Since 1983, the Centre for Aboriginal Studies has been contributing to positive social change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Through its higher education and cultural initiatives, Curtin’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS) continues to promote a sense of strength, belonging and autonomy for Indigenous students.
“Curtin has always been very open and accepting of Aboriginal people,” says CAS Director Marion Kickett.
“The innovation of the University was always there. It recognised that Aboriginal people were needed in certain areas of the workforce, and created those courses.”
This innovation in education actually commenced in 1975, when WAIT began offering programs to train Aboriginal liaison officers, and provided bridging courses and a support agency for Aboriginal students.
The impact of such initiatives can’t be overemphasised, considering that, until the latter part of the 20th century, education was neither accessible nor encouraged for many Indigenous Australians, especially those living in rural or remote areas. Kickett’s father, for example, was permitted to attend school only until year three. Kickett, a Nyungar woman from the Ballardong language group, has been a part of Curtin since 1996, when she first taught a course in community health.
“I’ve always said that education is power,” she says. “That comes from my father. It was very important that his children get an education – they could then get a good job and provide more for their own children. He always encouraged me to pursue my career.”
While three of Kickett’s siblings enrolled at WAIT after completing year 10, Kickett studied nursing at the hospital in Narrogin – a career path that would lead her to Curtin, where she taught nursing and Indigenous health units for almost a decade.
“I always wanted to be nurse,” says Kickett. “Growing up I saw a lot of sickness and death. A lot of Aboriginal people would go into hospital but hated it. I thought if I could get a job as a nurse, I could help my own people.”
Following requests from the Perth Aboriginal Medical Service and other health organisations, Curtin began offering the Indigenous Community Health Program in 1992. The program teaches primary health care, health promotion and management within an Indigenous framework. It reflects an understanding that better health outcomes for Indigenous people are key to achieving equity in other areas, such as education and employment.
Now, it is compulsory for Curtin health sciences students to complete a unit in Indigenous health.
“It’s so important for nurses to understand Aboriginal people. If anyone is going to come across Aboriginal people in their work, it’s nurses,” says Kickett.
“Our Indigenous health programs all teach cultural practices. You’ve got to build trust with an Aboriginal patient. This could be asking where they’re from, who their family is, or even knowing some basic Nyungar language. It’s about giving students an understanding and an awareness of our culture.”
The Faculty of Humanities also has an Indigenous component, and Kickett envisions all areas of the University will soon have an Indigenous learning and teaching aspect. As well as integrating Indigenous culture and awareness inside its classrooms, Curtin has implemented these practices within its wider community. For example, every year the University celebrates NAIDOC week, and is heavily involved with the AIME Indigenous mentoring program.
Curtin also emphasises the importance of Welcome to Country at its major events. Kickett says that far from being a practice in political correctness, the ceremony is a way for Aboriginal people to assert their presence and identity.
“Some people may feel that Welcome to Country can be confronting, but I think that’s a good thing, because you need to know a bit of history,” she says.
In 2008, Curtin became the first Australian university to develop its own Reconciliation and Action Plan (RAP). It followed the action plan announced by Reconciliation Australia, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that resulted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being recognised officially as Australian citizens for the first time.
“I was not born a citizen in this country,” says Kickett, on the significance of the referendum. “A lot of people don’t want to know about it, or they tell you to ‘get over it’, but these are things that happened in my lifetime. People ask me why Aboriginal people should get special considerations, and I’ve had to explain that we’ve never been on the same playing field.”
Curtin’s RAP aims to level this playing field by building relationships, respect and opportunities between Indigenous and non-Aboriginal people within the University community. The latest version of the plan builds on these goals and seeks to promote Indigenous cultural capability in all staff and students, and further embed reconciliation initiatives into Curtin’s teaching, learning and research.
A major event for the entire Curtin community was the 2013 arrival of the Carrolup paintings at John Curtin Gallery. A unique collection of 122 artworks by Nyungar children of the Stolen Generations in the 1940s, the collection had been lost in storage from the 1960s in an art gallery at Colgate University in the US; some 50 years later the paintings were rediscovered and returned to Australia.
Kickett believes that Curtin is on the right track in bringing about positive social change for Indigenous people. On being CAS director, she says that you have to be able to work in two worlds.
“It’s about trying to balance the western world, where we have policies that we have to abide by, and negotiating those with the cultural way of doing things. There needs to be that flexibility.”
Looking forward, Kickett aims to increase Indigenous student retention and completion rates by strengthening CAS’s enabling courses, to ensure students are fully prepared for tertiary study. She’s also developing the Indigenous Employment Program, where students undertake paid work at Curtin while completing their studies.
Kickett’s efforts, and those of former CAS directors, are ultimately contributing to a future where higher education is a natural pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to transforming into a society that values their world views and perspectives.
“Education is the way for a better future for Aboriginal people,” she says. “And it’s not about losing your culture or assimilating, because you can always bring your culture with you.
“My father would be proud to see me working in these two worlds and moving between them very easily.”