A time to dream at the Nanga Mai Awards

Excellence in Aboriginal education in NSW public schools was recognised today at a ceremony at the Sydney Opera House. Linda Doherty reports.

A young girl on a surfboard A young girl on a surfboard
Image: Riding the wave: Leihani Zoric in action at Lennox Head.

Leihani Kaloha Zoric has a dream to be the first Aboriginal female surfer to represent Australia at the Olympics.

At the tender age of 10 she is already surfing in open women’s competitions, including national titles, and has a mantra she uses for inspiration.

“You’ve just got to believe in yourself and go as big as you can,” she said.

Leihani, a Year 4 student at Lennox Head Public School on Bundjalung Country, is one of 30 NSW public school Aboriginal students recognised today at the Nanga Mai Awards for excellence in Aboriginal education.

The awards, presented by the NSW Department of Education at the Sydney Opera House, recognise student academic achievers, public speakers, performing artists, sportspeople and student leaders, as well as public school staff and community members who have made significant contributions to Aboriginal education in their communities.

Minister for Education and Early Learning Sarah Mitchell said the Nanga Mai Awards celebrated schools that had established a culture of respect, caring and inclusive teaching practices that recognised, valued and met the diverse needs of Aboriginal students.

“Nanga Mai is an Eora word for ‘to dream’ and these awards embrace the diversity of all the schools and supporters who champion our students so they can follow their dreams,” Ms Mitchell said.

Leihani has been on the water since her surfer parents, Kirsty and Clay Zoric, put her on a surf mat when she was a few days old. Coached by her dad, Leihani enjoys surfing with her friends and seven-year-old brother, Atlas.

“I just love being in the ocean and connecting with my friends and surfing for enjoyment,” she said.

Leihani will spend a month next year in Western Australia with her great grandfather, a Yued Elder, learning more about her culture and language. At school she is given leadership opportunities to share her knowledge of Aboriginal culture and traditions. “My friends are very interested to learn more; we love learning about the history,” she said.

Aboriginal Education Policy anniversary

The NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc (AECG) today received the award for Outstanding Contribution to Aboriginal Education as the Nanga Mai Awards recognised the 40th anniversary of the NSW Aboriginal Education Policy in public schools.

Department of Education Secretary Georgina Harrisson said: “The AECG continues to lead the way in our partnership, supporting Aboriginal students, families and communities through a range of academic and cultural initiatives and programs that uphold the commitments of the Aboriginal Education Policy.”

From the young at heart to the wisdom of age, the Nanga Mai Awards honoured incredible Elders who bring Aboriginal knowledge, education and culture to NSW public school students and staff.

Award winners included Uncle John Lester, one of Australia’s foremost Aboriginal educators, who visits Adamstown Public School weekly for the Elder-in-Residence program.

Dr Lester, a Wonnarua man, works with students on their ‘personal best’ learning goals, mentors teachers and is involved in school activities such as NAIDOC Week celebrations.

“Students, community and teachers can visibly see and feel the unconditional patience, time, knowledge and joy that Uncle John brings to our school community every week,” Adamstown Public School principal Emma Stothard said.

Aunty Isabel Reid, the 2021 NSW Senior Australian of the Year, was honoured for her work in Wagga Wagga schools advocating to close the gap in First Nations education. Aunty Isobel is a member of the Stolen Generations and uses her voice to raise awareness about the intergenerational impact of the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and Country.

“It’s just so great to be a part of building a better future for our young ones and to make sure the wrongs of the past are recognised and made right,” she said.

A young girl standing to the right of a didgeridoo player A young girl standing to the right of a didgeridoo player
Image: Living language: Penelope Towney at the premiere of her video at Waniora Public School.

Language lives on

The youngest award winner is Penelope Towney, a Wiradjuri and palawa girl who turned nine this week and has been learning and speaking her family’s languages since she started talking.

Penelope, a Year 3 student at Waniora Public School in Bulli, is an accomplished public speaker and budding filmmaker, starring in her first video, The Land We’re on with Penelope Towney when she was just seven. The film premiered at Penelope’s school on Dharawal Country and was broadcast on NITV.

She spent three months memorising Wiradjuri and palawa words to perform an Acknowledgement of Country for the Dharawal Nation, explaining in the video why these marks of respect were an important tradition to carry on.

“It's important and respectful for all people to learn about the land they live on and people whose land it is. Our true history and stories haven't been spoken about much at all in times past. Let's change that,” Penelope said.

Mentored by DeadlyScience founder Corey Tutt, Penelope has recorded a podcast for ABC Radio National Awaye! and appeared on Play School for National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day in August.

Last weekend she conducted interviews at the First & Forever Festival in Victoria, a celebration of contemporary First Nations culture and music curated by Yorta Yorta rapper and author, Briggs, and singer-songwriter Paul Kelly.

Penelope has a distinguished lineage in Aboriginal languages through her father, Billy. Her grandmother, June Sculthorpe, was one of the first people involved in the palawai kani Tasmanian Aboriginal language revival program.

Ms Sculthorpe, Billy and Penelope Towney, are also descendants of Fanny Cochrane Smith who recorded Aboriginal songs on wax cylinders in the 1800s.

“Being Wiradjuri and palawa makes me feel ‘dyiramadilinya’ (the Wiradjuri word for ‘proud’) because I come from the oldest-continuing culture in the world and that's really special,” Penelope said.

“My people have lived on this land for thousands of generations and will be here, always.”


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