Learning on Country, an initiative of the Northern Land Council and 15 remote schools, is doing just that: teaching students the western way but wrapped in a strong blanket of traditional lore and love of country.
Land council chairman Sam Bush- Blanasi is proud of the progress the program is making in the bush.
“Our kids are learning to walk in both worlds,” he says. “That’s not easy. Trust me – I had to learn it.” Mr Bush-Blanasi joined 13 schools at Nitmiluk National Park to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Learning on Country.
“The program is going from strength to strength,” he says. “The schools teach the kids the western way and elders get involved to teach them about their traditions and their country.” He says the initiative is one of the land council’s most important programs.
Mr Bush-Blanasi believes that the Blue Mud Bay decision – when the Federal Government declared that Aboriginal land extended down to the low tide mark – will create training opportunities and jobs for Indigenous people.
“We’re looking at joint ventures with experienced commercial fishing operators.” He says the setting up of the Aboriginal Sea Company by the NLC and Tiwi and Anindilyakwa land councils is a major step forward in giving Traditional Owners control over commercial fishing in Aboriginal-owned waters and the issuing of licences. The NLC wants to improve people’s lives in many other ways.
Mr Bush-Blanasi says the Territory and Federal governments need to spend more money on providing services for disabled people, particularly in remote communities.
“This is not just about black people but white people as well.”
The issue is close to his heart because his 11-year-old granddaughter has been severely disabled since birth and is confined to a wheelchair.
Mr Bush-Blanasi wants Aboriginal people acknowledged in the Australian constitution.
He says it’s shocking that Indigenous people were not counted as Australian until after the national 1967 referendum when changes to the constitution were approved by 91 percent of the population.
Territorians played a major role – through the Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963 and the Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill walk-offs in the late 1960s – in persuading the Federal Government to hold the referendum.
Mr Bush-Blanasi wants more Aboriginal Territorians to vote in elections.
He says the low turnout of Indigenous voters in the last Federal poll was disturbing.
But he says the Australian and NT electoral commissions are working hard to enrol more Aboriginal people to vote but still have a long way to go.
The Northern Land Council celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“Much has been achieved over the years,” says Mr Bush-Blanasi. “Celebrating 50 years is a big event for us.”
The Northern Land Council held its first meeting in 1973 to help the Woodward Commission of Inquiry into the appropriate way to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Territory.
The Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) came into force in 1977 and since then about 50 percent of the Territory has been returned to Aboriginal ownership.
Northern Land Council chairman Sam Bush-Blanasi was surprised – and delighted – to be named Northern Territory Australian of the Year in November.
“I never expected it.”
He says there were times when such an honour would never have been bestowed on an Aboriginal Territorian.
“It shows that the Territory is making progress. We are moving ahead.”
NLC chief executive Joe Martin-Jard says: “All members and staff of the Northern Land Council can be proud of his achievement.
“The award recognises a significant contribution to the Australian community and nation, an inspirational role model, someone who has done the hard yards and whose challenges and triumphs are manifested in their life experience and personal journey.
“The Chair is all of these things and this award is richly deserved.”
Mr Bush-Blanasi thanked his family and dedicated the award to NLC staff and to his severely disabled granddaughter, who provides him inspiration and strength.
The winner of the national Australian of Year award for 2023 will be announced in Canberra on 25 January.