When Uncle Albert Holt was a boy, he and fellow students were told there were three rules when lining up beside white children.
“We couldn’t talk to them, we couldn’t look at them and the third one was, we had to hang our heads in shame,” Uncle Albert says.
“That segregation, it was very hurtful because unless you hung your head in shame, it wasn’t a normal life for you.”
In class students were made to feel inferior for hunting on the weekends or if they ate traditional foods. Speaking their family language meant incarceration.
After four years of school, Aboriginal children were sent to work, for little pay and in appalling conditions. As a young person, Uncle Albert thought he was like an ill-treated dog and sometimes wished the earth would swallow him up to stop the injustice of it all.
Now, when he shares those stories with non-Indigenous students, they tell him they will never let it happen again. Seventy years on, Uncle Albert can’t believe how much has changed.
The 2005 NAIDOC National Male Elder of the Year’s poignant story, told in the books Forcibly Removed and Murri on a Mission: Gunnan Gunnan, underlie the wisdom he continues to offer up as a highly-respected Aboriginal elder in southeast Queensland.
Uncle Albert is a frequent visitor to schools, having been adopted by eight schools as an Indigenous police liaison officer in the past, and is often invited to speak to students, and at education events, across all sectors.
He is the current elder-in-residence at Anglican Church Grammar School and is the Chairman of the Board at Hymba Yumba Listening and Learning Place – a school of about 200 students at Springfield, which opened in 2011.
It is the second school in southeast Queensland grounded in the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
His ties to education stretch back to 1974, when he was the Chair of the Inala Family Education Centre, which helped disengaged youths.
The 79-year-old relishes the opportunity to speak to children from more privileged backgrounds about the past, as well as supporting children and young people in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to make all they can of education.
“I strongly encourage them (students) to maximise their education – literacy and numeracy – and also to be very proud of their identity, their culture and always challenge people if they think they are more superior than you are,” he says.
“That’s how we had to feel when we were born – inferior – we had to be inferior.
“One of the things I will never forget is the segregation of Murri people.”
He says he jumps at the chance to speak in schools in “green, leafy suburbs”.
“To me it’s very important … if anyone says to me there’s a school out at Fig Tree Pocket, I am interested straight away.
“The likelihood of them having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is very, very remote.
“I thrive on that because I am out putting to them something about the history … how we weren’t even treated as human beings, let alone given the chance to get an education.
“It gives me the incentive to participate and to make a difference.”
Last month he was invited to attend NAIDOC Day at Greenslopes State School.
“It was wonderful just to have that opportunity; going there knowing NAIDOC was celebrated and what it was all about – it just made you so proud,” he says.
“I think culturally and personally, NAIDOC is great. I never thought I would see anything like this celebration.
“It is more prominent now, right throughout Australia, where we are all coming together and sharing and caring for each other.”
He says all schools should celebrate NAIDOC and speaks proudly of Hymba Yumba, where he played an instrumental role – alongside the Springfield Land Corporation – in securing funding from former Education Minister Julia Gillard in order to build the school.
The Prep to Year 12 school has about 200 students, and aims to increase enrolments to about 500.
Hymba Yumba celebrated NAIDOC Day on June 23.