From little things, big things grow

Hundreds of years ago, wetlands in the Hunter region abounded with flora and fauna.

There were fish, water birds and lizards aplenty and the catchments also provided a habitat for a variety of mammals including possums, wallaroos, kangaroos, swamp wallabies, swamp rats, sugar gliders, squirrel gliders, bandicoots and the like. Mobs from various Nations often visited the area, including the Tarro swamp, to draw from the natural richness of resources.

And, although colonisation has impacted much of the way things were, nestled among the school grounds of Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, Tarro, is a flourishing cultural space that brims with life.

Our school takes great pride in offering insights into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture with our staff and students. Inspired by the Dreaming, and in line with our school's Aboriginal Education Policy, several years ago Our Lady of Lourdes devised a concept to create a cultural space that can be used as an outdoor classroom. My colleagues Bryan Rowe and Karen Tucker enlisted support from local Elders and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, who provided invaluable cultural guidance to achieve this goal. Together, they developed plans for an Indigenous Trail that at the suggestion of an Elder, included a Rainbow Serpent Path. Proudly, the concept has now been brought to fruition, assisted by a $10,000 grant from the City of Newcastle as part of its Local Schools Community Fund.  However, the trail is far more than just bricks and mortar.

In the months following the path’s construction, we invited Indigenous families from our school community to suggest plants that could be included alongside the path. The original intention was for them to attend a Family Planting Day so they could share the cultural and family significance of their plant with our school community. However, due to coronavirus restrictions, these plans did not eventuate. Not deterred, our students took up the opportunity on behalf of their families to share the significance of the plant with their peers, before placing them in the garden. Now, they take great pride in tending to the plants, ensuring they grow to be healthy and strong. This practice builds upon their sense of Aboriginal identity, knowing their family has used a certain kind of plant for millennia. Additionally, they are developing increased confidence as they learn the seasonal characteristics of the plant such as when it fruits, when to pick, and its various uses.

As the school's Aboriginal Education Officer, I regularly invite all students to be involved in hands-on learning opportunities, particularly in the garden surrounding the trail. Our young learners are enthralled by the stories they hear, which often convey messages of Aboriginal people’s connection to and respect for the land.

Plant identification, collection of natural resources for investigations and encouraging students to imagine life before colonisation are all commonplace when we gather outdoors. It also provides a great space to put to use the skills they learn in other subjects. Recently, students in Years 3 and 4 learned about traditional Aboriginal housing and designed their own humpy. As part of the design process students were encouraged to consider what materials were available in the area, how long they intended to stay and the impact of the weather and seasons. Next on the agenda, our students will use the trail to design and experiment with their own fish trap while learning about traditional Aboriginal fishing methods.

The trail also includes a substantial space to grow fruit and vegetables. Ms Tucker shares her passion for environmental sustainability with the students and does a marvellous job at showing them how to tend the soil and grow produce. The garden provides an ideal space for Ms Tucker to execute pastoral care, for which she received an Emmaus award in 2019, and the garden has become the focus for many of our neighbours as well.

While we have made significant progress on the Indigenous Trail since its inception a few short years ago, we have plans to expand, including the development of a Meeting Place at the end of the trail. The Meeting Place will be an area where the bush meets the sea, signified by using sand to create a yarning circle and local coastal plants, such as pig face.

We are grateful for the regular gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families at our school, who come together to discuss important issues and provide input regarding the future of our Aboriginal education and inform our school's personalised Aboriginal Education policy. It is hoped the Meeting Place, when complete, will become an area in which our families and community members can gather and feel culturally safe, just as they would have all those years ago. It will also provide an ideal setting for our staff and students to continue to enhance their cultural understanding by sharing stories that convey the courage, resilience and survival of Aboriginal people and their respect for Dreaming.

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