KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 1 / January-February-March 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

WILL DAVIS teaches at Beenleigh State High School in Queensland and also runs the Murriland Cultural and Homework Program. Last year he was one of eight Australian participants in the Australia-Philippines Indigenous Education Study Tour. Will talks about the common problems facing indigenous educators in both countries in this interview with EMERE DISTOR.

It was like one of those "light-bulb" moments. I was drawn to a familiar face in a new mob of colleagues and suddenly realised who he was. He was a formidable and articulate member of our tutorial group in university years ago. The young and passionate man who put forward his opinions - especially those that touched on Aboriginal issues. He probed every nook and cranny of discussion and stuck by his Murri principles and conviction like paint to a canvass. Seeking validation for whatever image and picture he drew on a canvass, was the least of his priorities. But unlike the 'common garden variety' of social activist, he was never aggressive or agitated, yet could deliver a very effective discourse that encouraged reflective thought.

In a world full of coincidence, I learned from a friend that Will Davis was one of the delegates who went to the Philippines for a cross-cultural workshop on Indigenous Education in December last year. I was not surprised by the discovery. At the back of my mind there was already an identikit of who might be likely to attend such a gathering, but the foreboding danger of typecasting and instinct overshadowed. Nevertheless, I was spot on.

Then came a chance meeting in a narrow hallway while collecting mail. With the usual friendly protocol done, I jokingly told Will about 'the Mole' who leaked his 'activities' in the Philippines to me. I was taken aback by my comment for a second, thinking that he might take the joke the wrong way; that he might think I was being malicious about foreign men going to the Philippines. Thankfully, he picked up the gist straight away but wondered where I got the information. Explanation ensued and eventually came the idea of an interview.

The conference in Baguio City was attended by at least 50 participants, eight of which came from Australia and the rest from different indigenous groupings in the Philippines. It was convened by the Philippines-based Asian Council for People's Culture and co-ordinated by the Queensland University of Technology. For ten days the participants attended seminars and workshops to devise action plans for global practice and to explore creative and different levels of indigenous empowerment. They also had the chance to visit mainstream schools around Baguio City.

As a member of the Cobble-Cobble people (traditional owners of the land near Dalby, Queensland) with White history and South Sea Islander heritage, and as an Indigenous educator, Will observed the common issues and problems that prevented Indigenous students from succeeding in mainstream education. "There are many factors that are common among Indigenous peoples. There is racism and the struggle for identity. There is also the lack of validation of indigenous knowledge as being equivalent to mainstream education".

Will believes that the oppressive nature of mainstream society in general and mainstream schools in particular, played a part in pushing Indigenous peoples to assimilate into the dominant culture and to some extent even take on the identity of the oppressor. Recognising the indelibly destructive effect of "borrowed identity" to the continuity of indigenous culture, the conference reiterated the need to establish a global network that will monitor and develop culturally-responsive curricula for Indigenous students.

In the Philippines the establishment of a School of Indigenous Knowledge and Traditions (SIKAT) was the start. It is a body that will oversee the three levels of networking and advocacy, namely the inter-tribal, local organizations and groups and the national and international organizations. There was also the idea of setting up an Indigenous Education branch within the Philippines' Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS).

In Australia overcoming the struggle for identity among Indigenous students comes in a package of complexities. Will pointed to the fact that "mainstream education among the indigenous communities was an introduced concept" and that the 20 years or so of formal education has a very weak effect on the way Indigenous people see the relevance of schooling. According to Will, the unfortunate dictum of mainstream society that education and class predetermine success in the future, correlate to the diminished competitiveness of Indigenous students vis a vis their mainstream counterparts.

The establishment of an independent school 11 years ago came as a timely and welcome alternative to mainstream schooling of Indigenous children in Brisbane. Based in Acacia Ridge, the Aboriginal and Islander Independent Community School has enrolled 200 students for the 2002 school year and provides bus services and breakfast everyday. The school operates on the same syllabi that mainstream schools use, but each subject is taught with indigenous context firmly in place. It also offers Aboriginal Studies as a specialised subject.

Mainstream schools however, still enrol the biggest number of Indigenous students (approximately 70 percent of Aboriginal school-aged children living in urban areas go to public schools). Given the situation, the role of Indigenous teachers like Will is to ensure that Indigenous education goes beyond tokenism, "that the relearning and empowerment of Indigenous students is a full-on part of the curriculum." For the last three years, Will has run the Murriland Cultural and Homework Program in Beenleigh State High School. He and three other tutors assist Murri students to get into the habit of doing homework and assignments. A cultural tutor and Elders are also involved in activities relating to community re-empowerment.

However, there is more to the program and Will re-affirms its other purpose. "Murriland also forms a link to the parents, thus it is the actualisation and solidification of community involvement into their children's education". He regularly liaises between teachers and parents of Indigenous kids especially when it relates to behaviour management. Also within the program is the cultural reintroduction that, "will not only inculcate Black consciousness but also pride in being Indigenous".

Will is equally passionate about solidarity with other Indigenous peoples of the world and has expressed his appreciation and admiration of what Indigenous groups in a poor country like the Philippines are doing despite numerous economic and political setbacks. For him and many other delegates, the conference opened doors of creative and dynamic advocacy that will keep the fire of indigenous solidarity burning. It also formally redefined and validated education as a liberating tool against oppressive forces lurking in mainstream society and not just a mere passport to a job. Most importantly, education is a shield and weapon in protecting ancestral land. In halfway jest, Will declares, "one day we will make a claim on the land where the Murriland room sits and if Education Queensland is fair dinkum about Indigenous people they will give it up - it's our land anyway."

About the author: Emere Distor has been writing for KASAMA for more than a decade. She has recently transferred from North Mackay to Beenleigh State High School (Qld.) and we are delighted to have her back at her 'desk' on the KASAMA editorial committee.