‘For Future Gens’: On The Right to Lead One’s Own Education Systems and Restorative Approaches to Youth Justice

by Lara Fielding

Settler-colonialism is the ongoing imposition of the discourse of an outsider culture onto that of an existing culture – infringing on the existing culture’s cosmology, epistemologies and ontology, dispossessing their ‘future gens’. Thus, we intervene in the lives of children, youth, students – all future citizens and effectors of future discourse. Within the Australian education system, institutionalised knowledge production reinforces colonial discourse from our primary schools to universities. Those who cannot be ‘schooled’ are often incarcerated. Youth incarceration in Australia disproportionally affects indigenous children. Indigenous resurgence through self-determined action has been posited as a response to these co-structures that are failing Indigenous people. Within pedagogy, this looks like approaching a dialogue between two seemingly incommensurable knowledge systems, de-centring colonial knowledges, making space for indigenous representation, and supporting Indigenous education systems nation-by-nation-by-nation. Outside of pedagogy, there are forms of storytelling like art and poetics. Beyond structural education reform, which can seem impossible or mammoth, I posit an example of the most targetable current action ‘for future gens’ of Indigenous people in Australia: raising the age of criminal responsibility from its current ten-year-old benchmark. The Uluru Statement from the Heart stresses ‘[the youth] should be our hope for the future’. Beyond domestication, assimilation, or homogenisation, and attempts at obscuration of history or bene-violent reconciliation, the colonial state must now hold space for resurgent Indigenous nationhood.

Is the right to lead one’s own education system attainable within an academy that centres and privileges certain knowledges at the expense of others? Institutional education systems in Australia, from primary schools to universities, are framed by modern Western philosophies originating in the eighteenth century – operating to centre colonial knowledge and to marginalise Indigenous knowledge. The learner is safely contained within the classroom, contentious arguments contained in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions, or creative thinking assessments. Classrooms are categorised, departments separated, assessment made hierarchical, and analytic quantifiable logic sits sovereign. The architecture of the lecture theatre affects my learning. The vicinity of the local school to the remote student does too, as does the language classes are taught in. Courses are restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. Torres Strait Islander academic Sana Nakata posits, ‘institution obscures violence through intellectualisation and odd forms of rationalisation. It obscures our ability to see what sovereignty, self-determination or agency exists.’ Obscuration: to be blinkered, blinded or deaf. Within the institution, in order to de-centre colonial knowledge systems, the colonial must work against obscuration by first knowing themselves.

The first facet of educational reform in Australia requires a truth-telling in the historical narratives on which Australia’s particular conditions of settler-coloniality is predicated – these permeating current curricula. “Truth-telling” is one of the conditions present in the Uluru Statement From the Heart. Who gets to speak, and why, in Australian history textbooks has the effect of shaping the stories of national identity: of terra nullius, of the settler pioneers, of non-managed untameable wilderness, of imperial nostalgia, of mateship, of the gold rushes, of poppies – of a homogenised, distant past and ‘problematic’ Indigenous contemporary population. Colonials were not welcomed onto this country. Yet, revisiting our history curriculums exists as a transformative opportunity for Australians to acknowledge the past and revisit history. Indigenous archaeologist Billy Griffiths works to shift control further into the hands of Indigenous peoples by conceptualising a living deep past with ‘vast sprawling chains of connection’, and ‘interconnected’ societies across a continent.

The right to lead one’s own education system may also be exercised by on country learning for Indigenous students. Sovereignty may be exercised by a sense of belonging to a landscape: ‘The land is the source of the law’. Wurundjeri oral historian and elder Dean Stewart speaks to the benefits of developing a duty obligation relationship with country. Within Indigenous knowledge systems and law, there is a symbiotic relationship and reciprocity that exists with country. Culture and ecology are developed hand in hand, exercised by law (in ceremony and songlines), and knowledge is embodied and inscribed on land. Being on country, through education, land management, job training, or seizing economic autonomy through agriculture, could incite a journey back to an Indigeneity that has been stolen, taken and denied. The principles of reciprocity, responsibility and respect in how to inhabit the Indigenous world are not usually valued by the knowledge systems of the West that are imposed over Indigenous people.

Reframing ‘Indigenous Studies’ in the university context exists as a third example of educational reform within the institution. The student and teacher must question their intentions in studying or teaching Indigenous Studies, and, if non-Indigenous, what business of theirs it is to access traditional Indigenous law and ways of knowing (None!). It is an act of self-determination to preserve and protect cultural knowledges – ‘Secret Women’s Business’ (Djab Wurrung). After a vicious history of intense colonial state-legislated denial of culture, furthering colonial gaze and objectification is an act of violence. Goenpul academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson instead suggests that this gaze should be shifted back onto the colonial; that studying whiteness would ‘decentre its normalising effects, thus making it productive and enabling in…thinking about the deep complexity of Indigeneity’. For Indigenous students, a more self-determined approach, suggested by Andrew Beitzel in IndigenousX, includes community-consulted education, with university majors such as ‘agriculture, astrology, medicine, law…taught from a purely Black perspective’.

Yet, there remains the fundamental incommensurability between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems, on cosmological, epistemological and ontological grounds. Bringing Indigenous law into colonial models of education invariably compromises the outcomes. Torres Strait Islander Professor Martin Nakata offers a cultural interface via their ‘Standpoint Theory’ as a method of promoting dialogue between the two systems of law. Claims to knowledge become ‘socially constructed positions that were the outcomes of particular forms of social organisation’. As a colonial in an educative role, the teacher must embrace reflexivity and a willingness to understand their positionality (that they are always a learner). The teacher holds a responsibility to meet the student in their context, in order to create conditions for the student to create meaning. This leads to experiences of success and accomplishment about new learning for the student. One should place themselves, both in their position and on country – this will look different depending on place. Jane Vadiveloo urges for place sensitivity in a nation-by-nation-by-nation approach to teaching Indigenous students. Within the classroom itself, the teacher may deconstruct colonial teaching practices by locating themselves in the story, encouraging communal discussion, holding space for the privileging of emotional experiences, and following a less categorical or accumulative structure. The right to lead one’s own education depends on the extent to which this cultural interface is approached.

The sovereign act in leading one’s own education system may be exercised by the refusal of the institution itself. Refusal, first termed by Audra Simpson, is a willful turning away from the state by the self-determining and sovereign First Nations person. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Māori (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou) scholar, posits that decolonial theory allows Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing to become embodied in  ‘practices and protocols within and beyond the institution’ [emphasis mine]. There can be great labour involved in teaching those who don’t want to learn, and to know is not to do better.

The boundaries of sovereignty are fluid, and constantly re-negotiated – thus, writing can be a sovereign act. As a student whose work straddles History and Indigenous Studies, I am just newly familiar with these sites of resistance: ‘Literary theory and poetics still occupy a contentious place within global discourses and practices of decolonisation’. Yet, there is already a long history of Indigenous peoples asserting their sovereignty through writing. However, this medium is not a space for the settler to ‘move to innocence’ by co-opting or appropriating decolonial culture, or by fantasising about being adopted onto Indigenous ‘country’. Indigeneity has the power to be re-shaped by a wrestling back control of the stories told about Indigenous peoples.

Art, too, may provide us with greater room for maintaining meaning that would otherwise be lost in the colonial discourse. The artists may try to see what others are refusing to see, by making it visible in a different way; or as how Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku-Yalanji artist Tony Albert tells it in his brilliant installation, ‘pay attention, motherfuckers’. Noonuccal scholar Karen Martin posits ‘dreaming’ as the decolonial imagining and mobilising of a new world order.

However, Indigenous poet Evelyn Araluen stresses that these are not metaphoric stakes: 

In meetings about trauma theory and traditional storytelling practices, the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council are using picture books to reduce neglect and abuse in their communities….Bunurong writer Bruce Pascoe’s research into traditional agricultural practices provide vital strategies for how to live sustainably in a time of impending climate disaster, the consequences of which Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of.’.

Decolonisation in any discipline should benefit those outside of and beyond colonial institutions, recognising that education happens beyond the classroom: that learning is life-long.

Due to the incommensurability of Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems, and the current unwillingness of colonial institutions to listen or budge, currently, effective structural reform to education seems impossible. Closely aligned with self-determined education reform are restorative approaches to youth justice, as Australia’s criminal justice system often becomes a destination for ‘kids that can’t be schooled’. Youth incarceration disproportionately affects Indigenous children. There is a very urgent, specific and targetable response to this– raising the age of criminal responsibility older than where it sits now, at ten years old. We must ask ourselves: What work do we want childhood to do? In the film In My Blood It Runs, ten-year-old Arrernte child Dujuan says ‘I just want to be me’. There is no more limiting a determination on who a person can be than prison. 

Settler-colonial academic Patrick Wolfe writes of the logic of the elimination details a symbolic ‘return of the native’ in order to ‘demarcate the colony’s point of departure from the imperial centre’. This ‘return of the native’ is found in the dire conceptualisation of Indigenous family life and logics of infantilisation that shape government policy: ‘We have to prove that we love our children’.

Nakata introduces the idea of the child as a form of governmentality. The settler-colonial state may be sustained, not by elimination, but instead by assimilation – by managing the Indigenous population through intervention in childhood. This is especially insidious due to the history of intervention in young Indigenous and Islander peoples lives. The unpredictable youth challenges the reproductive capacities of liberal democracy. Yet, the Indigenous child stirs up a deeper set of anxieties for the settler state in search of political legitimacy.  In controlling future adults, who become workers, and then citizens, the state controls future discourse and the future potentiality for any attempts at a cultural interface.

Non-Indigenous academic Sarah Maddison explains how routine stopping and harassment of Indigenous children by the police can escalate into ‘trifecta’ of charges: offensive language (provocations like ‘fuck off’, or, ‘give me my bag back’), resisting arrest and assaulting police. After gaining a few of these charges, the child can land a court date, and then be held in custody. Raising the age of criminal responsibility delays this, but does not address the deep structural racism embedded in Australia’s criminal justice system. Any criminal justice system, or any system to do with youths, should therefore be approached from a therapeutic jurisprudence perspective. There is an adult responsibility of protection that requires institutions of care to be enacted. Raising the age of criminal responsibility is a very important and tangible task, but only one part of reforming a much larger structure – questioning what put the child there, what prevented their welfare, and why the education system failed them. Sana Nakata speaks to Wolfe’s logic of elimination: ‘Ultimately, Wolfe’s logic of elimination is sound, but it is not mine’.

In the words of Indigenous scholar Jane Vadiveloo, founding CEO of the equitable education system Children’s Ground, Indigenous sovereignty may be exercised in the everyday, ‘don’t wait for the whites to give you a right’. There are incredible Indigenous knowledge systems already developed, in education and criminal justice, and also agriculture, climate science, engineering and governance. There are active creative environments, as well as Indigenous leaders exercising their sovereign rights. Thus, resurgent Indigenous nationhood ‘for future gens’ only faces the limits of the structure it is contained in – Australia’s particular conditions of settler-coloniality. The discussed problems within institutions of schools and prisons are symptomatic of incommensurability between non-Indigenous and Indigenous knowledge systems, and the inevitable losses suffered by Indigenous peoples in this country as their knowledges are continuously marginalised. When education reform seems impossible to complete, the most tangible and targetable example of action may be found in raising the age of criminal responsibility. As for the freedom of ‘future gens’, we must look to the limits, and the trauma, we place upon the present-day child. To approach an interface will be a cross-cultural and intergenerational task.


Albert, Tony. “Pay Attention, Motherfuckers.” Conceptio Art Projects. Published 2009. http://www.conceptioart.com/projects/tony-albert-pay-attention.html.

Araluen, Evelyn. “Resisting the Institution.” Overland. Published Winter 2017. https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-227/feature-evelyn-araluen/.

Beitzel, Andrew. “Decolonising: Not at Uni.” IndigenousX. Published 21 August 2019. https://indigenousx.com.au/decolonising-not-at-uni/.

Black, C.F. The Land is the Source of the Law: A Dialogic Encounter with Indigenous Jurisprudence.  London: Routledge, 2011. 

Law Council of Australia. “Commonwealth, states and territories must lift minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years, remove doli incapax.” Published June 2019. https://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/media/media-releases/commonwealth-states-and-territories-must-lift-minimum-age-of-criminal-responsibility-to-14-years-remove-doli-incapax.

Lucashenko, Melissa. “Writing as a Sovereign Act.” Meanjin. Published Summer 2018. https://meanjin.com.au/essays/writing-as-a-sovereign-act/.

Mackellar, Dorothy. “My Country.” State Library of NSW, n.d., https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/dorothea-mackellars-my-country.

Martin, Karen Lillian. Please Knock before You Enter : Aboriginal Regulation of Outsiders and the Implications for Researchers. Queensland: Post Pressed, 2008.

Maddison, Sarah. The Colonial Fantasy : Why White Australia Can’t Solve Black Problems. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2019. 

Minter, Peter. “Archipelagos of Sense: Thinking about a Decolonised Australian Poetics.” Southerly, no. 1 (2013): 155.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “Introduction: Critical Indigenous Theory.” Cultural Studies Review, no. 2 (2011): 11.

Nakata, Martin. “The Cultural Interface.” (Re)Contesting Indigenous Knowledges & Indigenous Studies 36, no.1 (2019): 7-14.

Referendum Council. “Uluru Statement From The Heart.,” Referendum Council, pPublished 2017., https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/Uluru_Statement_From_The_Heart_0.PDF.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 2012. 

Vadiveloo, Jane. Sarah Maddison; Sana Nakata. “In My Blood It Runs: In Conversation [Q&A]”. Transcribed by Lara Fielding. 30th October 2019.

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