Australia's Occupied Territories
From 14 to 23 April 1993 I undertook a journey with James Brierley, Ray Minniecon and Kevin May of our Aboriginal Program Office. This book would have no meaning without this final journey.
It took me fifteen years of travelling among the poor and oppressed overseas to finally realise that the world was the same at home.
On this trip I discovered that I had been on a spiritual and intellectual journey of which my physical journeys had been an important part. But more than that, I discovered that I had a lot to learn about my own nation and its history of injustice. More important, I had to discover my own need for humility and forgiveness. I had to discover the need to deal with the beam in my own eyes as I saw specks in the eyes of others.
We walked around Redfern. We visited a women's resource centre, a child development centre and a day care facility. We had looked in at the Aboriginal Housing Company, which bought property and rented it cheaply to Aboriginal families. We saw an employment training program which also ran a camping program for street kids, the Aboriginal Medical Centre and the Aboriginal Community Health Program office.
The dominant impression was of wonderful people, saintly people. With only one exception they were Aborigines, full of compassion, gentleness, and no-nonsense inner strength.
There was Pastor Dick Blair. He had been in Redfern for thirty-three years. When Tony Mundine started to box, Dick had been his trainer.
'First you were a boxer, now you're fighting for the Lord. Which is easier?' I asked.
'Boxing. You've only got one opponent.'
We were sitting in a street corner coffee shop near Redfern Station, enjoying a hearty lunch of roast beef and potatoes. It was run by an Aboriginal Cooperative supported through the 'work-for-the-dole' scheme.
'The biggest problem here is that everyone thinks they're called for it', said Dick. 'It's become a war between the Christians! If we can't create unity in the Body of Christ, forget it. The world won't give us unity.'
The conversation ranged over a wide area. Dick was not impressed with some of the plans he had heard about development. 'TNT want to build a high-tech city next door. "As a benefit to this area", they say. Who are they kidding? It'll wipe out the Aboriginal community.' It sounded like a score of so-called 'development' schemes I had encountered overseas.
'We only ask that we be given a chance to face our problems and challenges ourselves. There's a wall of oppression out there still.'
Sitting next to me was Carole. She was a probation worker. One of her cases was a man who was living at Central Station. 'I got to plug him in somewhere', she said, a hint of desperation in her voice.
'Things are changing at the Probation Department', she explained. 'They are developing policies for dealing with Aboriginal people.'
'You mean, despite the fact that so many Aboriginal people go through the system, they've had no special policies and procedures designed for Aboriginal people?' I asked.
Upstairs at the Housing Co-op, we met Mick Mundine. 'We're involved with everything', he said. This was a common theme. Aboriginal people seemed to see the inter-relationships between everything. They thought more holistically than most non-Aboriginals. This was a gift Australia need badly. I had identified it among the poor with whom World Vision worked overseas, and now I found it existed also in Redfern.
Mick was optimistic. 'There's more unity in Redfern now, since the seven major organisations [Aboriginal welfare support and advocacy groups got together to organise last year's Aboriginal National Week', he said. 'I'm a bit disappointed with the Christians, though. We need more Christian input here. We need to get more love floating around here. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. No two ways about it.'
Travelling with me were Ray and Sharon Minniecon. Ray worked for World Vision Australia concentrating on Aboriginal leadership issues and Sharon was a community health worker in Redfern. She was opening doors for us.
They told us about an Italian coffee shop in Redfern which refused them service. The owner claimed he was closed when they went in after a church meeting. They went elsewhere and later walked past to find him still serving white customers.
Sharon said that in some shops the assistants came rushing to hover around an Aboriginal person when he or she came in to browse. These same shops did not do this to non-Aboriginals. African-Americans had told me the same thing happened in the United States.
'Of course', Ray conceded generously, 'I suppose some Aboriginal people have shoplifted'.
'Yes', I replied, 'but it doesn't excuse putting the blame on everyone. In Palestine this is called collective punishment. It's not permitted under international law.'
Around at the Community Health Workers' office the mood was more bleak.
'If something doesn't happen they can just bring in the "bereavement, vans", because we'll all be dead', said Val, one of the social workers. 'It's no good just having people like us picking people up off the ground. People have got to have some strength in themselves before they get better.
We began at Aboriginal Radio, an FM station, with the slogan It's deadly (Ray assured me this was the local lingo, for 'excellent'). The manager was also the breakfast announcer and he ran a disorganised, frenetic and friendly show.
I was there with Ray and with James Brierley, the manager of World Vision's Aboriginal Program Office. The station manager took all three of us into the studio to be interviewed, but Ray and James talked more than I did.
At nine we went around to the ABC station to be interviewed by the morning announcer, Steve Austin. This was the usual non-Aboriginal approach, with Steve interested in wider world issues but quite willing to hear me say that Australia did not have an Aboriginal problem so much as a non-Aboriginal problem.
I had said the same thing at the first station, and Ray said that this would have gone down really well with an Aboriginal audience. I guessed they knew it already, but it mattered to hear a white fella say it.
The morning was spent at the Stuart Gaol. LaFai, a big, friendly man who hailed originally from Tuvalu, was our guide. He was the whole Prisoners' Aid Society, trying single-handedly to support prisoners and help prison authorities understand the special needs of Aboriginal and Islander inmates.
The jail was, of course, the last step among the steps of human degradation that faced many Aboriginal and Islander people. Especially those who lived in the townships where alcoholism and violence were endemic. Life in these communities was already alienating, but when people were finally sent to Stuart Gaol, their alienation and disorientation was close to total.
LaFai tried, among other things, to keep a sense of connectedness with family and community life. It was an uphill battle.
The day we arrived was the day after the Queensland Minister for Corrective Services had announced that the wall around the main security section of the gaol would be replaced with a chain fence and razor wire to give the prison a more open feel. LaFai told us that the whole gaol had undergone a transformation since the Kennedy Commission inquiry.
The inquiry had come after riots there the previous year. Many officers had been sacked and a new administration, more committed to rehabilitation, installed.
'What used to happen was that any prisoner who spoke up was shanghaied to Rockhampton', LaFai explained. 'We would find out about it and work to get them back. We complained to the Human Rights Commission and things would happen. Now management is very afraid of the Human Rights Commission', he said.
I really warmed to LaFai. His compassion for the prisoners was clear, and his love and service for them unconditional. James, thinking of the kind of religious zealot whose main aim is to get converts said, 'You don't exactly ram the gospel down their throats'.
'No, I don't', LaFai agreed, 'but there are plenty of opportunities to say, "Look you've tried a lot of other things. Have you ever thought of giving your life to Jesus? You could talk to a priest if you don't want to talk to me about that." Lots of them are very interested.'
LaFai pointed out one young man. 'He's in for rape and murder. After he raped the woman he took a broom handle and rammed it right up through her and it killed her. He was on drugs and alcohol at the time.'
The young man came over and talked to LaFai about some matter concerning his family. He seemed slow in talking and putting his thoughts together. 'These days the doctors have him permanently tranquillised', LaFai explained. 'I've been trying to get them to reduce the dose, because it's so terrible to see him like this, but they're afraid that he'll go wild. He gave his life to God', he added, surprising me. I was still processing the gruesome image of the murder he had committed.
'There's a lot of work to do here yet', LaFai said. 'The spiritual side of life is so important for Aboriginals. No-one in the prison authorities really understands this.'
We met Paul, in gaol for some violent crime that might see him paroled in the next few years. He was the president of the elected group that spoke for prisoners. He took us to show us his paintings. Outstanding Aboriginal art that would have fetched thousands of dollars in Melbourne.
'I got $500 for that one', he said proudly.
I reckoned he was ripped off, but merely suggested that it would have been worth much more down south.
We also looked at the maximum security section of the prison, which was very modern but profoundly oppressive. Its sheer solidity and sophisticated security systems gave one an overwhelming feeling of being locked in. The cells were well-equipped with TV, a library, reasonable beds and en-suites, but no number of 'creature comforts' could compensate for the fact that a person was locked away from society without freedom of movement. I imagined this would be spirit-crushing for a person from the bush.
I didn't wonder that rural Aboriginals, at least, became suicidal in such surroundings. I might myself.
We left LaFai and drove out to Shalom College, where we were met by Alan Randall, a dynamic, free-talking principal of a new multicultural school run by the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress.
The project comprised a community built around a school. The idea was to involve extended families in community life, with grandparents assisting in the primary school. Alan shared some of his ideas and I warmed to his multicultural approach (not just Aboriginal, and definitely not just white Australian).
We saw the classrooms (it was school holidays so there were no kids) and noted Aboriginal and Islander culture being affirmed along with Spanish, Italian and others. The faculty was multicultural. At that stage the school only catered for Grades 1-3, but over the next few years they planned to become a complete primary and secondary institution.
It was a grand vision and could contribute a lot to the education of all Australians if it achieved its goals. There was something right in this, I thought; something about the stone that was rejected playing a central role. Indeed, this may be what God was saying to the Christian Church about the role he wanted for the Aboriginal Church. Could we hear such a message?
We had lunch at the Yalga-Binbi Training Institute, which ran courses on community development for Aborigines and Islanders and was on the same campus as Shalom College.
Shane Blackman, the General Secretary of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress, a huge man with a big job, arrived after lunch while Alan was still in full song. 'He's full of it', said Shane, 'and it's not bad stuff.'
Yet we could not help but feel that such a powerful non-Aboriginal presence was potentially difficult. Could non-Aborigines rise to the challenge of empowering Aboriginal people? That was the question. So much had been done for Aboriginal people that they had become dependent.
I was reminded of Frances O'Gorman's analysis of the way aid agencies mature. First they do for the poor. Then they see this has problems of dependency and paternalism, so they then do with the poor. Then they be with the poor, and finally they learn to be for the poor.
Shane, commenting on the vision for the school, said, 'From an Aboriginal perspective, what we need is a winner.'
Next morning we had a breakfast to which Ray had invited eight local Christian leaders. They were people who would not regularly meet across denominations and areas of interest. World Vision was one of the few groups that could facilitate this sort of thing.
I sat beside a dynamic woman, Grace Smallwood, who spoke scathingly about the health system for Aborigines. Her main topic was the lack of any real awareness of Aboriginal culture and how to modify medical delivery for this. She talked about a hospital in which the occupational therapists were teaching the old women to crochet, knit and watch Days of Our Lives when what the old ladies wanted was to sit in the yard with their dogs.
She spoke of ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) as if it were a disaster. It was far from the last time we were to hear criticism of the lack of cross-cultural sensitivity of ATSIC on our visit.
We had no plans to see any work in Cairns, merely to meet up with Bishop Tony Hall-Matthews who was to be our guide and pilot for our Cape York visit.
We discovered him with a virus that had afflicted his middle ear, and consequently his balance. None of us, least of all him, wanted to try flying when he could not even stand up.
We discussed the alternatives and decided to continue with the planned itinerary with a different aeroplane and pilot, staying overnight in Cairns and embarking the next morning. We got rooms at the Treetops Motel, run jointly by Missionary Aviation Fellowship and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, just north of Cairns overlooking dense tropical rain forest.
Ray and I took a cab into town to get money from our respective banks and to talk to a reporter from the Cairns Post.
Cairns had changed a bit since I had last been there in my days as an announcer with 4CA, twenty-three years before. In 1970 there had been a pub on every corner. Mercifully few of them remained.
There were some new high-rise buildings and a Hilton Hotel dominating the Pier area. Souvenir shops, cafes and photo shops abounded.
In the evening we went to the Kunjal Cabaret Restaurant. They had a great Aboriginal and Islander dance program. It was thrilling to see Aboriginal culture being presented by young Aboriginal performers in such a positive and proud way.
Twenty years ago this might have seemed ridiculous, such was white prejudice against the worth of Aboriginal culture.
The didgeridoo player was outstanding, and the humour of the people came through strongly and warmly.
The flight across to the western coast of Cape York Peninsula took almost two hours. We flew with Bill Wilson, a twenty-four year old Cairns man in a twin-engine Piper Seneca.
Kowanyama was very quiet. A thousand people lived here, but most were off fishing.
The Anglican Church was the only one in town and was presently without a priest. We were met by Bob Clifford, who ran the church's Op Shop.
Bob was an eccentric character, but then lots of white people out here probably were. Typical of so many, he remained disconnected from local society. Not that it was an easy society with which to connect. World Vision had supported a couple who attempted to work there as change agents but gave up after three years, finding it impossible to get into the society, even though they had acted with great sensitivity. 'Perhaps too much', suggested James cryptically.
Kowanyama had the typically tragic pattern of alcohol abuse and violence.
Two truckloads of grog came into town each week. The canteen, which was owned and run by the community itself, stopped selling beer in slabs and cans, and now only dispensed it from the tap into jugs. Some people brought along their large wheelie-bins and filled them up two jugs at a time.
'Can you imagine drinking beer out of a garbage bin?' asked Bob. Bob had thought there wasn't much tradition left in the community until a local leader had died not long before. He mentioned her by name, against Aboriginal tradition. 'The reaction showed me there is a lot of tradition still here, but once the older people go, it'll be lost. For two weeks after her death it was very quiet.'
Bishop Hall-Matthews had said that the people in Kowanyama talked about three epochs in the town's history. They called these epochs Church Time, Government Time and Community Time, representing three eras of responsibility.
Enormous resources came into the community these days. Ray reckoned on $200 a week in dole payments per person alone. The government provided free housing. Secondary school children were paid to encourage them to go to school. James said he had heard that eighty per cent of the income went on alcohol and that eighty per cent of the daily calorie intake for adults was from grog.
We walked around and Bob seemed to have no intention of introducing us to any of the families. So Ray went up to the oldest man in each household and said, 'I'm Ray. I'm from Sydney.' James and I followed behind.
The people were friendly. Some were inebriated.
One man sat in his back yard beside a tick-infested dog. Each ear must have been the home for sixty or more of the fat insects. The man said, 'The place was better off before the white man brought that stuff,' indicating a can of Victoria Bitter on the ground. Later Ray suggested it wasn't that simple.
'You can't blame the alcohol, or the white man' he said. 'These are factors, sure. But it's not that alone. This place was dry until the community took over. The community decided to have a canteen. The community can decide not to, if it wants to. The real question is what is stopping them from getting these issues under control?'
'Leadership is a key. I'm pleased to see so many older people still around here. But maybe they need an elders' council. Democracy imposed on a society with no democratic tradition results in what we see here. We still need the elders.'
We asked Bob if the local people could run the shop. 'No way', he said. 'The pressure on them from the rest of the community would be too great. It wouldn't let them run it responsibly. It'd be broke in two weeks.'
We discussed the size of crocodiles in Magnificent Creek, which ran behind the church house. There was little water and no sign of crocs, but we didn't go down to take a closer look.
We flew on to Weipa, about an hour north, arriving soon after five.
Neil, who worked with the Comalco-backed Weipa Aboriginal Society, met us in Weipa and took us down to Napranum, otherwise known as Weipa South.
Here we met a delightful group of mostly elderly Aboriginal women just as they concluded their service in the Uniting Church. They were Joyce Changer, Ina Hall, her daughter, Mary-Anne Coconut, Zoe Boxer, Gertrude Motton and Jean George.
With the help of Neil, who worked as an 'outside change agent' seeking to empower them rather than simply run programs for them these ladies had formed the Kluthuthu Aboriginal Takeaway Store Committee and opened a shop. They had chosen the name Kluthuthu because it means white dove, the symbol of peace and the Holy Spirit.
'It's an all-woman committee?' I inquired.
'Yes, in this place it's women here, women there, women everywhere,' said Ina.
'What do the men do?' asked Ray.
Three answers came from three different corners.
As we chatted we discovered that they had done the 40 Hour Famine. 'But we only lasted from 6.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.' admitted Ina. Joyce told us that her grandfather came to Australia from Vanuatu, brought out by white settlers as a labourer. 'Many teenage boys were brought here like that', she said. 'The Aborigines were too frightened to work for the white settlers, so they had to look elsewhere.'
We asked them to tell us some stories. 'There's the one about the turtle', Ina began.
'Two sisters were digging yams while their two brothers went out fishing. The sisters made a big fire to cook the yams and covered over the ashes. "Don't touch the fire", they told the boys. The sisters came back with some yams and the boys came back with some fish. They put the yams in the earth oven. "Remember, don't touch the fire", they said to the boys.
'But the boys were hungry. They took some yams. Then they went to find the cyclone plant [a red berry tree used in a ceremony to turn away cyclones]. The boys started to eat the berries and turned into turtles.
'The two sisters came along just in time to see them changing. They started to cry, but the boys went into the salt water and swam away.'
Ina paused then laughed. 'I told that story to some children in Atherton and they thought I was talking about Ninjas!'
We walked over to the Kluthuthu store. It was a revelation. Not perfect, perhaps, but with so much promise.
It had a takeaway side and a general store side. The year before it had a turnover of nearly half a million dollars, made $60,000 operating profit and contributed $2,000 a month to the church, as well as employing local people and providing a service to the community.
Mary-Anne Coconut pointed at the snake design on the shop front. 'As Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the desert, so we are lifting up the Lord in Napranum', she said.
Thinking of Kowanyama, James asked, 'What if family members come and put pressure on the people behind the counter to give them credit, to share?'
'We just point to the notice board.' It said No Credit.
This put the lie to the idea that properly motivated people could not control traditional pressures in the interests of the community and progress. Joyce explained, 'We wanted to help the people to manage their money. If you want to help, you have to be stern sometimes.'
Kluthuthu showed what power Aboriginal people did have to take control of their circumstances when people believed in them enough to let them have the power to take charge. Naturally they needed support and advice, but that was different from decision-making control.
This project had been going for three years and Neil was around for the first two as encourager and enabler. 'But I never ran the store', he assured us, 'they always ran it. I just helped with training and some accounting.'
By way of contrast was the Comalco Training Centre. It was supposed to be run by the Weipa Aboriginal Society (WAS), but this society was not autonomous.
'Too many white advisers', commented Neil, who worked there himself, 'although some good people among them, I have to say. But they just don't have the right approach very often. They're from Comalco, so they're guided by commercial decisions. That's not the way the Aboriginal people necessarily think. For example, three fellas were employed to run a wood chipper. It's a viable business; lots of demand. The fellas wanted to take it over and run it themselves, but the mines people didn't think that was a good idea. So the boys just walked away from it.'
A key empowering opportunity, to give away control, was missed.
'They've also got a viable screen making business going here, but it's disempowering', Neil continued. 'The people don't run it, they're just trained and employed in it. The work is boring and mind-numbing.'
Imagine if they had been given the responsibility to own it and run it themselves.
Comalco seemed not to have understood the way the Aborigines saw things. Indeed, the idea of putting themselves into the Aborigines' shoes seemed to have hardly been contemplated.
Dr Richard Howitt had evaluated WAS. His report made interesting reading: 'the local geography is part of the social fabric ... the people and the land are very closely linked. Viewed from Napranum, from an Aboriginal world view, Comalco is dependent on those people whose traditional lands are being used. ... it is not so much the people who have become dependent on welfare and other support. Rather, it is Comalco's dependence on their traditional land that has taken away important social and cultural reference points. ... In the process of creating opportunities through the mining development, Comalco has precluded options more directly rooted in Aboriginal tradition.
'Yet it is exactly this reciprocal relationship that Comalco has not recognised before. Comalco's funding of WAS has largely been seen by the Comalco side as an altruistic contribution to good neighbours.
'Viewed from Napranum, the obligation to support WAS is not seen as optional. Viewed from Napranum, this obligation is a function of Comalco's use of the country.'
Dr Howitt argued that not only should Comalco hand over WAS to the Napranum community, but, in so doing, it should recognise and respect them as the traditional landowners. (This was not, his paper points out, an argument about royalties or compensation. That was not a matter between Napranum and Comalco, but between Napranum and the Queensland government.)
We toured WAS, noting the phenomenal resources. Big screen TVs, a dozen networked Macintosh computers, colour photocopier, OHPs, photocopying white-boards. Everything for a dream training centre.
The resources were there, 'But nobody has really asked the community. They've made a show of it, but nobody's really done it,' said Neil. 'And when it doesn't work, "it's the black fellas fault", of course.'
And so onward and upward.
Here off the tip of Cape York we were among Ray's family, or so it seemed. His brother-in-law worked for Sunstate Airline and organised us onto the bus and ferry across from Horn Island (where the air strip was) to the smaller Thursday Island. Later we also met Roy's niece.
Others on the boat pointed out Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday Islands too. 'Is there a Monday Island?' I asked obviously. 'I'm not sure', they replied, as if they had never heard such a question before.
Grace Ware arrived with Ray to show us around the island. She was an impressive lady. Chair of the Torres Strait Health Council and a member of the National Women's Consultative Council and the equivalent state body. (I had been so impressed by the quality of leadership on this trip. If we could have only set these people free from the constraints of white Australia's cross-cultural incompetence!)
Among the things Grace discussed was the dam on Badu Island, which sounded like a Four Corners or Sixty Minutes story to me. It cost billions and it didn't hold water, she said. The soil simply let the water drain away!
Grace showed us her work in progress to try to convince ATSIC that the water problem on Badu (and other islands too) could be solved more cheaply by harvesting the rainwater off rooves of houses and storing it in tanks. She had graphs and calculations based on known rainfalls. A lot less costly than dams.
In discussion with another person I was told there was no indigenous Torres Strait Island building company. Mainland companies and workers came and built everything. 'These Australian-style houses are very nice, of course, but they are technological nightmares. If something goes wrong, you can't fix it.'
This was not the only example of the application of inappropriate standards. 'The dole is based on a wrong idea of equity and fairness. People on Steven's Island get the same dole as people who live in a high-rise in Sydney. But the people on Steven's can grow or fish all their own food. And they don't need complex shelters. But people say you cannot set different standards. Well, that's stupid.'
The next morning we held a breakfast for local leaders at a pleasant three-star motel named Jardines. The wind was already strong from the south-east as James and I walked the 200 metres to the venue. I was told the wind blew like this from March to September. Then it swung around to the north-west, bringing days of glassy seas and occasionally heavy rain.
Grace thought she had rounded up thirty people, but only about twelve came. James was mystified about the low number.
Usually one reason for non-attendance at such functions is division within the Body of Christ. Someone says they will come, but then hears that another Christian leader is attending with whom he or she does not wish to identify. I recalled in Hong Kong being told that I should not attempt to put Protestants and Catholics on the same platform. They would both decline the invitation.
Later I wondered if there might be another reason for the low turnout: the name of the venue, Jardines.
Mrs Jean Jimmy, in recounting the history of her people [in Mapoon], talked of the cattlemen Lachlan Kennedy and Frank Jardine, who were the first whites to settle the area. According to Jean Jimmy, 'they were killing people all the way up. At Dingle Dingle Creek they killed most of the tribe.'
Frank, Don, Harry Toeboy and many other Mapoon elders tell the tales of murder and massacre that were faithfully recounted to them by their parents. At Seven River, for example, white settlers hid in trees and shot any Aborigine they could see. The accounts describe how Jardine killed black children by knocking their heads against trees, and how he and Kennedy together exterminated hundreds of Aborigines.
If I were an Aborigine or Torres Strait Islander, you can bet I would be reluctant to have anything to do with any organisation that commemorated the name of a man who had murdered my ancestors.
In the end, the numbers were fine. More than a dozen would have been cumbersome. Ray asked a few to make comments, in keeping with World Vision's approach around the world: begin by listening to the local people.
The contributions came thick and fast. 'Thank you for giving the opportunity for the community to speak.'
'Youth are looking for leaders that will give guidance. But leaders need to come down.'
'Islanders own nothing.'
'There's no place that is ours. No community centre. ATSIC builds housing for people, but ATSIC owns the house.'
'A single organisation in Brisbane has more money from ATSIC than the whole Torres Strait. We get nothing. We have organisations wringing their hands for money.'
'If you're fair dinkum, you'll let us take charge of our affairs.'
Alan Moseby, a member of the Reconciliation Council, talked about ideas for development of the back of the island (about fifteen minutes' walk from the front). He envisaged an international class resort run by local people, featuring a cultural village. 'You'll pinch my ideas!' he said with a wink.
The Goss Labor government seemed to have had little positive impact on the Islanders. Things that the Nationals had previously agreed to had been stopped. Nothing had been substituted.
'We thought it would be better, but so far it's worse', Grace said.
Competition for land between government departments had pushed the price of land out of the reach of ordinary people. This was a common problem in many places in the world (in Hong Kong, for instance, where multinationals and international banks set the standard).
We were asked whether World Vision could help with administration and management training in the communities. The new TAFE, an impressive facility on the back of the island, would be made available to us.
'The people who come here to "help" us. Their motives are wrong', some commented. 'They come to Thursday Island to feather their own nests.'
'There are lots of workshops up here, but nothing happens', someone else agreed.
This, I felt, was because the fundamental justice issues were not being addressed. Until they were dealt with, people who came and 'helped' would be on the wrong foot from day one.
After breakfast we went into town. It was one street long. I bought some T-shirts and postcards while James put some film in for one hour processing.
After this we drove around to the back of the island to visit the high school.
A niece of Ray, Anai Ghee, was the Community Education Officer. She was an almost-qualified teacher, the nearest thing the school had to an indigenous teacher. All the rest of the faculty were white mainlanders. Some of the teacher's aides and a few of the administrative staff were Islanders.
'The teachers come from the south without any cultural studies training', she told us. 'They just don't get into the local culture at all. They're cliquey. There's a lot of racism on the staff. Kids here don't come up to the national standards, but the problem is the teachers don't know how to put things into Islander cultural terms.'
The problem was not that these kids were less bright than mainland kids (that should have been axiomatic). Teachers should have been asking, What will it take to have equivalent educational standards to the mainland? They didn't ask this question because they didn't have cross-cultural awareness. Or they were not motivated to commit themselves to relevant curriculum development because they saw a stint on Thursday Island as an opportunity to 'pay the price' for later appointments at better postings.
I took all this in, aware of the difficulty of becoming an expert in one day. As usual, what I heard was sincere and genuinely communicated. But, again as usual, I wanted to stay and get the wider story. I didn't doubt that all this was true, but experience had told me that there were usually other 'truths' as well.
At the school we looked over a museum in which an attempt was being made to preserve the national memory. Already many of the carving skills had been lost. Anai was trying to encourage the old people with some of these skills to teach the young people.
Ray organised a ferry and bus to the airport, with some difficulty. It took well over an hour to get there from Thursday Island. Then the plane had to be refuelled. We took off around 2.30 p.m. and were back in Cairns soon after five.
Violence in Society
Typical of the double standards in Australian society is the attitude to violence. One rather regularly hears judges saying that rape and other forms of violence are not taken seriously in Aboriginal communities. Such sentiments resonate with misconceptions I have heard about death in third world communities. 'They're used to their kids dying,' I would hear someone say. I knew it to be an awful lie.
One Aboriginal commentator has suggested there are now three kinds of violence in Aboriginal society: alcoholic violence, traditional violence, and bullshit traditional violence. I laughed when I first heard it, but there is an underlying truth that is far from funny. Bullshit traditional violence describes when bashings and abuse are justified by claims that Aboriginal society is inherently violent. Of course, it was. But then so was European society. Both had routines of flogging, approved institutional murder and unjust imprisonment. One of my forebears was sentenced to deportation to Australia for stealing a few spoons and a couple of bottles of wine. In European societies, violence existed, but it was controlled by institutions and laws. In Aboriginal societies, it was similarly controlled.
The great difference now is alcohol. As Merle Thomas, the coordinator of the Night Patrol program at Alice Springs, says wryly, 'After you've consumed several litres of Coolabah, anything is traditional.
But who's really violent? I wondered.
Those who suggested that traditional Aboriginal society was violent, and that this somehow justified or excused rape, murder and wife bashing, should have contemplated mainstream Australian society. It was riddled with violence.
As I typed these thoughts into my diary that evening on Thursday Island, the television channel from the mainland was showing Terminator 2. Perhaps an uninformed Thursday Islander would logically come to the conclusion that mainland Australia was traditionally violent and that this excused the high rate of assaults in Australian capital cities.
Tuesday in Cairns turned out to be a rest day.
I had a long chat with Margie Cook in our media department in Melbourne about a news release angled on the idea that I had just visited Australia's Occupied Territories. The problems in Kowanyama might have been different to the problems in Gaza, but the underlying causes were dispossession, destruction of homes, marginalisation of a culture, dismantling of a social system and devastation of identity. These were the same among blacks in Soweto, Palestinians in the West Bank and Aboriginal and Islander people in Australia.
We could not point the finger at white South Africans and Israelis without recognising our own history.
This history, may, of course, help us to identify other oppressors. Since we ourselves have been oppressors, it may be not too hard to recognise it in others. It takes one to know one.
James and Ray came for me about 11.00 a.m. and we drove to the airport to put Ray on a plane back to Sydney. Then we went down to the Pier, which had been built on an area which used to be just mud flats when I had lived and worked in Cairns two decades before. It was now a huge shopping centre.
There we had lunch with Bob Burgess, an old radio buddy and now PR manager for the local Red Cross Blood Bank. He was also a Cairns Council Alderman, now in his second term.
Bob mentioned that an alternative watch-house had been built in Cairns for Aboriginal people that was more culturally appropriate. More like a hostel, apparently. The Goss government had decided not to fund it any more. As a result, any Aborigine found drunk on the Esplanade would go to gaol as before. Brilliant.
We went to catch the plane for Darwin.
Kevin May, who worked with World Vision on projects in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, met us at the airport having spent the day before at Kununurra, over 400 kilometres to the south-west, fishing and croc-spotting. We booked into the airport motel, had dinner in the restaurant, worked on the newsline story that Margie had faxed through and were done around midnight.
The next morning was spent at Nungalinya College. The commitment to holistic Christian training there was impressive.
We joined the staff and some students for devotions, led by Dhalandga, the Assistant Principal. Dhalandga's original name was Rranang Garrawunra, but everyone called him Dhalandga because this was the name of a person who had passed away and whose name, out of great respect, Rranang had adopted.
Sharing this time with Aboriginal brothers and sisters was having an effect on my concepts of human beauty. Some of their faces had such character and expression. Dhalandga had strong features. Shiny skin the colour of night. A forehead that formed an awning over deep eyes. A broad nose. High cheek bones. He was strong, manly and intense.
We looked over the Nungalinya Craft Shop. Part of the College's approach to holistic thinking was the development and marketing of craft.
World Vision was supporting a program of Bi-Cultural Studies for Women. We visited the class. About ten women were working on sewing skills this day. The course also included theology, community organising, craft, literacy, numeracy and some other things.
The program coordinator said that once the women got to fifty years of age they had enormous ability. They had survived alcoholic husbands and huge families. They were great organisers. They could do forty things at once. They had very flexible minds. They were great at coping.
They had enormous potential for leadership.
More than 100 students had been through the program in ten years. These women were now back in their communities organising, coordinating groups, doing craft, running micro-enterprises and so on. Once a year they wanted to bring these old students together. The event would be called Romddlmilyak. 'Strong woman.'
This year they had ten students but could teach fifty if they had the money. Why didn't they have the money? Good question.
Les Brockway, the Principal, explained that ATSIC used to fund the college to the extent of $73,000. Now it got nothing. The reason was ironic. They wanted to get their courses accredited as TAFE courses, but once they did, ATSIC said the courses were the responsibility of the Education Department. The Education Department passed the buck to the Northern Territory government. And so far the Territory government had not come up with the money.
Three years had gone by!
From Nungalinya we went to FORWAARD, an aboriginal alcohol rehabilitation program. They gave us a magnificent lunch of which we were totally unworthy, having only helped them in a little way by paying some airfares to a conference in North America. I had never read the 'Twelve Steps' of Alcoholics Anonymous before, and was surprised to see how Christian they were.
I did an interview here for local ABC-TV. The reporter put together a very nice piece for the 7.00 p.m. news that gave publicity to FORWAARD, Nungalinya College and World Vision and stressed the responsibility of non-Aboriginal Australia to get our attitudes straight.
Next we went around to the Uniting Church and the Aboriginal Resource Centre, headed by Djiniyini Gondarra. Some of his team, including Wali Fejo and Richard Trudgeon joined us for a conversation.
We talked a bit about the blind spot that I had grown up with in relation to my understanding of white Australia as oppressors. I had observed the way that dominating cultures fabricated fictions about conquered peoples, but hadn't realised until quite recently that we white Australians, myself included, were just the same. We had also invented and perpetuated myths about Aboriginal society.
When Mark Liebler accused me of hypocrisy for attacking the Israelis but not commenting with equal vigour on my own people's treatment of Aborigines, there was more truth in the accusation than I thought. At the time I had been offended by the irrelevance of the comment, and I had also thought it unfair. It was still irrelevant, a rhetorical diversion attempting to alter the terms of the argument; but, irrelevant or not, rhetorical device or not, I now realised it was in its own right, a fair comment.
Richard asked, 'Do you understand the reasons for this mythmaking?'
He referred me to Paolo Friere, who had analysed this process whereby a dominant culture creates myths about a conquered culture. We discussed some of the myths that white Australia had devised, such as the myths of terra nullius (that the land was devoid of people when we came), that Aborigines have smaller brains (in fact they have bigger brains than white people. Not that it matters, naturally), that they are traditionally violent, that they smell, and so on.
I reflected on my thoughts about beauty earlier in the day. I had come to believe, and to believe sincerely, that Aboriginal people were not beautiful. It was difficult for me to shake this belief. I thought it was an absolute truth.
All this would be bad enough even if we kept these myths to ourselves. But what dominating societies did was to transfer the myths onto the conquered people, so that many of them also came to believe the lies about themselves. This was what created the social destruction that led to real violence, alcoholism and so on. It also created a huge generation gap between older people, who tried to preserve the old culture, and young people who believed the myths.
It was a very destructive process.
Another Day in Darwin
We started out at 7.15 a.m. to be shown where the long grass mob lived. Our guide was Jone (John) Lotu, a Fijian whose parents had been missionaries in Arnhem Land, so he knew the Aboriginal people and some language.
These people were called the long grass mob because that's where they lived. When they were asked to give their address by the Employment Office or Social Services, they said 'long grass'.
They were the drifters who camped out at night near ablution blocks at various sites around town.
We began at Lee Point, well out of town by the sea. We arrived around 7.30 and unfortunately the people there were still asleep. We woke them.
They stirred sleepily and Jone talked to them.
The people were lying on ground sheets under the stars. In Darwin in April this was by no means uncomfortable. For water they walked a few hundred metres to a tap, and the sea was nearby. They could walk along the foreshore into Darwin itself or hitch a ride from someone staying at a caravan park down the road.
We visited another site near the casino, and a few more along the shores of Fannie Bay, then a spot near Lim's Hotel. No-one was at any of these locations and Jone said he was not really surprised, as the grass had been mown down and there was now too much development going on. Local people complained and so the police moved the drifters on.
The view coming into Alice is beautiful and so uniquely Australian. We flew over the Macdonnell Ranges, two long folds in the earth's surface against which the town is built. The airport is on the other side. The Todd River runs through the ranges at one point and that's how you get into town.
We checked into our motel and without dropping our bags were on our way to CAAPU. The Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Programs Unit.
Here Eric Shirt from Canada, an aboriginal Canadian, was working with Australian Aborigines to transfer his successful ideas for alcohol rehabilitation. It seemed to be a very good program and operating with some success.
Like everyone we met, they had complaints about funding. Money seemed to be in short supply, and getting it was bureaucratic and frustrating. Doug Walker, a non-drinking alcoholic, was coordinator of the unit.
'ATSIC's a bloody nightmare', he said. 'They have twenty-eight million for the Black Deaths in Custody, and $250 million for a national Aboriginal health strategy. When you get down to programs like ours, there's nothing.'
'I've heard this a lot lately', I commented.
'Where does it all go?' Doug asked, mystified and to no-one in particular.
Eric and Doug wanted to train Aboriginal counsellors, but the funding for this was hard to find. Once again we heard a story of buck-passing between departments and locations. From Canberra to Darwin to Alice Springs and back. From November until April, no result. And the course they were applying to fund started in two weeks' time.
So much for empowerment.
Next day we stopped by the Tangentyere Nursery, base of the Tangentyere Land Care Program. The nursery provided free shade and fruit trees and other plants to rural communities in an area about the size of Victoria.
Here was another program that had suffered funding cuts from ATSIC in recent years. It was hard to fathom.
World Vision funded the appointment of an Aboriginal manager, David McNamara, and although it was Friday (apparently everyone's day off), and none of the Aboriginal people were there, the two white staff talked to us about the program.
They were especially complimentary about David and his participatory management style. He had really empowered the people, they said. 'Everyone loves to come to work!'
In town we stopped by to see an anti-grog march get under way, protesting a council decision to grant additional licences for liquor outlets. Then it was onto our respective planes for the flight home. James to Sydney, Kevin to Perth and me to Melbourne, via Adelaide.
On the plane I tried to make sense of all I had seen and heard. As I reflected I wrote:
'I am surprised how really tired and drained I felt the last few days. I could not blame the heat, nor, despite James' apologies, the pace of the itinerary. Nothing about the program was too difficult, nor too much pressure.
'I suspect the reason for my tiredness was the emotional and intellectual challenge of the paradigm shift going on in my own soul. Catharsis takes energy.
'Everyone says that the first time you visit the field, your life changes. I say it. It's true. My life was changed by my first foreign encounter. In India. In 1977.
'What I have discovered is that the first time you visit Aboriginal Australia, your life changes too.
'Maybe this is not true for everyone. But for a sixth generation non-Aboriginal Australian the need to squarely face the truth about your own history is life-changing.
'I wonder what the Lord will do with this experience in my own life? I wait eagerly for that further revelation.'