9 ways to build your confidence teaching Indigenous cultures and histories

9 ways to build your confidence teaching Indigenous cultures and histories

Many schools have developed meaningful Indigenous learning activities and relationships with Traditional Owners. Others are not sure where to begin. Here are nine ways to start — with an emphasis on native edible food.

Monash Education curriculum and health education researcher Rosie Welch and Senior Boon Wurrung Elder, N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs provide some ideas.

This is the second article of the two-part series. The first article talks about How bringing Australian edible plants into your classroom can deepen understanding of Indigenous cultures and histories.

Ngugi Wakka Wakka woman Professor Tracey Bunda says there are two fundamental questions to address in education: Who are you and where do you come from? These are central questions for us as teachers, but also to explore with our students when starting Indigenous-focused initiatives or learning.

These questions encouraged us to consider who we are as part of an Indigenous multiculinary Australia. We have been collaborating since 2016 to integrate bushfoods into teacher education. It’s all about slowly exploring possibilities and building knowledge and interpersonal relationships. Here are some activities and ideas we’ve developed with a particular focus on knowledge and resources from Boon Wurrung language and the diverse Kulin Nations.

1. Dive deep into your own story, and open your eyes and heart

Become more comfortable with who you are and where we all come from. When we dive into our own story, we participate in social accountability for our past. We can more readily celebrate stories of survival and sit with the complexity of intergenerational privilege, cultural loss or racism. This can build confidence for teachers to respectfully engage with the traditional knowledge of First Nations people, and to work towards building trust in community-school partnerships.

There are wurrungi-bik (law of the lands) in caring for Country. For example, in the video below N’Arweet speaks of the dhumbali (rules) for those who visit.

  1. Not to harm the biik biiks – our lands.
  2. Not to harm the wurneet – our waterways.
  3. Not to harm our bub bupbs – our children.

Respect and welcome is exchanged by a small bow with leaves dipped in the water of the lands. Wominjekawomin (come) + je (ask to come) + ka (what is your purpose for coming) – is a commitment to purpose and knowledge (yulendj).

Be mindful that relationships, cultures and languages will look and feel different depending on the communities and histories of the educational sites you are working in. But now, more than ever, is the time to seek advice, be patient and listen to traditional knowledge holders and learn how to build reciprocity in relationships. There are many Indigenous resources being released that curriculum leaders and teachers can access.

2. Go slow and be guided by what’s available

Take a slow and relational approach to learn from First Nations peoples. Many will be familiar with the ACARA Cross Curriculum Priorities that includes the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority (see fig.1). This necessitates cultural knowledge links to all discipline learning areas. The next step is to follow protocols. Teachers can also engage in their own learning of the historical significance of events, such as the Stolen Generations, The Redfern Park Speech, or more recent political action like The Uluru Statement from the Heart.

ACARA Conceptual framework for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority

Fig 1: Conceptual framework for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority
(source: Australian Curriculum website)

Know deeply and acknowledge whose Country you are on. This is not always straightforward, and it’s good to find out if your educational site is on contested land or has a Registered Aboriginal Party to understand more about the local historical complexity of culture and land ownership. Learn the available language and stories to sustain ongoing educational and social change supported by Indigenous leaders and communities. As Dr Melitta Hogarth recently stated in an address on Indigenous education, we all need to “read, read, read” to learn more.

3. Use native plants in your lessons

Plants allow you to weave Indigenous stories and healing into education. For example, the six seasons of Kulin nation are determined by the movement of the stars and changes in the weather, coinciding with the life cycles of plants and wildlife. February to March is known as weegabilnye-weeny or the iilk (eel) season. Watching and listening to how plants respond to the six seasons offers a link to Boon Wurrung words like manemeet (Autumn or early winter).

The Arts (visual, drama, dance, mixed media) can draw on the aesthetic and sensory aspects of plants. The ink in watercolour paintings, like the Lilly Pilly below, engage with form, colour and texture. Film (e.g. NITV) and filmmaking is a medium for storytelling and research, including students researching and communicating their understanding of native edible plants, like the 2018 documentary Searching for Bush Tucker by Monash students Beth Glasby and Georgia Holland.

Lilly Pilly (Paintings by Linda Knight, 2017, ink and watercolour. Reproduced here courtesy of the artist.)

Design and Technologies have links to exploring textiles, tools and food from plants and animals, and you could explore the design and construction of eel traps, weaving techniques, or animation to visualise landscapes and language such as this Monash animation of Tangurung languages. Collaborative landscape design can offer beautiful long-term projects for researching and building yarning circles with native edible plants. Check out the Victorian senior Food Studies Study Design – there’s a substantial section on Indigenous food prior to European settlement.

4. Connect with your local Indigenous groups and elders

Start relationships with your local Koorie Engagement Support Officer (Victorian teachers), and follow leads to First Nations communities in ways that your school community values and can sustain over time. It may take a while – many traditional owners and elders are constantly booked up with events and activities – but plan ahead and persist with patience despite wanting outcomes or experiencing a sense of uncertainty or discomfort. You might also need to raise some funds to facilitate this cultural service. Develop different activities and reflect and adapt your teaching approach with new learnings, as demonstrated beautifully in the work of Karen Anderson of Balnarring Primary School who has built an inspiring program of collaboration via a bush kindergarten.

5. Plant local Indigenous plants

Ask your students to get their hands dirty and reimagine the school garden using native plants. Check your local council for plant lists and Indigenous planting guides. Zena Cupston has compiled a comprehensive list of resources on Indigenous plants. Also see the Yerrabingin Rooftop garden in Redfern or Indigigrow, which was developed at La Perouse Primary School in Sydney – they propagate and sell Indigenous plants to the public as well as regenerate a special endangered edible subspecies of banksia.

Left: Pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens). Right: Apple-berry (Billardiera scandens, taken by John Tann from Sydney, Australia).

6. Plan a whole school approach to native food literacy

Have an item or two on the school canteen menu that has a native plant ingredient. Even better, grow a school bush foods garden that the students can harvest from. Food literacy is not just about skills and knowledge of food but also links to economy, environment, society and culture.

Use a food literacy framework to examine the land where food grows, how this is tended to, the technologies used, such as eel traps, and the sensorial and seasonal aspects of the flavours to connect to edible plants and normalise the textures and tastes of food. Make the experiences creative, curious, experimental and relational.

Activity ideas

Bush Citrus - Australia Post stamp collection 2019

7. Use and acknowledge resources created by First Nations people

Many First Nations people are taught from a young age about protocol and know what knowledge they can share. If you are using a resource that is guided by an Aboriginal person, be guided by their approach. Check the department protocols and VAEAI Resources for a reviewed list and places to start.

Explore the list of recipients of the Djakitjuk Djanga food program to see if any are in proximity to your school. This initiative is delivered in collaboration with Agriculture Victoria to help establish Aboriginal ownership of the native food and botanical industry.

8. Push your own Indigenous knowledge threshold

Get out and about (online or in the local places) to learn more. Visit the Royal Botanical Gardens and play with the plants or do a cultural tour, check out the annual Yirramboi festival, download the Melbourne Dreaming walking app, eat a meal at Mabu Mabu or Charcoal Lane, visit the First Peoples exhibition at Bunjilaka Gallery Melbourne Museum, book a cultural walk with the Koorie Heritage Trust or a cultural experience with Lionel Launch at Living Culture, connect with the Willum Warrain Garden Group, Cassie Leatham from Wild Black Arts, or book an Indigenous Perspectives excursion at Port Phillip Eco Centre or the Westgate Biodiversity: Bili Nursery and Landcare. Have your school library buy books or resources of local and further afield Aboriginal stories. This is not an exhaustive list, and there is much more happening to explore.

Cherry Ballart (Exocarpus cupressiformis, photo by Virginia Bear, Little Gekko Media).

9. Putting Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ into an educational context

There’s a groundswell of public interest in schools redressing the true story of Australia. Uncle Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling books Dark Emu and for younger readers, Young Dark Emu has given this momentum.

These books are a mix of storytelling, science and history, and reveal a long-silenced pre-European history of agriculture, culture and landscape. The Bangarra Dance company has adapted it into a 2018 stage performance and study guide.

Dark Emu has deepened people’s exposure to Australia’s First Nations and combines hope for cultural healing and a vision of sustainable agricultural practices. Some groups are working to regenerate the murrnong (native yam). There are thousands of reviews with two central themes: "I wish I’d been taught this in school" or "every Australian child should be reading this".

However, the presence of this book in schools is not enough. More support needs to be given to cultural recognition of Indigenous knowledge via traditional owners, researchers and educators who have been quietly working to harness the power of community relationships and sharing of cultural knowledge and personal journeys of discovery for years.

At the same time, research has shown that teachers lack confidence to engage with these Indigenous histories and cultures in their classroom and school communities.

Change is slow, but tangible as more people experience restorative connections to First Nations histories, cultures and languages through smoking ceremonies, Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country. There is more awareness of historical actions and cultural silencing of Indigenous people with the rise of Black Lives Matter movement adding recent momentum.

There is much work to do in the decade ahead for a meaningful curriculum development from policy agenda. As teachers and school leaders we have a role, not only to deepen our own understanding, but incorporate it in our classrooms and gardens.

The banner in this article features Australian native Quandong fruit.

About the authors

Dr Rosie Welch is a colonial-settler who is teaching and researching on the lands of the diverse Kulin Nations.  N’Arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs is a Senior Elder from Boon Wurrung Foundation and former owner of Tjanabi, a high-profile Indigenous themed restaurant. They have been collaborating to integrate bush foods in education since 2016.


We would like to acknowledge some resources and people that have supported this work in different ways:  Professor Zane Diamond, Professor Jacinta Elston, Dr Jen Rae (Fair Share Fare), Kristy Telford (Teacher, Rosewood Downs Primary), Rachel Crellin (Department of Education and Training) and the Monash Education Academy (MEA) for awarding a Small Teaching and Learning Grant in 2018 that supported a bush foods workshop with preservice teachers in 2018.


A toolkit for recognizing, disrupting and preventing tokenization in food media

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures Cross-Curriculum Priorities, ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority).

Australian Indigenous Weather Maps, Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM).

Boon Wurrung: The Journey of the Iilk – Iilkyawa, translated by Fay Stewart-Muir, Culture Victoria.

Building a giant biodegradable eel trap, Mitch Mahoney in conversation with Matthew Bate, Matters Journal (2019)

Bush tucker, ABC educational resources

Cooking with native ingredients of Australia (7 recipes)

First Nations Bushfoods & Botanical Alliance Australia

First Peoples Exhibition, Bunjilaka Gallery, Melbourne Museum.

How to nurture your own bush food garden, SBS Food.

Indigenous plant use: A booklet on the medicinal, nutritional and technological use of indigenous plants (pdf), by Zena Cumpston, Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Kungkas Can Cook

Rhetoric, reality and reconciliation: Where to now?, by Professor Jacinta Elston (2020), Monash LENS.

Seasonal Calendars for the Melbourne Area, compiled by Professor Beth Gott, Herring Island Organisation.

Teacher Resources: Building your Cultural Responsiveness

Top 6 bushfood plants for school gardens in Victoria, by Karen Sutherland.

Tucker Bush School Program

VAEAI Resources

Further reading

101 links to black writers and voices, Compiled by Dr Sandy O'Sullivan (June 2020).

Antonelli, A (2020). Director of science at Kew: it’s time to decolonise botanical collections, The Conversation.

Briggs, C. (2008). The journey cycles of the Boonwurrung: stories with Boonwurrung language. Melbourne, VACL.

Courtenay, A. (2020). The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter: William Buckley, John Batman and the theft of Kulin Country. ABC Books.

Gammage, Bill. (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen and Unwin.

Garnggulkpuy, J. (2017). We can revive our story if we blend Indigenous knowledge with western nutrition, The Guardian.

Rhea, Z. M. (2017). Frontiers of Taste: Food Sovereignty, sustainability, and Indigenous-Settler Relations in Australia. Singapore, Springer.

Pascoe, B. (2014). Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Broome, Magabala Books.

Pascoe, B. (2019). Young Dark Emu: A Truer History. Broome, Magabala Books.

Plumwood, V. (2005). Decolonising Australian gardens: gardening and the ethics of place Australian Humanities Review, 36(July).

Sultanbawa, Y. (Ed.), Sultanbawa, F. (Ed.). (2016). Australian Native Plants: Culivation and Uses in the Health and Food Industries. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Whitehouse, H., Watkin Lui, F., Sellwood, J., Barrett, M. J., & Chigeza, P. (2014). Sea country: Navigating indigenous and colonial ontologies in Australian environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 56-69.

Zola, N., & Gott, B. (1992). Koorie Plants, Koorie People: traditional Aboriginal food, fibre and healing plants of Victoria. Koorie Heritage Trust.

Social media accounts to follow


@wattleseednutrition (Tracy Hardy, accredited practising dietitian/nutritionist)

@natif.com.au (Australian native superfoods)

@indigiearth (Bush Foods & Botanicals)

@wild_blak_arts (Cassie Leatham)

@first_nations_bush foods (First Nations Bushfoods)

@koorieyouthcouncil (A representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in Victoria)

@koorie_heritage_trust_inc (Koorie Heritage Trust Inc)

@kakadukitchen (A 100% Indigenous bushfood brand)

@koorieducation (VAEAI - Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc.)


Australian Native Plants & Bush Tucker (private group, but you can request to join)

Bush Tucker & Sea Food (private group, but you can request to join)

Aussie campfire cooking and bush camping (private group, but you can request to join)

Australian Bush Food Recipes and Information (private group, but you can request to join)