A thoroughly enlightening conversation with Dr Doris Paton on Aboriginal education, healthcare and identity from a uniquely Gippsland prospective.
Aunty Doris, can you please provide some insight into your family and describe some fond memories from her childhood?
I’m a Gunai on both my mother and father’s side of the family and Monero Ngarigo on my mother’s side too. My mother is Aunty Rachel Mullett and my father is Uncle Albert Mullett. My father passed three years ago and my mother still lives in Bruthen.
They’ve both been significant influences in my life. As Senior Elders, they have taught me much knowledge for which I feel privileged and honoured. I grew up around my grandparents and cousins in Gippsland. My great grandparents came from the Lake Tyers Mission and Ramahyuck Mission, and my ancestors come from both the Tatungalung Clan and Kroatungalung Clan of the Gunai people of Gippsland.
As a child I lived in Club Terrace, Cann River and Bairnsdale where my father worked in the timber industry – both in the mills and as a tree feller in the bush. I started primary school at Club Terrace. My grandparents, uncles and aunties, and cousins all lived there too. We’d play in the creek and make cubby houses in the bush.
When we moved to a house near the local store, I remember we made billy carts that we’d ride down the big hill near the shop and down our long, steep backyard. We spent all our holidays doing seasonal work; picking beans in Bega, Bairnsdale and Lindenow. We visited family all the time; I remember the happy times of our elders playing country and western music on their guitars, and just dropping in for a cuppa along our travels.
The other strong memory as a child was going to the Christmas Party organised by Aunty Cora Gilsenan-Waters through the Save the Children Fund. These were held at the Nungurner Hall and many Aboriginal families would come for the party. We would dress in our Sunday best dresses and the boys wore their little white shirts and ties.
As I’m the second eldest of eight children we had to help our mother look after the younger siblings, polish floors, collect clay from the creek to paint the fireplace, help with the washing in the copper and feeding our chooks. We had a good life at the Club Terrace mill. Our family bought their first home in Cann River. Dad was a very hard worker and his children have been the same.
Can you please provide background on the various Gippsland clans?
In Gippsland, the Gunaikurnai lands include the five major clan groups of the Bratauloong, the Briakauloong, the Krautungaloong, the Tatungaloong and the Brabroloong. The five clans occupied the country from the Tarwin River to the west bank of Snowy River, far East Gippsland, up to the Great Dividing Range. The major rivers are part of the boundaries for these clan groups. All the rivers, mountains, lakes and many creeks have traditional names.
Why, and how, is your identity linked to this region?
I’m linked to this region through my ancestry. My ancestors come from the Gunai people. My mother’s people come from the Kroatungalung and my father’s people come from the Tatungaloong.
We’re the Traditional Owners of the land.
Our people have lived on this land for over 10,000 years and have traversed the land from the high country to the coast; following the ridgelines, the rivers and coast; moving according to the seasons and living from the available resources.
Aboriginal people occupied this part of the land and have a connection to the customs, language, cultural practices, stories and knowledge for thousands of years. Our link is strongly embedded in our knowledge of country.
Can you please describe your career and achievements?
It’s always difficult to talk about yourself, what you’ve achieved and what is your driving force.
I grew up in a supportive family environment with parents that taught us strong family values, cultural knowledge and responsibility to our people and country. My parents valued both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Education; moving from Cann River to Bairnsdale so we could benefit from a better education.
I always liked school; I was a prolific reader who looked forward to the library van in both Club Terrace and Cann River to borrow reading material. I went to Bairnsdale West and Cann River High School and to Bairnsdale High School.
I married very young and had a family before I was twenty. But I continued my education by distance education and finish school. I worked as a Teacher’s Aide in my early twenties. By then I was a single mother with two small children, and I wanted to become a teacher. I was given an opportunity to attend Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education (GIAE) at Churchill. Along with my sister, and our three children, we moved to Churchill to undertake teaching degrees.
I completed it in two years and met my current husband and remarried. We moved to Mildura, and I changed my enrollment to a Bachelor of Arts and studied by distance education. Once completed, I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma Education in Secondary, and then did a Masters by coursework in Indigenous Education through the University South Australia, followed by a Masters in Research Indigenous Education. In 2010, I completed a PhD in Education through RMIT.
Throughout my education, my husband I raised four children and continued to work.
I worked in Department of. Education & Training as State Manager of ABstudy and implemented a new policy of Indigenous Education programs. In the Department of Finance, I was an Aboriginal Education
Field Officer in the Northern Metro Region. Moving back to Gippsland I took up a lecturing position at the Koorie Unit at Gippsland University.
Due to circumstances, I decided to leave and went onto to study from South Australia by distance education. I then commenced teaching casually at GippsTAFE and applied for the Team Leader position. I worked at GippsTAFE for 18 years before change was imminent, and I decided to move on. I felt we had created a strong supportive educational environment for the community with fantastic staff. I was very proud of the achievements of our Koorie Unit at GippsTAFE.
Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve continued to work on the revival and reclamation of the local Gunai language through the development of both State and National Aboriginal Language Curriculums. I’ve worked with Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) to develop resources that enable the community to access language; including workshops for schools to successfully teach the language of the country that they’re situated in.
More recently, I provide cross-cultural training to local organisations for their staff to learn more about Aboriginal people, our history and country of Gippsland.
I’m a Director on the GLaWAC Board, Kosciusko Executive Board of Management for the Southern Region and a Director on the Ninde Ngujarn Ngarigo Monero Aboriginal Corporation. I provide advice to schools on curriculum and general advice to many people in the wider community. I look after cultural business on country for both my mother and father. More recently, I began working part-time at Monash Uni as a Senior Lecturer with the Gukwonderuk Unit, Clayton, and the School for Rural Health in Bairnsdale.
Knowledge, culture and community have been at the centre of what I’m committed to. I have experience, respect and knowledge in working with people from both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community.
I’m privileged to have parents that encouraged, supported and shared their knowledge, wisdom and culture so that I can give back to my community. I feel that I do have a responsibility and obligation to honour them; they worked hard for their people and community.
What community programs are you currently involved in? How can other interested people support them?
I’m currently involved with the Centre of Excellence in Aboriginal Health East Gippsland (CEAHEG), which was formed in 2008 to increase the number of local Aboriginal people training to become doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, and other healthcare professionals, and who then return to East Gippsland to help look after our communities. We’re not funded by a government agency, hence we mostly operate voluntarily.
My work in Gukwonderuk Unit supports the development of programs and support to the activities of CEAHEG. We hold family camps for children and their families to experience health-related activities, to interact with health professionals, and to learn about how they might consider as they move through their schooling a health career. This allows us to provide knowledge on subject choices, provide mentorship from those currently in the health environment, support work experience and much more.
Any support is most welcome.
What can be done to improve the prospects for Gippsland’s indigenous youth?
East Gippsland has many programs for youth, including; cultural activities, community support and ongoing programs to engage youth with elders, family and a healthy lifestyle.
In Central Gippsland community-focused activities are important at the Gathering Place and with the Smith Family, schools and the Latrobe City programs. At least 18 young people completed Year 12 in Central Gippsland this year, which is a significant improvement.
I believe that at all levels of education Aboriginal young people’s needs should be catered for to enable successful outcomes into furthering their education or undertaking training, apprenticeships, and opportunities through TAFE and University. This means providing bridging course, improving literacy and numeracy outcomes, support through mentoring in training and education courses. A holistic approach to each individual means making extra effort in order to achieve equity for each individual.
I’ve been around in education at all levels for over 35 years and have seen some outstanding successes for individuals; both to their lives and their families lives, through a consistent and caring approach to education and employment.
Why is Indigenous inclusion in the Australian Constitution important, and what will it mean for the Gippsland Indigenous community?
Aboriginal people have been viewed as flora and fauna since 1788, so the use of the term ‘Indigenous’ does not sit well in my opinion. The Constitution has determined the nature of the relationship of Aboriginal people under the Constitution by the Commonwealth. The nature of this relationship is well overdue, in regard to making constructive changes in respect to Aboriginal people.
There appears to be a barrier to this because it has legal and moral implications that the Commonwealth doesn’t have the answers for in this debate. I remember John Howard speaking to this and that any changes to the Constitution would create legal issues that needed to be resolved prior to any changes being considered.
First and foremost, Aboriginal inclusion in the Constitution should recognise that we’re the first people of this country with inherent rights attributed to never ceding sovereignty over our land. I think there is way to go before the Constitution will be changed because history tell us that the Commonwealth has played a significant role in the ongoing impact colonisation has had on Aboriginal people’s lives. There may be a liability that the Commonwealth doesn’t want to acknowledge and risk.
For the Aboriginal people of Gippsland the handing down of the Native Title decision on October 21st, 2010, gives us recognition as Traditional Owners of our land, our rights in terms of decision making over land and water in country. The ability to negotiate with the State Government on issues affecting land and the ability to manage our cultural heritage on country. It also recognizes that we, as Aboriginal people, have a strong and continuous connection to our lands, stories, songs, and knowledge acknowledge through the process of Native Title. For the Gunaikurnai this empowers our people and our community for the future.
What is motivating your work now?
The work I’m involved with now will hopefully support non-Aboriginal people working in the health system to have some cultural and historical understanding of the Aboriginal population in Gippsland.
CEAHEGs program delivers long-term value to the community and will contribute to the future of the community. Being part of the change for our younger generation in their community is inspiring, not only is it needed for the future of our health, but for the future of the community in generations to come. I’m very proud to continue the visionary work of our Elders in realising the needs for the community.
Can you please the concept of ‘deep listening’ between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal systems? How are we progressing with this?
Deep listening is a way of understanding and responding appropriately takes knowledge and time. It’s a way of communicating that requires investment. I still find that ‘deep listening’ between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal is misunderstood and misinterpreted because it’s a way of knowing through understanding a different cultural point of view. I know non-Aboriginal people who believe they ‘get it’, but they don’t because their beliefs and knowledge reveals itself in the way they think and behave.
I wish it could be “you do it this way and this will happen”, but it doesn’t’ work like that. I think now if ever, it requires a very, very slow process with a starting point of mutual respect and willingness to listen.
What can be done better to develop Aboriginal education, both for Aboriginals and as part of the Western education system?
I’ve been a teacher and in the education environment for over 35 years now in teaching, program delivery, policy and working with teachers to develop and deliver curriculum and in the community at many levels.
In my opinion, the effort needs to be in pre-service teaching to provide teachers with skills and knowledge to fully deliver the curriculum content, which includes Aboriginal curriculum studies and knowledge. My experience of teachers is a lack of knowledge and confidence in schools in developing relevant content in relation to Aboriginal content.
Over many years of teaching in secondary, TAFE and University level schooling many Aboriginal children are not equipped in literacy and numeracy to confidently complete their schooling years. The low expectations of teachers toward Aboriginal children, and to some extent a lack of effort in this regard has seen many Aboriginal children end up at secondary school level without being able to read and write.
A lack of skills leads to inability to secure meaningful employment and the cycle of ending up in trouble with the legal system has long-term consequences on the individual and on their family. It becomes a cycle of repeat offending and lack of positive intervention to break this cycle.
Primary schools that wholeheartedly support the Aboriginal students and families have seen an increased attendance, engagement by parents, empowered parents in decision making and students who move onto secondary schools with the skills and confidence to succeed.
There is much to be learnt from the success of others at a school level, but still more to be learnt in the delivery of curriculum content and in the pre-service level of teachers. It’s about working together and finding a way to make both systems become respectful of difference and moving into the space of collaborating and listening.