By KIERAN FINNANE
In a small green weatherboard house at the base of Akeyulerre (Billygoat Hill), big ideas are hatching: a fee for service enterprise promoting Arrernte culture, run by Arrernte people, just across the road from the Royal Flying Doctor Base and a few doors up from the Reptile Centre.
It will welcome locals, tourists, newcomers to town, students and professionals of all kinds, aiming to strengthen cultural understanding right across Alice Springs.
The plan has come after 16 years of sustained work among Arrernte families, “healing and strengthening”, with the house as a centre for the families to gather and home for their incorporated association, named Akeyulerre Inc after the sacred hill behind them.
“When people walk through the gate here, they feel comfortable,” says Amelia Turner (left), daughter of the prominent elder, Margaret Kemarre Turner. “They might not talk to one another outside, but here they do.”
Any bad feeling “goes when they come here”, insists elder Agnes Abbott. People come and “have a laugh”, she says, with a twinkle in her own eye. “Young mums come in with their kids. They can use the phones here, if they haven’t got a phone, call Centrelink, Congress. Or just come for a cup of tea.”
Big get togethers are organised. On the day that I visit young women are in the small kitchen, cooking up spaghetti Bolognese and curried stew in giant pots for a family night, while Akeyulerre Inc chairman Stephen Kernan is roasting kangaroo tails in the bush oven outside. (Akeyulerre always has two chairpersons, a man and a woman. The female chairwoman is Philipene Gorey.)
“We used to meet during funerals mainly, especially when we were living in town,” says Mr Kernan (right), as he peels foil away from the mouth-watering ‘roo tails. “This a good place to get families together.”
On other days “a lot of young fellas come and make tea for the old girls or bring them water”, says Amelia Turner. “It’s a good sight to see. Outside they might be alcoholics and run amok but here they respect their elders.”
Bush trips to the families’ homelands are another focus, on long weekends or during school holidays. Sometimes a trip is planned with a view to teaching children about their country and language. At other times it might be to support a family who has experienced some kind of trauma. Getting out of town and onto country can really help. The unique thing about Akeyulerre Inc is that it is Arrernte people themselves deciding on the priorities for their ‘program’. There’s a management committee but decisions are reached by consensus, after lots of talking with everyone.
The first steps towards healing were taken back in 1996, says Agnes Abbott, by elders working with Cathy Abbott and psychologist Jane Vadiveloo. A few women went on a bush trip to Hart’s Range to gather bush medicine plants. Back in town they made it up into rubbing balms, used to relieve congestion.
“We used to do it with dripping,” says Agnes Abbott. “Nobody knew about it. I used to teach everybody, give it out if people asked.”
The teaching was about culture and country as much as about the products. Now “everybody here knows bush medicine”, says Mrs Abbott, and it has become the basis of a small social enterprise, involving some of the young women who sell their wares at local markets.
At left: Theresa and Patricia Drover, watching over the pots set to cook earlier by Janisa Ryder and Trisha Carter.
With her rich store of traditional knowledge, Mrs Abbott also gets called on by social services such as Bush Mob, to reach out to young Arrernte people in trouble: “I tell them naughty girls story.”
Now the healing centre is ready to “branch out” to create more job opportunities for their young people in the proposed cultural enterprise.
“We see this place as always working with non-Indigenous mob,” says Amelia Turner. She rolls out the painting that expresses the original healing centre vision. The footprints of adults and children, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, converge on the centre where a strong fire burns. “This fire represents our culture,” she explains, “without this fire the place would be empty.”
“We like sharing culture, with people in the community and with tourists,” she says. “This place is really small but there’s a lot of culture and knowledge so rich here.”
Their sustained effort and conviction has earned the Akeyulerre vision funding support, from a mix of philanthropic donors and the Aboriginal Benefits Account, to purchase not only the green house, where they will continue the work of the healing centre, but the property next door, which will become the base for the cultural enterprise.
At right: The indefatiguable Agnes Abbott (left) with Bessie Liddle.
“We’re in a tourist spot. The tourists won’t have to go far, they can see what is happening here with our culture, our teaching and sharing,” says Amelia Turner. “It will earn money to keep the healing centre going, it will generate jobs for our young people.”
An Indigenous Advancement Strategy Grant came through on the eve of the federal election being called, with the news personally delivered by Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion. The amount isn’t enough to get the enterprise up and running, but Mr Scullion flagged his intention to work further with Akeyulerre Inc if his government is returned.
There have also been meetings with the Department of the Chief Minister, and negotiations are ongoing.
“It would be tragic if the Northern Territory Government didn’t want to support us,” says manager Penny Drysdale. “We see ourselves as playing such a big role in the well-being and cultural understanding of the community. People at Akeyulerre are really resourceful. Notwithstanding that their families have many worries, everyone has a really clear idea about what can be achieved. And everyone is prepared to work hard to make it happen.”
The business vision is also expressed in the form of a painting. “Engaged with wider community” is one of the “outcomes” depicted.
“There is so much demand for this kind of cultural connection,” says Ms Drysdale. “The healing centre as it stands cannot fill it, it’s too small. By getting more young people involved doing their cultural work, especially in this tourism precinct, Akeyulerre Inc can grow and become an icon in Alice Springs.”