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Indigenous education in the 21st Century

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This past December 3,000 people, the descendants of hundreds of Indigenous nations, traveled from 23 countries to congregate at Melbourne’s Rod Laver arena for a week-long conference that saw the imperative exchange of knowledge, wisdom, traditional stories and spirit.

The World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education (WIPC:E) 2008, hosted on the traditional lands of the Kulin Nations of Victoria, Australia by the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc. (VAEAI) attracted delegates from countries including Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, America, the Philippines, Norway, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan, Chile, Peru, Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Angola and Namibia. With more than 400 concurrent presentations and several daily keynote speakers, WIPC:E 2008 created a flourish of high spirits, strong connections and the sharing of wisdoms passed down through the ages.

A triennial International conference, WIPC:E 2008 focused on “Indigenous Education in the 21st Century: Respecting Tradition, Shaping the Future,” with each working day governed by a specific theme. Over the last 24 years WIPC:E has gathered strength as a vitally important conference that marries hearts, minds and spirits in forging a collective stance on the right to traditional and current Indigenous ways of education and learning.

“Western knowledge is secular in nature, it is without spirit. Language is our moral compass,” Ryan Heavy Head of the First Nations people of Canada said during the seminar presentation, “Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge.” The fundamental need to preserve Indigenous languages became an overriding theme at the conference. Bruce Pascoe of the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages was the first keynote speaker to address the theme of “Respecting Tradition.” “Not one language can encompass all meaning, that would be impossible,” Pascoe said. “Bilingual education is successful for our Indigenous kids. … in bridging the gap. I prefer the term bridging the gap. ‘Closing the gap,’ to me, is assimilation.”

Dr. Alf Bamblett of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association, Australia presented on the strength of Indigenous people and on the importance of being participants rather than recipients. “With the rights that we push for as Indigenous people, comes responsibilities. Aboriginal participation (in programs for Aboriginal people) has to be key; so we are not just recipients,” he said.

Speaking on “Living With Competing Knowledge Systems,” Dr. Chris Sarra of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, Australia outlined a “stronger, smarter” approach to education of our children. “If we want children to be hungry to learn, we have to be hungry to teach.” “Embracing a positive sense of cultural identity as part of excellence, and not instead of it (is vital).”

The Australian Government representatives were The Honorable Maxine McKew, Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Child Care, who presented during the conference and Jenny Macklin, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, spoke at the Closing Concert.

The last working day was governed by the theme “Beyond the Horizon,” which keynote speaker Dr. Marie Battiste interpreted as pointing to “and beyond the strengths and limitations of our embodied perception, a place of promise, fascination, hope and desire.”

In 1984 Battiste became the first First Nations woman in Canada to receive a doctorate, she shared her own peoples’ journey from resilience to acknowledge and honor the renaissance of Indigenous peoples. “This emergent story,” she said “is about a small but growing number of Indigenous peoples, a critical mass of Indigenous learners who have survived an assimilationist and disempowering agenda in education with determination, their own critical edge, and desire to move the imposed boundaries of Eurocentric education to begin to walk their own path toward empowering and liberating themselves and their nations as a whole.”

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Battiste was followed by an impassioned speech by 25-year-old Amynio Seresere of the Vanuatu Young People’s Project, who said “We cannot command success, unless we endeavor to deserve it.”

The closing ceremony concert demonstrated the essence and the beauty of the connections made between Indigenous nations across the globe. A 4,000 strong crowd exploded into rapturous applause at the announcement that the Quechua people of Cusco Peru will host WIPC:E 2011. Following from this announcement were traditional performances rooted in the age old knowledge and wisdoms of cultures far from forgotten.

WIPC:E 2008 was described by organiser Lionel Bamblett as being “grounded in community.” There was an immense pride resonating throughout the stadium, an energy that showed the unrelenting resilience of Indigenous people in maintaining their language and their unique cultural traditions. WIPC:E 2008 was indeed grounded in community, and in a spirit of international solidarity that saw thousands of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, demand cultural education as a birth right.