The solution lay there, in the gums and rocky gullies and clear blue creek of Nhunta Karra Kara just out of town, with the tin shed and artefacts that marked a time almost forgotten in modern Inverell until teacher Cath Jeffery found the key.
It opened doors between preschool children and high school students who would make them role models; between young and old in Aboriginal families; between the children of landed families who have little contact with Indigenous culture and young envoys of that culture, and it unlocked the tongue of a little boy who hadn’t talked to anybody in school.
“It’s a story about real people,” said Inverell High teacher Cath Jeffery who with Inverell District Family Services CEO, Nicole Lavender brought together high school and preschool children to create the book, A Day Out With Grandma.
In the 1940s, an Aboriginal community set up home in Goonoowigall (pronounced Gunnywiggle), meaning “wallaby rocks”, an area of ironbark, balancing boulders and streams rushing through slabs of rock.
The community lived primarily along the Nhunta Karra Kara (“quiet and peaceful”) track in Goonoowigall, in kerosene tin huts. A little school up to year 6 existed there too, with some students repeating the year 6 exams over and over to avoid going on to the high school at Inverell, which in those days was not a welcoming place for Indigenous people.
“I feel that contemporary society can learn a lot from these people who grew up on the Nhunta Karra Kara track,” Cath said. “Their primitive housing might make us call these families poor and disadvantaged but they fondly recall a sense of community where everyone looked after each other and there was love of family and the freedom to live out their culture without reprisal. Somehow it can make the mansion on the hill look rather lonely and isolated.”
The settlement existed until the 1960s. Cath and Nicole obtained a grant from the Department to tell the story of this community through a book based on a real story of a woman who took her grandchildren out to Nhunta Karra Kara to show them her old home and teach them about bush food and the animals and birds with whom she played.
“The great thing was that everyone was involved and that it was in Inverell, just up the road, it was someone’s grandma from this area,” Nicole said.
Cath’s students — who in succeeding years have recorded local oral history for the increasingly popular Aboriginal Studies unit — drafted the story. Year 9 students then went out to the 14 local preschool and long daycare centres and related the story and the little ones drew pictures to illustrate it.
When Nicole visited one preschool she asked a four-year-old boy what he was drawing.
“He said it was grandma and the rock and the gum tree from the story,” she said. As she walked away a teacher told her the boy had never previously said anything in class.
“If you make curriculum relevant, children will follow,” Cath says. “All educators need to engage Aboriginal students. It’s actually not that hard. In our school, one of the most popular electives is Aboriginal Studies for years 11-12.
“We started off with two students in 2009 and now we have 22-24 students. It’s bringing engagement between students and the local Aboriginal community and the elders.
“They see their history, their story being taught, they see that the school supports them. It used to be that sometimes the parents’ first contact with the school was someone calling to tell them their child is in trouble. It’s fantastic change, based on the positive rather than the negative.”
Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are taking the Aboriginal Studies, at a ratio of 4:1.
“A lot of people think Aboriginal Studies is all about dancing at a corroboree but it’s not,” Cath says.
“The curriculum content includes social justice and human rights. That’s useful for university studies in health, criminal justice, nursing, policing.
“I’d a year 12 student last year who went for an interview at the University of NSW to do medical studies. They told her, ‘You know more about rural and remote area health than some of our second-year students do’, and even though she didn’t have the ATAR score they wanted, they took her. The students know the terminology, they’ve got the stats, they know government policy on issues, they know where it’s working and not working.”
A Day Out With Grandma has brought walls tumbling down.
The IDFS’s Early Childhood teacher, Josh Blair, an Aboriginal man, drives out to small communities for mobile preschool sessions. “It’s a farming area: those children don’t normally get many Aboriginal visitors,” said Nicole. “Josh read the book to them. Their interest in it is amazing and they want to learn more.”
NAIDOC Week is coming up in a few months and Cath and Nicole have their sights on another project.
In the meantime, Cath’s students can reflect on how far they’ve come from the days when Indigenous students had to pay to travel to school and one girl from Nhunta Karra Kara, now a nurse in Inverell, picked peas to earn her busfare to Inverell High each day.