These learning resources and an associated teacher workshop were originally developed by Lindsay Williams for the Teaching with BlackWords Symposium held at The University of Queensland on 22 November 2017, and supported by the School of Communication and Arts. These resources were updated in October 2019 in time for a new round of workshops in Rockhampton and Mt Isa.
Below is a slideshow of Lindsay's presentation and a set of suggested activities for the classroom and teacher professional development. You can also download a PDF of these lesson plans. These should be seen as a possible starting point.
This material is made available under licence by AustLit. Please acknowledge both AustLit and Lindsay when using the lesson plans and resources.
Suggested citation: Williams, Lindsay. 'Challenging Terra Nullius of the Mind.' Rev. ed. St Lucia, Qld: AustLit, 2019.
The following is a brief history of the evolution of this resource by Lindsay Williams, the author:
"I am a white settler educator and originally took this project on with some trepidation, aware that it was problematic for me to develop resources about literature written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors. However, I have always considered myself progressive, strongly anti-racist and pretty well informed about Australia's frontier wars, so agreed to work as part of a team (including Professor Anita Heiss) on the project.
The original workshop and set of resources was inspired by Julianne Schultz's introduction to the Griffith Review 58 (2017). The entire introduction is worth reading, but she states that the aim of the edition (with the theme Storied Lives) was to 'build a more nuanced and insightful perspective on what it means to be an Australian today" (p. 11). The old stories, she argues, 'have also become increasingly threadbare, and increasingly fail to capture the contemporary reality or complexity of the past' (p. 8). One aspect of countering this, she argues later, is ensuring space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, necessary if 'we are to eliminate terra nullius of the mind' (p. 11; my emphasis).
With these ideas in mind, my one-hour workshop was designed to raise English teachers' awareness of the silences in settler colonial texts, juxtaposing the original version of 'The Drover's Wife' by Henry Lawson with Leah Purcell's 2016 reimagining of the story as a play which 'activates all the characters' (p. vii). I was quite satisfied with the workshop as a way of starting a discussion about the deeply colonial nature of the original story and its erasure of Aboriginal perspectives on 'the bush' (to use Lawson's term).
However, in the two years since the workshop was developed I have consciously immersed myself in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island literature (plays, novels and poetry), as well as anti-racism and Critical Race Theory writings. For me, this has been nothing short of a revelation, making visible the gaps in my understandings and raising my awareness of how deeply implicated I am in colonialism, despite my best, progressive intentions. One result of this learning is a revision of the original workshop.
The main development is to de-centre the colonial text (Henry Lawson's short story) and centre Aboriginal voices and perspectives. This means placing Purcell's story at the centre, and opening space for further Aboriginal voices, especially Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, and artist and Waanyi man, Gordon Hookey. These texts are foregrounded and are used as the lens through which Lawson's story is then read resistantly, forcing a reinterpretation of events. For example, rather than an Australian-gothic tale of a family left alone, isolated in a desolate, forbidding landscape far from civilisation, it becomes clear that Lawson's colonial story actually reveals the white settlers' deep misunderstanding of human's relationship with nature and Country.
I make no claim that the revised version is perfect. For instance, I'm still not sure if bringing together voices of people from different Countries is appropriate. However, I think the new version might help non-Indigenous English teachers look afresh at their units and consider how centring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, understandings and knowledge might help transform our subject and contribute in a practical manner towards truth telling and reconciliation."
Lindsay has also created a starter list of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander texts (non-fiction, novels, podcasts, news sites and Twitter accounts) for non-Indigenous, secondary English teachers. An earlier version was originally published in Words'Worth, the journal of the English Teachers Association of Queensland.
During the course of these activities, students will:
Teachers might also use these activities to:
Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife is rich in potential as a text to study in Senior English alongside more traditional stories of the Australian frontier. In particular, Purcell’s work appropriates Lawson’s iconic story, infusing it ‘with First Nations and Women’s history, calling into question the shameful treatment endured by both, at the hands of white men’ (Leticia Cáceres in Purcell 2016: xii).
With regard to the new English syllabus, a comparison of these narratives would suit very well ‘Unit 3: Textual Connections’ (see ACARA 2017: 3) and contribute (amongst others) to the following general syllabus objectives (ibid: 4):
4. make use of and analyse the ways cultural assumptions, values and beliefs underpin texts and invite audiences to take up positions.
5. use aesthetic features and stylistic devices to achieve purposes and analyse their effects in texts.
With regard to the latter, this workshop will (briefly) focus on the use of imagery, representation, dialogue, motif, juxtaposition, approaches to characterisation, and literary patterns and variations.
For teachers, the aim of these activities and resources is not to provide exhaustive advice on how The Drover's Wife might be used in a unit; instead, the aim is to open conversations about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander texts can be centred and used to help non-Indigenous people to read colonial texts (such as Lawson’s short story) afresh, allowing their underlying Discourses/worldviews to be critiqued. This is not to suggest that the original cannot be read and enjoyed still: Leah Purcell herself states that ‘ […] I’ve grown up with this story and love it’ (Purcell 2016: vii). However, as has been suggested, in contemporary Australia, tales such as Lawson’s ‘ […] sound thin and one dimensional, like music on a dusty vinyl record that’s been played a few too many times. New versions might seek to add nuance and complexity […] the first Australians are no longer prepared to be rendered invisible and silent ’ (Schultz 2017: 9). This curriculum activity sequence is a modest attempt to help English teachers open up their practice and encourage them to make use of resources like BlackWords to help them do so.
Although the activities below are based on short extracts from a range of texts, teachers could expand the scope and study at least one of the texts (e.g. Purcell's The Drover's Wife or Eckermann's Ruby Moonlight) in full.
A caution: Purcell's play does contain a rape scene, brief in terms of words on the page, but integral to the story. Also, there is in the second half of the play some high level coarse language (although nothing that would not now be heard on free-to-air television after 8.30pm). Please take this into consideration within the context of your own school community when making text selections. Regardless, as this plan shows, extracts from the play can be used if desired and all the activities would transfer to the study of alternative texts.
After the double bubble map has been completed, in small groups students should discuss:
A completed double bubble map is available for teacher reference. Note: The answers for the Purcell text include evidence from across the whole extract (Text 1 above) and not just the portion examined in detail in Activity 1.
A completed retrieval chart with suggested answers can be found here.
When completed, students should discuss:
Students could continue to examine these representations across the whole of both texts.
Eckermann, A. 2012, Ruby Moonlight, Magabala Books, Broome (Western Australia).
Hookey, G. 2017, Summoning Time: Painting & Politikill Transition in MURRILAND!, Griffith University, Nathan (Queensland).
Lawson, H. 1985/1892, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, My Country: Australian Poetry and Short Stories Two Hundred Years, ed L. Kramer, Landsdowne Press, Sydney, pp. 198-204.
Purcell, L. 2016, The Drover’s Wife, Currency Press, Sydney.
QCAA 2017, English 2019 v1.1: General Senior Syllabus, Queensland Government, Queensland.
Schultz, J. 2017, ‘Stories We Tell Ourselves’, Griffith Review, no. 58, pp. 7-11.
You might be interested in...