Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literacy

I feel a little uncomfortable being a white person writing on indigenous issues. It’s difficult in situations of such immense power imbalance as currently exists between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians not to come across as patronising or a self-congratulatory do-gooder. However, I’m also aware that consciousness needs to be raised and good programs promoted, so here I am. I just hope I don’t offend those who really know what they are talking about.

I’ve been aware of a number of initiatives for some time now – such as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation – but this post was inspired by a small article I saw in my city’s newspaper about an initiative called the Indigenous Reading Project. So, I thought it might be time to talk about some of the things that have been happening in recent times. Indigenous literacy rates in Australia are at scandalous levels, which I find incredibly embarrassing for a so-called first-world nation. The situation is particularly bad in remote areas. According to a National Indigenous Literacy Day press release, “only one in five children living in a remote Indigenous community can read or write to the accepted minimum level”. One in five and only to the minimum level! This really isn’t acceptable.

Here are some activities/organisations that I’m aware of, but there are more, many at local community levels:

  • Indigenous Literacy Foundation: A not-for-profit charity established, I believe, with the support of the Australian Book Industry and other private sponsors. It doesn’t receive government funding. Its aim is “to make a positive difference in the lives of Australian Indigenous children by focusing on ways to improve their literacy levels”. It is a broad ranging organisation that sponsors or supports a wide variety of events and activities. According to its website, it raised $600,000 in 2012, and over the course of its existence has supplied some 85,000 books to over 230 remote communities.
  • Indigenous Reading Project: The project that finally inspired me to write about this issue. The article I read – here – describes a project developed by a Canberra-based public servant. It aims to “improve indigenous reading standards by giving students a Kindle in an effort to boost their interest in reading”. The project, very new still, has had significant success, in terms of the measures they’ve devised. It is geared to 10-15 year olds who are independent readers but “at or below national benchmarks in literacy”.
  • Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation: Describes itself as “the first independent charity in Australia dedicated to raising national language, literacy and numeracy standards, especially in remote and marginalised communities.” Its tagline is, simply, “being able to read and write is a basic human right”. It targets literacy and numeracy throughout the Australian population, but indigenous people clearly form a major part of its constituency. It supports a variety of literacy projects at the individual, family and community level.
  • National Indigenous Literacy Day: Organised by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and now 6 years old, the Day has two main aims: to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to read; and to raise money to buy books for children living in remote Australia. A wide range of organisations are gradually getting behind this initiative including literary organisations like the Wheeler Centre, public libraries, schools, broadcasters like the ABC. I hope it becomes a universally recognised event on the Australian literary calendar.

There are also indigenous writers who are working hard to support literacy programs. Two whom I’ve heard speak (live) are Anita Heiss and Boori Monty Pryor. They are (of course!) both passionate about their cause, and are effective (and entertaining) public speakers.

Anita Heiss is an Indigenous Literary Foundation ambassador. She is actively involved in all sorts of literacy initiatives, from grass roots activities like writing books collaboratively with school children to lobbying and working at organisational levels. Boori Monty Pryor is one of Australia’s first two inaugural Children’s Laureates. He has made sharing and promoting indigenous culture his life’s work, with his main focus being, as I understand him, to encourage cultural pride and literacy skills in indigenous Australians and awareness of and respect for indigenous culture in non-indigenous Australians.

I’ll close with a statement by Heiss, taken from the ILF website:

Literacy is essential to Aboriginal people’s self-determination. If we cannot read we cannot make the decisions that inevitably impact on our lives …

Reading, as we all know, is that important!

If you believe in the cause of indigenous literacy, and have some money to spare, please click on the organisational links above and consider donating.

Oh, and if you know of successful literacy organisations, programs and/or campaigns, I’d love to hear about them.

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literacy

  1. Another form of support that helps is indigenous publishing. Since discovering Magabala Books in WA, I’ve reviewed a number of lovely picture books by indigenous authors, and apart from their intrinsic value as works of literature, these authors are also inspirational role models for young indigenous people AND their books feature indigenous kids in the illustrations for them to identify with.

    • Oh thanks Lisa … yes, I’ve seen their work. I agree this is a great example of another prong in the armoury. (Is that a mixed metaphor!!). There’s nothing like reading material that represents you is there? I think that familiar material is probably where most of us like to start (like the Enid Blyton stories for many of us) and then we move out more and more into reading about other later on. Are Magabala’s books found much in urban schools too?

      • I felt hesitant in the same way about hosting Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers, but like you, I felt that it was worth risking it, because promoting indigenous literature nationally and internationally is inherently worthwhile. Mind you, I’d still like to co-host it with an indigenous blog if someone offers!

        • Anita is such a busy lady doing such valuable work in so many different fields, I wouldn’t dare ask her but *just fantasising for a moment* she would be ideal. I mean, she has a high profile, and our complementary audiences would support each other perfectly and have a huge reach across readers in all sorts of different genres. Everyone all over Australia would be reading indigenous writing for that week!!

  2. Thanks. I think your post is exactly what people like us can do appropriately without being offensive, but giving some needed publicity. Those reading statistics are appalling.

  3. Thanks, Sue, for this reminder of a very sorry part of modern Australian life, but it’s also good to be reminded about what some are doing about it. Commenting on a blog post seems utterly vacuous in this context, but not commenting feels as though one’s walking away from a very important issue. In the end, the more these initiatives are promoted the better? Actually, the more I think about it, this is a truly wonderful post and perhaps it’s an example of what blogs and the blogosphere do best.

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