Greater focus on our first people - Indigenous studies

Australian - 13th december 2000
Author: Jane Castles

THERE was a time, not so long ago, when Aborigines were barely mentioned in Australian history courses at most universities.

In his recent award-winning book Why Weren't We Told?, historian Henry Reynolds recalls that the textbook for an Australian history course he gave in the mid 1960s referred to Aborigines four times, but only in passing: ``They did not even earn an entry in the index.''

Much has changed, with indigenous studies a burgeoning field of research and learning at universities and TAFEs across the country.

Once ignored by scholars and students, Aboriginal history, culture, issues and perspectives are important areas of study at many educational institutions -- reflecting and contributing to the changing relationship between Australia's indigenous and non-indigenous people.

There also is a move to incorporate an aspect of indigenous studies into every university course.

At least 21 of Australia's 37 universities offer degrees or streams in indigenous or Aboriginal studies, and many have designated centres and schools devoted to the research, teaching and promotion of indigenous studies.

Although Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs enrolment statistics show that Aboriginal studies is a relatively small field of study (976 enrolments last year), the figures do not capture the many students who undertake specialised or related indigenous studies units as part of more general degrees, such as arts, economics, health or law.

For students wanting to specialise, degrees in indigenous or Aboriginal studies are offered at a growing number of universities, including the University of Newcastle, Southern Cross University, the University of Western Sydney, University of South Australia and Northern Territory University.

As interest in the area has grown, so has the range of disciplines incorporating indigenous perspectives into course programs, many of which are taught by Aboriginal academics.

Some, like the Australian National University, focus on indigenous studies under the label of Australian studies. Koori studies is another name to look for -- La Trobe University in Melbourne offers subjects such as Aboriginal sovereignty, lifestyles and religion under this heading.

Several, such as the University of Melbourne, whose courses are run by Marcia Langton , offer field trips -- in Melbourne's case, as guests of the Gumatj clan in Arnhem Land.

Law faculties at the University of Technology, Sydney, James Cook University, Southern Cross, Northern Territory and the University of NSW all offer specialised degree programs that focus on indigenous law and legal issues, while others, such as the University of Tasmania, offer course units in the area.

In the health and medical field, students can undertake a bachelor of indigenous health at Wollongong University, and Charles Sturt University offers degree and diploma courses in Aboriginal health and mental health.

The University of Adelaide runs the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, which has released a compilation CD to mark its 25th anniversary.

The University of South Australia is one of the leaders in indigenous studies, its antecedent institution, the South Australian College of Advanced Education, first teaching an Aboriginal course in 1969 -- before any other university in the country.

Mary Ann Bin-Sallik, dean of the College of Indigenous Education and Research at UniSA, said Aboriginal studies was fast becoming a core part of syllabus for most schools and faculties at the university.

``We were first to develop degrees in these areas ... and now it is well entrenched right across the university curriculum,'' Associate Professor Bin-Sallik said.

UniSA said it is the only institution to offer courses in Aboriginal affairs administration.

TAFEs in all states are part of the trend, with indigenous-focused courses offered at various levels in subjects ranging from community welfare to justice studies.

Although most students of Aboriginal studies are undergraduates, there is a growing population of postgraduate research students.

Interestingly, in 1994, more than half of indigenous studies students were Aborigines or Torres Straight Islanders (56 per cent), but by 1999, the ratio between indigenous and non-indigenous students has balanced out to almost 50-50.

There has been a 95 per cent increase in enrolments in indigenous studies during the past decade and the growth is set to continue. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee is considering a recommendation to make some indigenous study compulsory for all students undertaking degrees at Australian universities.

Martin Nakata, director of UniSA's Aboriginal Research Institute -- and also the first Torres Strait Islander to be awarded a PhD from an Australian university -- is an advocate of such a move.

Associate Professor Nakata said it was disappointing that so many students graduated without learning anything about Australia's indigenous people.

Mark Williams, director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unit at the University of Queensland, also supports the recommendation, arguing that knowledge of indigenous culture and world views is central to reconciliation.

A spokesman for the AVCC said its position was to ``encourage universities to introduce greater levels of indigenous studies throughout the sector''.