Maintaining cultural identity: Key to children’s development, particularly for Australia’s Aboriginal children

Key takeaways for caregivers

  • A strong sense of identity can help children and youth build resilience and self-esteem to cope with challenges.
  • Cultural identity is particularly impactful for young people who face adversities, such as Australian Aboriginal youth.
  • Obstacles to building a strong cultural identity include repercussions of the history of colonization and racism, as well as distance from cultural learning in modern urban life.
  • Cultural identity and being Aboriginal should be seen as assets, and schools are one context where these can be cultivated.

Article contents:

  1. Australia’s Aboriginal youth face significant cultural challenges
  2. Building cultural identity strengthens Aboriginal children
  3. It is important to maintain cultural identity when children are young
  4. Cultural identity combats adversity
  5. The many barriers to transferring identity
  6. Obstacles to learning within families
  7. Difficulties of maintaining cultural identity at school

1. Australia’s Aboriginal youth face significant cultural challenges

How do we help children thrive when they face a hostile environment – racism at school, in daily interactions, and in almost every aspect of their public lives? This is a crucial question, particularly if a key protective factor – connection to their own culture – is weakened by public institutions that fail, however inadvertently, to value such connections, and when past experiences have left families fragmented and adults also struggle to cope.

These questions are acute for Australia’s Aboriginal children. Many of their parents and grandparents were traumatized. Not until 1977 did the Australian government end the practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal children – the Stolen Generation – from their families, placing them in missions to assimilate with non-Aboriginal people. Indeed, it was only in 1968, following a referendum, that Aboriginal people were classified as human beings and counted in the Census.

How do we ensure that children today develop well when the chronic symptoms of colonization – and its subsequent fracturing of Aboriginal existence – endure: alcoholism, drug dependency, poverty, self-harm, suicide, mental illness, and incarceration of family members?

On top of that, Aboriginal children continue to experience high levels of racism. For example, in a study in a Western Australian town, 75% of Aboriginal children and youth aged 11-17 years experienced racism that they wanted to stop, and 74% were too scared to walk around the town (Kickett-Tucker et al, 2018).

2. Building cultural identity strengthens Aboriginal children

Very young (aged 6-12) Aboriginal children still encounter racism. Some have reported scrubbing their bodies to remove their dark skin.

One vital response to these challenges is to build a young person’s identity. Research shows that the identity of Aboriginal children usually equates with being recognized as the first people of Australia, with identity defined as connection to country (place), family, kinship, language, culture, and importantly, traditional rights to heritage, history and lands. Research also indicates that building such an identity is an all-encompassing, holistic way to support any child to grow and thrive. But it is a particularly effective and culturally safe way to address the daily costs of historic injustices and the realities of modern-day racism. It can enable young Aboriginal people to take a steady and sturdy journey to adulthood and support other key points in their life transitions. 

3. It is important across cultures to maintain cultural identity during youth 

The prescription to maintain a strong, positive identity is important during youth across all cultures, according to developmental psychology. It helps create functioning, well-rounded individuals, and boosts positive social and emotional well-being. A robust identity empowers individuals to acknowledge, respect, and define their purpose and role in life, helping them understand who they are and how they relate to others. Research suggests that the transition from childhood to adolescence and into early adulthood is a vital time for interaction with – and formation of – identity, though identity continues to develop across the lifespan. 

4. Cultural identity combats adversity

A strong identity is particularly important for children who face adversity. It helps them develop resilience, which promotes the skills, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome and cope with life’s challenges. Individuals gain control over their own well-being which has a positive impact on their self-esteem. In a study of First Nations’ youth in Canada, a strong racial identity was a protective factor against self-harm and suicide.

Having a strong Aboriginal identity and self-esteem is like the hub of a wheel. Without the hub, the wheel can go nowhere. Like a hub, racial identity is at the center of an Aboriginal child’s well-being. It is their spirit and without it, they can be steered by outside forces that determine how fast to go and in which direction to travel.

5. The many barriers to transferring identity

But transferring and bolstering Aboriginal identity is fraught with difficulty. The experiences of the Stolen Generation painfully disturbed identity in older groups, undermining their connection with land, kin, spirituality, and culture.

Chris Jackamarra, one of those affected, explained: “The mission taught us that we were white, but they never taught us to be prepared for what was out in the world. That there was racial prejudice, stereotype casting and things like that. We were robbed of our identity and culture and that bothered me. It is something I was never taught and I am still just learning it now.”

In my research, I have identified very young (aged 6-12) Aboriginal children who still encounter racism. Some have reported scrubbing their bodies to remove their dark skin.

Schools should be culturally audited for how well they respect, understand, maintain, and teach about Aboriginal identities.

6. Obstacles to learning within families

Many modern-day obstacles stand in the way of transferring Aboriginal identity. Understanding what it is to be Aboriginal involves observational learning by a child, including sitting and waiting with elders. In this situation, an elder carries out an activity, a child models it, and the elder continues the activity until the child has done it in culturally appropriate ways.

The activity might be burning fur off a kangaroo tail and cooking it under the ashes. It might be collecting berries and fruit products. Out in the bush, Aboriginal people look for bush medicine. Food is vital and many activities take place around a campfire. But today, Aboriginal people, who typically live in urban centers, are not allowed to make fires because of the risk of bush fires. They lack money for gas and few have cars to travel to the bush, leaving many stuck in the city.

Moreover, many Aboriginal people are very poor. If they live in state-provided housing, there are rules about how many people can be together under one roof, and neighbors can report anyone who violates the rules.

7. Difficulties of maintaining cultural identity at school

Schools have a long way to go before they are truly focused on Aboriginal children. Government funding is provided for Aboriginal education, but there is disparity between what is awarded to schools and the sums that are actually spent by schools on Aboriginal pupils’ education. Even less is spent to support the cultural identity of Aboriginal children and youth.

School leaders and teachers have some understanding that they should do something beyond just acknowledging the importance of Aboriginal culture, but ambivalence about teaching Indigenous languages persists. Aboriginal parents are rarely invited to help co-create curricula or inform teaching practices in ways that are culturally relevant.

Simple school practices could make a difference, signalling a shift in perceptions so that being Aboriginal is recognized as an asset, rather than a challenge. For example, when the Aboriginal flag is raised at school, an Aboriginal child should lead the flag raise alongside another student. Each school assembly should begin with a welcome in an Indigenous language. Traditional authorities – local elders – should be invited regularly to attend assemblies. Schools should be culturally audited for how well they respect, understand, maintain, and teach about Aboriginal identities.

These recommendations are just the beginning of big changes that need to occur to develop and support Aboriginal identity in children. Aboriginal children and youth need these actions to protect them in a world that is often hostile and damaging.

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