As the saying goes, ‘the more you know, the more there is to know… I think this is very applicable to my time on immersion.
Having been lucky enough to secure a place on a professional development immersion for educators to Cape York last year, I approached the experience with an open mind. I didn’t write notes or a diary, as I wanted to be literally ‘immersed’ in everything the days had to offer. So, looking back, it is the memories of people, places and conversations that have the strongest impact.
The impact of the ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies we experienced at various locations was profound. Standing near the base of Wujal Wujal Falls, walking slowly through the pungent smoke from the bloodwood leaves, hearing the tumbling water, it was hard not to feel connected to place, both humbled and accepted.
Place (or the land) is the people. I became more aware of this as we looked down on the meandering Bloomfield River wending its way to the coast and hearing the local people talk of their connections to this land. It supplies them with food, medicinal plants, ancestral stories and the lore for living.
The days that followed were full of experiences. It was like shedding one’s old skin bit by bit. The layers of my own understanding, culture, background, way of living, had to fall away in order to be ready to absorb the very basics of this ancient culture, to be receptive to the stories and knowledge that were being shared, to be open to connections.
The reconciliation journey is about understanding, sharing and compassion, but also action. We can all gain greater understanding by being immersed in the culture of Indigenous people. As we sat around the campfire, gazing into the glowing embers, many stories were shared. This wasn’t the tourist brochure stereotypical ‘dreamtime’ experience of the ‘outback’. This gave us insight into the difficulties of life in these communities for a marginalised minority; of health and diet issues, of work, but also of the positive actions happening to keep culture and language alive; and of the people who work tirelessly to improve the voice of small isolated communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
As the saying goes ‘the more you know, the more there is to know’. I think this is very applicable to my immersion experience. I have had but a glimpse into another culture. When I talk to others back home I realise I know so little, and what right do I have to talk knowledgeably about Indigenous culture? But sharing the experience is so important as it helps others to have greater appreciation, and then will come the compassion. So bringing my acquired knowledge, however small, back to colleagues and students, and by promoting an immersion trip through pictures, talks and conversations I can perhaps be a small changemaker towards reconciliation.
– Janet Driver, ex-faculty, Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne
Janet attended a professional learning immersion to Cape York in June 2019, and wrote this reflection to help Red Earth mark Reconciliation Week 2020.
Reconciliation Week was honestly a confusing time for me. I’ve always thought of myself as someone considerate and kind, but I was never sure what it really meant to me, or why it affected me.
What am I sorry for? I haven’t done anything wrong have I? Are we apologising on the behalf of people we didn’t even know?
These sorts of questions would come up again every year when we approached Reconciliation Week. Each year, I was told that I should be sorry, and I should understand the impact of everything that happened before me.
In year 11, my school decided for the first time to offer an immersion to Cape York, in Northern Queensland. I wasn’t really sold on the idea from the start, worried that we had essentially been sold a watered-down tour of remote communities. I applied with my friend for this trip. “We might as well, right?”
The first few days of our ‘indigenous tour’ fell short of what I imagined them to be. To be totally honest, I’m glad they did, because that’s all I thought they’d be. Often the charitable programs of school trips were to my mind nothing but an exercise in curating a good image of ourselves. It was at this point that I gave up on my expectation of a life-changing experience that I had been promised and I soon settled into the mindset that this trip, like any other, was just a paid experience to watch how people’s lives might be different to mine.
The fourth day of our trip we went fishing. I think in all my disappointment with the ‘commerciality’ of my trip I almost forgot that at the very least, I was on holidays. This was the day for me that I switched off – fishing was only something I did as a wide-eyed young kid with my grandpa on holidays – I immediately left my school environment that I had been so entrenched within. Fishing for me has always been an intriguing adventure. It seemed to only consist of my grandpa giving short, strange pieces of advice; “no, no, cast your rod on this side, you won’t catch anything over there.” I never question it, and he always knew best.
You can easily imagine then that I didn’t think twice when I heard the words: “no, no, boys, you won’t catch anything there, try that spot a bit further out.” I didn’t hesitate to cast out 10 metres further than we had been, because it was the same voice I’d heard one thousand times over. No, it wasn’t my grandfather’s voice, but the words of someone who knew better, because they had a world of experience behind them.
Yet this whole idea of learning through immersion didn’t click until we met CJ, one of the Traditional Owners from Buru Homeland. From that day onwards, I had been passively listening to everything, enjoying everyone’s company and their stories without any second thought. CJ showed me that above all else I was there to actively learn and live an experience, not just witness it.
When we first came to meet CJ, he showed us the immense respect of welcoming us to his Country. He spoke about what the Country meant to him, how it was part of his identity, and how it always would be. This Country, he then said, was ours too. If we were to walk on his ancestors’ land, then we would be protected so long as we respected the land too. It was our land. We didn’t own it, but we were sure that we belonged there, and we all knew that we owed it the same respect that CJ had given to us.
You see, CJ told us his story of living on his land, and how he came to be an Elder. We had no right to his land, nor did we have any history on it. None of us. And yet he welcomed us all the same, to the extent that he brought us to one of the sacred men’s places. We had absolutely no right to be there, but CJ brought us there all the same. That place, and the experience itself, was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced.
We were accepted from our position of what I would call immense privilege – and yet I felt immense privilege, more than anything, that I had been allowed an experience in this world that was so far from my own. How could they be the same thing? I think in some respects, I had learnt what was essentially unlearnable to me before. The value of a lifestyle that I had viewed as alien, completely different and of little relevance to my own.
I learnt in that trip of all the things I didn’t have, things that had never meant anything to me until then. Of what it would mean to be a First Nations person. To have survived the mass genocide throughout the country upon the arrival of the first fleet. To be a member of the longest standing culture in the world. To have knowledge that has been passed down for tens of thousands of years. The strangeness of this culture was everything that was right with it, since it was certainly more accepting than mine.
It wasn’t until after the immersion that I realised what Reconciliation Week truly was. It was never about saying sorry for things I hadn’t done. It was about finding our common goals. It was about the stories that we had shared, about our future together and about how we relied on one another.
We can’t change the past and its horrific injustices. We can certainly acknowledge it and learn a harsh lesson on what is means to truly value differences. What perhaps surprises me the most to this day as I learn more and more about European wrongdoings is how CJ and everyone else acted towards us as outsiders. There was never any hostility. Never any claim that we had done anything wrong. Never anything more than a pure sense of kindness and kinship as he shared his world with ours.
It’s only recently that I’ve realised I truly am sorry. I’m sorry for the years of culture that were wiped out centuries ago. I’m sorry for the fact that people live impoverished lives, caught between
worlds, as we enter a new age entirely. I’m sorry for the fact that I never gave a second thought to the culture that had walked this land for thousands of years before me. Most of all, I’m sorry that this week is a time when so many people don’t know what they’re sorry for, just as I wasn’t sure all those years ago.
It’s time we celebrate the oldest known civilisation on this planet, and the care they have taken for what we all now call home. We may not have done wrong in our own time, but it is plainly wrong to say that this home of ours only belongs to those who have bought it. Sovereignty was never ceded, and we owe so much to all those who have come before us.
– Jack Fergus, Melbourne Grammar School Alumni
Last August, I was given the opportunity to take a trip which truly changed my life.
A group of students from De La Salle College journeyed to Cape York to spend time in remote Aboriginal communities. In an effort to discover more about Aboriginal culture, lifestyles and the hardships faced over their lives since European settlement, we spent time in Jajikal and Julaymba homelands which allowed students to connect with Traditional Owners and their families.
These experiences granted us the chance to connect with people and lives so foreign from our own. We discussed issues that face Indigenous people still to this day and the effects of eras of Australian legislation, such as the Integration, Assimilation and Protection policies.
These conversations allowed us to grow in knowledge and compassion as we were given first hand accounts of situations and stories that we couldn’t previously connect a face or a family to. The stories of discrimination and racism faced became tangible to students who may have never felt the weight of these real life issues.
The members of the communities shared their culture with us through experiences such as Welcome to Country ceremonies, spear making, basket weaving, musselling, fishing, cooking, painting and searching for bush hen eggs. All of us gained a respect for the way of life led by the Aboriginal people.
An aspect that surprised me was the connections we were able to make with community members over such a short amount of time, just by sharing stories. Our experiences on immersion of talking and sharing reminded us of the importance of sharing our own perspectives and listening to others, something often lacking in our digital-centric lives. During the course of our trip we experienced the hospitality of the communities as we were welcomed with open arms and gratitude for us traveling to Cape York to stay on their homelands.
Our last two days were spent in Port Douglas where the group went to the Great Barrier Reef for a day of snorkelling. The group reflected on the experiences we had all shared and been changed by on our trip. All in all, this trip was extremely worthwhile and for me a once in a lifetime opportunity that I’m so happy I took the chance to do at an important point in my life. I truly know that I’ll remember this immersion for the rest of my life and I’m so thankful I am that I was able to attend.
– Finlay, De La Salle Catholic College Caringbah