On Country Learning 10th Anniversary
Former program participant Rachael Bongiorno accompanied this year’s cohort of students to Yorta Yorta country for the 10th anniversary experience of the intensive Social and Political Science subject On Country Learning.
On Country Learning is a journey into the Barmah-Millewa Forest and wetlands, the largest river red gum forest in Australia – with stories of Yorta Yorta occupation dating back 60,000 years. These students go ‘on country’ for a week-long community-based Indigenous studies course, set in the lands of the Yorta Yorta people of northern Victoria, around 30 minutes from Echuca.
The course is no ordinary field trip and has left a major impact on students over the past 10 years. Many former students continue to involve themselves in the Yorta Yorta community and support their campaigns.
For most of the students, On Country Learning is their first experience of visiting a local Indigenous community.
“I was hoping to experience what the Indigenous perspective is, rather than just being told what the Indigenous perspective is,” says third year arts student Olivia Rog. “You can’t learn that from a textbook or in a classroom.”
This is pretty much the experience course creator and director Dr Wayne Atkinson hopes to provide for his students who are taught in a method, which draws strongly from the oral tradition of Indigenous communities.
“This way of teaching is an adaptation of old and new ways of learning about the antiquity of Aboriginal heritage,” Dr Atkinson explains.
Lou Bennett, a Yorta Yorta woman who tutors in the program, stresses the importance of learning on country.
“Being on country, you feel the rhythm… Gulpa Ngawal is deep listening, you’re not just listening with your ears, but you’re listening with all of your senses. And you’re absorbing everything.”
The teaching team, all of whom are proud Yorta Yorta people, shared their stories, knowledge and experiences using a storyline approach.
“When you look at the landscape, and all of its significant features, you see Australia is full of stories that stretch back over thousands of years,” says Dr Atkinson.
“So it’s a question then of tapping into those storylines within your own tribal areas, and bringing the stories of the land, water and connections of your people alive, through the knowledge that has been passed on by our ancestors.”
The storyline approach weaves traditional oral Indigenous knowledge with the academic disciplines of politics, history, legal studies and archaeology.
The result is a deeper understanding of Yorta Yorta history; including the devastating impact of colonisation and the Yorta Yorta politico-legal struggle for their inherent rights to land, heritage, water and self-determination.
Picking up the story-lines each day, the teachers conveyed the traditional perspective, the post-colonial experience and the present day reality of Indigenous people in regional Australia. This understanding helped break down some of the stereotypical attitudes students had regarding Indigenous communities.
“When I got back my housemates were asking me all these questions”, says one student, “like, did you eat bush tucker? They asked about their culture but they also mentioned a couple of negative stereotypes, and I said, ‘No, it wasn’t like that at all’.”
The course involves understanding the land – visiting cultural sites and listening to the stories detailing the traditional Yorta Yorta way of life.
“I was really amazed to see the middens and the mounds,” says Thisanka Siripala, a final year arts student. “It was a sign of how affluent these people were before European contact. You saw evidence of how well they were doing. They had a greater life expectancy than Europeans at that time.”
Through their connection to the local community, students were able to see the legacy of the Yorta Yorta people’s past, as well as admire their strength, resilience and commitment to their cultural heritage.
A community visit included Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative, one of the many local initiatives where students witnessed self-determination in action. Its CEO, Felicia Dean, said the community continues to stay strong by respecting its shared heritage.
“We’ve evolved but we haven’t lost many of our traditional values, traditional ways, customs, laws and language,” she says. “So whilst yes, we live in a contemporary society, as Aboriginal people we still have the fundamental roots of our culture intact.”
For Alan Roberts, an On Country student who is himself Yorta Yorta, the course was an eye-opener and a source of pride.
“It makes me feel proud to see the resilience of my people, for our history to still be evident today, to see physical remains as well as knowledge being passed on in the traditional way.”
On Country Learning 10th Anniversary, The Voice, a supplement in the Age Newspaper, March 2013,