Image from Getup
Image from Getup

This a guest post from John Greatorex who worked as a teacher at Galiwin’ku on Elcho island off the coast of Arnhem Land for 27 years. He now is a part-time teacher of the Yolngu studies at a Darwin University.

He has now resigned from teaching to work with his Yolngu families on projects of importance to them – including the wonderful Arnhem Weavers group – you can find out more about the Arnhem Weavers and the food co-operative project they have recently started at their website.

Recently I was profoundly moved when I heard Richard Downs, an Alwayarra elder, seek refugee status for his people whose homelands are in the central east of the Northern Territory, Australia.

The Alyawarra were refusing to accept the impositions of the Federal Government through the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), and as part of their action they have requested the United Nations (UN) register their people under the international refugee convention as internally displaced persons.

The ABC reported (26 August 2009):

“Mr Downs says people of the Alyawarra Nation have been left with no choice because the federal intervention in the Northern Territory has taken away their rights.” “We’ve got no say at all,” he said. “We feel like an outcast in our community, refugees in our own country.”

This was followed the next by another report on the ABC where Richard Downs said:

“We no longer have any rights to exist as humans in our own country and are outcasts in our own community”

On the 3rd September Richard Downs wrote:

“Your government’s so-called measures under the intervention go far beyond this [protecting women] to take away our dignity, our self esteem, and land control, disempowerment, human and indigenous rights.“… Your system is about creating divisions, hate and racism and control over people who are already struggling under oppression.”

When I read these statements I thought: “These people are making a stand in a climate of constant and negative stereotyping by governments and media; a difficult step for anyone.”

The Alyawarra, by refusing to be redefined, are taking active steps to take control of their lives.

Don’t we all want to be in control of our lives?

I would like to tell two stories which I hope will provide insight into why homelands are of crucial and critical importance to their traditional custodians.

The following stories attempt to represent what I have heard and learnt from Aboriginal mentors in east Arnhemland over several decades.

Not only does it make common sense, but it has been clearly demonstrated that the happiest and healthiest people in any society are those who are able to control the most important aspects of their lives.

Control over our lives is proportional to how we feel about ourselves, how society sees us, and our status within society.

In the Northern Territory the people with the least control over their lives are the First Nations peoples.

Disturbingly, recent Australian and NT Government policies, including the NTER, have further stripped away at Aboriginal people’s rights to control their lives in the Northern Territory. Traditional (nation) estates on which ‘prescribed’ communities are located have been compulsorily acquired by governments without negotiation.

Every Black Territorian living on ‘Aboriginal’ land receiving Centrelink or other welfare payments is compulsorily ‘Income-Managed’ (including old-age pensioners).

Black Territorians are negatively stereotyped as child abusers and alcoholics, poor school attendees and perpetrators of domestic violence.

Recently-announced policies now envisage forcing families off their custodial estates (away from their homes) into ‘growth towns’ for the convenience of government bureaucracies.

Public statements that redefine all Black Territorians in a negative way can only have a negative and debilitating impact. While governments, supported by the media, continue to negatively stereotype all Black Territorians, the health and well-being of these peoples will continue to decline.

In east Arnhemland where the Yolngu peoples live, and where I have spent much of the past 30 years, I can say for a fact:

“…there are homelands where school attendance is higher than anywhere else in Australia; where children are safer than in white towns and centres and where substance abuse and youth suicide are non-existent.”

So what is it that is so important and special about homelands for their traditional custodians and that underpins such successful outcomes?

The following two stories may provide some insight into these questions.

Story One.

Recently the Yolngu Studies lecturer, Yingiya Guyula, delivered the last class for the semester. He spoke about the first contact between his families and White settlers.

He told how fear of Whiteman first entered the lives of his families after his grandfather was shot by cattlemen. Before this incident his families had heard reports from further south that White men were scalping Black men; just like his families were skinning crocodiles.

Now they had to be ever vigilant and wary. They could no longer live peacefully, safely travel and hunt on their custodial estates; lands they had inhabited since the beginning of time.

Towards the end of the class a student added to Yingiya’s story.

She explained that when the Elcho Island missionaries called the twenty or so Yolngu nations to ‘the Light’, they didn’t understand. These missionaries failed to recognise the existence of strong and complex governance structures, where nation boundaries, established alliances and political structures were understood and respected.

By calling these diverse peoples into the Elcho Island mission, and onto the land of one nation, the missionaries were disempowering all the non-landowners.

She explained it like this.

“We Yolngu people are connected to our ancestral estates like a tree is rooted deeply into the soil. When the roots of a tree and the soil recognise each other, the roots will grow ever deeper and stronger, and the tree grows strong and bears good fruit.”

“The missionaries pulled us up by the roots and placed us in the mission and onto soil that was foreign. Our roots could not grow into the mission soil, that soil does not recognise us, and our roots do not recognise that soil. Our roots would only stay in the surface soil. A tree may stay alive on unfamiliar and alien soil, but it will not find nourishment, it will be stunted and will not bear good fruit. We can be only strong and independent on our homelands; not in the mission; not in the “town”.

Story Two.

In 1984, with the best of intentions, the Northern Territory Government developed a constitution for the community council on Elcho Island. The new constitution made provision for members to represent the 20 or so nations who lived on the mission (in 2009 residents still use the term mission).

An old man and I were talking one day. He had been elected chairman of the council. He described how he felt in conflict, he did not feel comfortable talking about the land where the mission stood, it wasn’t his land. He understood why some council members didn’t attend council meetings. He explained that it was disrespectful for non-landowners to discuss the mission land. So how could the council work?

I could see what he was saying. I grew up on a family owned farm. We would have been very upset if the government had decided that our neighbours had the right to make decisions about our farm.

I noticed that although he attended council meetings, he didn’t make public council announcements, he always deferred to the land owners for such matters.

When a Yolngu man or woman speaks of the critical importance of land, I now know they are not talking about land in general. They are referring to their very own homeland.

If you are motivated to do so, please have a look at the online homelands petition, and consider supporting this cause.

John Greatorex

7th September 2009

Note: The quotes in these stories are used with permission.