Australian Indigenous history students are facing a lack of understanding of Indigenous political movements, according to research published in the Nordic Journal of Educational History. The study, which compared Victorian school curriculum documents from the past 120 years to Indigenous political campaigns, found that Indigenous political movements were largely missing from the curriculum.
The inclusion of these movements was limited and did not accurately reflect the diversity and depth of Indigenous standpoints, methods, and objectives. The Victorian curriculum also failed to grapple with Indigenous sovereignty, with three key moments in Indigenous political history missing: the establishment of Coranderrk, an Aboriginal reserve established by the colony of Port Philip in 1863 on Wurundjeri land, and the re-evaluation of the concept of special privileges’. The research highlights the need for more comprehensive and inclusive education on Indigenous political movements.
The Wurundjeri community in Coranderrk, along with other Kulin nations, cultivated a coveted farm, causing the colonial government to shut it down and sell the land, leading to the 1881 Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry. This inquiry focused on Aboriginal peoples’ aspirations for land and the end of protection policies. Although unsuccessful, the campaign created a lasting public record of Aboriginal activism and testimony.
However, the Coranderrk campaign was not included in historical Victorian curriculum documents, which depicted Aboriginal people as a “dying race” and justified settler violence as a natural response to adverse conditions on the colonial frontier. The momentum of Aboriginal political movements grew in the post-war era, with the 1965 Freedom Ride and the fight to retain the sole remaining Aboriginal reserve at Lake Tyers in Victoria. The modern land rights movement was born when Vincent Lingiari, a Gurindji man, led a strike in 1966, known as the Wave Hill Walkoff, protesting poor working conditions for the Gurindji people.
The Gurindji people, who were strikers, remained illegal occupiers of their own country for seven years. The curriculum, which focused on British history and the growth of industry, did not reflect their growing aspirations for rights and land. Indigenous people were presented as relics of the past rather than political agents in their own right. On January 26, 1988, over 40,000 people marched in Sydney to protest the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet into Kamay.
The Northern and Central Land Councils presented the Barunga Statement to then-prime minister Bob Hawke, calling for a treaty between the Commonwealth and Indigenous nations and the recognition of sovereignty. However, recognizing prior Indigenous sovereignty proved a major stumbling block. A Senate Standing Committee later recommended focusing on education and attitudinal change first to investigate the feasibility of a treaty.
The Australian curriculum has been criticized for not adequately addressing the history of Indigenous political demands for change. The curriculum, which was shifted to include more Indigenous perspectives after the bicentenary protests, faced backlash known as the “history wars.” A new version of the curriculum, released in 2022, focuses on “truth-telling” within the broader history of Australia, potentially signalling a shift from past practices.
The new Year 10 course in the national curriculum suggests class discussion of historical events such as the Day of Mourning, the Pilbara strike, the Wave Hill walk-off, and the 1972 Tent Embassy. However, the curriculum does not directly grapple with Indigenous sovereignty as a concept. Organizations like the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition have called for schools to reflect on Indigenous sovereignty and teach the history of colonisation.