Australian Screen

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My Survival as an Aboriginal (1978)

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Clip description

Essie Coffey gives the children lessons on Aboriginal culture. She speaks of the importance of teaching these kids about their traditions. Aboriginal kids are forgetting about their Aboriginal heritage because they are being taught white culture instead.

Curator’s notes

The juxtaposition of Indigenous knowledge and Western knowledge represents the two spheres of cultural understanding Indigenous children must negotiate in everyday life.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Indigenous Australian activist Essie Coffey in the bush near Brewarrina in western New South Wales passing on cultural knowledge to Indigenous children. She says that the white education they receive at school often leads to them forgetting their Indigenous heritage, and stresses how important it is that they 'stand tall’ and 'remember what you are’. The clip then shows the children at school where a white teacher tells the class of mainly Indigenous students about Captain Cook’s 'discovery’ of Australia.

Educational value points

  • The juxtaposition of Essie Coffey’s statement that Indigenous children are losing their culture as a result of white education with the sequence in the classroom has been constructed to support Coffey’s point and raise questions about whose history is being taught. It suggests that the study and interpretation of the past is not objective, but is coloured by who writes the history. This has sometimes resulted in marginalised groups, such as Indigenous Australians, being excluded or misrepresented by historians.
  • Coffey (1941–98) was a Muruwari woman born near Goodooga, NSW. After marrying in the 1950s she settled on the Aboriginal reserve at Brewarrina in western NSW, where she became a tireless worker and campaigner for Indigenous Australians. She was co-founder of the Brewarrina Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Museum and the Western Aboriginal Legal Service as well as serving on government bodies such as the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. She was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 1998 for services to the Aboriginal community.
  • When Coffey was a child she and her family moved to isolated bushland to avoid being placed on an Aboriginal reserve, and this experience gave Coffey 'her love of the land and her strong and proud sense of identity’.
  • Reserves were set up in the mistaken belief that Indigenous Australians were a dying race and that their welfare was best served by relocation from traditional lands to a reserve, where they were placed under the guardianship of an Aboriginal Protection Board. This dispossession and loss of autonomy, the legacy of which is still felt within Indigenous Australian communities, strengthened Coffey’s resolve to pass on her heritage to young Indigenous Australians.
  • In Indigenous Australian communities it is the responsibility of Elders such as Coffey to pass on knowledge about the land to the younger generation. This knowledge does not just involve teaching children how to find food, but encompasses the relationship of Indigenous Australians with the land and their country.
  • For Indigenous Australians a deep affinity with and connection to the land is central to forming a conception of self, identity and belonging. Coffey’s lessons to the children are a way of maintaining that connection, and of not only preserving Indigenous culture but also giving the children a strong and positive sense of their identity as Indigenous Australians. She tells the children it is important 'that you stand tall’ and 'remember what you are on your own land’.
  • In 2003 about 38 per cent of Indigenous children completed year 12 compared to 76 per cent of students from all other backgrounds. The failure of schools to be culturally inclusive has been identified as contributing to this lower retention rate. To redress the imbalance the federal and state governments have made Indigenous Studies part of the school curriculum to give Indigenous Australian children an appreciation of their histories, cultures and identities, and to provide all Australian students with an understanding of Indigenous Australian cultures.
  • My Survival as an Aboriginal, which Coffey made in collaboration with non-Indigenous filmmaker Martha Ansara, was the first documentary directed by an Indigenous woman. It was also one of the first Australian films in which an Indigenous Australian was directly involved in deciding how she and her community would be represented. While Coffey’s film tackles the subjects of dispossession and alienation, it also celebrates both herself and her culture.
  • My Survival as an Aboriginal is a documentary that mixes observational shooting with interviews and voice-over as well as songs that carry important viewpoints and information. The observational passages contain no voice-over commentary, intertitles or interviews, but rather present an unobtrusive observation of the everyday life of the subjects. The filmmaker leaves it to the viewer to determine the significance of what is said and done, but it can be argued that the filmmaker manipulates the story through dextrous editing and choice of camera angles and shots.

This clip starts approximately 28 minutes into the documentary.

Essie Coffey is talking to a group of Aboriginal children in the bush.
Essie Coffey Now, just remember what I taught you because today is the only chance that you got ever coming out of this bush and learning how to survive. When you start school again tomorrow, you’re gonna do white man education. You’re not gonna learn about Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal culture — it should be taught in all schools to Aboriginal kids because our Aboriginal kids are getting too much white education in their brains that they are completely forgetting about their own tribe, their culture and their tradition and their heritage and that is most important that you kids just remember what you are, that you stand tall and you stand proud on your own land where you’re standing now and it’s black land, Aboriginal land.

Three Aboriginal girls walk to school. In the classroom the white teacher tells the class of mainly Indigenous students about Captain Cook’s 'discovery’ of Australia.
Teacher Today’s class on Australian history is about the early discovery of Australia. Now, when Captain Cook and his men were here they tried to land at Botany Bay. They had to go ashore for water. Why would they have to go ashore for water?
Student Because you can’t drink salt water.
Teacher That’s right. Good. And when they went ashore, there were two of the natives, two of the Aboriginals standing on the shores of Botany Bay and they were waving to Captain Cook and his men in their little rowboat to go back. They didn’t want them to land there. They had to get their water so what they did was they fired a shot over the heads of the Aboriginals to try and scare them away. Now, it’s the first time they would have heard something like that and it did scare them but they didn’t go away and they stayed there and kept on waving Captain Cook and his men to go away, they didn’t want them on the land. But do you think the shields and spears and war-men would have been any use against guns and that sort of stuff?
Students No.
Teacher OK, so the men — the Englishmen — were able to land, they were able to get their water and do a bit of looking around on the land. Well, they left Botany Bay and started travelling right up the coast along here, the Great Barrier Reef. They had a bad accident on that and the ship almost sank and they had to stop in and repair it. But they kept on going right up to the top of the Cape York Peninsula and there’s a small island right up there at the top. It’s called Possession Island because it was on that island Captain Cook took possession of all this land that he’d sailed past, all of the coast of Australia, in the name of King George III of England. After leaving he wrote in his journal about the land that he’d seen here on the east coast of Australia. But in this extensive country it can never be doubted that …

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