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From the Centre to the City: Aboriginal Education, Culture and Power.

Keefe observed education involving Aboriginal people in two contexts. The first was at a Commonwealth sponsored 'Cultural Awareness Camp' staged in order to educate certain urban students, judged to be disadvantaged in their 'Aboriginality'. The second was as a curriculum development worker at Walungurru school (Kintore, in the central Northern Territory) where most children are Pintupi. In a series of overlapping essays he reflects on the problems he discovered in implementing the government's contemporary wish to incorporate 'Aboriginality' in the curriculum, especially (but not exclusively) in schools servicing Aboriginal populations.

Much of what Keefe touches on has also recently been debated between Stephen Harris and Patrick McConvell in the pages of Australian Aboriginal Studies: what, in practice could make certain schools 'bicultural', not merely bilingual? His essays resonate also with recent discussions of 'Aboriginality' as political ideology -- in the work of Jeremy Beckett, Andrew Lattas, Barry Morris and Francesca Merlan.

Like most of these authors, Keefe is critical of essentialist constructions of 'Aboriginality' and suspicious of the colonial state's recent efforts to solicit the production and reproduction of anodyne and nostalgic versions of the indigenous perspective.

Unlike them, however, he is actively committed to a particular professional quest -- the encouragement of reform of the primary and secondary school curricula. No matter how suspicious he may be of state accommodations of 'Aboriginality' ('. . . how can we tell whether people are thinking for themselves, or thinking in line with the mental frameworks reproduced by the state?', he wonders), Keefe remains a policy-oriented intellectual, seeking to go beyond critical reflection to actual curriculum innovations.

Possibly the most cogent policy principle to emerge from what is, on the whole, a frankly worried discussion, is localism. That is, curricula should be adapted to meet the wishes and the 'Aboriginality' of the school's specific clientele; generalising definitions of 'Aboriginality' are to be avoided. The most likely impediment to localism is that it relies very much on the commitment and self confidence of each school's staff, rather than on a central, enlightened curriculum authority. He finds teachers to be 'both wary and unready', poised to retreat 'from the uncertain and the unknown into the lessons of the past'.

Whether teachers could take courage and knowledge from Keefe remains to be seen. His argument is both exemplary and admonitory.

On the exemplary side, he gives us an account of how he worked with Pintupi teachers and parents to elucidate their notions of what is necessary in education. With help from F. Myers' and K. and L. Hansen's published work on Pintupi language and culture, he gives extended glosses of six key concepts: yanangu (person, but with the connotation of emergent personhood); ngurra (camp, home, place, land, country); walytja (kin, countrymen, one's own, belonging to); tulku (songs, ceremonies, objects from the Dreaming); kulintjaku (to hear, to listen, to think); nintirrinytjaku (to understand, to become knowledgeable). Developing the practical implications of these core notions 'has not been without strain, tension and political effort', Keefe tells us, without telling us much. Strangely, neither his discussion nor his list of references mention Ralph Folds' bleak account of the Whitefella School (1987) on the Pitjantjatjara Lands; Folds has for some years been the Principal of the Walungurru School.

More admonitory are his remarks about 'Aboriginality' -- 'the key concept of Aboriginal culture in the city'. Keefe contrasts 'Aboriginality-as-persistence' (exemplified in Coombs, Snowdon and Brandl's primer on Aboriginality A Certain Heritage) with 'Aboriginality-as-resistance'. While both make up 'Aboriginality' as a complex but contradictory whole, the former is nostalgic and essentialist, concretised in objects and practices which illustrate textbooks and adorn museums, valorised by the state's folk-loric vision of Australia as a multi-ethnic society, and often adhered to by Aboriginal people themselves.

'Aboriginaiity-as-resistance' is dynamic and creative, owing no allegiance to anybody's idea of what 'Aboriginality' should be or has been; it consists of practices which resist and escape that folk-loric vision -- 'survival through unyielding opposition'. Unfortunately, as Keefe reminds us, one of the institutions it resists most fiercely is the school, a fact which casts a shadow over the meaning of 'survival'. Keefe cites Willis' Learning to Labour -- an ethnography of working class kids' perpetuation of their own educational failure through school resistance. Willis continues to haunt the champions of 'resistance'.

So Keefe is ultimately ambivalent about the incorporation of 'Aboriginality' in the curriculum, just as Aboriginal parents are themselves divided and ambivalent:

What some Aboriginal people are beginning to question is whether putting human energy and institutional resources into separate cultural maintenance, at the expense of access to the dominant culture, involves making a negative choice for the future of Aboriginal Australia.

It is no slur on this book to say that it valuably documents a certain liberal bafflement about how to affirm a colonised indigenous culture.

TIM ROWSE Menzies School of Health Research, Alice Springs
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Sydney
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rowse, Tim
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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