We must not teach our children a ‘thanks for the land’ version of Australian history

As the school term winds up here in Western Australia, I’ve been thinking a lot about assemblies.

I’ve spent a lot of time in schools running creative learning programs, so I’ve attended my fair share of gatherings filled with twisty kids sitting cross-legged on the floor with their teachers shushing me. There is something gorgeous in the way they peer around one another, curious about what the week’s performance will be.

No matter what school I am in, the ritual is the same: the kids sit down, the national anthem is sung a pitch too high, and then the principal says an acknowledgement of country.

In some schools, the acknowledgement includes the phrase, “We would like to thank the traditional custodians for nurturing this precious land where we live, learn and play.” In early learning centres, I’ve listened as kids acknowledge country with statements like, “thank you for letting us share the land that you love, we promise to take care.”

This “thanks for the land” version of history teaches children that the Australian continent was a gift from First Nations people to non-Indigenous people; that “Aboriginal elders” are like cuddly godparents, and their ancestors are angels who watch over us all.

It’s seductive and dangerous. The reality is that many First Nations elders were subjected to terrible abuse by state institutions, and their ancestors were often victims and/or survivors of racism, violence and attempts at cultural decimation.

Some people will argue that children are innocent and cannot be expected to understand these harsh realities, and that simplifying the story helps to build unity rather than division. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lying to children by sanitising the past makes them ignorant and prevents them from understanding present-day inequalities caused by that history.

Without knowing the truth, children jump to their own conclusions about why some people are poor and others are not; why some people are angry while others are happy. The truth explains, while lies obscure.

And yet there is nothing complicated about the story of Australia.

We may not like it but the story is straightforward. This continent and its people were colonised by Europeans who justified their racism using God and science and treated First Nations people with brutal violence. The effects of this racism persist today, as do many of the racist ideas and stereotypes settlers invented.

Telling this story is important because it is true and because it is the only basis upon which to address racism. It begins with using every opportunity possible to tell the right story rather than the fables that make non-Indigenous people feel good.

At the moment, we are teaching children to see themselves as kind-hearted innocents who are entitled to share in all this land has to offer, as long as they say “thank you” to “the elders”.

It will get harder and harder to tell them that the land on which they live wasn’t actually a gift; that it was in fact stolen, that they are beneficiaries of that theft and that racism is a defining part of First Nations people’s lives, and a critical part of this nation’s story.

A society that doesn’t tell its children the truth inevitably becomes a society in which adults cannot face the truth. Sadly, this is where Australia finds itself.

Beyond getting the acknowledgement to country right, many of our school systems struggle to teach young people the truth. This problem is reflected in media and politics as well; the truth is seen as bracing and so it is avoided.

Of course the truth has been a stranger to settlers here for a long time. Terra nullius was the first Australian myth, and it was quickly followed by the myth of Aboriginal extinction – this idea that First Nations were “a dying breed”.

Conveniently overlooking the fact that many Indigenous people were dying from smallpox and influenza epidemics Europeans had introduced when their ships arrived here, European anthropologists and medical doctors concluded that “Aboriginees”, were on the verge of “extinction” for evolutionary reasons. The notion that First Nations people were biologically inferior to whites was one of the key inventions of scientific racism, and it was used to justify laws designed to “smooth the pillow of the dying race.”

Under the guise of “protection”, First Nations people were put on native reserves, forced to work for a pittance and made wards of the state who were told who they could marry and what would happen to their children – many of whom were taken from them.

So powerful is the myth that white Australians were in a position to help – rather than harm – First Nations people on the basis of their inherent superiority, that those who were in charge of managing them were even called chief protectors. The historical record has preserved their cruelty and many First Nations writers – most recently Elfie Shiosaki in her beautiful book Homecoming – have examined the afterlives of AO Neville and his ilk.

Unfortunately, we are still in the grips of an underlying national ideology that insists that non-Indigenous people are driven by innocence and kindness in all their dealings with First Nations people. This ideology holds up even in the face of crimes and misdeeds perpetrated against First Nations people. This is why, as Alison Whittaker has written, “despite 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, no one has ever been convicted.”

Last week, Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and senator Lidia Thorpe upset many people when she refused to apologise for avoiding the Australian flag in photos. On The Project, Thorpe said the flag, “represents the colonisation of these lands and it has no permission to be here. There’s been no consent, there’s been no treaty.”

Thorpe went on to say, “I don’t want people to get upset by what I have to say. I want people to come on a learning journey and a truth-telling journey so that we can unite this country and mature as a nation.”

Her interlocutor, Waleed Aly, wasn’t convinced and he argued that referring to the “whole nation as illegitimate” wasn’t necessarily the “correct starting point” to unify the country.

On the face of it, Aly’s comment seemed easy to agree with. But of course Aly is wrong. There can be no better starting point to unify the country than developing a shared understanding of the facts, and the fact is that many First Nations people have ample reason to question the legitimacy of this state.

The rest of us need to catch up to Thorpe.

We might begin by making sure that all those wiggly, cute kids across Australia know that the neighbourhoods in which they live, and the lakes and rivers in which they fish and swim, are not a gift from the custodians of these lands.

Instead they are, quite rightly, the subject of ongoing and unresolved conflicts. The sooner all children in this society understand this, the sooner we will make real progress on racism.

  • Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)

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