maar bidi: Carving Sovereignty and Desire in Indigenous Youth Storytelling

By , and | 1 February 2021

Indigenous education and the Imagination Declaration

In 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students gathered at the Garma Festival Youth Forum in East Arnhem Land and created the Imagination Declaration.1 In the Declaration, they called for Indigenous-centered education that recognised the value of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing held by Indigenous people. The Declaration responded to the 2017 ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, and proposed a roadmap for youth:

the future of this country lies in all of our hands …

With 60,000 years of genius and imagination in our hearts and minds, we can be one of the groups of people that transform the future of life on earth, for the good of us all.

The Imagination Declaration calls for an Indigenous education that nurtures Indigenous youth agency and freedom of mind, asserting that, ‘we want freedom to be whatever a human mind can dream.’ Some of these freedoms can be found in storytelling, as the Declaration reflects:

We want the freedom to write a new story. 

We want to show the world Aboriginal genius.

We want to show the nation Aboriginal leadership and imagination.

Indigenous-determined stories and storylines are interconnected with the revitalisation of Indigenous-centred teaching and learning within the education system. As the Declaration asserts, ‘remove the limited thinking around our disadvantage, stop looking at us as a problem to fix, set us free to be the solution and give us the stage to light up the world’. In this way, the Declaration challenges stereotyping and relocates ‘the problem’ to the education system.

We recognise the significance of embedding the Imagination Declaration into our teaching and learning at the School of Indigenous Studies. The Aboriginal Orientation Course – a university pathway program for students with an average age of 18 to 20 – teaches creative writing and Indigenous storytelling practices. The creative writing workshop space is culturally sustained and includes only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. This space is particularly freeing for students who wish to explore their youth experience, Indigeneity and cultural heritage in writing – developing culturally authoritative, confident and original voices of a rising generation.

Within this culturally sustained space, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not positioned to explain their cultural heritage and history. Their writing is not translated by Whiteness. Here, they can focus on navigating their position in a digital globalised world, develop their writing styles and find their voice – unconfined by boundaries, inherently understood as sovereign, and possessed of unending freedom. This liberated space allows for a symbiotic relationship between writing identities of youth culture and Indigenous culture.

Transformative pedagogical spaces acknowledge the sovereign agencies of Indigenous youth to speak for their diverse and complex ways of being in their many worlds. These stories make meaning of their lived experiences, pasts and futures. Next-generation Indigenous storytellers carve out a pathway, with their hands, between ancient and new worlds. These paths are carved in difficult terrain, navigating a sovereign world that has collided and converged with diverse and complex understandings of Country and kin. A sovereign world that is also a 24-hour social network weighed down by anxieties around racism, employment, environmental destruction, substance abuse, health, crime, migration, education, finance, body image, negative stereotyping, relationships and countless other societal pressures.

This terrain is mapped by writers in maar bidi: next generation black writing, an anthology of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth writing. In writing developed in creative writing workshops in the Aboriginal Orientation Course, students were encouraged to find strength in their voices and write about what is meaningful to them. They wrote about what it means to be young, black and passionate while encircled in divergent and often conflicting worlds. What it means to feel exuberant, enraged, confused or even unconcerned. How it feels to be on the precipice of teen-hood and adulthood.

The heart of this anthology is its affirmation of the agency of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth to make meaning of their own lived experience, to find their voice and to speak for themselves, instead of being spoken about by others. This writing is grounded in Indigenous standpoints, and senses of place and belonging to place. In her poem ‘My Blood Runs Through’, Yawuru, Karrajarri and Nimanburr student Savannah Cox shares her connection to Country in this way, shown in the following extract:

Broome is me.
My body is the land. It is solid and curved. Imperfect by man’s
     doing but it is still beautiful and radiant.
The sky is my skin, different variations of colour represent my
     mixed heritage of various nationalities.
The creeks are my hair. Flowing from my body into the bay,
     cleansed as water flows in and out.
The red that courses though the land and stains every bit of white
     is my blood. My blood runs through this land as it did for my
     elders before me. No matter how hard you wash, it will never
     fade away.
Sunrises are my eyes opening wide and bright to a different day
     and closing when the sun sets.
The sandy dunes are my lips, softly kissed by the ocean waves and
     whispered to by the coastal breeze.
This is my home. It is me.2

The anthology emerges from a culturally sustained and liberated space, in which Aboriginal youth successfully unite, create and share new stories that navigate the complex historical, environmental, political, social and digital worlds they live in.

We now gather to explore how our creative writing teaching and learning practices might be defined and constructed within academia. How do we, as teachers, carve out pathways with our own hands which revitalise Indigenous-centred education? We explore the interconnectedness between Indigenous storytelling and sovereignty, and the implications of desire-based frameworks for responding to the ‘Imagination Declaration’ and the imagination agenda. As the Uluru Statement From the Heart determines, sovereignty is a ‘spiritual notion’ of the ancestral connection between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and land, who ‘were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors’.

  1. The Imagination Declaration of the Youth Forum read at Garma 2019. Online.
  2. Extract from ‘My Blood Runs Through’ by Savannah Cox, in maar bidi: next generation black writing (Shiosaki and Martin 2020, p. 20). Reproduced with the author’s permission.
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