Aboriginal Odyssey

In the outback, Revoal slept in a swag under the stars.By Katie Rice

CONWAY, Ark. (Nov. 17, 2006) – Since high school, Hendrix College senior Becky Revoal has been concerned by the wrongdoings against Aboriginal societies. With the help of the Hendrix Odyssey Program, she was able to spend a semester last spring in Australia studying the issues first-hand.

As a high school student at the Denver School of the Arts, Revoal was assigned to create a documentary with the theme “wrongdoings against people.” The movie Rabbit-Proof Fence was being advertised in theaters, and Revoal initially decided to focus on the Australian government’s systematic destruction of Aboriginal culture. When she couldn’t find enough information to make even a 10-minute documentary, she switched her topic but decided that wherever she went to college, she would study abroad in Australia and study Aboriginal culture.

While enrolled at Hendrix, Revoal participated in a semester-long International Student Exchange Program at an Australian university with a well-established program in Aboriginal studies. A grant from the Hendrix Odyssey Program, a program that supports out-of-class learning experiences, provided funding for her to travel more broadly while in Australia.

“If I had just done study abroad, I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much out of it,” said Revoal. “I was able to travel and see pretty much one entire half of Australia, the east half of the country.”

Revoal spent about two months of her time in Australia traveling, composed of weekend excursions and several two-week trips. She experienced a variety of Aboriginal societies in her travels to Melbourne and Sydney and throughout the Northern Territory. The Redfern area of Sydney is a haven for urban Aboriginal people, while the people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory practice a more traditional lifestyle, living off the land.

“No matter where you are across the country, you’re going to get a slightly different culture, a completely different experience, a completely different language,” said Revoal.

The senior said throughout Australia the Aboriginal culture is rapidly disappearing, largely because of the Australian government’s long-standing practice (discontinued in the 1970s) of stealing Aboriginal children and isolating them in mission schools. Revoal terms this loss a cultural genocide.

“Because they were so disconnected from their identities, these people now are just sort of floating through society without any sort of connection to anything,” said Revoal. “Politically they are treated like our Native Americans, socially they’ve been treated like our African Americans. Right now they’re just basically fighting for civil rights.”

A music major, Revoal took special interest in Aboriginal musical heritage.

“Every time I went out on the street and saw an Aboriginal man dressed up in traditional garb, performing his culture and performing the didgeridoo, when he probably does not even come from the community that actually is responsible for the didgeridoo, but he’s out there playing, performing for the masses, that was part of my experience, that was part of my education,” Revoal said. “Every time I listened to Koori radio, that was part of my experience.”

While in Australia, Revoal also focused on assessing what was available for Aboriginal people within mainstream media. She noted that several cartoons focused on the Dream-Time, the creation stories of Aboriginal belief, with the aim of reintroducing and sustaining that aspect of Aboriginal culture.

Revoal talked at length with one woman, an elder in the community, who had lived on a mission as a child and had been isolated from the Aboriginal culture. The woman’s youngest grandchildren know more about her culture than she does, because of this new cultural revival. And they certainly know more about the culture than Revoal does, she said.

“It’s important to point out that the things that I know, maybe an Aboriginal child of two would know,” Revoal said. “And because I’m not a part of their culture, I can’t know very much more.  Can’t. Won’t ever. It’s not my place. I’m not initiated into their culture. It’s not about them being secretive about the knowledge of their culture; it’s about respecting the fact that you have to be a part of it to really understand it.

“This trip was interesting for me because I really tried to not fall into being just a tourist. I mean like saying, ‘Oooh, I’ll try a witchetty grub,’ and then coming back and being like, ‘I got to eat this!’ and pretending like I was a part of their culture for a minute. I respected that I could not be a part of that culture, and I respected that there were things I wouldn’t understand. … I tried not to do anything just for tourism’s sake.”

Back in Conway, Revoal plans to host a discussion next semester of the issues facing Aboriginal culture and about what’s happening in Aboriginal music. Plans further in the future than that are still fuzzy. 

“A big chunk of me is a performer, so a part of me just wants to do that all the time,” Revoal said. “A big part of me is also an activist. I wish I could be there, with Aboriginal people or whoever the downtrodden folk are, just learning and soaking in their culture.”

Wherever fate takes her next year, Revoal is certain about one thing: there is half of Australia left for her to explore, and she wants to return.

Hendrix, founded in 1876, is a selective, residential, undergraduate liberal arts college emphasizing experiential learning in a demanding yet supportive environment. The college is among 150 colleges featured in the 2007 edition of the Princeton Review America's Best Value Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884.  For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.

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Media contact: Judy Williams, 501/450-1462, williamsj@hendrix.edu