I was so lucky and blessed to visit Elcho Island in East Arnhem land last week. I don’t usually post about ‘work’ things so I add to this post that this is a personal account of my experience last week, and in no way represents the views of anyone else.
But I do need to share this experience with all of you. So here goes.
In my social work roles I have always found working with indigenous people personally very challenging. I thought I had no way to connect, being a white woman in the big smoke, sitting across the desk in my government building. Despite being acutely aware of the problems faced by this ancient culture I was never sure what to say. Not sure how to act. Not sure how to help. Not sure I could even help. And for this I felt so guilty.
I was privileged to sit with elders from Galiwin’ku this week and hear their stories and ideas. We talked about what works. What does not work. I asked a lot of questions. We listened to each other. Shared stories. I was able to say finally one to one that I am sorry for my people’s past. And that afternoon I started to cry. Because I felt so welcomed by this mob and so deeply, deeply ashamed of my people, my history, and our ignorance.
Why are we not taught in schools about this fascinating, deeply connected, intricate and STRONG culture of Australia’s first peoples?
How can we all heal as a society when most of us still don’t understand?
We hear a lot of things fed to us in the media. About the destitution in remote communities. The poverty. The lack of infrastructure and poor school attendance. For this I can agree with you.
But what else did I learn? What else did I see?
Communities knowing exactly what they need to resolve their issues. I met such strong amazing women and men holding their communities together, while being pulled in every direction, with very little resources. They ain’t waiting for money. They are already doing it themselves.
We hear a lot about welfare dependency. Did you know that half the Indigenous people in the NT are not even in receipt of Centrelink benefits? Because it’s too bloody hard. It would be like you sending me to Japan to fill out a bunch of forms in Japanese that make no sense. One only needs to visit Western Sydney to see that welfare dependency affects the white fella too.
I saw people who know who they are. Who hold an intricate and detailed system of values and beliefs which connect everything from the dust to the leaves to uncles and ancestry, dictating how things should be and how problems are managed. (Which is more than I can say for the Western world, I don’t know shit about my own family tree.)
Before white fella came, there was no word for suicide. Because there were none.
I thought about my own response to my health problems. I have a smorgasboard of options. I can see a professional, study mindfulness, do yoga, take medication, talk to my family or exercise. I can even get a health rebate for a Chinese herbalist.
Elcho Island had 21 different clans speaking 17 different languages. Different clans have different needs. Different communities have different needs. People need choices that work for them.
One of the Elders took me aside while I was upset. She touched my skin and then held her heart and then mine. “Different but the same”, she said.
And that we all are.
I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t think there a single one.
But we can get there by listening and working together.
They’re ready. Are we?