as a remote area nurse. I’ve learnt a lot about Indigenous health problems, learnt some things about local cultures and been privileged to be part of some people’s daily lives. But my understanding of both communities is very limited, my knowledge of the Yolgnu and Wik languages scant and my comprehension of the problems the local people deal with exists mostly in my own imagination and thoughts. I already knew this at some level, but after reading about Bilingual schools and looking at the websites and facebook pages of both schools, I’ve realised yet again how very little I know about both communities.
Dr Marika, from Yirrkala, in the 1998 Wentworth Lecture is quoted as saying, “The Methodist missionaries came to Yirrkala in 1935…they banned the use of our languages in the mission school.” Over 40 years ago Yirrkala adopted a bilingual program that used Yolgnu culture to teach children to become literate in their own language while learning English and Western culture. Yirrkala is one of nine bilingual schools left in the Northern Territory, once there were 30. Lack of resources is the reason given for the reduction. There is extensive research available to read about the benefits of bilingual education. In the 2007 Little Children Are Sacred report, on page 147 it says, ” Schools teaching and instructing in English alone…develop a failure syndrome for many children as they return home at the end of the day often unable to remember what was taught that day-which causes them to become depressed”. Which can lead to non-attendance and the social and personal problems that result. Banbapuy Whitehead, a Yolgnu teacher at the Yirrkala school, says in an article for The Conversation, an on-line newsletter, “If I know what my language is, I know who I am, then I can see the others clearly…without language I cannot tell you a story, I can’t think. I can’t cry.”
Aurukun State School was opened in 1974. Vera told me the government wouldn’t allow the Wik language to be taught or used for instruction. Obviously the problems faced in Indigenous communities are much more complex than whether language is used in schools or not. But it is undeniably important for the maintenance of culture. I’ve seen first hand the loss of culture in Aurukun and the strength of culture in Yirrkala. Almost 10 years ago a system of teaching called Direct Instruction, a patriotic US privately owned system, was introduced into Aurukun schools. “It was developed for English speaking children with cognitive dysfunctions that inhibit their capacity to process language. The children in Aurukun do not have learning disabilities, they are simply learning English as an additional language. They speak Wik as their first language. Many also speak additional dialects in their daily lives…D.I. is, quite simply, the wrong intervention for the children of Aurukun.” (Dr Misty Adoniou 8/7/16 The Conversation). The Aurukun State School was closed twice in 2014 due to violence against teachers and the recommendation has been to reduce the use of D.I, in the school.
I can only assume, from my friends visit to Yirrkala, that the Aurukun community is now looking towards it’s own solutions based on the recognition of the importance of the their Wik language. This can only be applauded. Its to be hoped that the Federal and State governments can see the long-term value of continuing or instituting Bilingual education in it’s schools.
I’m so glad to have met old friends this week and to see their engagement and interest, strength and involvement in their community. So much depends on the continuing work of strong women.