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[from Frank Baarda, long-term worker and resident in Yuendumu, Northern Territory]

If only it were only about the money.

Sociologists and anthropologists have written volumes about the effect of large injections of funds into small communities. Knitting a social fabric is a delicate, gradual and sequential activity that has to come mainly from within (outside authorities can however help to create the setting in which such knitting can flourish - or alternatively stuff things up). Here at Yuendumu you start with re-empowerment and relevance. No amount of money will instantly solve all our perceived problems.

The false perception has been created of all Aboriginal communities as being dysfunctional communities with rampant drunkenness, drug abuse, paedophilia, pornography, chronic health and education problems and a serious housing shortage.

I'm not saying improvements can't or shouldn't be made, just that infra-structure shouldn't take precedence over social-structure. A house is not a home. Did you know that back in the 1960's (or was it 1950's?) when Ted Egan was the Superintendent at Yuendumu he turned back a few semi-trailers laden with Demountable houses?... ( a mini-intervention!).

Imposed draconian measures and outside "solutions" will not work. When you build a house you don't start with the roof. It's all about what Aretha Franklin sang about R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Not to mention Sacha Cohen's Ali G). Self-respect, mutual respect and the respect of others. Another word that keeps cropping up is 'Dignity'.

Months ago at Harry Jakamarra Nelson's invitation I was given the opportunity to talk face to face with Major-General David Chalmers ("Jungarrayi, you tell him what you think of the intervention"). So I told him, a torrent of words (that all that know me know I'm very capable of)... distilled:

a) What does Yuendumu need the most?...
Empowerment, local decision making etc. Your intervention does quite the opposite.

b) What does Yuendumu need the least?....
More bureaucracy...which your intervention adds another layer to.

c) What's more: "when my wife and some local people recently attended a Linguistics conference in Adelaide, someone asked where were they from and when they answered 'Yuendumu' the lady that had asked them said she felt really sorry for them living in such a dreadful place (they couldn't convince her otherwise)".

I told the major-general that that remark was down to his Minister (Mal Brough at the time) who every time he spoke on television presented a grim crisis scenario and dwelt on sexual abuse and the poor little children. I told the major-general that people, both black and white, that lived and worked at Yuendumu were deeply offended by Mal Brough's political opportunism and blatant lies at our expense... You know what the major general said?:

"Oh well he's a politician"(!)
"If he hadn't presented it that way, we wouldn't have got all this money"

That pretty well finished off the conversation. What more could I say?

I am told that the word "children" doesn't feature once in the 500 odd pages of Emergency Legislation that we are now being subjected to. I'm sure the word "enlightenment" doesn't either.

[Addition: Jane Simpson]
A student thinking of going on fieldwork in Australia asked me: "Isn't it too dangerous?"
Me: "Why?"
"Oh because of all the dreadful things that have been in the newspapers about what's happening in Aboriginal communities. "

And then I got some bad news. Jampin is a kind, funny man who has enjoyed writing and talking with speakers and learners of his languages (including several linguists). He is in his late 50s. He has lost one wife to kidney failure. His first and third wives are both on dialysis. His liver is collapsing. And now his son has died, after a long time on dialysis.

It is is humbling to see the courage which he and his family show amidst the unremitting pressure and grief of constant, untimely deaths But it is shaming that our media direct our attention, not to their courage, but instead to holding Aboriginal communities to public contempt and hysteria - as Frank describes above.]


As always Frank tells a good story, with a passing nod to the truth. Frank and I met because I took the time to walk over to his Mining Store to pay him the R E S P E C T of doing so. I did so because Frank is a long term non-indigenous resident of Yuendumu, whom I had hoped could offer me some practical advice on how to best shape the Government's Intervention to meet the needs of the community. Not because Harry Nelson organised a meeting as Frank claims in an attempt to portray himself as a community spokesman. Sadly, Frank confines his rapier wit to criticism, without offering much that is constructive. (This was not just my experience - read Carol Sharples Muir's letter of 3 July 08 in the Alice Springs News)

Frank doesn't mention that our discussion covered a range of matters, including that his wife teaches Warlpiri language, and I wanted to explore the possibilities of extending language training to government officers working in Yuendumu. Such initiatives don't fit Frank's world view, so he doesn't mention them.

While I may have discussed with Frank the political realities of the Intervention, I would not have made the remarks he attributes to me to excuse the Intervention. Mind you, nor would I have agreed with him that the Intervention is founded on lies. Read Bess Nungarrayi Price's harrowing story, most recently covered in a letter to the Centralian Advocate on 8 July 08, if you doubt that domestic violence occurs in Warlpiri communities or that children are neglected. Not every man is violent, nor every parent neglectful, but the problem is real and needs to be addressed.

Whether Jane Simpson or Frank Baarda want to hear them or not, strong Warlpri women are speaking out. And I and the Government hear them.

The article is Frank's and expresses his opinion. My name appears because the Wordpress software forces the appearance of the poster's name in the byline.

The mainstream media have by and large covered Major-General Chalmers' position well, and they have paid little attention to the perspective of long-term residents such as Frank. It is important that their opinions are heard, and this blog has provided a forum for some diverging points of view.

In all Aboriginal communities there are many points of view, and there is a need to explain what's happening in languages that people understand, so that people's understanding can develop in the light of new information. The use of interpreters is essential.

Incidentally, when the previous government put out a call for help in Aboriginal communities (for the intervention), I volunteered to assist with the intervention, concerning language and communication and policy development about how to communicate information. I never received anything saying whether or not they would take up my offer. I took that to mean that they did not understand how fundamentally important interpreters are in the present tragic situation.

Lifted from the NTER Task Force Report(June'08): "In relation to the issue of bilingual education, the Taskforce considers that it is important to keep a balance: it is vital for Indigenous children in remote communities to be educated in English to a level which is comparable to other Australian children, while not losing their traditional Indigenous languages and cultures..."
Nyarrpa ka wangka?

I remember when the intervention first started and people involved in Aboriginal communities were expressing a mixture of fear and optimism about what would happen. I said back then that although there was some good mixed in with the bad proposals, none of the good would stick long term and only the bad would actually happen.

There quite a few good intentions and ideas at the start of the intervention, and "language training for government officers" is one example. However, I bet that this good idea never happened... instead they are removing "language training for Aboriginal children" instead.

Before the intervention Aboriginal communities were suffering from long term neglect, and it was bad. Now the intervention is actively stuffing them up, and it is worse.

If you want some practical advice on how the intervention could have actually improved things;

1) Involve local people in decision making. Ask for the opinions of people who actually live there, not people who live in Alice Springs. This hard... there is a language barrier and many individuals you ask will see this as an opportunity for personal family gains. Aboriginal culture tends to be more community oriented and discourages individuals speaking out, which ironically means individuals who do speak out are often the most "westernised" and least likely to represent the real interests of the community. So get a broad spread of opinions and don't make any hasty decisions on individual advice.

2) Hire local people for intervention related jobs. There are many (stupid) intervention jobs like installing and inspecting(!) the signs and fences that were all given to external contractors. I know this is hard because many local people don't have the skills or qualifications, but the intervention should have focused on giving local people the skills and qualifications needed to maintain and fix their own community.

3) Support existing community efforts to fix things rather than attempt to replace them with fresh new fixes. There are many good programs on Aboriginal communities like the night patrols, YMCA childrens programs, petrol sniffer treatment programs, child care centers, medical centers, schools, etc that were all working to improve these communities and achieving good results despite little to no funding or support. AFAIK none of these existing successful programs received any funding or support from the Intervention. I have heard in fact that many of these programs were scaled back instead (the Yuendumu child care center was told they couldn't hire as many local child care workers).

4) Education Education Education... at all levels from kindergarten to adult training, backed up with real possibilities for local employment based on that education. Don't build houses, train people to build their own houses. If the Intervention had hired one full time plumber who had to take on one or two local apprentices and teach them how to fix toilets, the Intervention would not have been a waste. Sadly education is something that only shows results years later, so no government is interested in spending money on something that will only make their successors look good.

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