The lost chords of Indigenous learning

Conservative pollster Graham Young recently  linked the differing  terminology used to describe ‘boat people’ with the aspirations of different political party voters.  Young says his polls show  that those who use the words ‘asylum seekers’ are likely to be Greens or ALP supporters, while those who favour  ‘boat people’ are more likely to vote Liberal.   Those who use  ‘refugees'” are  ‘in the middle’ — Katter’s Australia Party, Christian Democrats and Family First.

However, Young  didn’t  mention that as Australia is an island, the majority of us are probably  boat people of one kind or another, or the descendants of boat people.  I am a boat person, or rather a two-boat person, as I came on the P&O liner Corfu, from London to Bombay (Mumbai), and another P&O ship, the Strathaird, from Bombay to Melbourne.  I could not be classified as an asylum seeker or refugee, but rather a ‘romantic’ immigrant.  I met my (future) Australian husband on a third P&O boat, The Stratheden,  bound for London. We were married in London and came to live in Australia.

While I was not exiled to Christmas Island or Nauru, we did have to contend with the White Australia Policy, as I am Indian by birth and skin colour, so it was not all romance and roses. But having lived and worked on all five continents, it has been my experience that Australia is the least racist of them all.

I lived  in Australia on five-year residential permits  until Prime Minister Harold Holt abandoned the White Australia Policy and I was granted citizenship.  I have been a Coalition voter since ALP leader Arthur Calwell’s famous remark that “two Wongs don’t make a white.”  I  wonder what he would have made of Senator Penny Wong?

I am particularly intrigued by the arrival(s) of our Indigenous population, which probably came to Australia in different waves (no pun intended).  Did the first migrations come when Australia was linked to Asia by a land bridge, or did they only have to navigate small strips of sea? In the latter case perhaps they could be described as ‘canoe people’.

My  fascination is with the land-bridge theory, when Australia was linked to Asia in what has been named  Gondwanaland.  In India there are many racial groups, but the  two most obvious differences are between  the Aryans of the north  and the Dravidians of the south.  Of course there has been an enormous amount of intermarriage and no clear distinctions can be drawn now, nevertheless there are marked differences  in appearance between, for example,  Aryans in Kashmir and Dravidians in Chennai (formerly Madras).

It is the similarity between Dravidians in south India and Australia’s Indigenous population that intrigues me — the facial features and the echoing  similarities in the linguistic sounds of the spoken words of both groups.  Did the Dravidians from India make the perilous journey to Australia by boat, did they just walk across a land bridge or did they island-hop in canoes?

Graham Young also links the terminology used for “boat people” to concern for the environment and  concerns about climate change.  From all accounts, when Australia’s first inhabitants  came to this island, it was inhabited by megafauna, and some scientists speculate these  huge animals were decimated by the First Australians’ hunting, who  were probably not super-environmentalists but had a struggle to survive in this harsh and brown land. Other scientists absolve our Indigenous population and claim the mega fauna died off because of climate change. But was this climate change caused by the selective bushfires lit by Australian Aborigines? Did their bushfires get out of control, or did selective burning  reduce fuel loads and protect their environment from the natural bushfires caused by lightning strikes?

Racial identity, often linked to political identity, fascinates me as my children are the result of an inter-racial marriage.  In the  facial features of full-blood Indigenous people I often see haunting similarities to the features of south Indians, but it is political identity which is equally intriguing.  In the US, it was the Republican Party which liberated the slave population, yet  96% of  African-Americans vote for the Democrats, whose party represented the most ardent opponents of efforts to end segregation. Why does Barack Obama, who is half white, identify totally with his black ancestry? Why does he seem to have almost contempt for his white heritage? Sending back  from the White House the bust of Winston Churchill, a gift to the American people from Britain, was a gratuitous insult. The US was, after all, founded by white colonists from what became the United Kingdom.

The same  question could be asked of  those  Australian indigenes who may be only a quarter or less “Aboriginal”.  Why do they seem to respect only their Aboriginality and its legends and  culture while apparently overlooking the heritage of  their “other half” or “other three-quarters” —  the heritage, in other words, of Shakespeare, Milton, Bach and Beethoven, the art of Constable and Reubens?  I am guessing that they overwhelmingly vote for the ALP.

In my opinion Aboriginal disadvantage in education could be at least partially overcome if Indigenous infants were exposed  pre-school to audio tapes of the poetry of  Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, and the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.  Many white children hear these, either by the intent of their parents, or by accident in the conversation of adults and background music.  Classical music, incidentally, is linked to mathematics.

Most Western mothers read nursery rhymes and the modern equivalent of Grimms’ fairy tales to their infants.  As soon as my babies could sit up I read them nursery rhymes illustrated with pictures.  Our babies in utero also hear educated conversation, including  some dealing with abstract concepts. They also hear music on the car radio or stereo at home.  Aboriginal babies, especially in remote communities,  are mostly deprived of all this.

Scientists estimate that much of a child’s brain development takes place in the first three years of life. An infant in a Christian evangelical home even if he/she doesn’t understand a word, hears the beautiful language of the King James Bible read each day.  Among educated families, younger siblings  hear older ones practising  the piano or other musical instruments. Their mental education is progressing all the time, even without their parents giving it any particular focus.  Aboriginal babies in remote and dusfunctional communities don’t have these advantages.

Recently the NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli  deplored the dilapidated state of remote-area school buildings. In my view even more important is that Indigenous children arrive at school already disadvantaged in terms of language.  It would be a great benefit if  Aboriginal mothers, soon after their babies are born, or even when first pregnant,  were given tape recorders and tapes  of the great English poets, classic nursery rhymes and the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.  Music teacher Kate Eury was quoted recently in The Australian,  advocating the benefits of music education for children, even if they don’t become great performers.  In my opinion,  listening to classical music would benefit Indigenous children by developing brain connections in a people deprived for millenia of the benefits of a written language.

Indigenous infants need deep immersion in the classics of the West if they are to thrive and compete in what is, whether they like it or not, a Western and fundmentally English culture.

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