18 February, 2022


Acknowledging First Peoples – Understanding the Significance.

During the staff professional learning week in early February, all Scotch Oakburn College staff were privileged to spend two hours with an inspiring member of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community, Dewayne EverettSmith. Many of us rated this as one of the most useful training seminars we have attended in recent times. Dewayne’s approach was very inclusive, and he left us with many ideas about how to better understand the experiences of our First People’s. Today I share some of our important learnings.

Tasmania’s 60,000 year aboriginal history incorporated nine distinct nations or clans and within this there were 16 language groups. Dewayne described the community across lutriwita (what we now call the island of Tasmania) as being like one community made up of multiple family groups. We were given insights into what language is best to use and discovered that many terms that we may use are western terminology, like First Tasmanians and indigenous, and while this is not offensive it would be more appropriate to use palawa and pakana, meaning people from southern Tasmania and people from northern Tasmania respectively – note that they are written with lower case letters. As westerners we buy land, but for aboriginal people, the land owns them and therefore they do not capitalise words referring to themselves, as they do not believe they are more important than the land.

These days palawa is used as a word to describe all Tasmanian aboriginal people, which is acceptable, but in order to acknowledge the northern nations we have now included pakana in Scotch Oakburn’s Acknowledgement of Country. More specifically our acknowledgement also refers to the litarimirina tribe of the pakana people as the group that lived on the country where Scotch Oakburn is now located.

Previously we used the term “Indigenous Acknowledgement” but have changed this to “Acknowledgement of Country”. The term indigenous was introduced by the Howard government and again, was a western reference. The aboriginal community point out that it is a term that refers to anyone born in a place and that it was used to promote assimilation rather than acknowledgment of a very special and unique culture, and hence why it is not preferred by Australia’s aboriginal peoples.

One of the most important aspects of our discussions with Dewayne were around questions of authenticity. Tasmanian aboriginal people have been dealing with offensive comments like “There are no real aborigines in Tasmania” for years. This was likened to asking questions like “Are you really Irish?” or “Are you really a Christian?” If someone identifies as aboriginal, then it is completely inappropriate to question what percentage aboriginality they are. We all identify as having particular backgrounds, but do not define ourselves based on percentages of those backgrounds. It is very degrading to Tasmanian aboriginal people to question their degree of aboriginality.

Dewayne pointed out that we should not be scared to make mistakes with our references, it is better to be making the effort to acknowledge the cultural history of Tasmania in a meaningful way than to shy away from doing so for fear of possibly getting it wrong. He noted that acknowledgments can be made in many different ways and that as individuals we should find ways to personalise our effort to acknowledge this amazing culture. Therefore our responsibility should be to know as much of the story as possible and develop our understanding of the lived experience of the community whose ancestors have walked this country for such a long time.

As a result of our recent learnings, we have updated the College’s Acknowledgement of Country as follows:

In addition to using this acknowledgement at College gatherings, opportunities to increase our community’s understanding will be sought regularly.

Stuart Walls
Head of Senior School