My Intervention story began in 2011 when I moved to the Northern Territory’s remote Indigenous Borroloola community; a designated growth town located in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a few hundred kilometers from the Queensland border. As a teacher of outdoor education and health I am often sitting around a fire with kids sharing in the cooking of bush tucker parceled in paperbark while developing sport and camp programs designed to teach emotional resiliency, cooperative group learning, safe decision-making and environmental education. The love and generosity of Borroloola’s Indigenous communities in adopting me as family and welcoming me to Country has been my fire’s embers, stoked and releasing sparks, in plumes of rising heat.
Borroloola is located on Yanyuwa Country. The town is also shared with members of the Garawa, Mara and Gudanji peoples, now, after more than a hundred years of massacre and dispossession. Borroloola’s indigenous people have been forced to hold much of their shocking frontier contact history locked away inside of themselves. The Gulf was northern Australia’s thoroughfare for the cattle industry from very early on in the colonial period, trafficking cattle from northern Queensland into the Territory and Kimberley. The Gulf was once home to at least twelve indigenous language groups; now four remain. A map of the Gulf includes such place names as ‘Massacre Hill’ and ‘Skull Creek’. My Gudanji Nana was a little girl when the last massacre of family was committed. She remembers the old people, like thieves, collecting their bones for remembrance in caves. I have wept at these ‘strong places’ with Nana and family. The trauma, like seismic tremors, repressed still.
This anger and loss is locked inside Borroloola’s Indigenous people, whom make up around 95% of the town. Borroloola’s population is around 600-700 in the Dry season, when the town is already hopelessly over-crowded in poorly maintained and inadequate housing. But in the Wet season this population swells to 1000-1200 as more and more people are schooled into town by flooding waterways. Over-crowded and poorly maintained housing is the cause of so many health problems: sleep deprivation, scabies, boils, head lice and a plethora of stress related illnesses. The flag is raised every day: black for the people the country sings; yellow for the sun percolating with energy and life; red for the Country rich with iron and rusted in blood.
It is said that only ‘missionaries, mercenaries and misfits’ move to the Territory (apart from the Territory’s First Nations). I am a missionary, maybe also a misfit. I believe in education, proselytising the down trodden, and self-sacrifice. I want to empower indigenous youth to make their own choices, to thrive in liberal democracy and to assert their own choices and culture. This sounds very ‘Whitlam-esque’ and, of course, I have crashed in punitive and bullying systems concerned, it seems to me, with conformity, collecting statistics and doing the least amount of work. My ‘good fight’ now includes a slippery dependence on alcohol (so common in the Territory), self-harm and severe depression (including an attempt to take my own life). My air-evacuation out of Borroloola to Darwin Hospital and then on to Cowdy (a psychiatric ward) is the subject of ongoing investigation. It is the intervention I required in late 2014. I have returned to Borroloola – I am family – but I have found living amongst so much remote and repressed trauma a dangerous thing.
In late 2011 I discovered another of my gospels in Intervention education. Alexis Wright’s, Grog War is a stridently and passionately written assertion of indigenous rights to self-determination. It celebrates the story of how the Tennant Creek Indigenous people worked together on a decade long war against alcohol. For Wright this ‘Indigenous-led act of self-determination and self-government formed from Indigenous Law’ (p 1) foregrounds the first thing wrong with the racist and paternalistic Intervention, and its disempowerment of First Nations. The Howard government met momentum for change by demonising Indigenous people, especially men, as pedophiles and drunkards; a climate of meanness and cynicism was carefully fostered as a reason for undermining self-determination and respect for culture (Wright, 1997, 2009, p 9). The Intervention’s package of laws, enforced by the Australian Army and without consultation, suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and created high levels of hostility in indigenous communities (Wright, 1997, 2009, pp 8-10). Once again, indigenous people were blamed for not ‘fixing their own problems’ and excluded from any decision-making or partnerships with government that might impact on their own futures (Wright, 1997, 2009, pp 11-16). Governments can too easily work in this fashion because there is so little information in the public domain concerning the strength, honour and knowledge of Indigenous Australia (Wright, 1997, 2009, pp 14-17). Wright showed me how to work in Borroloola: sit with the bardibardi and malbu and listen, work hard for their grandchildren, and love the future because you respect culture.
Has the Intervention saved the children in Borroloola? It has certainly not built any new housing, or increased maintenance on existing dwellings and to improve the security or comfort of their homes. But for all the ‘promised dollars,’ nothing has ever been raised from the ground in Borroloola apart from the Intervention’s ugly steel signs branding the front of every government provided indigenous dwelling. As I write in the opening of my poem ‘Concourse’:
In my troopie dodging dogs, ditches and broken bikes I'm at a camp of concrete blocks, crushed soft drink cans and verandas strewn with mattresses: here each building's bound to a street front white-and-blue steel sign a corporatised prescription 'No Liquor, No Pornography' and scratched ‘munanga on you’:
Munanga is Kriol in Borroloola for ‘whitefulla’ and is often used derisively as a sly, angry form of protest to authority. This government presence is most noticeably encountered in dealings with the teaching, police and health care professions (who largely make up Borroloola’s ‘other than Indigenous’ 5% of population). The non-indigenous people who take up these government service positions are sometimes idealistic, always well paid, given good free housing and are generally saving to pay off their mortgages on homes built somewhere else. The indigenous people of Borroloola have been forced to gamble away, without consultation, their rights under the Racial Discrimination Act for this increased action of government. So are the government agencies under the Intervention worth it? Do they serve as the catalysts for a prized ‘closing of the gap’ between white and black Australia?
Because of the Intervention’s alcohol restrictions police have been forced to raid indigenous dwellings where it is suspected that alcohol is present. This confrontational policing, made necessary under the Intervention, has resulted in more than one riot. The non-indigenous culture of drinking to ‘debrief’ the difficult day is unaffected. When has prohibition ever been a successful policy? And where should the ‘safe’ consumption of alcohol take place? For Borroloola’s non-indigenous people it continues to take place in private, in the security of a home with access to telephones and transport if things go wrong (as they did for me). For Borroloola’s indigenous people ‘drinking’ has been forced out of the home, due to the Intervention’s alcohol laws, and into public spaces, often out of town and in the bush where there is no child-minding, no phone reception, and no safety networks when things go wrong.
‘Drinking’ in public places leads to arguments and fights and to more denigration of Aboriginal people, but not to consultation and partnership. Listen to the Bardibardi and Malbu. They will tell you that policing and healthcare is not enough – drinkers and those worried about drinking must respect culture too. Here is a conversation that surprised me while approaching a bridge that the community refers to as ‘The Crossing’:
we take to The Crossing a bridge built to span flooding waters and golden middens of XXXX cans; in these footings Malbu discerns disturbance this bridge wrong way, this here Waralungku, Hill Kangaroo Dreamin’, an dem spirit fullas stir strife:
The bridge is needed to span the burgeoning MacArthur River as the average two metres of rainfall sweeps through the Gulf every wet season. Without ‘The Crossing’ the Garawa community would be isolated from town for months every year. But the issue remains from a strong cultural point of view: ‘why dem munanga put dat bridge here for? Tis here strong dreamin’ place. An dat bridge could be put over there, or somewhere else. Why it here for’? Economics cannot calculate culture. So now, on the place where the old people should sing the ‘hill kangaroo’, the ‘family tree’ gathers for drunkenness and gambling. ‘The Crossing’ is a structural intervention but it brings culture’s disruption.