A nine-year-old Kokatha boy has been told he is not allowed to come dressed representing his Aboriginal heritage to a ‘convict experience day’ at his private catholic school.
When Pearce was told his class had to come as members of the First Fleet for a convict experience day, he thought it would be great to share his Indigenous roots by attending as an Aboriginal prisoner.
But the only three options provided were to come dressed as a sailor, a convict or a captain.
"I’m not sure why I wasn’t allowed to dress up as my own people.”
“My friend asked if I could represent the Aboriginal people and my teacher said no, so I asked again, because I’m really proud of my Indigenous heritage and wanted to learn more about it, but she still said no,” he told NITV News.
Pearce describes himself as a proud Aboriginal boy and felt the lack of Aboriginal representation wasn’t acceptable.
“It sort of hurt my feelings a little bit,” he said.
“My mum and dad always taught me about my Aboriginal culture, not this school. I’m not sure why I wasn’t allowed to dress up as my own people.”
Pearce’s mum, Kokatha woman Anna, told NITV News she has always strived to inform her son about their heritage, history and culture. After Pearce told his parents about the dress up day at school, they discussed what he should come as and ultimately decided he should represent Aboriginal enslavement.
“We were going to contact his uncle to see what costume would be appropriate. I’m assuming it would have been face and chest paint and some fur," said Anna. "He has his own didgeridoo which he would have taken with him and that would have represented his culture. Nothing over the top but at least he wouldn’t be going dressed as a white person."
When the school refused to allow this his parents decided not to send him to school on the day of the re-enactment.
“We weren’t happy to send him as someone representing the First Fleet and just ignoring his culture,” said Anna.
“We’ve taken the matter seriously and have decided to pull him out of this school. We (Aboriginal people) just clearly don’t fit in.”
Anna's partner Sean was shocked the school, which they do not wish to name until their son has changed to a new school, was not including Australia’s Indigenous past.
“It’s like asking a bunch of Jewish kids to come dressed up as the holocaust. That’s a joke,” he told NITV News.
In response to the incident involving Pearce, the school's principal admitted work must be done to improve the curriculum.
“We must all be aware of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sensitivities. Life is full of learning, so when we do learn, we look at people in the eye and say sorry, and that we will do better,” he said.
“As a principal I am now able to transfer this knowledge to all my staff and I want to be part of one of the best schools that respect people’s heritage.”
With more than 30 nationalities at the private school, the principal said their focus is on multiculturalism, especially Aboriginal heritage.
“As a school we do have many things, this week in our newsletter - we have information about reconciliation week and we start all meetings with a welcome to country.”
Anna is adamant the school failed all students by not including Aboriginal history in the event.
“I felt like we’d gone back to living in the 70’s or 80’s where the ideology of terra nullius still existed. I thought that had all been put to bed. So to find my son coming home talking about convicts day, the first fleet and no mention of any Indigenous people whatsoever was shocking,” she said.
The family said they had paid significant fees to the private school, expecting high quality education.
“This is a slip through the crack – surely in this day and age we shouldn’t be seeing this,” Sean said.
'learning with culture'
The family have decided to send Pearce to another school, with an education that included Indigenous culture.
“I accepted that Aboriginal studies weren’t taught to me as a child - I had to wait until I got to university to learn the true history surrounding Aboriginal culture, but I didn’t think that was going to happen to my son,” Anna said.
“This is part of the reason we’ve decided to move schools. Whilst they’ve acknowledged it was a failing on their part and they’re going to do everything they can to rectify that, I just felt I don’t think I should have to be the police for this. It’s on the school. It’s about other people making those steps and having them in place to make everything inclusive rather than an exclusive club.”
The public school she has chosen to now send Pearce to has already implemented several Indigenous elements that have Pearce ‘excited’ for a new journey.
“I’m happy to be moving schools now because of things like the bush tucker garden because I used to collect bush medicine with my nana. I’m really excited to learn more about my culture,” Pearce said.
The new school also has an Aboriginal community education officer and students attend reconciliation events and NAIDOC week.
Anna said that passing on culture is more important than ever.
“It is crucial. It was phased out before and if we’re going to hold onto it, we’ve got to keep it now,” she said.
“I want my son to be able to pass it down to his kids too.”