Digital dreaming

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  • Published 20140506
  • ISBN: 9781922182258
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

EIGHT YEARS AGO I was working with Annie Nayina Milgin, a senior Nyikina Mangala cultural custodian in the Kimberley, putting the finishing touches to a book we’d collaborated on about the ancestral dreaming track of Woonyoomboo. Woonyoomboo is a major creation ancestor for the Nyikina people. His journey ended near a place called Mjirrikan where he rode on the back of a giant Rainbow Serpent before turning into the Night Heron. Annie and her partner, traditional law man and chairman of the Kimberley Land Council for many years, John Darragah Watson, are deeply concerned about the maintenance, holding and transmission of important cultural heritage. The book about Woonyoomboo, along with others on which we’ve collaborated, are part of their ongoing efforts to hold culture for future generations.

Both Annie and John are cultural bosses for Yiriman, whichoperates within the Nyikina, Mangala, Walmajarri and Karajarri language region, extending from Bidyadanga in the West Kimberley to Balgo in the south. The organisation often works with young people identified by juvenile services as likely offenders, returning them to country for lengthy walks with elders during which they are reconnected with country, kin, law and culture. They believe, like many of the elders and cultural custodians with whom I work, that these connections are essential to wellbeing.

John and Annie asked me to assist in teaching young people in their community how to tell their own stories using digital media. They wanted this to occur for a number of reasons: the rate at which cultural knowledge is being lost; the desire for a cultural archiving process to be established; the need for young people to be engaged in creative practices which interest and excite them; a ‘skilling up’ in digital media capabilities as a way of enhancing employment opportunities; and the wish to use digital media to facilitate self-expression with a capacity to communicate in a broad social context. John and Annie were keen to facilitate young people’s capacity to create and share stories about their lives and community that reflect and celebrate alternative realities to that of the mainstream media narrative.

Twenty years ago, Aboriginal scholar Marcia Langton wrote on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people for what was then the Australian Film Commission. She suggested the work of Aboriginal media organisations was filling in ‘the empty place which most white filmmakers have circumscribed with their mumbo jumbo, landscape and fauna pastiches’.

‘The most dense relationship is not between actual people,’ suggested Langton, ‘but between white Australians and the symbols (of Aboriginality) created by their predecessors. Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists.’

These discourses continue to exist, now less concerned with flora and fauna pastiches and more with the relentless narrative of dysfunction. The media has considerable influence on the way in which identifications are constructed by youth, particularly youth whose traditional cultural framework has been subject to profound trauma. This vulnerability is intensified by the barrage of negative media representations in which young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders invariably see themselves framed in a ‘one-dimensional’ narrative of despair – ‘yet another form of blindness and neglect’ suggests Lisa Slater, a researcher in the field of Indigenous cultural studies.

Anthropologist Faye Ginsburg says that digital media is potentially an environment through which these young people can appear, inscribe their own stories, participate and render visible ‘Indigenous cultural and historical realities to themselves and the broader societies that have stereotyped or denied them.’

Workshop participants at Kalkarindji school creating an animated interpretation of their story about the Wave hill Walk-off. The media production process responded to learning areas which included Literacy, ICT, Critical & Creative Thinking, Personal & Social Capability, Ethical Understanding and Intercultural Understanding.

THE WORKSHOPS WE implemented in Jarlmadangah community school in the Kimberley, Western Australia, and Jilkminggan and Wugularr schools in the Northern Territory were an endeavour to respond to these multiple issues and concerns. With limited funds, two of us ran workshops over six weeks, supporting more than forty students to produce simple slideshows with audio scripts based on their own written texts.

Several culturally rich media stories were made, including a wonderful story by Bronson, a student at Jarlmadangah, which explained how his grandfather took him out on country, taught him how to put a small stone beneath his arm and throw it into the jila (waterhole) where the sacred Rainbow Serpent lived. In the resulting short film, Bronson’s grandfather calls out to the serpent in language asking him to keep Bronson and the other children safe. He explains how the serpent will smell their sweat on the small stone, know who they are and protect them while they are at the site. In a subsequent discussion, Bronson explained the film was important to him both because it held and conveyed important traditional knowledge (it is also held by the community cultural centre as part of important community-based cultural archives) and because it showed non-Aboriginal people how to behave the ‘right way’ on country, how to respect the ancestral beings residing there.

While many interesting and valuable stories were made during the workshops, the practice was not maintained when we left the schools. Teachers whom we hoped would also gain skills complained of having no capacity to support creative projects that did not meet their curriculum obligations. It became clear we needed to develop resources that established the links existing between the creative practice and curriculum outcomes.

Krista Scott, an experienced teacher, assistant principal and creative thinker in the context of curriculum resource development, joined the team. She began to travel and work with us to help refine these connections and to respond to repeated requests from elders that traditional knowledge be integrated into learning. The idea of a ‘both-way’ education is not new – it was part of a progressive educational model which really gained strength and momentum in the early 1980s[i] – but in recent years state and federal legislation has seen funding for bilingual education axed in the Northern Territory and support for ‘both-way’ teaching programs systematically eroded.[ii]

According to researcher Helen Hughes, senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents are uninterested in having culture in school because ‘they argue that they speak vernacular languages at home and that their communities teach children traditions and culture’. This claim is utterly contrary to my experience. Elders and community leaders I have worked with across all Australian states, over twenty-five years, have been consistently vocal in their desire for implementation of culturally relevant or ‘both-way’ learning in their schools.

‘You have to bring your culture with you when you walking, keep both-ways, white fella way and black fella way. Black fella way should come into the school. Plenty time they are in the same boat rocking,’ says Umpila elder Beverly Pascoe. Djungadjunga Yunupingu, who worked with SharingStories as cultural facilitator on Elcho Island and who is a dalkarramirri (ceremonial ritual specialist) of the Yirritja clan groups, agrees: ‘We are now living in a modern world, in two worlds, Balanda (European) and Yolngu. If we learn Balanda system all the time and teach the children Balanda westernised culture that is very difficult for them,’ he says. ‘Our expectation is for Yolngu to hold their heritage, their culture, their song and dance. I want to see culture in schools as often as literacy.’

In Wilcannia, NSW, Paakantji cultural custodian and language speaker Murray Butcher says ‘we’re in a desperate race against time’ to hold culture as elders pass away. Murray became a teacher because he wanted to ensure the transmission of culture and language. ‘I didn’t want my grandmother’s dream to die – of our language and culture being able to be taught in schools,’he says.

These passionately held beliefs are backed up by mounting global evidence demonstrating the efficacy of both culturally relevant and bilingual approaches to learning.

It is these directives we have followed over the past seven years as we have developed and trialed a series of innovative teaching resources which build on the existing knowledge and experience of students and communities, in a manner that supports cultural transmission, learning on country, and contributes to capacity and community building.


ONE OF THE first resources was developed with Jilkminggan elders and related to rivers. The non-Aboriginal teacher planned to explore three major river systems that term: the Mississippi, Amazon and Ganges. Jilkminggan community identify as Biginini bilong Roper, or Children of the Roper River, and live upon its banks. In response to discussions between the teacher, myself, Krista and Mangarrayi traditional owners Sheila Conway and Jessie Roberts, we developed a resource that supported the creation of digital stories relating to the Roper River. All knowledge to be explored was public or unrestricted, appropriate for children to hear and know. A condition of this kind of work is that the right to share public material must be approved, often by numerous custodians. Perspectives on what is approved for telling or distribution isn’t static, but changes according to circumstances and needs to be determined locally. Copyright and IP of cultural knowledge always remains with custodians.

Students created short films and slideshows with audio scripts and recordings about the Dreaming stories belonging to the river, food and medicine found in and around it, language words relating to it, recreational activities that take place within it, songs that brought the river into being, as well as community members memories and oral histories relevant to it.

The resource included further study for participants using the initial Roper River-related outcomes as a comparative study base for learning about the Ganges, Amazon and Mississippi rivers. Participants in Jilkminggan were encouraged to write to young people involved in the SharingStories program living on the banks of the Amazon River in Iquitos, Peru, and on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India.[iii]These young digital storytellers had uploaded media relative to their own experience of the rivers beside which they live. Jilkminggan students related this to their learning, making connections to their own world in order to scaffold new understanding. As researcher Robyn Ober says in the context of a ‘both-way’ approach: ‘It’s about our way of telling stories; it’s about our way of making meaning in our world. Both-ways is about going from the known to the unknown, using current knowledge as a springboard to gain new conceptual academic understandings.’

As a place-based pedagogy, the process at Jilkminggan supported experiential learning through the local landscape. Environmental and place-based education expert David A. Gruenweld argues, ‘linking such experience to the experience of others in other places and to the cultural, political, economic and ecological forces that connect people and places on a global scale’ is highly effective.

In the course of the work produced at Jilkminggan, the creation of digital stories involved script, song and caption writing in which participants wrote about their various experiences of and relationships with their river. All of which enhanced literacy in both English and first languages. Photography, film, audio recording, editing and storyboarding enhanced literacy acquisition and IT skills in meaningful ways. The themes and ideas responded to societal and environmental process learning, personal and social capabilities, critical and creative thinking, and intercultural understanding learning areas. The resources allowed for a move beyond the classroom as a learning environment and for the collective historical experiences of the community to become a context for learning. As Inge Kral, research fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, noted in her observations of young Aboriginal media producers, engagement was high because those involved ‘are choosing to participate because these cultural production roles are in the domains of knowledge that matter to them – culture, arts, country, and new technologies –within a framework of social relatedness.’[iv]

During our workshops, school attendance often increases and students with special needs or identified as low achievers regularly excel. One student was recognised by elders in his community as a maparn, or traditional healer, with very particular and highly valued traditional power. He was identified by the school as a student consistently failing to complete academic tasks. He took a camera home and returned the next day with footage in which he documented a fishing trip by shooting through the rear window of the car as it travelled across salt bush plains; a fluid, hand-held single-shot around his father as he dug native honey from the ground, and low tracking shots of soldier crabs scuttling across the sand. Making a short story about his community, he filmed his foot moving on the pedal of his bicycle as a method of visually depicting transitions from one house to another. His vision of the world was unique, with access to inspired perspectives as understood by the elders, and seemed to find a wonderful expression in the context of the program. He completed his films and received substantial applause for his work at the final screening.

Thompson photos_palm island 10-2_650px widePortraits made by workshop participants in Palm Island are pasted in public places with glue made of flour, sugar and water.


WE HAVE NOW implemented programs and resources in schools across four Australian states with considerable success. In evaluation interviews teachers and principals have spoken of significant on-site professional development.

The promised ‘Digital Education Revolution’ for every child has not been effectively supported. The stated aims of the ‘revolution’, which remain highly relevant, included: deployment of quality digital tools, resources and infrastructure which would help support the Australian Curriculum; increased support in information and communication technology (ICT) proficiency for teachers and students which would in turn support the use of ICT in teaching and learning.

In my experience, effective professional development for teachers supposed to be implementing the ‘revolution’ has been extremely poor and fails to meet these stated aims. This is even more profoundly felt in a remote Aboriginal context where there is a narrow focus on conventional literacy and numeracy acquisition to the detriment of a wide range of other learning outcomes. Similarly there are very few resources available that serve teacher needs. As a result, the support and training we provide in digital skills development, implementation methodologies and resources are deemed to be extremely useful.

Several of the designed resources assigned students the task of going out to interview elders about aspects of community life and culture. Their non-Aboriginal teachers went with them, learned from the interviews and discussions that took place and met parents and families of the young people they taught, often for the first time. Many teachers receive little orientation in working within an Aboriginal context and have little contact with the community beyond the children they teach at school. On Elcho Island, participating teachers’ evaluation included reference to the fact that, through the program, they had ‘developed a stronger relationship with families of the eleven kids that were involved’ and could now, ‘build on those relationships’ and ‘bring learning out into community and give it more context.’ The practice was regularly seen as strengthening often poor relationships between schools and the communities they serve.

Selected pieces of media from the programs are hosted on a fully moderated platform ( Responses from non-Aboriginal students to the media demonstrate a refreshing perspective which suggest a degree of success in the context of John and Annie’s intentions for the production of stories which offer alternative realities to media stereotypes. In response to a story by Lancetta about hunting sweet bush gum, a student from St Aloysius College in Sydney wrote: ‘According to your pictures, Wugularr looks like a beautiful and interesting place to visit. I never heard of bush gums…or what they taste like.’ Another, in response to a story about the community garden at Jarlmadangah: ‘I think that it is really great that your community has no problems and has a TAFE course going on. I can’t believe you can make so many things with native trees and plants. It is really good you are teaching everyone about your culture and I think your community is a real success story!’

As Djungadjunga says: ‘The production of digital stories about their own lives allows children to express from their own heritage, from their own culture, from their own land and their own stories and try to make a bridge between themselves and other communities with technology. Through that technology they are telling and sharing who they are.’

The content produced within the framework I’ve described is fresh, vital, resilient, often celebratory and inspiring. In addition to photography, audio recording and film, we now work with a slate of great artists who support students in projection, stop-animation, performance and a variety of other approaches to interpreting stories and culture with digital media outcomes. As Paakantji leader Murray Butcher points out, there is tremendous potential in this process for community to utilise digital tools to hold cultural references, to ‘put our stories into technology where our kids are able to walk comfortably and learn culture though that medium. We have to try and marry our ancient beliefs with modern technology.’


IN 2012, STUDENTS at Wugularr school won the Best Youth Media Award at the fourteenth National Indigenous Media Festival for Talking about our Country, their piece about the mermaids and Rainbow Serpent that live at Malkgulumbu (Beswick Falls). The piece was produced in the context of a SharingStories resource focused on ‘interpreting historical texts’. In 2013, students from Amanbidji and Kalkarindji communities won the Best Youth Video, Best Sound Recording and Best Sound Editing awards at the fifteenth festival with pieces they produced during SharingStories’ workshops with curriculum resources exploring the Nangurrugurru (emu) Dreaming track that runs through their country.

The dominant educational model does not acknowledge multiple types of intelligence, nor does it generally cultivate creativity.

Curriculum is a powerful tool that has been manipulated and molded. Terri Seddon, Professor of Education at Monash University, argues that in Australia it has become ‘a means of regulation, an instrument of control and construction, wrapped up in nation-building rhetoric’, an increasingly contested social product, ‘constituted within historically specific social relations of possession/dispossession and advantage/disadvantage’. In this context, cultures whose knowledge systems were embedded in ceremonial process, song, dance, visual arts, sophisticated systems of zoology, biology and the sciences, have been rendered largely irrelevant by ‘modern’ educational pedagogy.

A digital storytelling practice of the kind we have developed provides significant opportunity for the collective historical experiences of the community to become a context for learning. It ensures provision of cultural resources that support the formation of individuals with strong linguistic and cultural identities, as well as achieving western pedagogical curricular objectives and ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children become digitally literate. This is particularly pertinent in light of the rapid rise of digital media technologies within the education system.

Of course it could be argued that the education system is not an ideal vessel in relation to truly self-representational expression. The issue of educational agendas and filters which restrict online access means there is a very real danger of digital storytelling projects being hijacked or compromised. Certainly, community-owned and controlled endeavours supporting media productionare ideal. The reality is that programs of this kind need ongoing funding, provision and maintenance of technology and skills training, which requires significant infrastructure and which many communities do not have. They may receive content produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities via the ICTV distribution networks or Indigitube or Kimberley Aboriginal Media, PAW Media or other Indigenous media organisations, however, their capacity to produce is limited.

Finding ways to ‘skill up’ more young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is imperative and there is immense potential to do this in schools. In the face of ongoing disengagement from learning in a school environment as demonstrated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in remote areas, endemically poor relationships between school and the communities they are designed to serve, as well as ongoing alienation and disenfranchisement young people experience because of the manner in which schools construct knowledge and correspondingly success and failure, there is every reason to engage to work in this space, despite the inherent complexity. There is a dearth of research in Australia exploring the strategic fit which exists between standard curriculum objectives, the acquisition of digital media literacies, self representational digital storytelling and ‘learning-on-country’ or ‘both-way’ learning in remote community schools.

The approach SharingStories has developed and implemented requires considerable time and resources. It is possible, but it is neither quick nor easy. As Antonio Lopez suggests in his excellent essay ‘Circling the Cross: Bridging Native America, Education, and Digital Media’, it requires ‘patience, ingenuity and a spirit of committed experimentation’, as well as considerable care.


Mandawuy Yunupiŋu, who became the well known leader of the band Yothu Yindi and the first Indigenous principle in Australia, Nalwarri Ngurruwutthun, now a senior cultural education advisor, the late Dr R. Marika and Mrs Joshua and researcher Robyn Ober, represented a growing number of Indigenous educators who were “breaking new ground in developing school curriculum based on the Indigenous knowledge system” (Ober 2009: 36). In response to this intensifying dialogue, The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies funded Towards a Ganma Curriculum in 1987. The Ganma model, implemented by the Yolŋu community school in Yirrkala, at which Mandawuy was teaching, worked to embed Indigenous culture and perspectives in the pedagogical approaches of the Australian education system.


[ii] The Yolŋu word Ganma was arrived at in consultation with Elders, community members and school staff in dialogue with Mandawuy Yunupiŋu and other Yolŋu educators. It served as a metaphor for a both- ways approach:

Ganma is the name of a lagoon where salt and fresh water meet. Water is a symbol of knowledge in Yolŋu philosophy, and the metaphor of the meeting of two bodies of water is a way of talking about the knowledge systems of two cultures working together. (Living Knowledge,

[iii] With support from the Australia India council we had implemented two workshops in  Uttar Pradesh in Varanasi and Sarnath and with my own funds I implemented a workshop in Peru run by two local Peruvian artists.

[iv] Research based on The Lifespan Learning and Literacy for Young Adults in Remote Indigenous Communities is a three year (2007-10) Australian Research Council Linkage Project between CAEPR at ANU and The Fred Hollows Foundation. The six research sites included “music recording at Ngaanyatjarra Media, digital archiving at Libraries and Knowledge Centers, Ngapartji Ngapartji intergenerational arts project, Djilpin Arts youth media and arts project, and youth centers supported by the Warlpiri Education and Training Trust” (Kral 2010: 10).

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About the author

Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson has published twenty-eight books with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The 'Sharing Our Stories' series won the Australian Awards for Excellence in...

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