Growing up, 13-year-old Kortana Cullen-Blisset knew little about her heritage.
“Being brought up in a white family, it’s hard to work out how I connect back to my land… I never knew where I was from,” she says.
But through Deadly Dreaming, a cultural program for Indigenous high school students, the young Biripi woman has discovered a new sense of self.
Over nine months of weekly sessions, Deadly Dreaming saw Kortana learn traditional dancing, art and story-telling, while encouraging her to explore her own heritage.
'They do help you find out what you’ve forgotten, and they just remind you how important you are.'
“I worked out my family background… we were up near Taree,” she says.
“These workshops really work, because they do connect you back to your land and they do help you find out what you’ve forgotten, and they just remind you how important you are.
“My Aboriginal family are really ecstatic that I can get these extra-curricular activities.”
Today, Kortana is joined by around 50 other Deadly Dreaming students from six high schools across western Sydney, home to Australia’s largest condensed Aboriginal population.
In a large auditorium at Mt Druitt high school, the students are gathered in a circle, their faces splashed with white ochre. They’re about to perform a Corroboree, a traditional dance ceremony, to showcase what they’ve learnt.
Family and local elders watch on as the students begin to dance – hesitantly at first, their enthusiasm growing as the rhythm of the clap sticks quickens.
'I feel like I can do anything I want'
Adeana Kennedy, 13, describes the moment she takes the stage: “I just feel proud and (I) feel like I can do anything I want.”
Young Kamilaroi and Biripi woman Shylah Fenner says dancing is a way to showcase her pride, especially given her fairer skin.
“I feel proud to be Aboriginal, and to show that I’m Aboriginal, because not many people think I am because of my skin colour,” the 13-year-old says.
“It’s our culture and we want to keep it alive… as we get to know all this we can pass it down to future generations.”
Deadly Dreaming was founded by Gamilaroi/Biripi man Aaron Saunders, proudly raised in western Sydney.
He says he lost touch with his culture during his teenage years, and would’ve cherished a similar program at his school.
“Identity’s the big thing,” he says.
“If you don’t know who you are, where you’re from, then basically you’re a lost person.”
Mr Saunders says the program has helped boost students’ self-esteem.
“The change has been huge,” he says.
“Seeing the kids go from little shy blackfellas to very outspoken blackfellas, and becoming good leaders in the school… walking loud and proud.”
The program is run by The Street University, an initiative of the Ted Noffs Foundation, and is funded by the Crown Resorts Foundation.