[from Frank Baarda, long-term worker and resident in Yuendumu, Northern Territory]
If only it were only about the money.
Sociologists and anthropologists have written volumes about the effect of large injections of funds into small communities. Knitting a social fabric is a delicate, gradual and sequential activity that has to come mainly from within (outside authorities can however help to create the setting in which such knitting can flourish – or alternatively stuff things up). Here at Yuendumu you start with re-empowerment and relevance. No amount of money will instantly solve all our perceived problems.
The false perception has been created of all Aboriginal communities as being dysfunctional communities with rampant drunkenness, drug abuse, paedophilia, pornography, chronic health and education problems and a serious housing shortage.
I’m not saying improvements can’t or shouldn’t be made, just that infra-structure shouldn’t take precedence over social-structure. A house is not a home. Did you know that back in the 1960’s (or was it 1950’s?) when Ted Egan was the Superintendent at Yuendumu he turned back a few semi-trailers laden with Demountable houses?… ( a mini-intervention!).
Imposed draconian measures and outside “solutions” will not work. When you build a house you don’t start with the roof. It’s all about what Aretha Franklin sang about R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Not to mention Sacha Cohen’s Ali G). Self-respect, mutual respect and the respect of others. Another word that keeps cropping up is ‘Dignity’.
Months ago at Harry Jakamarra Nelson’s invitation I was given the opportunity to talk face to face with Major-General David Chalmers (“Jungarrayi, you tell him what you think of the intervention”). So I told him, a torrent of words (that all that know me know I’m very capable of)… distilled:
a) What does Yuendumu need the most?…
Empowerment, local decision making etc. Your intervention does quite the opposite.
b) What does Yuendumu need the least?….
More bureaucracy…which your intervention adds another layer to.
c) What’s more: “when my wife and some local people recently attended a Linguistics conference in Adelaide, someone asked where were they from and when they answered ‘Yuendumu’ the lady that had asked them said she felt really sorry for them living in such a dreadful place (they couldn’t convince her otherwise)”.
I told the major-general that that remark was down to his Minister (Mal Brough at the time) who every time he spoke on television presented a grim crisis scenario and dwelt on sexual abuse and the poor little children. I told the major-general that people, both black and white, that lived and worked at Yuendumu were deeply offended by Mal Brough’s political opportunism and blatant lies at our expense… You know what the major general said?:
“Oh well he’s a politician”(!)
“If he hadn’t presented it that way, we wouldn’t have got all this money”
That pretty well finished off the conversation. What more could I say?
I am told that the word “children” doesn’t feature once in the 500 odd pages of Emergency Legislation that we are now being subjected to. I’m sure the word “enlightenment” doesn’t either.
[Addition: Jane Simpson]
A student thinking of going on fieldwork in Australia asked me: “Isn’t it too dangerous?”
“Oh because of all the dreadful things that have been in the newspapers about what’s happening in Aboriginal communities. ”
And then I got some bad news. Jampin is a kind, funny man who has enjoyed writing and talking with speakers and learners of his languages (including several linguists). He is in his late 50s. He has lost one wife to kidney failure. His first and third wives are both on dialysis. His liver is collapsing. And now his son has died, after a long time on dialysis.
It is is humbling to see the courage which he and his family show amidst the unremitting pressure and grief of constant, untimely deaths But it is shaming that our media direct our attention, not to their courage, but instead to holding Aboriginal communities to public contempt and hysteria – as Frank describes above.]