Traditionally, a person is said to be illiterate when they cannot read or write.  The Macquarie Dictionary defines illiterate as

  1. unable to read or write. 2. lacking education. 3. showing lack of culture.

(“Illiterate”, 2015).

What do we then say of a First Nations citizen in 1787?  Technically they were unable to read or write, although their culture was rich with oral traditions, customs and the arts.  In fact, First Nations stories from the coastal regions of Queensland have described a different coastline from the one we currently see, with larger islands and land bridges to now isolated areas, something that science has since proven true (Reid & Nunn, 2015).  The oral storytelling culture of the first nations people was so strong that the facts remain about the landscape as it stood thousands of years ago.  Would we still say they were illiterate?

Children, stolen from their families, in the name of giving them a better life, were taught to read and write.  But they became culturally illiterate.  Entire languages have been lost – dozens upon dozens of them – as First Nations people were massacred by the colonists, then torn from their culture and land (Edwards, 2008).

I don’t have any answers.  I have lots of questions.  This line of thinking reaffirms my belief that literacy is contextual.  It makes me realise that there is a lot of work to be done in our culture and our society and it encourages me that critical thinking is worth it even if it doesn’t have all the answers.


Edwards, M (2008) Aboriginal heritage threatened through lost languages. ABC News. Retrieved from

Illiterate (2015) In Macquarie Dictionary (6th Ed). Sydney: Macquarie Dictionary Publishers

Reid, N. & Nunn, P. D. (2015) Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level. The Conversation. Retrieved from


I’m also deeply indebted to the work of Nathan Sentence. Even though I have not referenced his work in this piece, his advocacy has shaped my thinking around First Nations issues.

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