At the launch event for MTC’s Reconciliation Action Plan, Warakirri College student Shontelle Willis-Hayek gave a moving speech about her journey to connect with her Aboriginal heritage. The speech is reprinted here with her kind permission.
Today I would like to share with you a little about my journey as a young Aboriginal woman of the Dunghutti Gumbaynggirr people and a Year 11 student at Warakirri College.
It is important to me to connect with my Aboriginal heritage because I feel that if it dies, we lose part of ourselves and each of us would feel a sense of emptiness and a loss of identity, not knowing who we are.
I started to connect with my cultural heritage about six years ago. I travelled to Kempsey, our traditional land, and visited the Dhangarri Library. There I received a book about the Dhangarri language, spelling, grammar and stories. That book is very precious to me and has had so much use that it is beginning to fall apart now.
What I learned helped me connect with my land.
Our family are very artistic and we are very involved with song and dance. My cousin Emma Donovan sings in the Ghumbangi language and her songs talk about our loss of land, the stolen generation, and also about how we are all connected to Mother Earth. Our family enjoys singing and dancing as a way of remembering, teaching and sharing our culture.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs
For the past two years I have been involved in several programs which have been of great value in helping to shape my cultural identity and teaching me about my cultural heritage.
The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) helps young Aboriginal people learn about their identity through artworks and dance. The program, which is run out of the University of Western Sydney (UWS), helped me to become a more focused student and to reconnect with who I am.
Pathways to Dreaming, also run through UWS, focuses on our culture and helps young Aboriginal students stay connected with school to complete their Year 10 RoSA and Higher School Certificate.
The Deadly Dreaming program, which is organised by Ted Noffs Foundation Street University at Mt Druitt, works towards helping Aboriginal children in schools feel more confident about who they are. The program encouraged us to push ourselves forward, try harder and do better at school.
As part of Deadly Dreaming, I learned some traditional dances including the Kangaroo, which is a dance that the girls are allowed to do. It was great fun and helped to build relationships and connectedness – as well as improve my dancing skills.
Many of you may not know that Aboriginal people really enjoy putting on ochre for the dances. Ochre is crushed up rock, so wearing it makes you feel closer to the land, but when it comes off it leaves your skin feeling really nice, soft and smooth.
The AFL Indigenous Academy is a fun mentoring program. We had Aunty Nean cook afternoon tea for us, we played sports and attended the Great Australian Bush Camp. The program kept us occupied from after school until 5:30pm so it kept us out of trouble. We were entertained, we had somewhere safe to go and we were able to do something constructive.
My Warakirri College experience
I left my previous school because I was often bullied and I got into the occasional fight. I didn’t feel I could connect with any of my teachers there.
I’d heard about Warakirri College from a friend who was attending the school. My Deputy Principal / Year Advisor at my previous school suggested Warakirri College to me, so I felt confident to come here late last year.
I like the dress code and lack of uniforms – and of course the student kitchen with all the food for breakfast, morning tea and lunch is really good. But more importantly, it is the learning environment that makes us feel comfortable.
I am in a small class and I don’t feel as out of place and paranoid as I used to. I like the fact that we go by first names with our teachers because it means that we feel more like adults. Here it is possible to have a relationship where there is respect on both sides. All of these factors make it easier for us to learn and to feel good about ourselves.
My goals for the future
My goals are to finish my HSC for my mum and my baby sister who recently passed away. I want to make them proud of me and what I achieve for our family.
I like the idea of working in a job where I can help people, so I was thinking that when I leave school I might work in the healthcare industry. But I also have an interest in forensic anthropology, and since coming to Warakirri I am doing really well in maths – so now I am thinking of becoming an accountant and perhaps working in a bank.
As a young Aboriginal woman I am glad to have had the chance to connect with my cultural heritage and to learn about my people and their history.
As a Warakirri College student I am glad to have the opportunity to complete my HSC in a school which is respectful of my background and which encourages me to pursue a future where I can achieve for my family and contribute to my community.
Warakirri College is an independent high school for young people completing Year 10 and the HSC, who have disconnected from mainstream education or don’t feel comfortable in a traditional school. Teachers are there not only to teach but also to help students build confidence, manage other challenges in their life and work towards their own learning, career and life goals.