When she was 12, Ashlee Gale and her brother Scott were sat down by their Grandmother and told of their family’s past.
She was told of the Bathurst War, during which many of her ancestors in the Wiradjuri nation were killed.
“I knew that we had Indigenous heritage, but my family thought I was a bit too young to know all of the details,” Ashlee says.
“I still remember – it was literally a two to three hour conversation about our family history and where we came from and how important it is to be proud; and we were given these Indigenous bracelets that Scott and I wore up until they broke when we were about 17.
“My family wanted to instil that pride in us; I honestly still remember it like it was yesterday.”
It was those stories, and that pride, that she shared during a speech on National Apology Day with students earlier this year during her first weeks of teaching at St Columban’s College at Caboolture.
At that point though, she had no idea how important instilling pride in Indigenous students was at her new school.
Celebrating and recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, achievements and history plays a crucial role at St Columban’s.
“The whole concept of NAIDOC Week is about recognising Indigenous culture and how important it is to society and how important the history of Indigenous culture is to not only the present, but also the future of Australia,” Ashlee says.
“It is so wonderful that NAIDOC week is something that is celebrated all over Australia for this exact reason, and the way that the school celebrates it here too is something that I have never really seen as in-depth before.”
Principal Ann Rebgetz, who has worked in the Northern Territory, including in Kakadu, Wadeye and in the Tiwi Islands, said the school took special occasions like NAIDOC week and Sorry Day and nurtured the occasions.
The school has an acknowledgement of country at every assembly, employs an Indigenous student liaison officer, and proudly displays Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art inside and outside buildings. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are flown when students march on ANZAC Day.
The P and F Committee and the school community assist in fundraising to help send students and staff to the Garma Festival, which is run by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, every year in Arnhem Land and the college also has relationships with community schools in the Tiwi Islands.
“All of our programs in the school look for those Indigenous perspectives, whether it is the hospitality program or the art program,” Ms Rebgetz says.
“Indigenous culture is important across the country.”
The college is committed to helping students close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in education and to reconciliation.
Those pursuits have been enrichened by staff with Indigenous backgrounds, including Ashlee who has become a powerful role model.
The 23 year old, who was a recipient of the Puggy Hunter Memorial Scholarship for Indigenous students to study an allied health degree, tutored school students while she was at university and worked hard at her own academic success.
Now, when she teaches Indigenous perspectives in her subjects of mathematics, science and PE, she is able to share her perspective.
“I am actually able to make it personal and give stories about my family and my tribe and how it affected – not me in particular, but – my family,” Ashlee says.
“How if it wasn’t for them surviving and for them toughing it out …. I wouldn’t be here.”
Ashlee has a proud sporting history in her family, with her uncle, Scott Gale, a famous rugby league player who played with the Balmain Tigers.
Her brother, Scott, plays for the Queensland Reds and her grandfather, Terry Gale, was a Commonwealth Games Sprinter. Her uncle Scott was also a teacher.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. That’s what I wanted to do from the moment I started school, mainly because of my uncle – he played in the Indigenous Team of the Century for Rugby League and he was a teacher as well, and he always encouraged me and my whole family.
“My mum is a teacher, my uncle was a teacher, so it was sort of instilled in our family.
“I love helping people, being a role model.
“Teaching is just, in my opinion, the most rewarding career that there is.”
She said her favourite aspect was seeing students who didn’t have much self-belief, whether they were Indigenous or non-Indigenous, being supported to grow and realise that it was possible “to make it no matter who you are or where you come from”.
In her current role she is inspiring not only students, but her colleagues as well.
St Columban’s College is celebrating NAIDOC Day on 13 July this year.