Reflections from my Immersion into an Indigenous Australian Community
My immersion to an indigenous community in Western Australia was an experience that will forever be a significant event in my life. It is very hard to put into words, but I can say I’m immensely grateful. Through my learning and investigations post returning, my understanding of myself and of First Nations Australians, has deepened.
The community was located in the Pilbara, the largest shire in the world. It is about the size of California and five times larger than Tasmania. Marble Bar, the “capital” is the hottest town in Australia, with a population of only 174 people!
(I would like to acknowledge that through my reflections, I don’t wish to generalise First Nations Peoples or offer simple explanations for complex issues, I only hope to share some of the wisdom and perspective the community imparted on me. For the privacy and safety of all community members and accordance with spiritualities where it is taboo to mention or see the face of any deceased person, I have not included direct photos of First Nations People’s faces or their names.)
A West Australian sunset near sacred rocks.
If you know something about Australian history, you probably would recognise that the relationship between the Australian Indigenous People and “white” Australia has been incredibly tumultuous. Since settlement in 1788, the Aboriginal population has faced racism, displacement from their lands, slavery, abduction of their children and an array of settlement side effects such as diseases and alcoholism. In more contemporary times, steps have been taken by the Australian Government to “close the gap” between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people. First Nations populations have been in Australia for 60,000 years, so these recent 200 year old wounds are still very much in the process of healing. Over the years since settlement, negative stereotypes have plagued public opinion. I thought, going on an immersion to the “middle” of Western Australia, I would find a highly functioning community of people at one with the land and their culture, defying all the stereotypes in their own little bubble away from westernisation. What I actually found was a community of people just trying to balance their traditional ways of life with other aspects of 21st century Australia. Many of the stereotypes were somewhat true, but for much deeper, and more valid reasons than many think.
There is a stereotype regarding reliance on government money. I did notice that the community I visited was reliant on government money, but I discovered that this was the case due to an array of problems. Firstly, the older generation had very little access to things that made them “employable”, like a comprehensive understanding of English (usually English is a second or third language after their native tongues) or a driver’s licence to travel to a job. In fact, even getting a drivers licence is hard if no-one can drive you several hours into the nearest town to apply for a licence. When applying for a job, they face racism which is especially alive and well in isolated country areas of Australia. There is also a strong and sacred connection to land and their community that has been ingrained in Aboriginal culture for thousands of years, so most are very hesitant about leaving. There was a schooling system in the community that aimed to provide children with the tools to “slip in and out of black and white worlds.” Most were paid on a system where they work a certain number of hours a day, at a community facility like a school and are paid by the government. At the community I visited, some people produced art which was sold at local facilities like restaurants for anywhere between $20 to $400.
The small amount of money they do have, is quickly drained away. Rent to live in the poorly equipped houses is $75 per person per week. If you saw the living conditions, you would understand just how unreasonable this is. Also, groceries need to be bought, a costly activity when carers are often feeding up to 10 children. Then there is the big issue of “Humbugging” that plagues the communities. When people hear that others have money, they begin asking for some. This is such a big problem in many Aboriginal cultures because saying “no” is seen as profoundly disrespectful and sharing with the community is a quality of uttermost importance.
Although the ‘Humbugging’ I heard of was quite mild, in other communities it is not. Warren Mundine describes:
[Humbugging] is actually too soft a word for it. It is really begging, demanding, bullying, extorting or robbing people of their welfare payments, royalties or income, often through intimidation and violence.
Disproportionately, humbuggers target women and older people: wives, girlfriends, mothers and grandparents. People with jobs are also targeted. I know of mining companies who have trained and hired Indigenous people in well paid fly-in-fly-out jobs, only to see them quit after their first trip home. The pressure and threats towards the workers to hand over their wages was simply too much. All the organisations I met in Alice Springs raised humbugging as a major hurdle to the success of their work.
By Warren Mundine Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce
First Nations communities function around community respect and sharing rather than money, so this complex combination of issues has created the challenging financial climate for the Indigenous People of today’s Australia.
Another stereotype concerns substance abuse. The community was “dry” and I didn’t see anyone drinking. Through conversation with some elders and grannies, we discovered that alcohol abuse is a struggle of the community and many of the 20-40-year-olds were “in town,” meaning they were at the nearest town and likely drinking. There is a significant problem, but there are also a high number of influential people who have withheld or overcome these issues and are powerful community leaders. It is also important to note the alcohol has a weaker and different effect on the bodies of people those whose ancestors have been drinking for thousands of years. There is also a considerable amount of psychological unrest within communities as many are still dealing with the aftermath of the Stolen Generation along with the pain of dislocation, isolation and racism. Many, not just Indigenous People, turn to substance abuse when they are faced with these feelings. There are also many children who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) which causes additional pain to the parents as well as the child, continuing the cycle. The middle generation is almost entirely missing, often absent. The little ones are often raised by grannies or in groups by carers who are not directly related to them. The situation is complex, but gradually improving.
A beautiful little baby who’s mum and dad were working in the school behind me.
When I first drove into the community, I noticed a litter problem. This shocked me because I knew the culture has a sacred respect of the land. But, like all my other preconceptions, I realised there were reasons. As the community lived in such an isolated area with such a large amount of land, their Pilbara council does not organise landfill so they had the duty of burning it off themselves. There were also 100s of old cars and old washing machines sitting around everywhere. This was due to the fact when a community member travelled into town to buy a car or a washing machine, they were often sold a dud product because of their race. When that dud item soon became broken, no-one wanted to travel two hours inland to fix it. The reason there was so much plastic around was that cheap food is processed and covered in plastic, and buying ‘plastic free’ brands are expensive. That is not practical when when you are on a tight budget, and you have many mouths to feed. As racism dies off and no dud products are sold, plastic free food becomes cheaper and sold at major brands such as Coles and Woollies – I hope this problem will fade away.
One of the many desolated cars.
The final stereotype I will deal concerns hygiene standards. This particular question bothered me at first when I entered the community. I did notice people wearing the same clothes, a lack of deodorant and a lice problem. I soon realised is that, one, living in big groups with lots of animals can make lice easier to catch and harder to get rid of and, two, things that bother some people are not a massive problem to others. I may be used to a society that encourages my daily use of showers, perfumes, but that isn’t the only or “right” way to live, it is just something I was used to. There is a strong argument supporting the fact that many cultures over clean themselves – striping themselves and their environments of natural oils and bacteria which have proved benefits to the skin and immune systems.
The Importance of Consultation
As part of the government initiatives to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, the government has provided houses to the community. I noticed that these houses were very ill-suited to the community and the environment around it. I would advise the government to ask indigenous communities what they are looking for in a home, since they are paying $75 a week per head. The communities could tell them that the houses are designed for nuclear families which is not very useful if you like to live in large groups of about 10. They are also made out of tin and have sloping roofs which trap the heat, which in summer can sore up to 50 C (122 degrees Fahrenheit)!
The community made each word count and was comfortable in silence. Their language has little use of prepositions (e.g. it, on, to, the) so when they spoke English, like their language, they only used words that directly contributed to the meaning of the sentence. For example, “Where are you going to?” became “Where you going?” and “Can I have some fruit?” became “Some fruit?” Their sentences were short and simple and they were comfortable with silence.
Two community members sitting peacefully fishing.
Some words are very sensitive. People (including myself) often don’t realise how much words hurt others until the damage is already done, so we should all do our best to avoid language that might make others upset. You may have noticed throughout this reflection, I have used the terms Aboriginal / Indigenous person / peoples and occasionally, more formally, First Nations Peoples. I would like to particularly call out the word “aborigine”, which was commonly used in the past, but has now (as I learnt in my preparation sessions for the immersion) been widely deemed as derogatory. Each person has their own preference, so if in doubt – just ask! For a more comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts, visit https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/media/appropriate-terminology-for-aboriginal-topics
Cultural appropriation is a topic that has been in the news lately and also has particular relevance in First Nations communities. The dot paintings and souvenirs like boomerangs that Australia has become renowned for, are often culturally appropriated exploitation of the original versions. According to the news site “The Conversation”:
“Today, up to 85% of art sold through tourism markets as First Nations souvenirs is fake and imported. Lost revenue from this major income stream has a harmful effect on everything from self-determination and cultural maintenance to families and communities.”
Indigenous culture has been appropriated and exploited by non-Indigenous people since European settlement.
When we were painting with the community members, we tried to be very careful with our use of their art – painting next to them, asking for advice and making sure they were comfortable with our decisions. If you are thinking about painting in this style, do what you can to make sure that you are not exploiting their culture. At school, I study Visual Arts and Non-Indigenous students are discouraged from using dot paintings. If you are buying souvenirs, make sure you check the back of the product or ask the shop owner where it came from and where the profit goes.
I loved every moment of my immersion and everything it taught me. There were a few challenges along the way:
avoiding the dangerous animals like snakes and spiders
avoiding the annoying animals like mosquitoes, nits and worms
remembering to stay hydrated in the heat (especially considering I had come from a Sydney winter)!
feeling confused and shocked when my first assumptions were wrong (I later learnt this feeling is the precursor to learning)
saying goodbye to the community and the land and the experience, while also understanding I must allow the experience to come home with me in my thoughts and actions
Some Unforgettable Moments
Traveling with school friends.
Our accommodation was very decent – we bunked down in a classroom on gym mats and layers of sleeping bags.
Seeing endless miles of red earth.
Visiting Chinaman’s Pool and sitting on walls of brightly colored Jasper stone.
Walking with the people around their community.
Visiting sacred sights with cultural elders.
Taking the kids out to Cape Keraudren and seeing oceans as aqua blue as I saw in Greece.
Walking into the desert to sit with a friend under a sleeping bag at 5:30AM to watch the sun turn the grass golden and the earth bright red.
Standing on 80 Mile Beach and seeing perfect white sand and the endless ocean stretch out on either side of me as far as the eye could see.
And so many other events that I do not have photos of, such as:
Meeting, playing and building relationships with the children of the community.
Experiencing an unblocked 360 degree sunset that held us all in a sphere of beauty.
Creating art inspired by Indigenous culture with Indigenous People.
Climbing the scared Jasper Hill – legend has it you will have twins if you touch the rock – so I touched the rock :)
Having a dinner of stew with damper and a taste of kangaroo tail (an acquired taste!) by an open fire with the mob.
Seeing traditional dances and hearing traditional songs.
Sleeping out under a sky crowded with stars that you could never see in the city, then falling asleep watching shooting stars.
Collecting shells so exquisite I couldn’t believe they were washed up by the sea!
Watching turtles breach for air.
Getting a glimpse at sacred rituals like “Lore” and “Sorry Time”.
Fishing with the community at Pardoo and sitting in comfortable silence.
Playing like a child, hip deep in mud-like clay
Getting text messages and phone calls from the children I met, even now that I am back in Sydney.
I am home now, and after a couple of intense days of unpacking, de-nitting and de-worming myself. Yep those last two were definitely not highlights :) I have finally written everything up. I would like to thank everyone who made the immersion possible. For those of you reading this, I can only hope you have learnt something small, maybe felt your perceptions change slightly or perhaps feel inspired to look into an immersion type experience of your own… Either way, it feels incredible to have written this all up, so, thank you.