By KIERAN FINNANE
At the Institute of Cultural Inquiry in Berlin academics kept asking Que Kenny about how Aboriginal people connect to the land: “I had to explain to them how we feel things – when we touch a rock, you can feel that energy, every living thing has an energy, everything, it’s a network, it’s a system of their own, it’s what connects us to the land.”
By force of exposure to such explanations, many non-Indigenous Australians are starting to at least not be shocked by the idea of the land as sentient – living, feeling – even if it doesn’t guide most public decision-making. But the Berliner academics were non-plussed:
“It was really hard to make them understand, the academics, they kept saying but why, but how? I kind of felt a bit offended.”
This sort of cross-cultural contact was generated by Que’s presence at screenings of the film Infractions in the German capital and in London. The film was made by non-Indigenous Australian artist Rachel O’Reilly, with the intent “to platform First Nations voices on fracking” – not just here in the NT but across Australia.
Rachel grew up in Gladstone, Queensland, and was working as a film curator in Brisbane when three gas liquefaction plants (Santos, QGC, Australia Pacific) gained environmental approvals from the Queensland Government in 2010. That helps explain the origins of her focus on gas industry issues. It eventually led her to the NT where right now drilling and activism have recommenced in the Beetaloo basin, as the Fed Government has “doubled down on planet-warming gas projects” as a core response to “pandemic economics.”
Luckily the European tour of Infractions got in ahead of the pandemic, offering Que her first international trip.
A Western Aranda woman from Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Que (pronounced ‘Q’) is an artist galvanised into activism by the Intervention, beginning in 2007 and ongoing. She is employed as a community support worker at Ntaria and is studying law at Deakin University, although in this pandemic year she’s taken an interruption. She met Rachel through the Protect Country Alliance and features as one of the First Nations voices in the film.
After a screening of the film at Watch This Space in Alice Springs, the two women were joined by Roxanne Highfold in a panel discussion of the question: “In framing the fracking issue, what are the films that need to be made?”
Rachel O’Reilly, Roxanne Highfold and Que Kenny at Watch This Space in November.
Roxanne is an Arrernte woman, who grew up in Alice Springs – Mparntwe, her mother’s country. She and Que have known each other since school days. Working in Aboriginal health research, she spent eight years with Congress but recently started work at the Central Land Council. There she helps Aboriginal people apply for money through the ABA account – “money they’re entitled to, to improve their communities, such a challenging job.”
“Passionate about climate justice”, she also sits on the board of the Arid Lands Environment Centre as its deputy chair, with a key interest in “trying to reduce our footprint as Aboriginal people, what it means to live more minimally, more sustainably, addressing our health.”
In response to the panel question Roxanne was direct: “You can make forever and a day films that highlight issues, not only locally but internationally, but I think the way you produce them, who you get involved, how you present that message is what matters.
“I also believe that it’s us mob, Aboriginal people, that need to drive that message and continuously say, ‘This is not good enough, we’re tired of being dismissed, overlooked, not consulted with properly, not being part of the conversation, not being at the table’.”
Rachel had “highlighted that quite well” in the film – “the lack of consultation and the nit-picking who to get approval consent off of.”
These points are taken up again and again in Infractions, by Traditional Owners in Gladstone – who talk about the white-anting of their decision-making and the way companies and governments go to the “yes men” – and by their counterparts up through the NT, from Ntaria, to McArthur River, Marlinja (Newcastle Waters), Mataranka, and Borroloola.
All complained of not being listened to, and particularly where people are relying on rights under the Native Title Act, condemned the limited form of protection it offers – recognition that allows for extinguishment.
In the NT communities the deep concern is with water – fundamental to life, including human life:
“When you’re holding money in your hand, you’re holding a dead environment, a dead land,” says Gadrian Hoosan, a Garrwa, Yanyuwa man from of Borroloola.
Gadrian Hoosan and anti-fracking protesters at McArthur River Crossing, Borroloola: “We want a total ban on fracking. That’s why I had to get up, and go down lobbying in parliament, and get my voice out there, because our representatives can’t get our voice out there.”
Que, filmed together with Cassie Williams, decries the performance at Ntaria of the Pepper Inquiry into fracking – the “big words” they used to describe the issues yet their inability to answer the community’s simple question: “Will the water be safe from fracking?”
In the panel discussion Que also took aim at “our own Indigenous politicians” and “sell-outs and the Black elites” – people who could make “historic changes” if they spoke up.
She was highly critical too of the divisions created by the Land Rights Act, its administration by the land councils and the kind of deals that get made, taking up Roxanne’s “nitpicking” point :
“Who’s the real TO, who’s the real blood line? There’s a lot of arguments and fights within the family, about royalties, and the ABA.
“At Hermannsburg we are supposed to be living our lifestyle … unfortunately we are not. Out of the Palm Valley royalty I only get $45 a year, the rest goes to Queensland. All those fat cats over there get more than we do.
“Our household kitchens were changed from gas to electric stoves because they didn’t want to pay for gas in the community.”
So, for relevant films (in answer to the panel question) “you need to make it in language, interpret in language, invite old people to attend to these functions, be part of this campaign.”
Ntaria (Hermannsburg) has always been “a guinea pig for government”, said Que: “We were the first for the Intervention. That was a big kick in the guts, it was all in the name of mining … opening up communities … wanting to move us into Alice Springs. And we were like, we’re not moving to Alice Springs, that’s not our home, we’re Western Aranda people, we’re not Central Arrernte people, this is not our area.
“We fought and fought, and having your own people turn against you because all they can see are the dollar signs.”
Que Kenny reflecting on cultural and protest futures in the wake of the NT Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing (the Pepper Inquiry).
Roxanne took up the thread: “We carry a heavy burden in our community. While we’re sitting on a fence in both worlds, we’re actively engaging with our community and doing the activism at the same time, but then working within these spaces that are really conflictual, conflictual to us and our mob as well, always trying to find the balance, how do we get this out to our mob.
“Through colonialism and what they’ve done and the destruction they’ve caused in our country, they’ve also brought along tools like conquer and divide and lateral violence so I’m always thinking, how can we collectively work together and unite as Aboriginal people to strengthen our relationships but be able to work together collectively on addressing some of these issues.
“It’s hard work, wouldn’t you agree?”
Que did: “Roxanne and I, we never asked for this life, our ancestors may have put us here and guided us to be the warriors they were once before, to be able to lead the way for the younger generations.
“I could have been a person on Centrelink, walking the streets. I never asked for this life, to speak up for land, it was given to me spiritually. I didn’t say no to it … deep down my ancestors spoke to me … pushed me to the limits to speak up, to understand what the mining companies are doing to this beautiful rugged ancient country of ours.
“Look at what happened in WA, Rio Tinto destroyed the rock [Jukaan Gorge], all [the Traditional Owners] got was an apology. When I saw that I cried, it really broke my heart.”
For Roxanne this callous disregard – “profit over the environment any day” – is on a continuum with the history of the past 200 years:
“To give you a bit of context about our mob. Current population of Australia is about 25.5 million people. Aboriginal people account for far less than that, less than 800,000.
“Pre-colonisation it is [estimated] we were about two million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Due to the introduction of diseases and then the massacres, the health position, the stresses, the segregation, the stolen generation, punitive racist measures to wipe us out and our identity, we are a minority in this country.
“We’re sick of fighting but we’re still here, we’ve built that resilience but I worry about the future … because we’re struggling. Almost one in two Aboriginal people have a chronic health condition … we are very sick, very stressed, living under stressful conditions, and all we want are equal rights.
“We want to be able to live in a First World country, a very rich country … be able to flourish as a population, flourish that much that we can be the Australian population by half.
“From that perspective, it’s sickening, shocking to see that a nation that once covered the whole of Australia, that lived 65,000 years or more, continuously going about their own business with their culture, their practices, being connected to the country, thoroughly understanding what our connection to Country is, knowing that we are just part of the bigger picture, part of the animal kingdom, living and thriving and then to be reduced in this way is just shocking.
“That’s why we stand up every day and fight for our own mob. We were trouble-makers when we were young, we were born to be this way, to carry this torch, use our voices to shed some light on this injustice.”
Left: Map connecting Mataranka thermal springs to NT groundwater flows. Right: National map of prospective gas permits, Oct, 2019. Yellow = Approved. Green = Under application. A review conducted by UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning found most – if not all – permits in the NT were issued in the absence of free, prior and informed consent.
She appealed to those in the audience – artists and activists for the most part – to “hold the torch for us with other white people”, whether that’s in person to person interactions or creating documents like Rachel’s film, highlighting the injustices that are going on, particularly in the mining industry, the education system, the health system, the justice system.
“Some of our mob are still not comfortable in being in a space with white people, they’re really hurt from what colonisation has done to us. They find it very challenging to be able to be in the same space as white people and be able to talk …
“We’re dealing with so many complex issues. Racism is rife in our community. I’ll challenge anybody who says otherwise, that we’re not feeling racism on so many levels.
“There’s so much destruction caused from colonisation, the disconnect, the segregation that’s come along with it. It’s no wonder some of us find it challenging to be in the same space as white people.
“It’s up to you mob to raise our voices, to challenge other white people, to be able to say hang on, that’s not right … Those measures, policies, procedures are discriminatory, not inclusive, not inclusive of all people let alone Aboriginal people.
“We want equal rights, we want to be compensated for what’s happened to our mob. It’s our basic right, we never ceded sovereignty!”
For Que, the trip to London and Berlin has opened a new chapter in her life, a sense that there is “more out there for me” – other places to take her activism. In England especially she felt “trapped” by the weight of its colonising past, but realised she has skills that can amplify her voice, including the knowledge she is gaining through her law study and “how we still live in this country under the Westminster laws, we’ve never pulled away from that just yet.”
Roxanne joined her in the hope to lead by example so that the next generation takes up the fight:
“I’d hate to see my son’s great grandchildren reading about Aboriginal people in a museum one day, saying ‘This was where my ancestors once were warriors but they no longer exist because our land has been taken up and our people have been wiped out’,” she said – in case anyone doubts how high the stakes are.
Image at top: Que Kenny shows on her phone an unlined evaporation pond near gas infrastructure and dried up sacred springs in Ntaria. The landscapes of Namatjira’s paintings are now connected by a pipeline to the Queensland export market.
All images (except for the panel discussion) are video stills from Infractions, 2019, 1:03:00, HD video, split screen with text, Dolby 5.1, courtesy Rachel O’Reilly.
Last updated (minor edits and addition regarding Rachel O’Reilly and LNG environmental approvals in Gladstone) 22 December 2020, 3.29pm.