It is too easy to be hypnotically drawn into a sentiment of Indigenous futility. The inequalities are stark, repetitive and metaphors of crisis continue to simmer close to the surface of public discourse. Achievement and progress are not uncomplicatred ideas – prompting one to ask on whose terms these measures are amde or how this should be weighed up against the relativities of continued disadvantage. But just recently I was momentarily struck by a sense of forward movement while working through some online commentary on Aboriginal education. I came across this comment in Dawn – a magazine published in a couple of different formats by the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board over the period 1952-1975. Dawn comes from that era before the Indigenous rights movement, when an Indigenous presence in the academy was still a curiosity:

Climax to a history-making year in education through-out New South Wales was the success of two part-Aborigine students in matriculation examinations – with passes which entitle them to enrol for a University education.

The students – who have both applied for enrolment in the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University, are:

  • Peter Gary Williams (17), of Bellwood Aborigines Reserve, Nambucca Heads, and
  • Charles Perkins (26), a native of Alice Springs, who is now living in Sydney

I was quite amused by these remarks. They had a vague whiff of smug pleasure in signalling success in the assimilation agenda. However, both men were to make a significant contribution in carving out a new agenda in Indigenous affairs – a radical departure from the era of Aboriginal assimilation. Charles Perkins, for example, used his time at the University of Sydney to launch te Freedom rides in northern New South Wales and went on to achieve iconic status within the new political movement that was to radically reshape the basis of colonial relationships in Australia.