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III: Affective pedagogies

Performatively unsilencing Australian history: A First Nations history curriculum

Kathryn Gilbey and Rob McCormack

This chapter reflects on eleven years of performative truth-telling by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through a transition unit, Telling Histories, offered at Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (BI), 1998-2009. BI is the only Institute or dual sector educational institution for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Told in two distinct voices, it offers both shared and individual learning journeys reflecting on the power of public performance. Part theoretical analysis, part structural description detailing the conjunctural assemblage comprising this singular curriculum, the chapter highlights how performative practice can provide opportunities for First Nation ‘truth telling’ within the western academy. Whereas we both engage in theory and call on different theorists in our efforts to understand the power of this pedagogy- to move and visibly effect lives, its capacity to mobilise the power of truth telling through performing First Nations stories was palpably real, raw and game changing.

Telling Histories: the workshops

The unit Telling Histories was developed by a team of First Nations and Western academics and senior students for First Nations students in their first year of study of a Higher Education award at Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Northern Territory. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from all over the country, across all disciplines in all undergraduate programs would be travelled to Batchelor, Top End. Offered as a 2-week workshop, Telling Histories created culturally safe time/spaces sheltering a counter-hegemonic discourse within which students could ‘real-ise’ histories of First Nations events, resistance and activism, our truths. A space in which white mainstream histories and culture could be performalivelv examined, critically evaluated and disputed through the telling of Aboriginal and Islander truths. We did this as a large group where we all identified five key moments in history that affected us personally and as a group. This becomes a deliberative process. Was it Cathy Freeman, Collision Massacre or the Stolen generations, alongside readings about sites of resistance and strength in the struggle continuum, our (First Nations peoples) heroes, our histories. We provided building blocks to communicate the students’ own versions of history, their truths, moments of history, affective moments. Then we prepared twenty-minute performances in groups of five to ten. The groups chose a moment in history or a story and then conducted an intense character analysis from their physical and emotional depths for their historical roles in the performances. The groups then scripted and performed a story, a show; it may have been one moment, it may have been many. These performances were created for a large and varied audience of community members, staff and students and, when appropriate, we would invite Years 5-7 students from the local Batchelor Area School.

Scripts were written and re-written, props and costumes made, the story rehearsed and re-rehearsed, all the formal requirements of creating a performance were carried out on a large scale with often five or six groups of eight to ten people with at least three or four re- workings and rehearsing. This was a crazy, exciting time and we did it all within two weeks. The classroom would be left open with students rehearsing into the night, with at least two direction rehearsals with lecturers. As workshops neared their end, student commitment built: they worked longer and longer hours, sometimes through entire nights to ensure their performances were ‘ready’.

The day before we would rehearse the bumps in and out of all props, cement the order, practice all that at least two or three times, rearrange the classroom so it became a makeshift theatre, cordon off our entrances and exits, get all our sound effects and cues on the laptop and any power point or images to be projected. We would practise and then do a complete run through of all the shows. All the time we were aware of the energy growing, the excitement building, people panicking. The electricity in the air was palpable and then just when you felt ready to explode, it all came together with the room packed out, standing room only, and the performances perfect. Then the sense of shared achievement was hard to describe, the crowd going crazy and everyone elated.

Reflections on Telling Histories

An insidious ideological assumption lends to contaminate educational offerings on Australian history'. It is assumed that there is a singular history to be created by historians who together follow a rigorous epistemological discipline and are responsible for creating a unified ‘story'’ transcending all local stories and memories. This understanding of the history of a nation as the formation of a singular community, the modern nation state, was built on a commitment to the modernist notion of a unitary truth that is both grounded and universal. However, for First Nations People who have never ceded their sovereignty nor consented to the singular sovereignty or unity of Australia, this version of history' is experienced as alien, colonising, assimilationist and profoundly untrue.

Australian History by its nature, name and definition has typically not been inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ stories or lived realities— Stanner’s ‘great Australian silence’ (Curthoys, 2003; Stanner, 2009). Australian history is invariably oriented around settlement, not invasion. It is underrepresented in public holidays, war memorials, curricula and the collective psyche the ongoing struggle continuum that is Aboriginal peoples’ realities since invasion. The constant and ongoing sites of resistance, freedom fighters, warriors, wars, activism and resistance to colonisation is rarely represented in the history' books taught in schools and universities. When on the odd occasion it is, it has been hotly contested by non-First Nations historians and politicians (Macintyre & Clark, 2004; Reynolds, 2013; Windschutde, 2002). This means we have to find another way to tell our truths, through performance and speech. Like road and town names, public statements reflect the values and heroes of the society, so when as Aboriginal people we are surrounded by oppressive public statements, we need to go back to orality as our mode of expression. Through performance and speech we found an old and new form of including ourselves in the public political discourse.

It must be said that these Units were initially conceived in response to student demands to have a say, to have a voice, to be recognised in a fundamental way within their educational experience, as part of a broader plan of inclusive First Nations education. Veronica Arbon, former Director of the Institute, in her book Arlalhimda Ngurkamda llyimda explains why they were developed and describes some of the initial resistance to the Units:

There was no coherent story of the disruptive and oppressive aspects of Australia’s colonial history or the important aspects of our knowledge to be carried into tomorrow.

(Arbon, 2008, p. 212)

She went on later to say:

Opposition arose as staff argued that the curriculum did not have the space, that Indigenous knowledge was addressed in other ways and that such an approach was not necessary. The most powerful arguments swirled around a belief that the inclusion of the Common Units would undermine and downgrade the professional intent of the awards. Despite these arguments, the Academic Committee of the Institute endorsed these Units in 2000.

(Arbon, 2008, p. 222)

Although keyed to different emphases, both Common Units, Public Communication and Telling Histories, shared many features. Public Communication fostered epideictic rhetoric, a discourse calling people into stronger commitment and community to the values that bind them (McCormack, 2003; Pernot, 2015); Telling Histones fostered the genres and discourses of critique, witness and collective memory (Gilbey & McCormack, 2013). This chapter is dedicated to describing how Telling Histories contrasts with mainstream academic forms of study.

Separation of form and content: craft versus voice

A key feature of the Telling Histories workshops was that there was a separation of form and content, or to frame it differently, between platform and utterance. Students were provided with both an explicit training into the textual and performative crafts underpinning public speech and dramatic performance as well as being offered a structured, bounded discursive ‘space/time’ within which they could ‘perform’ their own voices, meanings, stories, values, cultures, aspirations, histories. The explicit training into textual forms and dramatic structures provided a safe and structured semiotic space in which to learn how to create a performance. Students felt able to step up and ‘occupy’ this bounded, semiotic ‘place’ with voices expressing their own sense of self and their own socio-cultural locations as opposed to being treated as empty vessels into which is poured the alien information and concepts of a colonising system of knowledge/power. As a consequence, students felt a strong sense of engagement and commitment to their work.

Organised around culminating performance

Another reason for the strong investment of students was that Telling Histories was organised around a culminating public performance. Each workshop built towards a final event (assessment task) in which students performed their work before an audience. It seems to us that it is difficult to over-estimate the impact of framing curriculum in relation to a culminating public performance. Performance imposes a compelling narrative structure on the workshop itself. The finality and publicness of the culminating event injects a sense of foreboding, challenge, anxiety and urgency into earlier phases of the workshop. The thought that what you are learning, researching, drafting, planning, exploring, practicing and rehearsing will be performed before an audience—with all the potential for embarrassment and shame that that prospect brings to mind creates a sense of urgency, attention and sharpness. Instead of time being experienced as simply belonging to fiat everyday time (chronos), a time accountable to the modernist clock in which time is filled, spent, wasted or waited for, time in the workshop was experienced as subject to a quite different, more imperative, time-frame (kairos). This performance time-frame wrenches the workshop out of the normal quotidian time-frame of schooling and into a temporality with its own strong, pressing sense of movement towards a heightened end-point, a point of closure that is still open and indeterminate, a finale that will distil and ‘fix’ the ultimate meaning of the performances and of the entire workshop.

Emotionality: giving voice to ontologically prior lifeworlds

By framing workshops performatively, students felt they were being offered speaking positions (as interpellators, as historians, as collective memory celebrants, as rhetors, as historical actors or witnesses) that enabled them to take on voices, to ‘key’ their discourse in ways usually reserved for other more authorised voices—historians, state authorities or teachers. Taking up these speaking postures enabled students to experience powers of utterance, resources of subjectivity, and socio-cultural affect they had no idea were available to them. They found their own meanings and utterances gained an unexpected enhancement in emotional affect by being performed publicly. They found themselves in possession of powers of affect capable of generating waves of shared social emotion—of crying, sadness, joy, hope, laughter, repulsion, anger. These powerful waves of shared emotion have been brought to prominence in recent theories of ‘affect’ that posit affect as an autonomous impersonal ontological order mediating and subsuming the Cartesian dichotomies of mind and body, reason and emotion, concept and appearance (see Williams, 2010). Affect is generally discounted in Western higher education: body, emotion and image are construed as disruptions, detours, distractions or contaminations of the ‘purity’ of abstract mind-focused education of reason and concept that should be consigned to the aesthetic sphere.

Responding to power with power

In Telling Histories, we moved from being mere subjects of power and became agents of power. We managed to move our position on the power continuum from being passive recipients of the consequences derived from others’ positions of power through their benevolent goodwill to becoming speakers of our truths. Just being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in this country is political, our very survival is political, so when we get up and speak our truths it becomes a revolutionary moment that changes all of us. The transition from being individuals beholden to the power of others to agents holding power and with space to speak was a transformative educational moment.

We are all subjects of power (Butler, 1997), but we are not all subjected to subjugation and abjection. Yet this is the common experience of First Nations people in this country. Butler (1997) describes subjection as inescapable, that it is the process of becoming a subject of power and that as long as we are defined by that which subjects us, we cannot escape the dimensions of its power. We are all born into subjection as power discourses are all around us.

But the movement from subjection to subordination and eventually to subjugation, through our reliance and dependence on a power system that posits us as ‘less’ is central to this theoretical framework. Subjugation occurs when the institutions of power in a society have fully dominated all expressions of ontology possible in that society to the extent that only one form of being, knowing and acting is allowed in the public discourse. This equates to power that represses difference and is conquest-oriented.

Finally, there is abjection, the gaze that is given to the horrid, the unspeakable. Abjection brings with it a level of hatred, disgust and distrust. The abject gaze is reservedfor those who are subjugated. This then marks the transition from subjection (all of us) to subordination (some of us), to where Aboriginally sits now, subjugated (only us).

So, the act of speaking one’s truths has dual meaning. Although important for the public sphere (the room, the town, the country), it is also empowering on a subjective level. The public/private sphere is transformed into a collective space of affect imbued with all the strength and power of stories never before told, or needing to be re-told with the hopes and expectations and communitymindedness of the whole classroom. Agency and voices at play in Telling Histories workshops were dispersed, collective and shared by both staff and students. In this moment, the subjugation of the past is removed, the feelings of inadequacy gone, as we for a moment feel empowered. Butler insisted on this transition from subjugation to agency in an interview for an Israeli newspaper that:

It seemed that if you were subjugated, there were also forms of agency that were available to you, and you were not just a victim, or you were not only oppressed, but oppression could become the condition of your agency.

(Aloni, 2010)

Speaking the truth of our lives, telling a story of a grandfather banned from the islands and the effects on him; three generations of one family in care because of the stolen generations; a story of survival from a massacre in NSW; stories of triumph against adversity; recollections of idyllic childhoods on the river, at the beach or in the desert; manifestos on hunting and bush food, and native tide claims—for each student a moment of embodying the power of an ancient culture and sharing that with an audience. We performed and enacted the power and strength and guidance of our ancestors through telling their stories and talking their histories into existence.

White privilege

The performative affect of public performance exists not just on a subjective or individual level, but also on a political level. The power of telling stories otherwise untold not only moves the performers to an agentic state, it also moved the audience to a space ‘in between’ modern white western Australia and First Nations realities. Given the energy and commitment on behalf of the Australian nation state to ignore, hide, refute and disavow actual histories and realities of First Nation peoples, this use of live public performance to act counter to the possessive investment in ignorance was intense and effective. The counter narrative of strength and survival sat staring in the face of the drunk, needy, desperate narrative of Aboriginal incompetence. As Lipsitz explains:

Because they are ignorant of even the recent history' of the possessive investment in whiteness ... Americans produce largely cultural explanations for structural social problems.

(Lipsitz, 2005, p. 75)

This ‘pathologizing of Aboriginal people’ (Moreton-Robinson, 2009) is constant, in the mainstream news, television, papers a barrage of how bad we are, but for a moment in time we’d inverted all of it. We literally said, Look how good we are, over and over again.

While Lipsitz refers to whiteness among Americans, these cultural explanations are very relevant to Australia. They are demonstrated through the use of western standards in this study. Any conversations around rights and sovereignty become conversations about community incapacity, alcoholism, poor health, sexual abuse and neglect. The white gaze is firmly fixed on First Nation peoples’ social problems rather than structural inequity. But most importantly for tills argument, Lipsitz goes on to say dial whilst white privilege and ignorance of that privilege accords advantages for white people, it does so at the expense of everyone else. The advantage doesn’t happen without a similar disadvantage being inflicted on others. Lipsitz’s primary argument is that white people are 'part of the problem—not because of our race, but because of our possessive investment in it’ (Lipsitz, 2005, p. 79).

It is the possessive need to maintain the privileges attached to white culture at the expense of non-white cultures that is the problem. White culture(s) in and of itself is not inherently bad, even though in its interest terrible atrocities have been committed. It is the need to maintain the power and control that comes with being white that is being problematised here. This is whiteness as white supremacy. bell hooks, in her paper, Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination, points out that white privilege:

perpetuates the fantasy that the other who is subjugated is sub human, lacks the ability to comprehend, to understand, to see the working of the powerful in white supremacist society. White people can safely imagine they are invisible to black people since they have historically asserted the right to control the black gaze.

(hooks, 2002, p. 21)

In an Australian context, whiteness and its privileges are deeply founded in the version of history that is told. So, possessive investment in whiteness becomes a deeply possessive investment in ignorance. Ignorance is the vehicle that allows colonialism and its epistemic violence in the classroom to be continually played out:

Indigenous people have spent a long time working at resisting the powerful. We have become extremely knowledgeable about White Australia in ways that are unknown to most white ‘settlers’. Our social worlds are imbued with meaning grounded in knowledges of different realities. In our communities, through the vehicle of oral history, social memory is developed, reproduced, changed and maintained. The message of resistance is embedded in local histories and is performed in embodied daily practice.

(Moreton-Robinson, 2003, p. 127)

The act of speaking up and out to an audience was a key strength of Telling Histories. The presentations were all informative and entertaining and strong, and they all held Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ views, worldviews, stories, realities. This often-times had a profound effect on the audience. Every speech and performance challenged ignorance. That was the very point: to communicate our histories to an audience. This would not be problematic except in an environment where there is a possessive investment in ignorance.

This possessive investment means that anything that tells a counter-truth to dominant Australian narratives must be questioned, that the investment in ignorance must be possessively guarded. Ignorance in this sense is not as simple as not knowing or non-exposure to information. It is the structured, tacitly agreed upon, systematically enforced ignorance that lies in any society that is racially hierarchized. It is the deliberate not-knowing and not-seeing that allows lies about white supremacy and Aboriginal inferiority to be continued so dial white privilege is never questioned, never undermined. It is mis-seeing injustice and turning your head and heart onto other matters, odter explanations, therefore not seeing, not knowing, not caring.

Challenging possessive investment in ignorance

Telling Histories, with its open story telling sty'le, not only confronted that ignorance but actively dismantled it. When the audience is sitting through a performance based around massacres on cattle stations in the Northern Territory, there is a profound impact on, if not extinguishing, of ignorance. Or when audience members watch a ‘smash the Act’ performance with a black Job Bjelke Peterson and chanting protestors at the Commonwealth Games, screaming students being dragged out of the classroom/slage by other students wearing police costumes. Stage that right, and all disbelief is suspended, the audience is emotionally engaged, the action happening right there. Add to this the enactments of the histories of Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and the Freedom Rides, a life story of Sir Douglas Nicholls or William Cooper, Broome half-caste girls home and so many stories of the stolen generations, of mothers losing their children or being in the detention centres called ‘homes’. The power of these stories was felt by both audience and participant; it was felt deeply, emotionally, viscerallv as real as the moments themselves. Phillips and Bunda talk of the power of storying and telling stories as:

For Aboriginal peoples, story and storytelling commenced at the beginning.

Stories are embodied acts of inter-textalised, trans-generational law and life spoken across and through time and place. In and of the everyday and every- time, stories—whether those that told of our origin or of our being now—all carry meaning; a theoretical understanding that communicates the world.

(Phillips & Bunda, 2018, p. 8)

To be part of an audience for a performance is not just to be entertained for a short time and then return to your ‘real self and ‘real life’ unchanged. Rather, it is to be deeply drawn into a sense of community enacted and bound by the resonance of affect and fellow-feeling rippling through the audience, a sense of connection that certainly has lasting cognitive and emotional effects. Even if the affect circulating in the performance cannot be deliberately transmuted into stable meanings able to circulate in other socio-institutional spaces or in other regions of quotidian social life, it is important to acknowledge that affect is as educative as abstract concepts and ideas. Or, perhaps more accurately, to acknowledge that deeply existential concepts and ideas adduce, draw on, evoke, embody and gain their definition and scope from affect. In short, the polarity posited by institutionalised Westernised academic education between reason (logos) and emotion (pathos) exemplified in Plato’s effort to distinguish between the responsible sober discourse of philosophy and knowledge on the one hand, and the irresponsible emotional excesses of rhetoric, poetics and drama on the other is simply untrue, even for its own occasions of education.

Speaking to and for an enlarged community

Another element of the Telling Histories workshops is that students find that the voices and speaking stances they can take up are not only more ‘true to who they are’ but are also more representative. Insofar as they are speaking to an audience, they are ipso facto speaking on behalf of that audience. Moreover, they are speaking ‘in the voice of an even more enlarged audience and enlisting the specific audience in front of them to align themselves with this larger sense of community assembled around a collective memory or summoned to commit more emphatically to a public value or shared future. It is important to note that this ‘more representative voice’ is not the ‘universal voice’ of modernist knowledge or nation state. It is not a voice claiming to speak the one true Truth to everyone, nor summoning everyone to a universal sense of community instituted by a singular constitutive origin or event. Instead, it is a voice that is more respectful of dispersion, difference, diversity and indeterminacy, even in the very act of enacting its call to community. We could say that the community that is being invoked is a performative community, one that is called into being through the very performance of the call itself, a community that, although centred on the specific audience bodily present, invokes other more spectral members both past and future into the sweep of its performative call. The so-called ‘real’ audience senses and in fact actually is carried up into communion with this larger community stretching into the past and future.

Rob's reflection

Prior to coming to Batchelor I had dabbled in ancient rhetoric, but, responding to the responses from students when I introduced them to rhetorical themes and textual figures, I embarked on a serious study of rhetoric as a practice of democratic politics. For more than two thousand years, rhetoric had formed the capstone discipline of Liberal Arts, dating back to Plato’s bete noir, the Sophists and Isocrates (Poulakos & Depew, 2004). I discovered an entirely other culture and discipline of reasonable discourse {logos), contemptuously labelled ‘rhetoric’ by Plato in his attempt to expel it from the realm of reason and the body politic (Conley, 1990). This discovery addressed two issues. One, it provided a pedagogic tool-box of textual patterns (Lausberg, 1998) that could assist students in finding the forms to give voice and enhanced power to their performances. In fact, traditionally, written literacy had been mastered through a rhetorical curriculum (Marrou, 1956). This would enable me to still contribute an ‘explicit language and literacy pedagogy’, but one that did not demean or reject what students brought from their own backgrounds, cultures, languages, rhetorical experience or political experience.

But, even more importantly, it enabled me to find a philosophical and pedagogic footing set apart from the dominant mode of triumphant universalising Modernity (Wagner, 1994), which, unfortunately, still queered much of the supposedly ‘two-way pedagogy’ at Batchelor. As a result, students were intrigued to discover that Western culture is internally divided, not an impregnable singular monolith or Subject, and that it had always been riven by a dialectic between two competing theoretical, pedagogic and political traditions and practices of logos: Plato’s search for certain universal knowledge; and the embrace of pluralist democratic dialogue by Isocrates; both students of Socrates. These two ‘pillars of western civilisation’, are in fact competing forms of life that have been trading blows ever since (Kimball, 1995). My gambit was that First Nations students might find the discourse of public rhetoric framed as a conjuncture of ethos, pathos and logos more congenial and more enabling than the abstractions of modern know ledge and governance which banished both ethos and pathos.

It seems to me that ancient rhetoric with its attention to logos, pathos and ethos provides an effective vehicle for students, along with applied theatre, to experience the power of speech to mobilise a sensus communis, a sense of togetherness which is vital in developing political power. It has also provided me with a framework for reflecting on the Telling Histories workshops. In trying to articulate how Telling Histories workshops have impacted on me, I have found myself pushed beyond Aristotle’s theoreticist (perhaps even instrumentalist) construal of public speech. I now find myself more attuned to the sophist, Gorgias, on the performative power of speech to create the world anew (Cassin, 2014), and to Isocrates’ emphasis on the power of political speech in creating ethical sensibilities and dispositions of future citizens (Haskins, 2006). I am also discovering a deep synergy between this ancient practice of public speech and contemporary theories of

‘affect’ that draw on Spinoza’s anti-dualism (Massumi, 2002; Williams, 2010) concerning the constitutive significance of affect/pathos in life and political life.

However, I must insist that these reflections express my own limited understandings as a settler colonial white man about what was at stake during these Telling Histories workshops. Far more important is how they were experienced, understood, appropriated and enacted by First Nations staff and students, and whether they contribute to a stronger praxis of political discourse and action by First Nations people in future.

Kathryn's reflection

Histories are contested terrain in educational practice. Many sites of public education and schooling serve to provide information on history and represent dominant histories which subjugate Indigenous peoples.

(Iseke-Bames, 2005, p. 150)

Telling Histories viewed history simultaneously as a concept, a discipline and a tool of the oppressor. It was important that we had the space to tell our stories and histories in an Aboriginal-only place as in this way the journey of telling and retelling history could happen without fear. The sense of accomplishment at the end of these Units was enormous and was shared by all students (see Gilbey & McCormack, 2018). We raged, we cried, we celebrated, we laughed, we shared.

Performing ап-other history of Australia

These performances were an act of breaking down some of the barriers that typically exclude First Nations people from succeeding within western Higher Education frameworks. They were both an act, and therefore a site, of empowerment for the participants, and a gift to the audience to witness a different perspective, to participate and be drawn on a journey which may be one they don’t know, a journey which may open a door to conversations, to meaningful exchanges.

Dion calls these moments, ‘compelling invitations’:

within Aboriginal traditions the power of the story resides partly in the telling, our approach is to (re)tell the stories in such a way that listeners hear a ‘compelling invitation’ that claims their attention and initiates unsettling questions that require working through ... the hope for accomplishing an alternative way of knowing lies partly in our ability to share with our readers what the stories mean to us.

(Dion, 2009, p. 1)

If the moments in history that we find important, moments that shape who we are, are the very moments that white Australia wants to forget, then telling histories from an Indigenous perspective can provide forums from which more authentic discussions can begin.

First Nations pedagogy

For the master’s tools will never dismande the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

(Lorde, 1984, p. 112)

This seminal quote is used at every feminist explanation of difference or possibilities of different ways. But I am struck resolutely in its application in the context of Batchelor Institute’s two Common Units, Public Communication and Telling Histories? Why do we keep looking to the master’s tools to dismantle the house that is oppressing us? Why when we have an alternative: trust in culture, trust in the strength of our convictions and in our old and new/‘old’ ways (Arbon, 2008). We have the oldest continuing culture in the world. This means we have the oldest continuing education system in the world. The Common Units show us that it is possible in a diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander classroom to have effective inclusive First Nations education in a higher education setting.

Batchelor Institute has had opportunities to step outside of the colonial mentality that manifests itself in the containment arguments around standards and competencies, to trust in our cultures. Our cultures have never really let us down; they are there strong, constant, always changing yet fixed in the earth and in ourselves. We need to walk with our heads high and we need to trust in our difference, trust that it is only in celebrating our difference, not pretending sameness as in oppressive mimicry, that we can reclaim the Institute as a leading tertian- education provider to and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As expressions of Aboriginal knowledge within higher education courses, the Common Units were beacons of what could be. They were sites of freedom for First Nations lecturers and students to negotiate Indigenous knowledge and western knowledge into a lived First Nations teaching/learning experience. Premised and informed by First Nations values, customs, languages and liistories, the Common Units represent for me a high point in the air of the Institute’s struggle to embrace Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing in die world of learning.

For if the master’s tools that bind us are whiteness and its privileges, ignorance and an investment in its maintenance, subjection, subjugation and abjection, then how can we possibly dismantle the master’s house? But more importandy, how- can we construct our own house with those same tools, with those as our foundation unless we remove the ignorance, the abjection?

Telling Histories: now itself history

All of these stories, communicated powerfully through performance, song and dance, changed those that heard them, taught those who engaged with them and confronted those who didn’t want to hear them. Telling Histories had eleven years of pushing the boundaries of ignorance possession. Momentarily within the Institute the central story being told was one of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement, history, strength and survival. The classrooms and the offices had been hijacked and, whether it was one speech or story in particular that grabbed the audience’s attention, the focus briefly was not on curriculum content or discipline-specific knowledges that maintain the accustomed binary power relationships within the Institute, but all about First Nations peoples’ strength, knowledge, stories and capacity.

The Common Units, through their expressed intent, impacted upon the levels of ignorance that ‘others’ (those that are not us) had an investment in. The Units also undermined the hegemonic power imported into the Institute by saying:

You may think this, but you quite simply cannot deny the power of these stories and the work put in to the display of them. Two weeks is all we had to change the world around us a little bit. But that’s OK, that’s all we needed. We were that good!


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