Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences of schooling and education: Oral histories, autobiographies, and life writing

Australia, to 2022

Contributions to Anita Heiss’ anthology, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, included authors’ recollections of their experiences of schools. Shannon Foster recalled that ‘None of the teachers at school ever talked about Aboriginal people. “They” were never mentioned.’ (Foster in Heiss, 2018) For Evelyn Araluen, being ‘Aboriginal meant I was always angry in History class.’ (Aruluen in Heiss) John Hartley remembered in third grade

being told I was not Aboriginal, because I was not black. I remember being educated to feel shame just because of who I was… I remember objecting to the teachers’ description of the ‘Aborigines’… I remember learning racism in school… in the classroom, they dispossessed me of a proud and strong culture. (Hartley in Heiss)

While accounts such as these underscore contemporary research into how school and education systems have discriminated against, disadvantaged and marginalised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, families and communities, there remains little historical scholarship examining how this was experienced by First Nations people. This is often attributed to a lack of sources, and a hesitancy of historians to confirm colonial processes by relying on records written and kept by colonial governments.

Finding new and reliable sources

X HeissInstead of relying on official and government sources the alternative is to consult first-hand accounts of First Nations people. Many accounts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people talking about historical schooling and education are found in biographies, autobiographies, oral history (transcripts, audio and audio-visual recordings), local government-produced reports and life writing. This material is key to addressing both the problems with government records and the absences and deliberate silences around issues like school exclusions and classroom racism. They provide vital perspectives into the school systems of all states in Australia that are regularly represented as providing non-discriminatory education. They make clear the need for critical histories of education and schooling in Australia. These sources present counternarratives to celebratory claims about the expansion of schooling. They illustrate the actual impact of policies on the ground.

There are not yet (2022) any published oral history collections or autobiographies that focus on First Nations peoples’ experiences of Australian schooling. Some collections of oral histories include memories of childhood that, by their nature, also refer to schooling. They offer rich first-hand accounts of creative and dynamic engagements with schooling, as well as experiences of the ‘Captain Cook’ curriculum [see Glossary below], the racism of teachers and other students, and of the impact of systemic racial discrimination. In addition to these edited collections, there are numerous published memoirs, life writing, autobiographies and biographies of First Nations people.

The importance of engaging with these and other nongovernment sources, is clear. They provide an opportunity to hear directly from Aboriginal people about their experiences of schooling and education. They also include information that has not been recorded in government records. These narratives are often more accurate and more vital than official documents. They alert us to moments when the school system was challenged or reimagined. It becomes possible to see both how schools have been central to the political project of settler colonialism in Australia, and to political projects undertaken by Aboriginal people for their own, individual and collective, purposes.

Themes in the history of schooling

Several themes emerge from a reading of the sources of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history as outlined above.

Racism in the classroom

X JackomosThemes include the experiences of racism in the classroom, from teachers, non-Aboriginal students, and also in the curriculum, many of them similar to the accounts given at the beginning of this entry. Philip Egan’s oral history testimony argued that: ‘It was no good teachers putting something in front of us which was totally irrelevant, out of a Captain Cook book.’(Egan in Jackomos & Fowell, 1991) In her autobiography Eileen Harrison describes how her love of school at the Lake Tyers Aboriginal reserve contrasted sharply with her experiences of school in Ararat, where her family moved under the Victorian government’s assimilation policy. Harrison writes: ‘I remember that first day… It was bigger than the school we were used to… the first thing I saw was that I was the only black-skinned kid in that room.’ After six months, Eileen made the decision to leave school: ‘One day, after I asked the teacher for help and he turned away from me, I shut my book, stood up and just walked out of the room.’ (Harrison in Harrison & Landon, 2010)

Leaving home for school

Among other themes are First Nations children being faced with the choice to leave behind family in order to access school. Pat Dodson wrote of his experiences attending boarding school in Victoria, having been selected to be sent south from the Northern Territory. He remembers being told on his way to Monivae College, in Hamilton, in Victoria’s Western District in 1961 that his classmates were ‘all looking forward to seeing the new black boy from the Territory,’ and that on his first night in the boarding house, the other students ‘filed past my bed to have a look at me’. He also recalls having to adjust to ‘protocols that were associated not only with Victorian society but also boarding school society.’ Dodson was the school captain of Monivae in 1967. He is an important leader in Indigenous affairs and has worked hard to effect changes. His recollections of school reveal the tension between the opportunities and education he had at boarding school, and the disconnection from home: ‘I mean, I was sent there; I didn’t really want to go there. But after I got into the schooling I liked it, even though… I was away from home.’ (Dodson in Keeffe, 2008)

X Keeffe DodsonDodson’s account is representative of the dilemma faced by First Nations people who attended boarding schools. Schooling gave access to education, connections and opportunities that may otherwise have been unobtainable. Mobility for schooling is inextricably linked to the role of schools as sites of surveillance and forced removal. Gordon Briscoe (2010) also writes about being away from his family and community to access formal schooling. Racial Folly explores his experience living at the Anglican St Francis House in Adelaide. This institution is examined further in Charles Perkins’ autobiography, A Bastard Like Me (1975), and The Boys from St Francis, written by non-Indigenous journalist Ashley Mallett (2018). It includes interviews with many of the boys who spent time there in the 1940s and 50s. Some of them made the choice to go to Adelaide, and others were forced there.

Effects of child removal policies on schooling

Just as Mallet’s book gives voice to First Nations people, so too can shorter accounts and vignettes about schooling located in a range of texts concerned with other issues. One example is in Barbara Cummings’ (1998) account of children who were first removed from their families to the Retta Dixon home in Darwin, and then sent south to access schooling that was not available in the Northern Territory. This provides a valuable insight into the experiences of children leaving the Territory.

X Flick GoodallIsabel Flick’s recollections of her childhood illustrate the effect of the NSW system. Her younger siblings were admitted to the Collarenebri Public School in the 1940s after their parents applied for exemption. Their admission was provisional, and due to the protests of white parents, Aboriginal students were taught in an ‘Annexe’ to the public school. Flick recalled that

they took the fairest kids in and then the second fairest lot. And when it was our turn, those poor kids, once they got them into the school the terrible fear of going every day…. They cried about how they didn’t want to go to school.

Flick’s younger siblings faced racism from their non-Aboriginal classmates, limited resources and low expectations from their teachers. Flick’s younger sister recalled that her teacher did not expect her to be able to read. (Flick & Goodall, 2004.)

Avoiding authorities and dealing with surveillance

The vexed nature of leaving home for school is connected to the role of surveillance and forced removal, another key theme that emerges from these sources. Oral history accounts collected in Aboriginal Elders’ Voices (2003) attest to this. Aunty Olive Jackson, a Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman, born at Griffith in NSW 1930 remembers the threat of being removed from her family by the Aborigines Welfare Board. It defined her childhood. Aunty Olive and her family

lived on the move, never staying anywhere long, always moving on before the welfare caught up to us…. It just wasn’t safe for us to have a settled home.

Aunty Olive travelled with her Gran, who

would put us into school here and there. The welfare would use truancy as an excuse to steal Koorie children, so she tried to keep us in school whenever she could…But of course we missed a lot of school because we had to keep moving on. Avoiding the welfare meant we missed what little education Koories could get back then.

Aunty Olive’s memories reveal how schooling was shaped by policies of forced removal, and the effects of laws that targeted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These were based on broader government projects of settler colonialism, apparently unconnected to education or schooling.

X Jack CharlesExpectations about, leaving school early, attendance and school success

Another common theme is the low expectations for Aboriginal students ingrained in the school system. These emerge, too, through a range of sources that centre First Nations’ accounts of schooling. Uncle Jack Charles attended school while living at the Box Hill Boys Home after he was forcibly removed from his family at the age of four months. In his biography, Uncle Jack Charles reflects on his experiences of school, and his memories of attending the Education Department school on site. In spite of being ‘a willing learner’, he was ‘often overlooked for educational opportunities’, and was sometimes ‘sent off to clean the quadrangle, or to spend an hour watering the garden instead’, and that most of his work included ‘quite menial tasks.’ (Charles, 2019) Len Tregonning also attended school away from his family, as a boarder at the nongovernment Kingswood College in Box Hill. Like Uncle Jack Charles, he recognised that his schooling had denied his identity and culture:

I realised that by the time I left school at thirteen, I’d absorbed everyone else’s history and values but not those that were rightfully my own. The school system was insensitive and uncaring for Kooris and I now realise that one of my greatest motivations is a fear of inferiority.

Len, who was interviewed for a local history of Aboriginal connections in the Boroondara Shire was told to leave school

three months earlier because I was of Aboriginal descent and I would have difficulty getting a job in comparison to all the other boys, so I left school early.

Len left school and began work as a fitter and turner. (Tregonning in Crawford, 2008)

Outside of Melbourne, the experiences of Ivan Couzens and Faye Carter both show their views and experiences that the value of education was different for Aboriginal students in mid-twentieth century Victoria. Ivan Couzens’ recollections of growing up in the Western District include his leaving school at the age of thirteen: ‘No questions were asked as to why I left. I suppose it was expected that Aboriginal people left school at an early age.’ (Couzens in Jackomos & Fowell) Aunty Fay Carter grew up in Mooroopna, where Aboriginal workers were key to the labour force that contributed to the economic growth of the region through the fruit industry.

Us kids would sometimes get pulled out of school to go tomato or fruit picking… It didn’t worry the school in those days. They didn’t think it was very important for Aboriginal kids to get an education. (Carter in Jackomos & Fowell)

Methodological approaches

X HarrisonConsulting life histories of First Nations people as a way of understanding some of the ways that the imposition of formal schooling and education systems have impacted and been experienced by Indigenous communities is an important step. It is also crucial that such material be used appropriately. In Australia’s settler colonial society, historians cannot claim an impartial, objective bystander position. Colonisation is not something that happened in the past: it is important to guard against the potential of historians to contribute to ongoing colonising processes by engaging with First Nations stories in ways that can be extractive and damaging.

Instead, by reading and listening to First Nations people as they speak and write of their experiences of schooling, the sources described in this entry might be used to develop understanding and knowledge, rather than be used to support or uphold agendas developed by non-Indigenous readers, writers, scholars and institutions.

Decolonial theories in education studies [see Glossary below] provide directions for developing ethical frameworks for engaging with works and stories of Indigenous people, especially when considering the aim of reading material such as that described in this entry. For example, Eve Tuck writes that:

‘To watch settler scholars sift through our work as they effectively ask, ‘Isn’t there more for me to get from this?’ is so insulting… Often it seems that settlers read like settlers (that is, they read extractively) for particular content to be removed for future use.

I spent almost all my career, up until recently, believing that if white settlers would just read Indigenous authors, this would move projects of Indigenous sovereignty and land repatriation in meaningful ways. I underestimated how people would read Indigenous work attractively, for discovery. (Tuck in Smith, Tuck & Yang, 2019: see Note 1 below)

Note 1:

For further reading on this approach to reading, researching and writing Indigenous history, see

  • Eve Tuck, ‘Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.’ Harvard Educational Review 79: 3 (2009): 409–28.
  • Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘Building a Research Agenda for Indigenous Epistemologies and Education,’ Anthropology and Education Quarterly 36: 1 (2005): 93-95.
  • Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, eds. Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. New York: Routledge, 2019.
  • Maggie Walter & Michele Suina. ‘Indigenous data, Indigenous methodologies and Indigenous data sovereignty.’ International Journal of Social Research Methodology 22: 3, (2018): 233-243.
Note 2:

Oral history collections are a valuable source for understanding how day-to-day schooling was experienced. While some material is available in libraries, much is also published online. Some oral history collections and publications are difficult to find. With limited numbers printed, it may be partly for this reason that they are often overlooked. Another reason may be that oral histories are occasionally and unjustifiably considered less reliable than archival sources.

Note 3:

The following are examples of local or local government histories that contain stories of Indigenous historical experience of schooling.


Captain Cook curriculum refers to the dominant school curricula asserting that Australian history began with Captain Cook’s “discovery” of Australia and the British “settlement” (as opposed to invasion) that followed.

Decoloniality is a form of analysis that focuses on separating ‘the production of knowledge’ from European centred, the usually dominant, forms of understanding. It criticises the supposed ‘universality’ and ‘superiority’ of European-based knowledge and culture. Decolonial perspectives see the claims of European centred knowledge as the basis of Western imperialism.

Bibliography and References

Aboriginal elders’ voices: Stories of the “Tide of history”: Victorian Indigenous elders’ life stories and oral histories. 2003. Aboriginal Community Elders Service, Language Australia.

Briscoe, G. 2010. Racial folly: A twentieth century Aboriginal family, Canberra, ANU Press.

Charles, J. 2019. Born-again Blakfella, Melbourne, Penguin Books.

Chittick, L. & Fox, T. 1997. Travelling with Percy: A South Coast journey, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press. [Oral history]

Crawford, D. (ed.) 2008. Boroondara connections: Stories of Aboriginal connection by residents of Boroondara. Booroondara, ANTaR.

Cummings, B. 1998. Take this child: From Kahlin Compound to the Retta Dixon Children’s Home, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press.

Flick, I. & Goodall, H. 2004. Isabel Flick: The many lives of an extraordinary Aboriginal woman, Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Harrison, E. & Landon, C. 2010. Black swan: A Koorie woman’s life, Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Heiss, A. 2018. Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, Melbourne, Black Inc.

Jackomos, A. & Fowell, D. (eds) 1991. Living Aboriginal history of Victoria: Stories in the oral tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge Press Syndicate.

Keeffe, K. 2003. Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press.

Lovett-Gardiner, I. 1997. Lady of the lake: Aunty Iris’ story, Melbourne, Koorie Heritage Trust.

Mallett, A. 2018. The boys from St Francis, Adelaide, Wakefield Press.

Mellor, D. & Haebich, A. (eds) 2002. Many voices: Reflections on experiences of Indigenous child separation, Canberra, National Library of Australia.

Pepper, P. 1989. You are what you make yourself to be: The story of a Victorian Aboriginal family 1842-1980. Melbourne, Hyland House.

Perkins C. 1975. A bastard like me, Sydney, Ure Smith.

Citation of this entry

Marsden, B. 2022. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences of schooling and education: Oral histories, autobiographies, and life writing [Online]. Sydney: ANZHES. Available: www.dehanz.net.au

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