What Works - The Work Program

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Auntie Rachel reflects

The Tasmanian Education Department set out to develop and publish curriculum materials of relevance to Aboriginal students. 'As I Remember' is a collection of audio recordings of interviews with eleven Tasmanian Aboriginal people, capturing their lived experiences. It is intended to support improved literacy among Aboriginal students in Years 5-8 and challenge the assumptions and prejudices of some non-Aboriginal people.

Rachel Quillerat, a recent chair of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Education Association, contributed her story to 'As I Remember'. But here, she begins by talking about what it was like going back over the past.


Looking back

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Auntie Rachel Quillerat

Well, I guess there were some sad times and there were some good times. As far as talking about my upbringing and my school days and things like that, that was quite easy to remember. There's a clear picture there of what happened in my days of going to school.

It was an all-Aboriginal school, of course, and, living on a little island [Cape Barren Island], everybody knew everybody. But because we were reared with a non-Aboriginal father, and there was a reserve there, of course we weren't allowed over on the reserve. I was, and Mum, but not Dad. So it was sort of a different upbringing I guess to what some of the other children on the island had. But in actual fact, the upbringing was very similar... I felt it was just an ordinary upbringing same as any other children, because over on the island in those days you never heard the word 'Aboriginal'.

When you left that little island you were called names — half caste, nigger, black — whatever they could think of, you were called it. So, while we were on the island, we were just one lot of people. I couldn't see any difference. We never took any notice of skin being brown. We would go to the shop, we would go to school and we seen everyone, we knew everyone, we called them uncle or aunt, we put our hand up and waved.

So all those people that was on the island, they had brown skin and I remember we used to look at our skin and we used to say, must be because we live near the sea and it's windy and the sun is hot. We looked at ourselves as being no different to the real darker ones that was on the island. So it was just a good, honest, happy upbringing amongst the people.


The experience of telling her story

I was very pleased. Yes, really pleased to be involved because I lost an uncle, and of course now I've lost Mum. I lost some other uncles that was born on that island that was reared and lived there all their lives. They had a lot of good stories to tell about all the old people there that used to build boats. They used to do their own thing. Like one of my cousins, he used to make coffins. That wasn't his trade; he just had to do it. There was a lot of other old folks there and that they all done something, but we were never told about them. This is what I wanted to try and get across.

When I was at school we had an English teacher, and that English teacher he taught us all about England. Everything that happened over there. I couldn't even go through the history now to tell you what it was. But there was no history of Tasmania, nothing on Aboriginals, nothing on what happened years ago to the Aboriginal people. We didn't even know. That's why it is important for kids to have access to this today.

And what I feel it should be — what is in that 'As I Remember' because what we tell on those CDs, that is true — we lived that life. We wasn't trying to add more to it to make it sound bad or better or anything like that, that was normal living on the island.

So, for the children to hear that in the school, it might give them a feeling that, yes we are Aboriginal people, but we are people. We are not aliens, we never come from another planet. We have lived here in Australia or in Tasmania, or over in that island in the Furneaux Group. We are no different from anybody else and I think that was the part that I want to get across.

There will probably be some Aboriginal children, born over here in Tasmania that never lived on the island, that wouldn't know anything about it. There's non-Aboriginal children that can say, well that sounds similar — or their parents could hear it or the grandparents — that sounds similar to what we went through.

But the hardest thing of all, I think, that should be taught in school, we can say to the non-Aboriginal children, it has not been easy being Aboriginal. It's never been easy because even if you feel okay about it and you feel you are the same as the next person, the non-Aboriginal people in the next house next to you, it's how they feel towards you. It's not how we feel towards them. And if we could only get through to non-Aboriginal people that it has never, never been easy to be Aboriginal. So today they say — oh, yes, but this person is not Aboriginal, that person's not Aboriginal, but yet they say they are. Why the hell would they say they are Aboriginal if they're not?


The importance of education for young Aboriginal students

I'll go back to my children. I went to school on Cape Barren and the school in those days... the education was very poor. It wasn't the teachers' fault, because we only had writing, arithmetic, geometry, history, no grammar. So when I left school in Grade 5 I couldn't even speak, couldn't even pronounce my words properly. The quality of that education would probably be Grade 1 or 2 today. I left school — I couldn't spell, I could read, but only just. I was married at sixteen and then I started having my children. So I never had time to further my education. I done it on my own.

At night when I got the children off to bed or the baby asleep, I would sit up with an Examiner and try to do the crossword. I would probably get three out and one I always remember was 'half man, half beast'. It was a 'centaur', and I've never forgotten that.

Then I built myself up and my husband he used to laugh at me because I used to pronounce — I was a dreadful speaker and when I try to pronounce my words how I heard other people speaking I would laugh and think to myself, now that doesn't sound right, that sounds silly. I went back to school for a while after I moved over here. Then I had my children and they went to school on Flinders Island and that was a much better school.

But I couldn't help them with their homework because I had no education. I could sit down and read with them but there were a lot of things that I would like to have done more of and I couldn't.

When I moved to Launceston they went to Riverside High and they would have parent groups and that there. I would not go down there and sit down and mix with them because I thought I wasn't good enough. I thought they would put me down straight away. I could not talk with the teachers. I would never go down and speak with the teachers because I was too scared. I knew I never had the education and I was frightened of making a fool of myself so I wouldn't go to the school. I'd talk to them on the phone, but I wouldn't go face to face with them and I thought, well how will they feel about me because it was my first time in the big city and how would they feel seeing an Aboriginal person and all these six children? So it was a drawback, it was to me.

Then when my children each left school, they started to do their own thing and I found that was the best thing to do. They went out and they got their own friends. It didn't matter whether they were Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. I think that was the best thing that could have happened.

Now my daughter, she finally finished up going back to the college and I never ever thought that she would do that. I said to her one day, Wendy, why don't you go back to school? I said I know you never had the education that you could have had. So one day she finally went out and did it. Well, then she got her Certificate; she's a social worker. Now she works in the Aboriginal Centre. So I was really pleased about that.

Then one of my sisters, she went back to the university where they had a place there for Aboriginal people that were past going to school — they could go back. And I finished up going there, for about two years I think it was, or twelve months. So I finished up with my sister in class and my daughter and I was so pleased that I was able to say, look there's other ways now that you can be educated. You've long finished school, go out and get some education that will carry you on.

And I remember my sister sitting there one day and they showed a video, an Aboriginal video, what happened to the Aboriginals many years ago and she cried. She didn't even know those things had happened. It was all an education to me, to my daughter and to my sister.

So I would say now, the thing that I would stress to children, and I don't care whether they are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, for heaven's sake the education is there, use it! Don't walk away from school like I did, not knowing anything. Because the education wasn't around then, so I had a good excuse. But today they can go through school, they can get the education and that's what you have to have to do to survive.

So education is there, it's only a matter of — right I'm going to do it.

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