Kunwinjku/Bininj education and its value to the wider
by Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow with Stephanie Thompson Nganjmirra
Note: Stephanie is a Larrakia elder and Denise’s adopted daughter-in-law. She has
Machado-Joseph, an inherited neuro-degenerative disease and lives in Juninga
Nursing Home, Darwin. We began working on this paper about 2010, when
Stephanie could still speak. As her paralysis progressed it became difficult for her
even to use an alphabet board.
Mamamh now has an Allora communication device.
https://www.talktometechnologies.com/products/allora and in this paper used it to
make statements about the paper as each relevant paragraph was read to her. At other
times she responded with a nod or shake of the head. Every paragraph in this paper in
which Mamamh or relatives are mentioned was approved by her.
As toddlers the Kunwinjku people of western Arnhem Land begin to learn the
languages, skills and values that help them develop into responsible and productive
members of society. However, these young children are not only students but
teachers, and in the traditional role of ‘little parents’ pass on knowledge to others.
Thus, Kunwinjku have much to offer the wider society in the form of the people
management skills so necessary for business, and successful child-rearing practices.
However Kunwinjku, like Indigenous people elsewhere, are often marginalised by a
‘one size fits all’, hierarchical style of western education that places literacy and
numeracy above all else, including the Kunwinjku skills that could benefit everyone,
according to Stephanie, including the business community.
In his paper How To Eradicate Illiteracy Without Eradicating Illiterates? (UNESCO,
2002), Munir Fasheh, a mathematician and Director of the Arab Education Forum,
Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, at Harvard University, recounted a conversation
with a friend, an American educational consultant who was about to visit Egypt for
the first time. The reason for his going was to ‘help reform the educational system.’
During their discussion Dr. Fasheh found that the idea that a 7000-year old
civilization might have some knowledge of education was ‘incomprehensible’ to his
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
Likewise, Australia’s First people are often seen as ignorant. Bininj, the people of the
western Top End are educated in bush knowledge and social skills, and even as small
children will speak or understand half a dozen different languages. Teenage boys
stranded on a Top End outstation in the Wet Season taught themselves to play chess
(Jehosophat Galngarr, 2010). Those still living on outstations do most of their
learning not in school, but by participating in most aspects of daily life with their
parents and grandparents, older and younger siblings, and other relatives. “They
(children) pick these skills up by learning from everyone” (Stephanie, Oct. 2018).
The Indigenous educational experience
When my son Rowan was three, Stephanie’s husband, Reverend P. Nganjmirra
,presented him with his newborn child. Djedje (meaning ‘my child’) Nganjmirra, a
Kunwinjku man who stood in the relation of older brother to Rowan, told the toddler
he was now Ngaba, ‘little daddy’.
taking responsibility for others is how Kunwinjku youngsters learn to become
competent parents and responsible members of society. Small children become
“little” mummies or daddies and look after other children (Stephanie, 2010).
With Stephanie’s and Djedje’s encouragement Rowan learned to care for the baby,
Jethro, and his two year-old sister, Vickerena. These new skills included patience and
restraint. One day Jethro squirted Rowan with a hose. Rowan stood silently, his hand
shielding his face until Jethro tired of the game. When praised for his patience Rowan
replied that, “Daddies are supposed to be patient”. When he heard Jethro swear, he
learned that he had to watch his own behaviour lest the child copy him. Thus Rowan
learned he had to set a good role model. Rowan also passed on skills he had already
mastered, for example how to dress, wash and feed himself.
When the family returned to Arnhem Land, Rowan wished to go with them, so that he
could teach them to read and write before they started school.
In 1989 Kunwinjku elders asked me to help them start a little tourism project at
Kudjekbinj (Baby Dreaming), in western Arnhem Land. To prepare them for visitors,
I designed a series of workshops that covered birdwatching (European style), English
literacy, first aid, and computer skills, among others. These were fitted to the way that
Bininj learn, and had three main aims in mind: a) to encourage participants’
confidence in their existing knowledge, skills and values, b) to build upon and add to
those knowledge and skills, and c) to help equip participants so that they could make
informed choices about their future, for example if they wanted to enter the broader
tourism market. Rosemary, a health worker, and I ran the first course using role play
and theatre as I had done when training Jawoyn rangers in the late 1980s
(Goodfellow, 1993). It was more like a comedy show, but afterwards my relatives
said it was the ‘best course’ they had participated in (the Jawoyn rangers had told their
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
supervisors and elders that my course was ‘hot shit’!). In some ways these courses
resembled those in which Canadian, Dr. Maurianne Reade, is involved. She works
with First Nations people, the Debajehmujig storytellers, who train medical students,
simulated patient scenarios, exploring themes of mental illness and social
disadvantage. Animators constructed complex characters utilizing their culturally
relevant knowledge and lived experiences ... The animator then provided feedback
from a patient-centred perspective (letter, 27 June, 2014).
When visitors arrived, everybody came to meet them. Shy Nadjat (Uncle) Cory
produced an emu chick to help break the ice while someone else brought out some
puppies. Men and boys showed male visitors how to make and throw spears while
women, and girls took female visitors off to gather bush food and plant dyes to colour
pandanus for weaving into mats and baskets. We all cooked and ate together. With
their father Jeremiah, Sandy and Abegnayo aged four and five years of age, helped
birdwatchers find birds. A ten-year-old lad showed visitors how to remove bark from
a tree with a bush knife and a six-year-old girl found plants used in the dyeing of
pandanus and explained their use. The children, having spent their lives hunting and
gathering with their parents, other adults and older children, were competent in the
bush and knew how to keep themselves and visitors safe.
Most of the adults had been enrolled as children in western-type schools. Yet, many
said they had retained very little of what they learned either in school or from courses
they took as adults. Some had negative views of school in particular. While staying
in 2014, in Gunbalanya I had the chance to observe Kunwinjku women enrolled in a
course in land management. The young teacher stood in front of the group speaking
and writing on a white board and afterwards handed out pages of notes. Most of the
students appeared not understand what she was talking and writing about and later
told me they could not follow the notes.
The differences between mainstream Western and traditional Indigenous teaching
practices are shown in Table 1..
Western learning Indigenous learning
Students are taught as individuals in a class. All
are around the same age.
Various relatives of all ages learn and teach
Formal, taking place in a school. Informal, taking place anywhere
Trained accredited teachers, all adults. Relatives of all ages are teachers.
Contents of lessons may have little 'immediate
Students are taught skills that are relevant to
everyday life (such as parenting).
Children may be treated as if they are sacred but
Children are contributing members of the family
Children may learn to rely on external regulation. Children learn to regulate their own behaviour.
Lessons are compacted into a relatively short time Lessons may take years and are continually
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
and are largely verbal. reinforced. Learning is by 'doing' and observing'
and teaching others.
School and rest of life are separated. Learning is part of everyday life.
Based in part on Living & Learning in an Aboriginal Community, (M1) 5. Harris et al, 1981, p. 27
The Indian experience with mainstream education
Some years ago two Indian professionals, Awan Gupta, an engineer and Anuradha
Joshi, a teacher, began a series of school in rural India. They believed the
communities were ‘poor and backward’, and that the ‘major drawback’ was the lack
of schools. ‘If children were sent to schools and taught the right skills, and if
communities were taught how to organize themselves, their overall life conditions
should improve, and families would have better control over their lives.’ (Pimparé,
2005:3). The Indian villagers believed this too.1
Look at my 20-year-old son. He is illiterate and sells milk in Mussoorie. You are
educated in the cities. If you educate him, he too would have a job.’
Villagers mentioned in the report believed that ‘schooling ensures a good and safe
future’ (Pimparé, 2005:5), and was ‘the best source of knowledge (despite it) belittling
traditional learning spaces such as story-telling, folk songs or festivals’ (Pimparé,
2005:19). In 1981, the Society for Integrated Development of the Himalayas (SIDH),
was founded to build schools in Musoorie, North India. Villagers provided land and
labour for the schools, and by 1993 SIDH had eight primary schools, fourteen
balwadis (child care centres) and forty women’s groups.
However, parents soon began complaining; they were disappointed and unhappy with
the way their children had ‘turned out’, and blamed the education system. (Pimparé,
2005:20). On the one hand, the parents believed in ‘modernization and its promises
of better living conditions’, and yet could see their children ‘slipping away from their
families and culture.’ (Pimparé, 2005:3). Comments by villagers included:
The educated are spoilt. They spend a lot. They are not honest and do not look
The schooled may or may not get a job, but surely will not work on the fields.
Negative impacts were worse in rural areas than more urban ones; while urban parents
thought their children had been spoiled by education, rural parents said their children
had been ruined (Pimparé, 2005:4). All thought their children had lost ‘values’.
Values were defined differently by rural women and poor, illiterate parents, and urban,
literate people. To the former, relevant values were positive such as being ‘non-
1 (Section for Literacy and Non-Formal Education, Division for Basic Education, UNESCO).
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
violent, taking responsibility, and having faith and self-esteem’. To urban parents,
values were expressed in negative terms, for example, not stealing, cheating, being
greedy or angry, and not having vices such as ‘smoking or drinking’.
Indian parents believed that their children who had been to school had become
‘selfish’ ‘greedy’, ‘arrogant’, ‘rude’, and consumer-oriented - for example they
developed a strong attraction towards expensive consumer items (like Nike and
Reebok shoes). They said their children ‘imitated the West.’ Parents felt that ‘the
present-day education system alienates children from their own belief system –
leading to indifference towards land, family, traditional skills and customs.’ (Pimparé,
2005:21). According to the study, parents began to remove their children from
English schools and put them in Hindi schools
Similar results were reported from Botswana. There, Broyhill, Hitchcock and Biesele
(2010:13) examined a government education program established for rural people
including the San of Southern Africa: The program’s educational culture ... ‘has
created cultural misunderstandings between parents and children and in turn a loss of
culture, due to the lack of shared experiences, knowledge and time away from home’.
The complaints of parents (2005:20) led SIDH to ‘question their assumptions’ about
education. As a consequence of their study SIDH carried out research on village
people’s attitude to education and published A Matter of Quality (Sanshodhan, 1999)
and Developing Learning Communities: Beyond Empowerment (Pimparé, 2005).
Overall, the finding of the report was that “the current institutionalised educational
process is perceived as laying the foundations for the dominant worldview, and this
has led to widespread disillusionment”.
Long interactions with people, women and the elderly in particular, gave them
insight into how education in mainstream schools is alienating children from their
families and communities.’ These people needed to ‘unlearn… their faith in the
modern education system and more specifically their assumptions on
Writing of First Nations people in Canada Schissel and Wotherspoon (2003) argued
that ‘aboriginal aspirations for improving prospects have been derailed by the very
(educational) structures that were intended to assist. … A legacy of both systemic and
deliberate disempowerment underpins the underachievement of aboriginal students’.
Michael Doyle, a science teacher wrote of the education system in general:
We have fetishized education as some sort of independent structure,
institutionalizing what we think matters without thinking about what actually does
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
Education has become a “mechanised process of inducting young people into the
culture of modernity” (Miller, 2005), that is “nurturing values such as ‘efficiency,
competition, production and consumption” Pérez-Aguilera and Figueroa-Helland
(2011: 273) argued that education was often seen as the magic wand for ‘progress”.
Fasheh (2002) pointed out just what was being lost in his paper in his paper, How To
Eradicate Illiteracy Without Eradicating Illiterates?.
Education and work
The Indian study (Pimparé, 2005:5) found ‘contradictions between people’s beliefs/
expectations and experiences’. Although villagers in the report initially believed that
the only worthwhile education occurred in schools, their children who graduated were
jobless, and could not ‘sustain themselves’. Such children, according to the report
‘lose all sense of relationship with families and communities, look down upon their
own culture and traditions, are lazy, and do not contribute to family sustenance.’
Yet, lack of formal education was believed to exclude Aboriginal people of central
Australia from work. Writing of tourism in Central Australia, Altman (1988: 206)
noted that there is a "very limited career path" for Aboriginal people within the Parks
service (and tourism) " partly because they frequently lack formal educational
qualifications and administrative experience". He gave as an example the Anangu of
Uluru, central Australia, whose lack of "formal training for the tourism industry
means that they are only suitable for lowest positions in the occupational hierarchy"
(1988:132). The requisite skills Altman adds, range from "the ability to communicate
in English and functional literacy and numeracy, to more complex skills such as
commercial and managerial expertise" (1988: 311). Altman’s report suggests that the
Park authorities had not realised that Aboriginal people and culture were a major
reason why tourists visited central Australia. Similarly, elders at Kudjekbinj were
deemed unqualified to help teach younger people because they lacked a Certificate 4
in training. Such a system downgrades the competencies that Kunwinjku recognised
eons ago, such as those demonstrated by young Rowan and Fasheh’s mother, the
Even when Bininj do receive what seems to be an adequate western education job
certainty may not be guaranteed. In 2012 Aboriginal rangers reported that despite
their completing numerous courses at university they had not received promotions or
pay rises. Indeed many resigned from NT Parks and Wildlife for these reasons. In
2015 a doctor at a health clinic in a remote settlement claimed that Bininj health
workers were being “forced out” because they were seen as “inefficient”, and replaced
with workers from interstate. One worker was highly respected throughout the
community for both her work and her understanding and kindness, and there was
palpable anger in in the community at her dismissal.
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
Bininj ambivalence with mainstream education
Bininj parents listed some similar doubts to those of the Indian parents about the
wisdom of sending their children to school. For example:
Parents fear that children will not learn ‘right ways’, or forget or feel ashamed
of their culture or lose respect for their parents.
Parents fear that children won’t get good jobs anyway (personal comment
Djedje, 1 June 06, and many other Indigenous people). Una, Stephanie’s sister,
said that, although computer-literate and with ten year’s ‘banking experience’,
she was limited to serving in the shop where she worked - her boss refused to
let her enter records etc. (pers. comm. Nov. 2005, and supported by Stephanie,
19 Oct., 2018).
Other fears voiced by Bininj parents below did not feature in the SIDHS report. :
Parents worried the children will not be treated ‘properly’. One respected
elder was smacked ‘so hard’ for touching a computer, that fifteen years later he
was still afraid. He also referred to himself as ‘stupid’, telling me to ‘teach
(his) wife and children instead;
As both education and vocational training of Bininj often takes place away
from family and country, behaviour is not subject to the usual cultural
constraints. Parents worry that their children will fall into bad company or end
up in trouble or worse. A relatives two daughters were sent to town to train as
teachers. Both ended up living as itinerants, addicted to alcohol and within a
few years were both dead. According to elders (for example, Mr. Burunalli, a
senior traditional owner from the outstation, Mamadewerrie) many children
who went to boarding school or to town for training, found it difficult to return
to outstation or settlement life and drifted back to Darwin ;
Parents may feel incompetent and intimidated by the school and teachers.
In Bininj society children who stand in the role of parents to others no matter
their age, are treated with respect. When Rowan was five he voiced concern at
the damage that soft drink was doing to Jethro’s teeth. Consequently, Jethro’s
parents told others in Gunbalanya not to give such drinks to small children.
According to the Italian education pioneer Dr. Maria Montessori 1940), a teacher’s
role is to ‘help the learner develop into an independent, self-regulating individual’.
This is what traditional Aboriginal society did as a matter of survival. When they start
school children brought up to accept roles and responsibilities may have difficulty
adjusting to a society that considers them incompetent if not useless.
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
I teach biology, but teach little about living. Michael Doyle (2015).
Bininj are skilled parents, accomplished and patient mediators when there is trouble,
and excellent guides/hosts for visitors and students. They are past masters at lateral
thinking. In the ABC television series Bush Mechanics (CITE), central Australian
Aboriginal men stuffed a flat tyre full of spinifex and continued on their way. When
we lost a steering rod in a remote area, Djedje Nganjmirra fixed the problem with
parts from old carwrecks in the bush.
With the right opportunity, Indigenous people are motivated. In 2000 an editor asked
me to recruit computer-literate relatives to work on the Lonely Planet Guide to
Aboriginal Australia. Relatives had not used a computer but were eager to
participate. They practised for hours, some starting at 5 am and typing until they
couldn’t hold their arms up any longer. Ten days later on leaving for Arnhem Land,
all were typing at 18 wpm with an 85% accuracy rate (David Frith wrote about this
in his computer column, The Australian 3/09/03).
Deskilling and Professionalisation
Dr. Joe Tucci, one of the authors of The Concerns of Australian Parents, an Australian
Childhood Foundation (ACF) report (March, 2004), found that more than half of the
500 parents surveyed ‘lacked confidence in their parenting and 80 per cent were too
afraid to ask for advice for fear of being stigmatised as a poor parent.’
Luckily, Bininj still have confidence in the way they rear their children. After 16-
year-old Vickerena became a mother, I asked whether she found parenting a difficult
task. She hadn’t, and was puzzled by the question. Like Rowan, Vicki had helped
rear younger children as a child, and as a first time mother, was surrounded by her
parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, all there to help.
However, Bininj are losing confidence in their ability to teach their children. When I
suggested relatives at Kudjekbinj teach their young children to read and write and
speak English they appeared quite taken aback and nervous, telling me they didn’t
have ‘a certificate’, or they ‘didn’t finish high school’. I expect that eventually child-
rearing among Indigenous people will be soon regarded, like education, as a job for
Modern education aims to reproduce’ in the next generation the knowledge, skills and
attitudes’ which are necessary for them ‘to take their allotted place in society, and in
particular, in the economy.’ (Boughton, 1999: 3). Traditional Indigenous education
did just that as did the rural Indian society written of earlier. However, education
systems, designed for Western societies may not reproduce ‘knowledge, skills and
attitudes’. And so with each generation we have to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Meanwhile
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
Indigenous ways of ‘doing things’ that evolved over tens of thousands of years, and
the role of women, children and old people as the ‘glue’ of society, are largely
ignored. The ‘necessities for survival’ (Turnbull, 1972), generosity, integrity,
kindness – values that hold small community together – may be lost as well.
Regulation of behaviour
Within the Indigenous family, clan and community, parents expect their children to
internalise law and order, and right behaviour as part of daily life and thus learn to
regulate their own behaviour. The Indian study found similar attitudes among rural
people towards their children who expected their children to internalise ‘values and
ethics’. These, they defined in positive terms such as ‘integrity, commitment and
responsibility’. Yet urban Indian people defined values ‘in negative terms – what is
not to be done (eg smoking, drinking, getting into trouble (2005: 27). Personal
restraint in the case of these latter students relied on external regulation.
In Western society the latter approach is often taken. Children are considered
incapable of making decisions about what is right or wrong and not being responsible
for their actions, must be regulated. When Rowan swore at his child care centre the
carers chastised him, not the other children. Yet, at home he learned that Jethro would
copy his behaviour. Thus he learned that he had to watch his language.
As schools take over the reproduction of knowledge, skills and attitudes for
Indigenous children, traditional ways of keeping law and order, knowledge of country,
and other skills are being lost. And with it, goes the value of children in the eyes of
their community, often with serious consequences. As well, elders may also lose
status in the eyes of their children. The way to tackle this is not by simplifying jobs or
courses, but by starting with what Indigenous people know and have practised by tens
of thousands of years, that is, making study and work and values relevant to life, and
instituting ways of learning that respect and build upon the student’s existing
knowledge. For example, the skills needed to look after visitors already exist among
Indigenous people as the Baby Dreaming tourism project (Goodfellow, 2017)
Montessori (1940) taught that education 'should work with the nature of the (student)
instead of against it'. Likewise education for Aboriginal people should build upon
their strengths using a combination of appropriate teaching methods, rather then
blindly following the mainstream Western model. Then, once they feel competent and
confident they can move to formal western education. And hopefully, they will
change mainstream education so that fewer of us in the wider society will think we
are ‘stupid’. Maybe then the Western world can begin to recognise the collective and
individual intelligence and innovation that have served Indigenous people well for
thousands of years.
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
An illiterate person is not necessarily an ignorant one as Dr. Fasheh (2002, p 7) wrote
of his mother, the village dressmaker. Though officially illiterate and innumerate, she
could take a bolt of cloth, cut it into thirty precise pieces and produce a fitted dress by
the next day. Literacy does not necessarily equate with knowledge or wisdom. Dr.
Fasheh (2002:2) states that, ‘during the first Intifada, I realized that what kept
Palestinian society viable were people who were rooted in the soil of the culture and
in daily lives, whether literate or not. (That) kept the various communities in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip functioning”.. His concern was ‘to make sure that ... literacy
does not replace other forms of learning, knowing and expressing.’
When I took visitors out to Baby Dreaming, in Arnhem Land, the Kunwinjku children
joined in. Two boys, 4 and 5-years-old, helped birdwatchers find birds. A ten-year-
old lad showed visitors how to remove bark from a tree with a wicked-looking bush
knife. Both adults and children helped the visiting men and boys how to make spears.
Women, and girls, including a six-year-old competent at finding plants used for
colouring pandanus for weaving, took female visitors off to gather bush food and
dyes. Many of these Indigenous children were illiterate, but they were not
uneducated. Moreover, they knew how to socialise, how to impart information, and
how to keep visitors safe. And with the Baby Dreaming tourism project everyone was
gradually becoming more literate through the use of bird books and computers.
But illiterate people are aware of how they appear to the wider society. An
Indigenous elder I met while fishing, impressed me with his reading of the sea. Yet he
brushed aside that knowledge, and proudly drew out of his shirt, a tatty old comic, to
show me that he too, could read.
SIDH began to distinguish between ‘Literacy’ and ‘Education’, discovering ‘illiterate’
individuals who were moral, honest and responsible, with great social skills. Yet even
their own communities regarded them as ‘backward’ because they couldn’t read or
write. In the ‘process of adopting a modern lifestyle, Indians tended to look down
upon their own traditional ways of living, thinking and being.’ (Pimparé, 2005: 6).
The Baby Dreaming Tourism Project
In the Baby Dreaming tourism project courses aimed to build upon existing
knowledge in a way later mirrored in the new SIDHS approach to education. This
new approach focused on:
“a) oneself and one’s relations with the family, community and nature; b) the
surrounding nature and all its characteristics; c) the village through its history,
geography, economics, statistics, traditions and festivals and their meaning for the
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
communities; d) the inter-connectedness and interdependence between the various
elements surrounding them and the connection of these with their own lives”
(Pimparé, 2005: 15).
I gained some funding from the Dept of Business, Industry and Resource
Development in 2004, and was able to expand the workshops to include computer and
business skills, balanda (white people) etiquette, how to feel comfortable around
visitors, and how to guide and correct, if necessary, visitor behaviour. As family
members grew in confidence, they began to teach others, the knowledge moving out
to nearby outstations. Yet we lost our funding, because neither elders nor I had a
“Certificate 4” in training. Again mainstream education won, this time not only to the
detriment of the people at Baby Dreaming, but also to visitors who wanted such an
Pimparé (2005: 17) points out that,
‘In a constant desire to meet the demands of modernization, people are trapped
into inferiority complexes, leading to a total loss of self-esteem and self-
confidence in their own way of being which they began to perceive as ‘backward’.
‘The dominant system is so pervasive that the alternatives that exist are isolated
and can never become the norm.’ (2005: p. 6). We (the Indian subcontinent)
fought and overthrew foreign domination but it remains in a different garb’ (p. 6,
According to Professor Dharampal, Indian philosopher, author and historian (2005),
“The Indian mind is not a clean slate on which a new story, painstakingly taken from
the West, can be re-written”.
SIDH (2005: 8) now direct their efforts towards ‘enabling communities to regain self-
respect and as a result, self-esteem in their own traditions and culture – in short, in
their own worldview.’
Building upon existing skills
For the sake of all Australians Bininj need to foster their worldview, one that focuses
on all elements – including the family, the community, the natural and spiritual
environment - a view that has been shaped over eons, to the realities of life and this
land. As fellow human beings, non-Indigenous and Indigenous people need to share
that worldview. This is not “airy-fairy” thinking, for the childhood education of Bininj
make them the sort of people desperately needed in the wider world – reliable,
competent, ethical, innovative, and responsible. Furthermore they have much to
teach Australian business people about working with members of other societies,
particularly those of China or India. Australia needs them.
© DL Goodfellow Aug. 2017
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