Champagnat students celebrate NAIDOC Week

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Champagnat Catholic College Pagewood students highlighted their connection to their Indigenous heritage with a series of dances and interview with an Aboriginal elder during the school’s NAIDOC Week celebrations.

About 10 per cent of students at the school have an Indigenous background, with the 16 students from the school’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance group identifying with the Woopaburra, Yuin, Kamilaroi, Anywyn, Bunjalung, Wiradjuri and other nations.

Their performance was the second in two days to mark NAIDOC Week, which aims to highlight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ strong spiritual and cultural connection to land and sea. It followed a similar performance at Marist College North Shore on June 24.

Year 9 student Bailey Collins has Kukuyalanji and Woopaburra heritage.  He said the current group had been performing together for a year, while some of the older students had performed dances such as the Sasa for longer.

“The gum leaves are specific to the Shaka Leg dance,” he said. “The Sasa is a Torres Strait Islander dance. Kids usually learn it when they’re young.”

Waradjuri elder Aunty Elsie Heiss spoke about being one of six surviving children on a mission before moving to the NSW Riverina town of Griffith and attending a ‘white’ school.  She told how she connected to her culture while spending the winter months camping along the Murrumbidgee during the years her father worked in Griffith. She was interviewed at the assembly by her grandson Matthew Wilson, a Champagnat student.

The first thing is to respect culture, everyone’s culture, and to not judge anybody on what they look like or by the colour of their skin.

– Aunty Elsie Heiss

She said she did not feel welcome at the Griffith school because of the colour ban enforced until 1948 and the attitude it had fostered.

“I said to my dad ‘I don’t understand it, why people don’t like us’ and he said ‘Turn the other cheek like Jesus did, that’s all that you can do,” Aunty Elsie said.

“It was a struggle and I want to put to the students of this school that when you can walk into school without being ridiculed or feeling nervous or scared you are fortunate, because education is our way forward as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.  I’ve drummed that into my children their whole lives – ‘Get an education’.

Aunty Elsie also spoke of how she befriended Father Frank Fletcher at a land rights march in La Perouse in 1988 and later helped form the reconciliation church in the suburb. She was in Canberra in 2008 with her mother, who was part of the stolen generation, when the national apology was delivered.

“It was a great day,” she said.

Aunty Elsie said she still faced racism but that all relationships could be improved with open minds.

“Before I was too black to be white and now I get told I am too white to be black,” she said.

“It just so incredible we’re still trying to educate people that we come in all colours, shapes and sizes. The first thing is to respect culture, everyone’s culture, and to not judge anybody on what they look like or by the colour of their skin.”

The assembly was followed by a barbecue lunch including Kangaroo burgers to raise funds for the school’s immersion program. Year 11 students visit Nyangatjatjara College in Yulara, Central Australia and a school in Bouganville, Papua New Guinea in October each year to experience a different way of life.

College Counsellor Irit Ben-Nissan coordinates the immersion and said it was an opportunity for self-growth for many students.

“They live and breathe the lives of the students there,” she said.

“In Yulara the boys go for a week and join the community. The elders spend time with them and they go pick up the kid to come to school.

“A lot of boys say it’s very confronting because it is Australia and they see what they would describe as developing country issues in our own backyard – disempowerment and issues around access to what you and I would take for granted. They see kids struggling to get to school even though education is very much revered. A lot of them live in a very closed community and a dry community and they learn the reasons around that so it’s quite confrontational on that level.

Ms Ben-Nissan said the whole school was actively involved in hosting reciprocal visits and raising funds for any materials the exchange school communities might need.

“There’s a real solidarity for the initiative within the College. The boys come back, I think, with a more crystallised view of their lives and an appreciation, and they address their education goals with far more astuteness and active commitment,” she said.