A conversation with Dr Noel Nannup

Dr Noel Nannup is a respected Aboriginal Elder, story-teller and cultural guide. He is a heritage consultant, has been named NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year, and is Edith Cowan University’s Elder in Residence. In this interview we talk with Uncle Noel about his involvement with the High School Program over the last 10 years and his vision for Indigenous high school students.

Could you describe your involvement with the Aurora High School Program?

Well, from the very beginning, that was in 2012. The Program started here in Western Australia and I believe we were a year behind New South Wales and Victoria. One of our Elders, Marie Taylor, had been recruited and she was onboard and was actually camped down at a little place called Point Perrin with the group. She suggested that they contact me to do the male Elder side of the Program so I was invited along to share the dreaming story for the local area. The story is called Mundendarh kurrjinanin and in our language that means the spirits that came out of the darkness into the light to care for everything. So, my first opportunity to be involved in the program was centered around that story.

The youngsters were mesmerized with the story as they had never heard it before. I soon began to realise that this was a special program and was something that I wanted to continue my involvement in. Back then there were only female Elders involved in the Program and I eventually became the first male Elder to join the Program. It didn’t take me long to realise that this Program was going to make a massive difference to our culture in the future so I made sure to take up every opportunity to be involved and since then I have seen this model grow and it makes my heart sing every time I get the chance to be involved.

In your view, what impact has the High School Program had over the last few years?

The High School Program (HSP) has had a massive impact on our education system. It’s been through the HSP that we have been able to infiltrate the ancient draconian way that education has been slowly rolled out where there were always low expectations for Indigenous students. Then you see these year 8 Indigenous students come through the High School Program and immediately you can see the potential in them, they ooze leadership, they ooze skills and knowledge, but they don’t know how to put it all together. By being able to balance academic enrichment with cultural saturation of knowledge you bring this beautiful young person to begin a journey to blossom into who they have every right to be.

Compared to other educational programs, supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, what do you see as the strengths of Aurora’s approach?

The High School Program allows Aboriginal people to be directly involved in the teaching of cultural knowledge to the students so that they get the academic enrichment, which is so important to help balance it out. One learning activity that the students participate in at our WA camps is the sand drawings which each represent belonging, identity, and responsibility. When you put those three on the sand, you ask them to tell you which one is the important one and allow them to just explore that and think about it which demands a lot of thought. Once they realise that it’s belonging, then from that will come their identity. And that means we can then say to them, well, ‘who are your grandparents, who are your great-grandparents?’ that takes them back to the apical ancestor, the land that they come from when the tall ships arrived, that is when they know who they are. And they know that there is a piece of country that they are responsible for. So, the responsibility that comes into that then will allow them to pursue with absolute certainty, the knowledge that they need to look after that piece of country into perpetuity.

What needs to be in place for programs like the High School Program to have the widest possible impact and drive systemic change for our students?

Well, one is already there and that’s consistency and everyone needs to know that there is certainty and consistency, it’s like raising a child. That’s what this Program does and it has in place all the occupational health and safety mechanisms that are fundamental to making sure that the work place is safe and secure and the individual feels safe and secure because their health and wellbeing is primary to the whole program. Once you have that safety net in which you can go on and work with the people that have the skills to deliver the academic enrichment and the cultural knowledge. That’s its real strength.

What is your vision for Indigenous high school students?

I have personally been working at universities where I have been working with school teachers and other members of the community in structuring an education program that will take us to a point where this will become the norm and we are trying to infiltrate the education department, but we have had ministers that have observed several times and it is hard to shift their old attitudes that are still there. Until they see data and statistics they are not interested. You’ve got to be able to put those things under their noses for them to realise that a program like this is very successful.

A part of this education Program is teaching the government about memory code, that there is a way we can do and remember things through our ancient cultural ways by having symbols and then putting knowledge into those symbols and being able to remember them just by looking at them. As the students are sitting there doing their exams, they can draw that symbol and there is the story within it. The knowledge is instant and remembering that the knowledge is in the relationship. If it’s a person’s name and you see that person in your mind’s eye, you realise that that person has their own story. That story belongs to them. You can’t take that story and put it in your head because it’s not yours. But as soon as you see that person, that knowledge comes to you from them such as their name, their piece of country, that they belong to, their family structure and so on. It’s all about catchment and that’s one of the claims of this Program is you can bring the modern academic science knowledge, which we are all trained with connecting that to the ancient Aboriginal way of doing things, is science all the way through it.

So, we’re trying to change it from STEM to STEAM to include the Arts and Culture. Without Arts and Culture, you don’t have us.

I think one of the important quotes for me is everything is connected, everything. And then once you have that quote, the people themselves can then ask, what do you mean by everything being connected? Well, it’s connected physically, and it is also connected spiritually. And that is for every race of people on the planet, because we are one people and science helps us prove that in the modern world. And that is why I have such great delight in having these conversations with the people that are decision makers. I’m giving them something to go away and seriously think about and science is there to support the comments. And then you can tell when they understand, it’s no longer that blank look on their face and they’ve got that sparkling in their eye like ‘wow, I get it’. And the powers of observation are the key to it, that’s what the Eldership is all about. The powers of observation.