In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Australian Indigenous Contexts and Childhood Experiences

  • Introduction
  • General Overview: The Cultural Interface
  • Indigenous Educational Outcomes

Childhood Studies Australian Indigenous Contexts and Childhood Experiences
Lindy-Anne Abawi, Megan Cooper, Cecily Andersen, Wayne Fossey, Priscilla Holborn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0202


In Australia, people from an Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander background are often collectively referred to as Australian Indigenous peoples. This can be problematic because of the vast diversity of people falling under this heading. Since colonization, markers of social disadvantage for Australian Indigenous children continue to be a concern, and government efforts to address the issues have been sporadic and largely ineffective. The 2017 Closing the Gap report showed Indigenous attendance rates in government schools were 10 percent lower than non-Indigenous rates in all grades overall, with attendance rates dropping further in remote locations. The report also showed that the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at or above the national minimum standards in reading and numeracy showed no statistically significant improvement nationally, thus maintaining the marked gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, which again is much greater in remote areas. Australian Bureau of Statistics data in the area of health showed that, based on standardized proportions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to have asthma, more likely than non-Indigenous children to have diseases of the ear and/or hearing problems, more likely than non-Indigenous people to have heart or circulatory diseases, and three times as likely as non-Indigenous children to get diabetes later in life. But do statistics portray the true story of Australian Indigenous childhood experiences? This sort of deficit discourse creates a homogeneous and shallow understanding of the reality. For example, the language used within such benchmarking reports is itself problematic. Policies underpinning such reports position Indigenous people as being somehow “deficient,” whereas it is better to assess needs according to context rather than on a comparative basis. Extending understandings of social markers, and allowing the rich milieu of Australian Indigenous families to be valued, helps to build a new discourse underpinned by positive recognition of, and pride in, Australian Indigenous cultures. In order to present a comprehensive picture of Australian Aboriginal childhood today, the texts that have been selected for this bibliography are contextualized under a number of themes. Some themes may seem only indirectly related to childhood studies, but each has been chosen because the texts within throw light onto the rich tapestry of what influences Australian Indigenous childhood experiences. The first of these themes is the “cultural interface,” a theory underpinning the perspectives of the authors’ of this article, on the intersection between culture and society for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

General Overview: The Cultural Interface

With so much diversity, and with a troubled colonial history as the backdrop, Martin Nakata’s work on the theory of cultural interface, followed by that of Tyson Yunkaporta and others (Nakata 2002, Nakata 2007a, Nakata 2007b, Yunkaporta and McGinty 2009), seeks to construct a safe cultural space (the Third Cultural Space) in educational contexts, in which to facilitate connections between Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and their respective knowledge systems, as a means of bringing about reconciliation. Nakata suggests that “what is needed is consideration of a different conceptualisation of the cross-cultural space, not as a clash of opposites and differences but as a layered and very complex entanglement of concepts, theories and sets of meanings of a knowledge system” (Nakata 2006, p. 272, cited under Indigenous Studies). The cultural interface theory creates an understanding of race struggles “by positing visual spaces (i.e., the spaces where daily life is enacted, e.g., home, school, university, shopping centres) that intersect with theoretical or conceptual spaces (e.g., mind maps, intellectual or emotional ways of understanding)” (McGloin 2009, p. 39). Yunkaporta and McGinty 2009 explores the importance, for educators who are non-Indigenous, to carefully consider how educators can be a part of the struggle to address the lies and omissions that have shaped Australian history and that still impact the lives of Australia’s Indigenous families and children. Kearney, et al. 2014 illustrates that studies of the lives of Australian Indigenous children are inevitably woven into broader investigations of family, school, and community life. It is by bridging the gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous understandings of these shared priorities that common ground and innovation can be found (Nakata 2002; Martin, et al. 2017).

  • Kearney, Emma, Leonie McIntosh, Bob Perry, Sue Dockett, and Kathleen Clayton. “Building Positive Relationships with Indigenous Children, Families and Communities: Learning at the Cultural Interface.” Critical Studies in Education 55.3 (2014): 338–352.

    DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2014.914963

    A paper focusing on the everyday complexities of the cultural interface encountered by educators. The authors analyzed data collected from an evaluation of thirty-five Queensland rural and remote Indigenous preschool education programs, which revealed that educators, in both educational and cultural contexts, struggled to position their own knowledge and experiences in relation to the knowledge and experiences of others.

  • Martin, Gregory, Vicky Nakata, Martin Nakata, and Andrew Day. “Promoting the Persistence of Indigenous Students through Teaching at the Cultural Interface.” Studies in Higher Education 42.7 (2017): 1158–1173.

    DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1083001

    A paper providing a reconceptualization of current debates and positions on binary divides and oppositions, and proposing Nakata’s concept of “cultural interface” as a mechanism for acknowledging the nuances and complexities that emerge when Indigenous and Western knowledge systems converge within the classroom.

  • McGloin, Colleen. “Considering the Work of Martin Nakata’s ‘Cultural Interface’: A Reflection on Theory and Practice by a Non-Indigenous Academic.” Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 38 (2009): 36–41.

    DOI: 10.1375/51326011100000570

    This paper explores what it is to be a non-Indigenous academic tasked with teaching Indigenous studies. It provides insights into how cultural interface theory, and Nakata’s work in particular, can bring about a deep understanding of the implications, responsibilities, and ethics that must be taken into account in this space. It also introduces the reader to Nakata’s approach to Indigenous research through his “Indigenous standpoint theory.”

  • Nakata, Martin. “Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface: Underlying Issues at the Intersection of Knowledge and Information Systems.” IFLA Journal 28.5–6 (2002): 281–291.

    DOI: 10.1177/034003520202800513

    A paper discussing emerging concepts within global trends in documenting and describing Indigenous knowledge, and introducing the “cultural interface” as an alternate way of thinking about Indigenous and Western knowledge. By discussing Indigenous knowledge and the underlying issues in these ways, the author presents a way of gaining a better understanding of recent and future trends in this field of study.

  • Nakata, Martin. “The Cultural Interface.” Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 36.S1 (2007a): 7–14.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1326011100004646

    A paper drawing together the theoretical propositions and foundational principles underpinning Indigenous studies as a discipline in the higher education sector. The paper outlines problems associated with the cultural interface and the need to work beyond the Indigenous-Western binary.

  • Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages: Savaging the Disciplines. Canberra, Australia: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007b.

    This book explores the contradictory and hard-to-define intersections of non-Indigenous and Indigenous knowledge systems and ways of working that impact on anthropological research. Nakata, in deconstructing the knowledge systems at play, argues for the political and personal implications of research and proposes that the contradictions and complexities are best addressed within the cultural interface—the Third Cultural Space.

  • Yunkaporta, Tyson, and Sue McGinty. “Reclaiming Aboriginal Knowledge at the Cultural Interface.” Australian Educational Researcher 36.2 (2009): 55–72.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF03216899

    An action research study investigating the way teachers work at the cultural interface of mainstream curricula and local Indigenous knowledge. The study focuses on how teachers shift their thinking and set aside deficit logic and stimulus-response approaches to teaching and learning in order to embrace sophisticated Indigenous ways of knowing.

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