The Strehlow Conference plenary panel, from left: Peter Sutton, Bob Beadman, Alison Anderson, Teem Wing Yip, Dean Mildren, John Strehlow.
By KIERAN FINNANE
“Where do we go from here?” The theme of the just concluded Strehlow Conference may have sounded disarmingly open-ended but its difficulty was soon apparent. That two-letter word ‘we’ could not paper over the cracks between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
The ‘us’ more often than not were whitefellas – people of professional expertise – talking about the blackfella ‘them’, even as they were uncomfortably aware of the tension in doing so. But on a few occasions the tables turned: the blackfella ‘us’ demanded of the whitefella ‘them’ to be heard.
Museologist Indra Lopez Velasco was speaking about the Berlin Ethnographic Museum’s intentions for its collection of Australian objects, some 800 of them from central Australia – many collected by missionaries – and of these, a significant number known to be secret-sacred.
From the museum’s point of view the collection is not necessarily the most important, explained Ms Velasco, but the museum recognises that it is “possibly very significant from a local point of view”.
Left: From Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum’s Facebook page.
Locals soon left her in no doubt.
Ms Velasco had proposed trying to talk about the issues of appropriate display and storage “with museums in Australia and with you today” – looking at a roomful of mostly non-Aboriginal conference attendees. The museum had come up with some interesting design solutions, conceptualising the dilemma: an empty glass case; another containing a black box, which may or may not be housing an object.
“Sacred objects – should they be shown at all, should this question be addressed in the museum?” asked Ms Velasco.
“What is appropriate for the [museum] to do with this topic? So basically, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Alison Anderson, multi-lingual Pintupi-Luritja / Warlpiri woman and Member for Namatjira in the NT Legislative Assembly, was quick to her feet:
“It’s important you consult with the Aboriginal people who these objects belong to. Not necessarily Australian museums. They’re interested in their own PhDs and their own doctorates. It’s about their self-importance. You need to come back and talk to the owners of these objects and they’re the Aboriginal people.”
Ms Velasco took her point: “Contact with museums is only one step and probably not the most important. You are totally right about that.”
Ms Anderson (left, with Bob Beadman at the plenary) continued: “It destroys Aboriginal culture and identity … the sacredness of the culture has been taken away by these people just exposing it … If you’re about holding the strength of Aboriginal identity together then you need to come back to the Aboriginal people and not necessarily these people who are interested in their own culture and becoming professors themselves. They are using Aboriginal culture for their self-importance.”
Michael Liddle, Alyawarre / Arrente man, Alice Springs / Mbantua native title holder and deputy chair of Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, followed up:
“A long time ago objects were used to replenish the country, or if there was lack of a rain, you’d get a lot of people doing ceremonies to bring the rain to grow the fruits … it’s what we call economic sustainability now, it was Aborigines’ way of economic sustainability.
“Fast forward to now: we no longer need those objects because we have … the Basics Card, the welfare system that can buy you food and get you water to drink. In saying that now, the objects still have significance to an Aboriginal person – their belonging to a country. And when objects are taken and put into some place it weakens the spirit of a person and their whole identity …
“I think it’s really good practice for Aboriginal people to be involved in what museums all around the world, not just central Australia, are doing with the objects that belong to certain groups of people. It’s hard work but it needs consultation … [to answer] the big question, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Then another voice, Ned Hargraves, Warlpiri man, “a Jampijinpa from Yuendumu”. Mr Hargraves works with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service. He explained that in the past objects were traded “for clothes, food”. Today’s generations, though, don’t know what the objects are doing in museums: “It should be given back to us.”
More applause. And with it a certain sense of relief that Aboriginal people had asserted themselves as a ‘we’, and in matters dealing with their life and death – to which culture is integral – the absolutely critical ‘we’.
There were Aboriginal presenters at the conference, mostly in partnership with non-Aboriginal colleagues. Only Ken Lechleitner, senior Western Arrernte man and member of the Strehlow Research Centre board, was programmed to speak on his own, on the issues of Aboriginal people living under two laws. But the conference’s plenary session would have been an all-white affair had Alison Anderson not staged her numerous interventions.
Peter Sutton, linguist, anthropologist, author of The Politics of Suffering, appeared to be with her in spirit when he expressed his discomfort with contributing to another whitefella talkfest, which the conference had almost been. He said that anthropologists had played too strong a role in Aboriginal affairs in the past and that “the collective” as the forum for thinking about problems over the last 35 to 40 years – such as the numerous organizations – had its limits. His view now was that people should start with the “personal relationship – work it out one on one”.
“If everyone does their bit with their own life, you can expect to have some kind of rooted-ness in what is real.”
The public committee meeting is “peripheral”: “It shouldn’t be seen as first port of call.”
He rejected the racialisation of thinking about the issues: “Those in need are not a race … You don’t get sick because you are Aboriginal and you are not well because you are of Anglo-Saxon ancestry … Those things are not caused by poverty either. There are plenty of poor people in this country who are not in trouble. There are plenty of rich people who are in trouble, they’re snorting their fortunes up their nose.”
When thinking about need, “the key person is the unborn child”, he said, then the baby, the toddler until you get to the five year-old who is about to start school, who needs to be prepared “nutritionally” and who needs to feel loved: “Love is more important than food.”
Dr Teem Wing Yip, a Hong Kong-born public health specialist based in Alice Springs who has learned to speak Pitjantjatjara, totally agreed with Professor Sutton’s emphasis on the unborn.
She had presented an incisive picture of the state of Indigenous health, particularly of people on remote communities, and a critique of health services’ emphasis on expensive “mopping up” rather than attending to the “dripping tap”. Although the Territory is the only jurisdiction on track to meet its Close the Gap targets, steadily narrowing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, the less encouraging back story is that while Indigenous Territorians are living longer, they are doing so in poorer health, with Type 2 diabetes one of the leading contributors.
In the plenary Dr Yip stressed the issue of low birthweight babies: they are at greater risk of chronic disease many years later. And poor health passes from one generation to the next: If a mother is iron defiicient and has anaemia, her baby is more likely to be iron deficient. She picked up on a reference to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD): “So much that happens before a baby is even born determines health status later.”
Ms Anderson had a heartening story to tell about schoolchildren, food and parental care. An Aboriginal teacher assistant and a white teacher at Wallace Rockhole, a community about 80 kilometres west of Alice Springs, have decided that they are not cooks or social workers but teachers. They’ve told the children’s parents that they will no longer be providing a feeding program through the school. Parents are to bathe their children at home and give them breakfast, bring them to school and take them home again.
“I was out there yesterday. No child leaves that school without a parent to take them home.”
And the result: according to Ms Anderson, the school has achieved above national benchmark in literacy and numeracy NAPLAN tests in Grades Three and Five. (2014 NAPLAN results are not yet available on the MySchool website. In 2013, the students were achieving in the mid-range for statistically similar schools. They were a very small group – five girls and eight boys.)
“They took the power back themselves,” said Ms Anderson. She saw the anecdote as “legitimising” Rolf Gerritsen’s presentation at the conference:
“We’ve got a resistance out there from people. You can quarantine my income … We don’t give a dam anymore … Come and take our children away … come and feed our kids at school.”
In contrast, when people take “the power back into their own little black hands” they start getting results.
Apart from acknowledging Professor Gerritsen’s analysis, Ms Anderson also thanked Bob Beadman, veteran public servant and chairman of the NT Grants Commission, for his “bullet between the eyes” analysis of the corrosive effect of “free money”, including not only welfare payments but royalty payments to individuals, creating a “land rights divide” in the NT.
The Basics Card had provided only a slight fetter on converting free money to alcohol, he argued. And it is left to other arms of government – such as the courts, the health system – to “mop up” the disastrous social consequences. The system has become completely unaffordable, both socially and financially.
Ms Anderson also endorsed the call by John Strehlow (left) for the formation of a Friends of the Strehlow Research Centre (SRC). He expressed a “very real fear that the place is going to be shut down”. He argued for better funding and independence, so that the SRC can drive research, not follow the ideas of people in Sydney or Melbourne: “This place is the centre, here is where the people are who we are allegedly so interested in.”
Ms Anderson agreed: “It’s vital at this time when we’re discussing Indigenous people in Central Australia or the Northern Territory, that the SRC stays here and is funded properly, so we can help other people in universities and museums to understand Aboriginal people properly, through the SRC, with the vital information and right information.”
Bob Beadman’s Eric Johnston lecture, November 14, 2013: ‘The greatest welfare measure we can offer anybody is a job’