Friday, 30 September 2011

Picnic for refugees

More than 100 people attended a picnic outside Darwin Airport Lodge in solidarity with the refugees inside as part of Darwin’s Families for Families day on September 25.

The Darwin Airport Lodge is where most refugees who are in families, women or unattended minors are kept for processing. Some 150 were inside a year ago.

The picnic included entertainment from bands and a poet. Refugees could watch the entertainment and cheered every time more people arrived.

Greens Senator Sarah Hansen-Young spoke at the event, saying it was a “terrible shame” that so many people were languishing in detention.

Hansen-Young was in Darwin for the Senate inquiry into immigration detention that started the next day.

Detention centre security staff had advised picnic attendees to make no direct contact with the refugees, but solidarity infected to shout “welcome” and “we want freedom”.

A cake was brought to celebrate the first birthday of a girl born in detention at Villawood detention centre - her birthday was that day.   

More pics at

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Bilingual education and Yolngu identity: "The land itself can speak"

Recently I have been thinking/writing lots about bilingual education, what it is, what it means, why it matters. I have been hanging out in Yirrkala and Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) learning from many Yolngu, who don’t need to think academically about why bilingual learning is important- they feel it in their hearts, they feel their language intrinsically tied up with the environment to which they belong and the spirit of who they are.
I have many many hours of amazing recordings I would eventually, somehow, like to share. I am about to go away again but have this small piece to share now.

I caught up with Yiŋiya Guyula a Liya-Daḻinymirr man from the Djambarrpuyngu clan of North-East Arnhem Land. He is a Senior Lecturer of Yolngu Studies at Charles Darwin University. He’s also my uncle, through the clans system into which I’ve been adopted.

We had a bilingual conversation about bilingual education! My Yolngu Matha isn’t yet good enough to commit to transcribing the whole thing, but here is a section of the English story…

* * *
I think it’s very important that Yolŋu students must speak their first language. That’s when they start growing up from a little child. They must know how to speak fluently ga properly. And then when they grow up, growing older, they must learn their own language – not a mixture of different languages that mixes in the community. They must learn their own tribal language as well.

I think what the government should do is consult- do it properly, consult. They shouldn’t just make up their mind, “this is what we want to do”, because they have the power or the money or whatever. They should come and consult and ask, and we should do it together.

My strong feeling is that bilingual language, bilingual education, should be equally done, as English language. Whether in class – because, in class, if English is just being taught – I think it should be bilingual, Yolŋu Matha should be taught in classes as well. It should be done at home, too, so afterwards, they can go back home and learn their own language, speak their own language. But is should be maintained, balanced, and the government and the Yolŋu out there should be confronted and consult with one another, how we should go about it. Whether to do bilingual education in classes as well or not. We should be asked about that.

[…A few minutes of Yolŋu Matha….] so it can be written, Yolŋu Matha can be written in classes, using Balanda (English - non-Yolngu) letters. At home, and out bush, children can learn, writing the same story through paintings, through artefacts, through songs and dances. And that is writing, writing a story, that is illustration on what a life of a Yolŋu should be. So, it should be written in Balanda way, in the classroom, along with English, and outside, at home, it can be painted. The story can be painted, and that is writing in Yolŋu culture, I believe.

And through working at artefacts, miyalk can learn how to weave baskets, men can learn how to get the right wood for spears, and woomera, ga clapsticks. And sing, sing that song, ga dance that song. So, that’s what I believe.

In Yolŋu Matha language, we have our own context of using languages. There are language that we can use day to day, saying nhämirr nhe and write that down on a board, on a paper, computer, whatever. This is just day to day language that we used. As the child grows older, they go deeper into who they are, getting the knowledge about what the land offers.

And there are bunggul (ceremony- legal, funeral, initiation etc): the language in songs and dances. The language in what the bark paintings hold, the language in the way to hunt, which way to go, what the wind is doing. The calculations of Yolngu Matha- there is mathematics in Yolngu Matha, and there is mathematics in English. So people should learn – they should start writing, in class, about this.

As the child grows older- towards 15, 16, that is when initiation ceremonies take place for them to become young men and women. And they should be able to write [about] those – either write them on the paper, through English way of writing, and go back home and write it in the form of paintings, bark paintings, and through the artefacts, and through songs and dances, the language that we use.

I think the best place to do a Yolngu education, bilingual language ga even Balanda education, is on the homelands. Homelands is the place where the story is, that is where the songs and dances are, that is where your identity is. It’s not in someone else’s community, it’s not in big towns where children are being disciplined through not much – distractions, television, earphones… You see your kids walking around with mobile phones with music sticking in their ears. I call that no discipline, undisciplined.

I am very against the earphones that our children listen to today. It is just disgusting, I hate it. I tell my children, “Don’t ever go the Balanda way. Take that thing out of your ears and listen to what the old people are saying. Listen to what the words in the songs and ceremonies are saying. Listen to what grandparents are telling you.”

And education on the homelands needs to be equally balanced. You take your children away from homelands and put them in boarding schools in town, they only learn about Balanda ways of living, Balanda language. And they’re missing out on something, on their culture.

I know, this happened to me. When I started working with the Mission Aviation Fellowship, I went down south. And during the age that I was, when ceremonies and everything was happening back home, and I was missing out on all that. And I nearly lost my culture, I nearly lost my language.

So I dropped everything, and had to come back home. To catch up. I came back just in time to participate in ceremonies, culture, songs and dances. And I am glad now. I was able to maintain both educations. Balanda ga Yolngu education.

The best place to teach our children is on the homelands, so they can see what plant we are talking about, they can see what image we are talking about – this is the image of the miyapunu (turtle), and you can hold it. You can stand on the ground and the spirits of your fathers are speaking – your own fathers are speaking from the ground where you belong. When I’m out here, in the big cities surrounded by brick walls, when I talk about the images to my children, they can’t really see what I’m talking about, unless they actually go out there. The land itself can explain. The land itself can talk.

And through Balanda way of studying on homelands – that’s where government needs to come in and give us access to fast internet services – skype, learning through teaching our students on country, from country.
I’ve done a lot of teaching on skype, from communities. Actually standing on the ground. And I’ve taken students on field trips, and I’ve spoken to them. And as soon as I speak , and start teaching, straight away the students understand what we’re talking about, because the whole country is talking. The whole environment is speaking, at it is alive.

And that’s what should happen to our children. They should pick up their education on the lands, on the country. The homelands must be supported by government. The government is wrong when they say there is no funding for homeland education, and [they] think [they] know the best is for Yolngu children to come into mainstream education centres. But I say they are wrong. Mainstream education for Yolngu must start on the homeland. That’s what I believe.

I think bilingual education did work – it did work and I am one of the students that learned both Yolngu Matha and Balanda Matha in class in school. And now I am here, working in the university teaching language and culture. I sometimes help John with grammar, suffixes, Yolngu Matha. In a way, that never spoiled the idea of education.

Yolngu Matha, bilingual language, bilingual education,  was never in the way of mainstream education, balanda education. It fitted very, very well. It fitted perfectly. A lot of us are now teaching and I am able to write and I do lots of transcriptions, translations, for the stories that our old people have recorded. And they are there and I do lots of translations, transcriptions.

If I had never learned Yolngu Matha through bilingual education, like I did back in the ’70s, the late ’60s ’70s, I would never have got this far. I am here and at community as well. I teach language and culture to my children, the Yolngu children back home.  And I teach language and culture to the mainstream — the balanda who want to learn, to do a part for their degree, for what they are studying. And when it comes to Indigenous studies, that’s where we come in. And that’s where I feel I come in strongly and I know I am fluent in both English and in Yolngu Matha writings.

So it did work and it does work and it is working for me right here, right now. 

Let’s build a bridge to close that gap. That’s what I believe. Let’s build a bridge together. You don’t build it for me, we’ll build it together. 

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Remembering the Yirrkala Bark Petition

I have come to North-East Arnhem Land, on my first field trip into saltwater country. It really does feel like a totally different nation to the desert country I’ve spent so much time in.

I am staying at Nhulunbuy, but my work each day is based in nearby Yirrkala and surrounding homelands and communities.

This is the home of the famous 1963 “Bark Petition”, and act of protest by the Yolŋu people of this area that led to the first native title litigation in Australia’s history.

The protest action was an attempt by the Yolŋu people to force legal recognition of their land ownership rights – of course, their legal system had recognised their rights since time immemorial, but it became apparent to the land owners that Balanda didn’t respect the law of the land. In March 1963 the government had sold part of Arnhem Land to Nabalco, a bauxite mining company.

The “Bark Petition” was presented to federal parliament in August of the same year. It was, for the Yolŋu, a diplomatic move, an attempt to communicate, in legal terms, sovereign to sovereign.

It didn’t work of course. Even we on the left talk about the “Bark Petition” as some kind of artistic, symbolic “stunt”- and certainly the federal parliament didn’t see that what the Yolŋu were sharing was a sacred piece of high law that was never meant to be shared – outlining the property ownership laws for this area. The Yolŋu leaders even made it easy, Balanda-friendly: they wrote out aspects of their law in English, under the Gumatj, and stuck it on the bark. To no avail.

The Yolŋu went on in 1968 to take Nabalco to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, once again trying to prove their legal claim to the land. Perhaps it had dawned on them that they would have to play by the now-dominant Balanda law, having failed in their attempt to use their own legal instruments to protect their rights.

The court challenge failed, although in a confidential memo to the government and opposition, Justice Blackburn noted that some sort of systematic recognition of Aboriginal land rights would be “morally right and socially expedient”.

The court case led to the establishment of the Woodward Royal Commission, which in turn eventually led to the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, diluted though it was by the Fraser Liberal government.

Today, Rio Tinto Alcan is all over North East Arnhem Land. It’s hard to put into words just how insidious it is, how bizarre staying in a mining town is. It’s like Rio Tinto is part of the cultural landscape now: the annual Garma Festival of traditional culture has Rio as a major sponsor, all the seats in the forum tent have mining company logos on them and the food is provided by a mob that usually do mining camps.

In May this year, the was much media, government and corporate bru-ha-ha over an agreement signed by Rio Tinto Alcan and Traditional Owners, ensuring the continuation of local bauxite mines and alumina refineries. It took this long for TOs to be even involved in any sort of discussion about whether or not mining can take place on their lands.

It’s a bit hard to know how easy it would have been for them to say “no”, when mining is so entrenched in the local economy and service provision: would saying “no” have really made Rio go away, close down the Nhulun township, the nearby mines, and just leave? Or would it simply have meant the TOs and families wouldn’t have had access to the “ range of financial, contractual, asset and employment benefits for Aboriginal traditional owners” Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin crowed so loudly about?

(As an aside, certainly not everybody celebrated the agreement. Previously recognised Traditional Owners from the area were not properly consulted and are considering legal action:

We have done some work sessions on various beaches, in absolutely stunning locations, but if we walk along the sand and over the dunes, we'd see refineries a few hundred metres away.

For many of the older Yolŋu of Yirrkala, the scars still remain from how burnt they were, when they took the calculated risk of sharing such important legal documents, sacred information, with the Balanda world, only to have it misunderstood and dismissed.

This happens again and again. From the point of view of whichever landowning clan participates, they perform a legal action representing an important aspect of their law – which has remained strong and served its purpose harmoniously for thousands of years. Because they get that Balanda society is not a very oral one, and Balanda have short memories, they back up their important ceremony with tangible evidence, represented in a painting or maybe a bathi depicting the given aspect of the law.

From the Balanda perspective, in the interests of “reconciliation” and maybe a bit of cultural colour, ceremonies are organised and hosted at parliament houses, some nice Aboriginal songs and dances are performed, a painting is handed over and the government can tick some boxes viz a viz acknowledging cultural heritage.

The Balanda go home satisfied, if not a bit bored at having to sit through something they didn’t understand, and the Yolŋu go home feeling a bit empty and ashamed, as they realise the Balanda who witnessed something they never really should have seen just thought they were watching a nice performance. For the Yolŋu it is further evidence that Balanda society has no respect for the law. It leaves them feeling powerless.

I think about this every time I go to an art gallery and go to the “Aboriginal culture” section. The paintings are invariably described as representing “Dreamtime Stories”, and I can’t help but wonder what information they really hold: historical documents relating to population movement, legal documents outlining terms of trade, family histories.

It is only a small thing, but sometimes I wonder if a tiny to step to breaking down racism in this country could be that when Balanda look at artefacts from Aboriginal clan estates, they are told what they are looking at, rather than everything being reduced to “art” – whether being told that such and such a ceremony or message stick or painting is the equivalent of a few volumes legal statues, if they might begin to appreciate – if not understand – the completeness and complexity of the legal, social and economic systems that existed here before colonisation, that we risk losing all record of if we don’t make some drastic changes fast.

Of course, Balanda Australia government's have no interest in recognising the legal customs of the pre-invasion populations- the implications would be huge: treaties would need to be made, rent and retribution paid... and that would just be the start.

But capitalism has allowed- you might even say "encouraged"- a few select aspects of the original culture to find expression: those with a profit aspect. Aboriginal "art" is a huge commercial enterprise in Australia - and many of the millions made do not reach the artists.

Art, of course, is an important form of expression and can itself be a source of political struggle. And Aboriginal art can be beautiful! But next time you attend a conference or event that begins with a traditional "ceremony" of some description, or enjoy "art" at the gallery, consider that what you're looking at, while you can't hope to understand it, may be more than something on which to feast your eyes: it may be an assertion , legally binding, that the land under your feet is owned by, and the responsibility of, Aboriginal people, whether they are there to assert their rights and care for their country or not.