Aug 15, 2017
Cherie Johnson is passionate about Aboriginal education.
I interviewed Cherie at the Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, while she participated in a program for entrepreneurs. While we spoke, she brought to life the landscape around us. Sydney Harbour is the traditional land of the Gadigal people. Long before colonisation by the British, this was a harbour into which whales came to breed. It had a rich social history, a shared space that saw peaceful trading with many other nations, including the Dutch and the Indonesians.
When I studied history in Australia in the 1990s, we covered aspects of the histories of many nations. In Australian history, while certain aspects of colonisation were addressed, the Myall Creek Massacre being a notable stand out in my memory, this was not a focus of our education. The white settlers were the focus. I have no memory of being taught anything about Australian history prior to colonisation, which was often, and still is, referred to as the “early days” of Australia.
Cherie believes passionately in the importance of Indigenising the Australian school curriculum. For example, Cherie means that we need to include much more Aboriginal content, such as teaching a history that doesn’t start with the colonisation of Australia.
Cherie feels it is also important to recognise that, while Australian education is typically focused on verbal ways of learning, Aboriginal people, and many non-Aboriginals, learn much more through kinetic and visual ways: learning through having a go at a process and then solidifying the learning with the written process.
These are topics that can be uncomfortable for non-Aboriginal Australians. An Aboriginal perspective can be a “narrative that is foreign.” Cherie wants to support non-Aboriginal Australians to implement these perspectives, to talk about “topics that they don’t find completely comfortable but [are] navigating anyway.”
Her sense of herself as an Aboriginal woman is ever-present in her story. For me, a settler woman, it was a privilege to listen to how Cherie’s understanding of her identity is located so strongly within her culture. A Wailwan woman, part of the Gomileroi language group, her family is from northern NSW. From a strong line of women, Cherie lives now on the land of the Awabakal people, not far north of Sydney, Australia.
As Cherie says, “at the base of who I am, I’m an Aboriginal woman.” That means she will always ask herself what is important for her people, her community, her family network. It means being strong in herself.
Cherie doesn't devalue the existing Australian education system. In fact, as well as raising her children and running her business, she is completing a PhD, seeking to empirically validate her beliefs about the importance of Aboriginal education. She hopes to bring together what is important in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives.
As a non-Aboriginal, I am steeped in the settler narrative. My education and upbringing enculturated me into that focus. And, as Cherie said, it can be uncomfortable to take another perspective.
But discomfort, really, is where growth lies. Sitting and listening to Cherie's perspective of this land created an expansive feeling. It was a glimpse into the way another person, another group of people, view and make sense of the world.
As Cherie says, of the way her cultural identity shapes her life and her perspective, “it’s like the steering wheel of my life and my body.”