John Greatorex, a Darwin-based academic who has previously worked as a teacher in north-east Arnhem Land for 30 years, has written the following detailed response to the Inside Story article on media reporting of Aboriginal health:

“I remember when the NT Intervention was announced, many families rang asking why the government was sending the army to take their children. This wasn’t through rumour mongering, but what people had deduced from news reports on radios and TV. Crucially, this shows how threatened and vulnerable Aboriginal peoples feel. These fears continue to the present day.

My co-lecturer who had lived in Darwin and worked at the university said she and her relatives no longer walk the streets and go shopping during the day. She was, and still is embarrassed by the outrageous child abuse claims in the media. This is one reason why she retired and left Darwin.

Another mother said; I do every time I can to bring up my children with dignity pride and self-esteem.  I send them to school, I feed them properly, I take great care of them, but through the intervention I have stopped watching TV and listening to the radio, I will not go to Darwin because I know I will be viewed upon by whites as a child abuser. These claims are unfair and racially based.  I personally believe the level of child abuse in north-east Arnhem is way below the national average.

I was reminded again a couple of night ago of how embedded these feelings of oppression and second class citizens are in people’s psyche and lives. Two families have been staying with us in Darwin for the past few weeks. For an outing we went to the eatery at the Wharf. All the adults have been to Darwin and one had travelled extensively overseas. All shop comfortably by presenting the goods to the cashier and holding out the money, there’s no need to engage. When confronted with ordering the fish and chips at the Wharf, everyone in felt intimidated and unable to order, though it was easy to buy drinks from the self serve fridge. It wasn’t a matter of English, all of the family members speak and understand sufficient English; it was a matter of intimidation by the dominant culture.

What affects me most are these unfounded and untrue reports in the media. I remember Fran Kelly one morning on Breakfast talked about ‘the rivers of alcohol flowing into Arnhemland’ …. I wrote to her immediately requesting she correct her statement by acknowledging that East Arnhemland is dry (except for the mining town of Nhulunbuy). There was no correction, apology nor reply from her.

Issues that deserve greater public debate and attention include:

• Self esteem and confidence first

I don’t think anything is more important for a child to develop than self-esteem, confidence and a vision for the future. Skills will always follow. I say this as a teacher of 30 years.  The Yolngu men and women who most comfortably and ably managed to live in both worlds are highly educated and in your culture. Often these people have little western schooling, but because they are confident on the ground of their culture identity, they actively and productively engage with western culture.

We should not not equate schooling with education.

May I tell you a short story? Yingiya grew up around the Arafura Swamp, he didn’t attend school until he was about 12 years old. When he started school he had no Western numeracy, nor knowledge of English. One night I asked him to give a guest lecture, during his talk he told how he had become a pilot, then a bi-cultural consultant. One of the students asked, “What would you have become if you had gone to school when you were 4 years old?” Implying that he may have become a doctor, a lawyer or the Prime Minister. Yingiya replied that he would not have achieved anything, he would not have had a future…   he replied; ‘My parents had given him the best education possible. I learnt about myself and his place within my families, I learnt respect for all people and how to behave, I learnt to hypothesise and read the land and environment.”

In short he was confident in himself as a modern Yolngu man living in a modern society. While today Yingiya lectures at Charles Darwin University, he describes himself as a ‘little below the average’.

• Close the Gap in what whites know about black Australia.

I am not convinced that Sandra Bailey is right (in the Inside Story article) when she intimates that with better representation, we would get better health outcomes. All too often I see advisory groups set up by governments with little or no effect on policy.

But I do think a system is needed to educate public servants and policymakers. Although these people are kind and thoughtful in their own worlds, they are also remarkably ignorant and deeply disrespectful of Australia’s First nations peoples.

Often policy makers in Canberra have no ‘on the ground’ knowledge of the situation in North East Arnhemland. They do not know how to consult with Yolŋu and seem uninterested in learning.

How is it possible for these bureaucrats to develop sound policy for peoples they know nothing about? They should all undertake programs of study, not a two day cross-cultural workshop, but a program where their ethnocentric views of the world are challenged. By way of example; I would estimate that less than 2% of Northern Territory and Commonwealth public servants would know the name of the most widely spoken language in the Northern Territory after English .

• Upskilling

In the Inside Story article, Alastair Harris is quoted as being convinced that the best way forward is to up skill the Aboriginal health sector. While I don’t believe up skilling is the most important step that could be taken to improve Aboriginal health, it is important.

I am wary of black and white health professionals who are blinkered and not trained to be respectful and knowledgeable of the many and varied First Nation cultures in Australia.  All too often I see white and black nurses patronising, arrogant and acting disrespectfully towards families from East Arnhem.

• Some specific issues

Governments must change their direction, away from developing policy based on ideology, to developing policy based on evidence and equality.

Possibly the most important and step in the government can take to improve its interactions with Australia’s First Nations peoples is to acknowledge that Australia is like the European Union: composed of multiple nation states; each with its own unique history, language, land and culture.

When governments are able to recognize this diversity and engage meaningfully and respectfully, then it will begin to understand how to work productively with First Nations peoples through their own governance structures.

• Homelands

The evidence is readily available and has been for years, that people living on homelands are happier, healthier, longer living and more productive than their counterparts who have been centralised into ‘communities’ for the bureaucratic convenience of governments. Where peoples moved from their own country into towns owned by ‘others’ where they do not have the ‘citizenship rights’ through the land.

• Distance learning

Remote white children across Australia are offered remote learning opportunities through computers, satellite connections and distance learning. Where one child on a cattle station is able to access these services, black children in numbers of 40 and 50 are not.

• Interpreters

The national Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) offers services to migrants and people from other countries. It is also offers Auslan, (Australian Sign Language) for Australians who need assistance. Notably this national service does not provide for assistance for First Nation Australian languages.

While the government trains and tests interpreters in multiple languages, it does not offer any assistance for First Nation languages. This is the reason why there are no professional level Interpreters for any of Australia’s First Nation languages. If my relatives from Arnhem want an Interpreter to assist speaking with Telstra, the ATO or FACHSIA they have to pay.

It’s not because of the number of speakers, there are more speakers of Yolngu language in Arnhemland than Auslan speakers in Australia, let alone Haitian or some other obscure language.

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