… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2023. All Rights Reserved.

With a view to full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for equity and justice, the new Australian National Cultural Policy has claimed to put “First Peoples First.” However, in the first half of 2023, many more non-indigenous musicians seem to have been awarded Arts Council music grants than Australian First Nations’ musicians. As the Creative Australia policy doesn’t take effect until July 1 2023, and the allocated funds won’t be deployed until 1 July 2024, it seems that the ACA grant administrators have ignored the new policy. This prioritised funding of non-Indigenous musics contradicts cultural reforms that respect the rights of Australia’s First Nations cultures, such as the passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill in 2017.

Elizabeth Sheppard (grey curly head at R) attending the Ceremonial Passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill, NSW Parliament Legislative Chamber, 2017.

When the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill was passed in 2017, we hoped to be able to teach Indigenous songs in NSW schools, but no Indigenous music curriculum has yet been introduced, and only one Indigenous music resource (for secondary schools) has been published by the Australian Music Centre. Despite the excellence of this resource, to coordinate with and properly support staged Indigenous language teaching of all NSW languages, teachable K-10 music resources with First Nations lyrics are needed, first of all. Funds are urgently needed to support publication of these First Nations music curriculum resources.

In the first 2023 Arts Council grant round, generous grants were awarded to elite music projects located in foreign countries (e.g. the US and Germany). No reasons were supplied, for awarding these grants. On the local scene in Australia, these funds could have been devoted to training and employing First Nations community members to teach Indigenous languages through song. Ironically, Australian First Nations musicians who live on Country and work with inherited cultures, rather than overseas music genres, are often deemed ineligible for music grants, unless a non-indigenous scholar applies to study their music. Continued deprivation of coordinated Indigenous language and music education has perpetuated Indigenous cultural disadvantage in Australia. This legacy of colonialism is still blocking Indigenous self-determination and empowerment, which could and should be facilitated. As Dr. Cubillo has pointed out, we are a Songline based culture, and this uniquely Australian heritage should not be silenced.

Elizabeth Sheppard, Parramatta Council Advisory Committee Member, with Grace Toomey, Gamilaroi Three Rivers Assembly Representative, at the Green Room Reception after the signing of the 2017 NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill.

Aboriginal Australians from Western Sydney, which has the largest and most impoverished Indigenous Australian population of any Australian region, are still battling to sustain Furst Nations cultures and arts here. Our young people were excluded from NSW government OCHRE Indigenous Youth Employment and Education programs until recently. The Greater Western Sydney Opportunity Hub, which provides transition programs for Indigenous secondary school students to work or further study, opened on 14 Feb 2023. The trouble is, only a handful of Western Sydney Indigenous students have made it to secondary school. Over the last ten years, First Nations communities in rural NSW were awarded prioritised funding to promote “real Aboriginal cultures”, while Indigenous city kids were coerced to assimilate into Western culture, and detained and incarcerated, with no recourse to juvenile diversion or rehabilitation programs, if they wouldn’t comply. This is still happening.

In Western Sydney, only privileged minorities can access high quality music and arts education, and schools provide only basic music training, if any. While rural and remote Australian First Peoples children are clearly in desperate need, so are oppressed, impoverished, unjustly incarcerated urban Australian First Peoples’ children. Without sufficient community music grants and published K-10 Indigenous cultural music education resources, these Indigenous children will continue to be deprived of opportunities for Indigenous music making. Western Sydney music teachers and Aboriginal Elders who advise AECG Head Teachers Committees in Western Sydney, have been requesting these Indigenous cultural music resources for many years.

The low number of First Nations arts and music grants awarded by the Australia Council for the Arts in early 2023 appears to be based on the 3% Indigenous population demographic, not on any principle of restorative justice. Dr. Franchesca Cubillo, Music Australia’s Head of Indigenous Music, is promoting the Federal government’s declared intent to prioritise First Peoples’ music. Meanwhile, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners in Western Sydney’s Silverwater Correction Centre, and in many other supposedly “correctional” institutions, are denied Indigenous music, arts, rehabilitation and social support programs, and First Nations deaths in custody are still rising.

Choosing between funding one or the other disadvantaged First Nations community is not an option for any Australian State or Federal government, as sufficient Federal funding has been allocated for all. But at the moment, funding administrators are still allocating token arts grants to a few cherry picked Australian First Nations communities, and reserving 97% of music grants to fund non-indigenous creation, performance and export of non-Australian music genres. And Australia’s most talented non-indigenous musicians are still funded to abandon Australia for prestigious overseas posts. In other words, Australia’s famed musico-cultural cringe, the pernicious habit of kow-towing to overseas cultures, is alive and well.

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