Teaching Indigenous Australian students
Before we begin to unpack the important dimensions of Indigenous knowledges you will need to know as you work to develop your teaching pedagogy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We ask that you first reflect on the place you are now and locate yourself in that Country.
Deakin campuses are built on the traditional lands of the Wadawurrung people of the Geelong region, the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples of the greater Melbourne region, and the Gunditjmara people of the Warrnambool region.
Deakin is committed to acknowledging, building and sustaining respect and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Our vision is for a university that values and celebrates diversity – where all students have respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, culture and values.
Wominjeka and welcome
The site you are in right now is a boundary place, albeit a virtual space. In the following video our Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Innovation Mark Rose shares the meaning of Wominjeka and why this an important step towards your understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing.
Deakin’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
In 2020, 719 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students from all over Australia were enrolled at Deakin:
- 298 studying through the NIKERI Institute (formally IKE) at the Waurn Ponds campus
- 421 studying in mainstream classes, with little to no additional support
- 91.1% of Deakin’s Australian Indigenous students identify as Aboriginal, 5.3% as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and 3.6% as Torres Strait Islander.
The following sections cover important information to help build your cultural competency to teach Australian Indigenous students inclusively and mindfully.
NIKERI Institute (formally IKE)
NIKERI Institute student support services
The NIKERI Institute provides:
- Study and personal support for all Deakin Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, including mainstream Deakin students as well as NIKERI Institute students
- Support, consultation and information for Deakin teachers with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Delivery of a Community based-intensive model
NIKERI Institute students study in mainstream units with additional support from the Institute's staff, on- and off-campus in a Community based model.
- One to two weeks per trimester intensive on-campus study at the culturally inclusive centre at Waurn Ponds (with seminars and classes, 1:1 contact with NIKERI Institute lecturers, accommodation at Kitjarra residences).
- Twelve weeks per trimester off-campus study (supported by NIKERI Institute and Indigenous Tutorial Network (ITN) tutors, studying in their communities, via the cloud).
- Courses include law, education, health, sciences and arts: undergraduate, HDR, PhD levels
- Mainstream units with NIKERI Institute students may have an additional resources folder and discussion topics in CloudDeakin sites, customised assessments and Institute-based markers—in general, the Institute manages these students and they have little interaction with mainstream students.
A student’s view of studying with the NIKERI Institute
Watch the following video, My Deakin World – 857km, by Jessica Byrne, winner of 2016 My Deakin World Short Film competition.
A transcript may be downloaded here: My Deakin World – 857km (DOCX 15KB)
Inclusive teaching tips
You may have Indigenous students in your classes but not know it.
Make them feel welcome:
- Acknowledge Traditional Custodians at the beginning of trimester
- Display Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags on your CloudDeakin site
- If your Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students need help or support, ask if they know about the services NIKERI Institute offers them as mainstream students.
- If you are unsure about cultural or personal issues with these students, contact NIKERI Institute student services for information.
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Acknowledging Country and traditional Custodians
Deakin Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students come from all over Australia. For many Indigenous people, an important aspect of identity is to acknowledge the traditional Country they come from. An important way to make them feel included is to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land where you are meeting.
Acknowledgement of Country
- It is appropriate to give an Acknowledgement of Country as the first thing that is said whenever a group of people are gathered together, e.g. for a class.
- An Acknowledgement recognises the traditional ownership of the lands upon which an event is held. It may be expressed by anyone, even if you are not an Indigenous Australian.
- Many people provide an Acknowledgement in their email signature.
- When giving an Acknowledgement, make it personal and say it with meaning, for example:
'I acknowledge the Wadawurrung, Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin nation and the Gunditjmara people, who are the traditional custodians of the lands and waters on which Deakin University is located. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and thank them for their care of the land'.
- 'Acknowledgement' and 'Country' should be capitalised if referring to the practice in written form.
Learn more about the Deakin standard Acknowledgement of Country.
Inclusive teaching tips
- You might like to ask an Indigenous student in a private conversation: ‘Which country are you from? Have you been on Wadawurrung / Wurundjeri / Gunditjmara country for long?’
- Look up your students’ Indigenous Countries of origin on the interactive AIATSIS Indigenous map of Australia and (if they are comfortable about this) show interest in how things they are learning may be relevant to their experience in these places. Learn more about Australia's first languages and explore the Gambay First Languages map.
Welcome to Country
- A Welcome to Country ceremony can only be performed by the Traditional Owners of the land. These ceremonies vary from speeches of welcome to traditional dance and smoking ceremonies.
- A Welcome to Country is appropriate for larger public forums and functions, particularly if they have impact on or significance for Aboriginal people. It can be an important ceremony to include to welcome international guests.
- To arrange a Welcome to Country contact Registered Aboriginal Parties.
- 'Welcome' and 'Country' should be capitalised if referring to the practice in written form.
Learn more about Welcome to Country ceremonies.
Deakin’s Indigenous Australian students frequently ‘walk in two worlds’: maintaining important contact with their family and other kin on Country (whether around the corner or thousands of kilometres away) while learning, living and competing with non-Indigenous contemporary Australians. Often, these two worlds are separated by many different cultural traditions.
Some possible dimensions of difference:
- Spirituality: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality may be at the core of Indigenous students’ identity, and could involve complex beliefs about connection to one another, the environment and the non-physical world.
- Kinship: Australian Indigenous kinship systems can involve important roles and responsibilities to other people, and may encompass obligations to Country. For example, Indigenous students may need to return to their Country to take part in ceremonial business such as funerals, etc.
- Language: One hundred and forty-five Indigenous Australian languages are spoken today and sixty of those are in regular use as a first language. There are around 50,000 Indigenous Australians whose first language learned at home is an Indigenous Australian language. When referring to a particular language group it should be capitalised.
There are many more aspects of Indigenous culture that impact in subtle and less obvious ways on Indigenous students’ lives. For more information on Indigenous Australian cultural competence in higher education, see the National Best Practice Framework for Cultural Competency in Australian Universities (PDF 3.89MB).
For further information on Australian Indigenous culture in general see:
- Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) website.
- Deadly questions, which offers you the opportunity to ask Aboriginal Victorians questions and learn from the oldest continuous culture on earth.
Inclusive teaching tips
- Don’t assume that all Indigenous students have a strong connection to Country or a strong Indigenous identity. Some do, some don’t, for various reasons, including the Stolen Generations. Don’t make assumptions based on appearance—even blonde-haired, blue-eyed people may identify as Indigenous, whereas some who look more like traditional Aboriginal people may prefer to identify as non-Indigenous Australians.
- Be respectful and mindful not to challenge a student’s cultural identity, for example, don’t say ‘You don’t look very Aboriginal’, or ‘How Aboriginal are you?’ This can be deeply offensive to some Indigenous students.
- Display positive images of Indigenous culture such as Indigenous Australian artworks and successful Indigenous public figures in teaching spaces and websites. Deakin Asset Bank has images of Indigenous students that may be used in CloudDeakin and other teaching-learning resources copyright free.
- Avoid common stereotypes as they still offend, patronise and over-simplify real life and lead to conscious or unconscious biases. Remember:
- Indigenous Australians do not all live in outback Australia - less than one quarter live in remote areas
- There is no common Indigenous culture (when there are hundreds of different nations, language groups, distinct cultural differences, practices and customs)
- Indigenous Australians have all shades of skin colour
- Indigenous Australians should not be portrayed as victims
- Non-Indigenous Australians are more likely to be heavy drinkers than Indigenous Australians. The proportion of Indigenous Australians who do not drink any alcohol is around twice that of non-Indigenous Australians.
- Don't expect any Indigenous Australian student to be representative of or ambassador for their culture. Every individual will have particular differences and has a right to choose how they represent their identity.
- Include Indigenous content and references: Design or choose examples, case studies, texts and assessments that represent Indigenous (and other diverse groups) of students. The Deakin Library’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies resource guide provides a useful index. Deakin is working towards embedding Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in courses across the University and the Coordinator Indigenous Knowledges and Culture can help with this.
- Respectfully acknowledge your Indigenous students’ background and culture where possible, rather than ignore it as too sensitive an area. As long as you are respectful and careful in approaching these subjects, Indigenous students will most often be generous in response. It will help if you also do a little research, of course.
- Be as specific about someone’s cultural identity as possible as it is a mark of respect. Using the name that describes a person’s identity and cultural or language group is preferable – for example “Deborah is a Wurundjeri elder”.
- Consider a field trip: for example, the Koorie Heritage Trust offers walking tours starting from Federation Square; go on the Aboriginal Heritage Walk at the Royal Botanical Gardens or take the Twilight Bush and Nature Walk at Tower Hill before staying overnight at the Deakin Warrnambool campus. Visit Bunjilaka at the Melbourne Museum or the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Geelong.
- Visual representations of an Indigenous person who has passed away: in reporting on an Indigenous person who has passed away, please be aware that in many areas of Indigenous Australia, reproduction of the names and photographs of deceased people is restricted during a period of mourning. The length of this time varies and is determined by the community. There is a widespread practice of modifying a deceased person's name or using a circumlocution (e.g. 'the old man who painted'). These can be used in referring to the deceased person. If you are unsure, you should avoid using a deceased person’s name unless you have received explicit permission from the person’s community and/or family prior to publishing. When using imagery including photos and videos, you should include a warning for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander People/s that material may contain the image or voice of people who have passed away.
Indigenous knowledges, perspectives and pedagogies are approaches to teaching and learning that resonate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (and other indigenous peoples from around the world) to teach, learn, understand the world and act ethically and effectively within it.
These ways of knowing, being and doing are important for several reasons:
- Indigenous people have been excluded from higher education and continue to experience significant barriers to participation that we can help address through approaches to teaching and learning that resonant with by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
- Indigenous people have sophisticated systems of knowledge and learning that have underpinnned highly successful societies for tens of thousands of years. Such knowledges have vast potential to improve and transform how we approach education in Western institutions.
- More generally, diversity in worldviews enhances creativity, problem-solving, and innovation in teaching, learning and research at Deakin University; and Indigenous pedagogies are an important part of the variety that we should seek to foster within universities.
In order to achieve Indigenisation of curriculum it is important to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. Barriers to creating Indigenous curriculum include:
- ignorance of Indigenous knowledges alongside fear of getting it ‘wrong’ and cultural appropriation
- inflexible thinking within the academy about what constitutes valid knowledge (production)
- devaluing of unique, alternative or different ways of comprehending the world.
Sharing our stories: building partnerships for change
The video Sharing our stories: building partnerships for change, is an exemplar of how to work in a collaborative environment with Traditional Custodians to develop Aboriginal curriculum content that becomes a journey of discovery for all.
Video transcript: Sharing our stories—building partnerships for change (DOCX 21KB)
Bawaka Country, Suchet-Pearson, S, Wright, S, Lloyd, K, Tofa, T, Burarrwanga, L, Ganambarr, R, Ganambarr-Stubbs, M, Ganambarr B & Maymuru, D 2019, 'Bunbum ga dhä-yutagum: to make it right again, to remake', Social & Cultural Geography, pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2019.1584825.
Frazer B, Yunkaporta, T 2019, 'Wik pedagogies: adapting oral culture processes for print-based learning contexts', The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, pp. 1–7, https://doi.org/10.1017/jie.2018.24.
Harvey, A & Russell-Mundine, G 2018, 'Decolonising the curriculum: using graduate qualities to embed Indigenous knowledges at the academic cultural interface', Teaching in Higher Education, pp. 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1508131.
Kennedy, J, Thomas, L, Percy, A, Delahunty, J, Harden-Threw, K, Martin, B, de Laat, M & Dean, B 2018, Jindaola: An Aboriginal Way of Embedding Knowledges and Perspectives, 4th edn. [ebook], University of Wollongong, Wollongong, retrieved 28 May 2019.
Kutay, C 2018, 'Teaching an Australian Aboriginal knowledge sharing process', in C. Faucher (ed.), Advances in Culturally-Aware Intelligent Systems and in Cross-Cultural Psychological Studies, Springer International, New York, pp. 63–96, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-67024-9_4.
Nursey-Bray, M 2019, 'Uncoupling binaries, unsettling narratives and enriching pedagogical practice: lessons from a trial to Indigenize geography curricula at the University of Adelaide, Australia', Journal of Geography in Higher Education, pp. 1–20, DOI:10.1080/03098265.2019.1608921.
Osborne, S, Paige, K, Hattam, R, Rigney, L-I & Morrison, A 2019, 'Strengthening Australian Aboriginal participation in university STEM programs: a Northern Territory perspective', Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 40. no. 1, pp. 4–67, DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2018.1552574.
Perry, L & Holt, L 2018, 'Searching for the Songlines of Aboriginal education and culture within Australian higher education', The Australian Educational Researcher, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 343–361.
Yunkaporta, T 2009, ‘Our ways of learning in Aboriginal languages’, Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface, PhD thesis, James Cook University, http://eprints.jcu.edu.au/10974.
Being mindful of past history: Reconciliation
Since European settlement of Australia, Indigenous Australians have suffered numerous injustices, massacres and failures of recognition. While there are indications that common attitudes are improving, many Indigenous Australians carry deep scars related to the ways their ancestors have been treated, together with their own ongoing experiences of racism. For information including the National Apology, National Sorry Day, the Bringing Them Home Report, current rates of Indigenous child removal, and the Stolen Generations 'Testimonies' project read Ten things you should know about the National Apology.
Reconciliation Australia publishes a Reconciliation Barometer every two years that summarises key findings around relationships between Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people. For example, in the 2018 Barometer:
- 90% of all Australians and 94% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people felt our relationship was important.
- More Australians recognised the need to rectify past wrongs before all Australians can move forward:
- 28% of all Australians agreed in 2018 (28% in 2016).
- 40% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians agreed in 2018 (44% in 2016).
- Slightly fewer Australians believed Australia was a racist country:
- 38% of all Australians agreed (39% in 2016).
- 51% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people agreed (57% in 2016).
- Pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures was increasing:
- 62% of all Australians agreed in 2018 (60% in 2016).
- 86% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people agreed in 2018 (90% in 2016).
Preferred words and phrases
- Aboriginal person (‘Aboriginal’ is always capitalised when referring to Australian Aboriginal peoples): instead of Aborigine, part-Aborigine (please note that these are all offensive terms and should not be used under any circumstances)
- Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander People/s: Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are distinct groups, and the terms are not interchangeable. Do not abbreviate ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander,’ or use the acronym ‘ATSI’. Use ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples' when referring to all of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.If the relevant group is known, use that in preference to Aboriginal (e.g. 'Gunditjmara woman'). Above all, be guided by how the person identifies themselves, if known.
- Torres Strait Islander person: instead of full blooded, half-caste, quarter case, octoroon, mulatto, hybrid, fair-skinned (please note that these are all offensive terms and should not be used under any circumstances)
- Aboriginal languages: instead of Aboriginal language
- colonisation/occupation/invasion: instead of settlement. (Australia was not settled peacefully, and sovereignty was not ceded. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a ‘settlement’ is a view of Australian history from the perspective of the colonising British rather than those already living in Australia.)
- Australia has one of the oldest living cultures: instead of Australia is a young country
- First Nations Peoples (Capitalisation preferred): pluralised reference terms such as ‘First Nations’ or ‘First Peoples’ are acceptable language, and respectfully encompass the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identities. First Nations People/s may also be a preferred term when talking about international or global groups of Indigenous Peoples.
- helping, disadvantaged: aim to use empowering, strengths-based language, and avoid perpetuating, patronising or paternalistic rhetoric which emphasises a perceived deficit in Indigenous communities. For example, 'providing meaningful opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to achieve their full potential.'
- Indigenous nations: instead of primitive, simple, native, prehistoric
- Koorie: should not be used interchangeably with ‘Aboriginal’ as it refers specifically to Indigenous people from south-eastern Australia. It is a familiar term and would most generally be used within Aboriginal communities or between Aboriginal people.
- Torres Strait Islander/s: use this term when you can be certain that a group is from the Torres Strait or that a person identifies as Torres Strait Islander. Use this term as a noun or an adjective. If the relevant group is known, use that in preference to 'Torres Strait Islander' (e.g. 'Meriam man'). Be guided by how the person identifies themselves, if known.
*Thank you to Edmund Rice Education Australia’s Cultural Practice, RMIT’s Guide to Inclusive Language and Charles Sturt University’s Guide to Working with Indigenous Australian Staff for some of this information on inclusive language in relation to Indigenous Australians.
Mini glossary of terms
Note that spellings of Indigenous terms often vary.
Aboriginal (adjective): An Aboriginal person is a person who is a descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of Australia but does not include a Torres Strait Islander person. (Definitions from the Racial Discrimination Act, 1975).
Aboriginal person (Capitalise 'Aboriginal'): preferred term, use instead of ‘Aborigine’. A person of Aboriginal descent who identifies as Aboriginal and is accepted as such by the community in which she/he lives. ‘Aboriginal’ is sometimes used to include Torres Strait Islanders but this is not technically correct. When referring to both groups, use ‘Indigenous Australians’.
ATSI: this abbreviation for ‘Aboriginal-Torres Strait Islander’ is not considered appropriate for general conversation or use in writing.
Aunty, Uncle (Capitalise): terms of respect used for Elders in the community.
Country (Capitalise): for Indigenous Australians this may mean more than just ‘land’. (Capitalise 'Country' and 'Land' – when it is used in place of ‘Country'.)
'For Aboriginal Australians … we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area … For us, Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains. … While they may all no longer necessarily be the title-holders to land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are still connected to the Country of their ancestors and must consider themselves the custodians or caretakers of their land'.
Mick Dodson, cited in Reconciliation Australia (n.d.), Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country (PDF 358KB))
Elder (Capitalise): an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander who is recognised as a Custodian of knowledge and lore, and who has permission to disclose knowledge and beliefs. Not all older Aboriginal people are Elders. Aboriginal people frequently refer to an Elder as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’.
Indigenous Australians: includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The common meaning of ‘indigenous’ means native to a place or area worldwide. In Australia, an Indigenous person is a person who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and is accepted as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in the community in which they live or come from.
 Guide to Working with Indigenous Australian Staff (PDF 432KB), Charles Sturt University
Koori/Koorie: an Aboriginal person from southern NSW or Victoria. Not all Aboriginal people living in these places at any time are Koori. It is safer to use ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’.
Stolen Generations: Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed as children from their families and communities by government, welfare or church authorities and placed into institutional care or with non-Indigenous foster families. This occurred from the mid-1800s until 1970, and many Indigenous people remain deeply affected by the consequences.
(Adapted from Indigenous teaching at Australian universities 2012).
We have selectively curated the following resources to help you extend your knowledge. All readings and resources have been categorised and organised with a title, description and a link to help you find the information you need fast.
Teaching Indigenous content
The University of Wollongong has some excellent resources that address embedding Indigenous Knowledges in your curriculum in their Teaching Indigenous content page. On this site, you will find links to research, resources, and projects that will help build an awareness of current scholarship in this area.
Share our pride
The Share our pride site is a wonderful resource that will give you a glimpse of how life looks from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective.
Centre for Cultural Competence Australia (CCCA)
The Centre for Cultural Competency Australia offers an online accredited and competence-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Competence Course. This organisation is a majority Indigenous-owned consulting and cultural training organisation with an outcomes-based approach that delivers real and lasting change at a personal and professional level.
National Centre for Cultural Competence
The University of Sydney hosts the National Centre for Cultural Competence through which you can access Indigenous cultural competency teaching and learning tools, resources, articles, and research.
The 'silent apartheid' as the practitioner's blind spot.
Abstract: Most Australian educators are likely to have been deprived of valid Indigenous perspectives during their own studies in compulsory and tertiary years. This deprivation that transcends generations is tantamount to a 'silent apartheid' that has been enacted in Australian classrooms from the sandpit to the sandstone ever since Western education began in Australia. This chapter seeks to explore the phenomenon, identify trace elements in educational praxis and establish the concept of a 'silent apartheid' as a core concept, in understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education.
Read this journal article The ‘Silent Apartheid’ as the practitioner’s blindspot. in its entirety to learn more about this perspective.
Guiding principles for developing Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities
In 2009 Universities Australia, in collaboration with the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC), obtained support and grant funding from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) to undertake a two-year project on Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities. The aim of the project was to provide the Australian higher education sector with a best practice framework comprising the theoretical and practical tools necessary to embed Indigenous cultural competency at the institutional level to provide encouraging and supportive environments for Indigenous students and staff, whilst providing non-Indigenous graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary for providing genuinely competent services to the Australian Indigenous community.
Read the report Guiding principles for developing Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities (PDF 444KB) in detail to learn about the guiding principles and the recommendations for their application in Higher Educational settings
Access the Cultural intelligence resources for the GLO8 transformation project to access more indigenous scholarship.