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First Aboriginal man to graduate ACU proud of daughter’s Indigenous scholarship win

Philip Dreise
Phillip Dreise: “I want all my kids to know all these things so they can practise them with their kids; it’s going to be different when they do it with their kids, culture doesn’t stay the same, it evolves with time and we’re trying to maintain all the cultures that my kids are.” Photo: Joe Higgins

PHILLIP Dreise said the biggest thing that shocked him was how little the current generation knew about the histories of the Stolen Generations.

“That goes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids,” the Australian Catholic University lecturer and father-of-four said.

“They just don’t believe it could happen to real people and they don’t know the stories behind it.

“That’s why I love sharing those stories.”

Mr Dreise said he shared the stories not in a negative way, “not in a way that blames anyone”, but just so they “are aware of what happened, why it happened, the era that we lived in, and let’s hope that we don’t live it again”.

At the same time he said this generation was also his greatest hope; but he was biased – he is one very proud dad.

His eldest daughter was a Year 11 student at Mount Alvernia College, Kedron, and was awarded a Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Foundation scholarship on February 22.

The scholarship ceremony held special significance because it was held at ACU Brisbane campus, where Mr Dreise had been the first Aboriginal man to graduate 30 years ago.

It was also where he met his wife Darlene, who had been the first Torres Strait Islander woman to graduate there; Mrs Dreise directs the St Vincent’s Health Australia reconciliation action plan.

“I love how the government is using stolen wages money to give scholarships to kids and I’m glad my kids are going to be in receipt of that,” Mr Dreise said.

It was not about the money, he said, it was about acknowledgment.

The scholarship represented a century’s late repayment to Mr Dreise’s family, whose maternal grandparents were members of the Stolen Generation at the turn of the 1900s.

His grandfather was a member of the Kamilaroi people, a stockman, and his grandmother was a member of the Euahlayi people, a domestic servant.

Both grandparents grew up on different Aboriginal reserves, but after the pair met, they settled down in St George in south-west Queensland.

Mr Dreise’s father is of German heritage and mixed marriages were frowned upon by some at that time.

Mr Dreise and his family grew up poor, and “very aware” of the racial divide that existed in regional and rural Australia. 

“We were sort of stuck in the middle between those Indigenous families who lived on the old Aboriginal reserves along the riverbank, compared to those  who lived in town.

He said this tension coupled with the desire to “make it”  really “motivated us to want to get an education because dad was a truck driver – eight kids at home – we never saw him because he was out driving trucks all the time”.

Education was the “hand-up” he needed to lift himself in closing the gap for him and his family.

“I was the first one of seven (siblings) who went off to university,” he said.

“Leaving St George to go to Townsville when I was seventeen or eighteen… was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.

“I would hide in my room and cry on my pillow because I was so homesick, as I was so far away from my family.

“But my motivation was: I’ve got to finish this.

“I’m just thankful and proud that all of my siblings after me all followed me in that path to doing education and becoming teachers, because then they have given all of those things to their kids.”

Family was everything to him, and Mr Dreise worked hard to teach his children about their heritage, including Aboriginal, German, Torres Strait Islander and Chinese.

He would sing his children Aboriginal songs and teach them about Torres Strait Islander songs because his wife’s family had taught him those too.

“I take my kids out to St George as often as I can… I take them out into the bush,” he said.

“I show them plants, I show them animals… I eat bush tucker with them all the time.

“I want all my kids to know all these things so they can practice them with their kids; it’s going to be different when they do it with their kids, culture doesn’t stay the same, it evolves with time and we’re trying to maintain all the cultures that my kids are.”

He said he tried his best to model strong fatherhood to his children.

“I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink, and I don’t go out partying, and I don’t gamble, and I want my kids to see, ‘This man, Phillip Dreise, my father, is a strong Aboriginal-German man and he’s showing me that’,” he said.

Mr and Mrs Dreise were both raised in the Catholic faith and turned to it, too.

But Mr Dreise did say he had struggled with questions in the past, particularly when it came to his Aboriginality.

“I always look for the things that are in common between my Catholic faith and my Aboriginality,” he said.

“Look there is this Creator Spirit, in my language, it is Baiame”, he said, and to him it was “wonderful” or “wunderbar” in his German language.

At the back of his mind though was the understanding that many members of the Stolen Generation have had negative experiences of the Church.

He said he it was not his lived experience because his early experience of the Church was when his mother was having the next baby in hospital, “us kids would be put in the convent with the religious sisters” to be cared for.

“I’ve always maintained my Catholic faith and Darlene has as well and we both work in the Catholic system in our roles,” he said.

He said he wanted his kids to maintain their Catholic faith too.

But questions still lingered about the Church’s role in past injustices, and “we’re not saying it didn’t happen, we talk about it and acknowledge it happened in the spirit of reconciliation”, he said.

“That’s where I sort of juggle my Catholic faith with my Aboriginality,” he said.

“I question it a lot, but I think it brings a lot more to the table when I’m teaching students, ‘This is what happened to Indigenous people’.

“We can’t dwell on the past.

“This is the reason why we have QATSIF scholarships, or Indigenous units at universities or this is why we teach Indigenous studies.

“It’s about telling the story from an Indigenous perspective.

“This can only benefit all and bring about real change moving together as Australians.” 

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