By ROD MOSS
You asked, Erwin, if I’d reflect on what changes, if any, have taken place since The Hard Light of Day won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2010. How I’d love to announce a range of achievements that have improved the lives of the Whitegate families. They live three kilometres east of the Post Office, a forty-five minute walk if you’re able.
As far back as the mid 1980s I attended a meeting in camp where the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs promised housing for the assembled families. Such promises have been repeated every so often by politicians of both major persuasions. The children that ran through or around the assembly are now in their mid-thirties with families of their own. Whitegate, which appears decisively third world, makes good press for ‘what needs to be done, and will be done, when we are in power.’ Houses have yet to appear.
Bear in mind that the book, after ten years of rejections, was recounting the lives of the families and my own between the early 1980s when I came to Alice Springs, and 1998 with the death of the senior man in camp, Edward Arranye Pengarte Johnson. Why an award-winning book took a decade to be published seems analogous to mainstream’s inertia in dealing with Whitegate’s inadequate housing.
For the first time since it was published, I read a few chapters to re-establish the ground for this piece. I wasn’t expecting to brush away tears. The lives in so many instances, so cruelly cut short, the separation from my kids, the state of camp, it’s still a hard read. None of the men and women in that book survives. Nor do many of the children. Apart from my kids who are now adults living elsewhere, most of this litany of suffering continues apace. That this is so, if anything, makes matters worse.
Reading Hard Light and its sequel, One Thousand Cuts, you’d realise I don’t pretend to hold grand statements or an overview that speaks to what is often referred to as ‘the Aboriginal question/problem.’ Education, health, housing, incarceration, drug-fuelled violence, the media’s familiar bold print are in there. But they arrive through recounting our small everyday rhythms; what we do, how and why we do it, and the challenges in getting them done. And how this daily grind contributes to the ‘question/problem.’
Several organisations cited in my books continue to flourish. Akeyulerre Healing Centre and Ampe-Kenhe Ahelhe Children’s Ground are magnificent achievements. The nurturing of cultural knowledge and sharing of values is their basis. The literature produced by both operations deserves wide readership. Indeed, Children’s Ground is an educational model that would prove adaptable far beyond central Australia and its indigenous clients, especially so in these environmentally fraught times. It literally starts on the ground.
By that I mean the focus is on plant and animal life that are dependant on specific seasonal events and locations. This is how meaning is made, how all of us make sense of where we are; a grounding in place. Arrernte drive both organisations with non-indigenous support. It could not be otherwise as only the elders have the local knowledge.
Given Alice Springs demographic shows an increasing proportion of indigenous children, I only hope Ampe-Kenhe Ahelhe’s 25 year vision can further deepen and stretch its roots and add confidence to developing youngsters. The elders guiding the program have been the beneficiaries of the catholic education system they received at Santa Teresa prior to welfare. The need to pass on cultural knowledge is balanced with mainstream literacy and numeracy required to handle the wage economy. Hopefully this two way learning might inspire incentives to be free of the welfare dependency that has left a generation with little motivation or need to work for wages.
This is a positive response to the erosion of their society as I’ve observed it. The tide of handouts, given with kindness in mind, has led young people and children in particular, ‘into a meaningless life, riddled by sickness, disease, poverty, illiteracy, inadequacy, disempowerment; a sterile life that consequentially leads them into anti-social attitudes, addictive behavioural patterns, hopelessness, welfare dependence and what can only be called subsidised crime.’
The words are Ted Egan’s from his 2008 Due Inheritance manifesto. I recommend it. He has the political strategy I lack. Listed among his twelve point plan is a total review of all social service payments, especially Unemployment Benefits, as they relate to First Australians, with a view to establishing new national criteria concerning eligibility. He also advocates for an imaginative campaign concerning attitudes to alcohol, particularly among First Australians.
IAD have published several brilliant and enlightening books authored by senior Arrernte women this recent decade. By popular demand the Central and Eastern Arrernte dictionary has been reprinted this year. I’d like to flag Red Kangaroo Book’s increased representation of our indigenous authors during the decade. The existence of this modest body of literature builds indigenous self-worth while acknowledging the continuing need for bi-lingual fluency. The Edmund Rice organisation has also stepped into the educational frame to do valuable work with disenfranchised youth, the very people who would have benefited from the aforementioned organisations.
Recently, a lawyer has attempted to have a lease agreement amended to the Crown Land on which Whitegate is situated. Though the families won Native Title at the turn of the century and mistakenly thought that was sufficient to start building, the NT government is yet to acknowledge an agreement permitting building.
We’ve walked and marked the trees and rocks that might form a boundary. And though the Native Title claim extended from camp to the foot of the ranges and some kilometres east, the families’ wish fell way short of this. We’ve had architect collaboration with building types. An interstate organisation offered to do the building, fence and gate the zone to protect it from vandals stealing and destroying things when the families are in town. Landscaping plans have been drawn showing the layout of the most suitable sites and tracks that would minimise flood damage.
For some years an arrangement between families had town water piped over the hills from Ilpeye Ilpeye to Whitegate. This at least gave some security for washing, cooking and laundering. That stopped in 2014 when the supply was cut during housing developments at Ilpeye Ilpeye. Despite street protests and national media attention, the NT government Minister refused to restore it. Until this happens, water and power, prerequisites for proper housing, can’t happen. Whitegate falls outside the brief of the indigenous town camp service provider, Tangentyere Council. Yet, upon request, they send a truck to top up the tank.
Some of the Whitegate women have taken the option of houses, in town or other camps simply to have power and water to cope with raising young kids. Breaking the family cluster and forcing them to mix with other language groups that are traditional foe, has increased friction. The houses are massively overcrowded, often thirty spread through three bedrooms. Fridges, stoves, air-conditioners and toilets aren’t up to this. No change in the housing situation in ten years. Worse if anything, with the increased urban drift since the Intervention.
I don’t know in each instance if cultural protocols oblige such numbers to be tolerated without argument. I hear complaints sometimes. I hear the all-night parties that result in tired and unfed kids. I do know, despite regular housing inspections, the resultant wreckage after six months occupation keeps a maintenance team totally occupied. Who pays? Not the householder. Would they be better cared for if the householder had to foot at least some of the damage? So it goes. The original occupants have to leave, then re-enter their name on the housing commission’s two-year waiting list. That is the environment the children are nurtured in. Or in tin sheds at Whitegate.
And so, you see why I continue to congratulate and endorse the work of those educational facilities. Long may they flourish.