My Intervention (in Cowdy)

By | 1 February 2015

In Borroloola I have established a poetry club for students that meets every Friday afternoon after school. Our club is called Diwurruwurru, and in Language means ‘message stick’. We proudly use this name with permission as we celebrate indigenous culture, language and Aboriginal English and noisily party with afternoon tea, story and poetry. We run camps and writers’ retreats, have been published, and have created with Lionel Fogarty and Amanda King a ‘Borroloola Poetry Film’. Following is one of our group poems called ‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, about a culture camp I organised with local indigenous leaders. It expresses beautifully the kids’ pride in culture and their intuitive longing for a commitment to ‘two-ways learning’:

we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri 
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep

But ‘two-ways learning’ is no longer deemed valuable. So while the indigenous community is not empowered to express its aspirations for what a school might look like, ever more government data is collected. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results highlight Northern Territory disadvantages and challenges where between 40-60% of indigenous students are achieving below minimum standards in reading and writing. Bilingual education through ‘two-way learning’ is abolished in the hope that this will improve literacy results by concentrating on Standard English. Schools implement a growing list of literacy and numeracy programs looking for improvements in the statistics collected: QuickSmart Literacy and Numeracy; National Accelerated Literacy Programs; First Steps Literacy and Numeracy; Walking Talking Texts (for teaching English-as-a-second-language); MultiLit (to address the needs of students with disabilities); Visible Learning; and, now in 2015, Direct Instruction. And yet we know that nutrition and health are closely related to educational achievement, school attendance and literacy. The health status of remote indigenous people is poor: more babies suffer low to extremely low birth-weight and upwards to 70% of children suffer from chronic Otitis Media, a serious middle ear disease that can cause permanent hearing loss and inhibit language development. There are few figures on how widespread fetal alcohol spectrum disorder might be but, anecdotally, indigenous people in Borroloola believe that this sadness is so prevalent, the government might consider itself unable to afford a remedy. It’s cheaper not to diagnose.

This is why the Federal Government’s Intervention into the lives of Northern Territory Indigenous Australians should be so shocking to us all: it is a bipartisan policy of disempowering our First Nations; of not trusting their voice; of failing to respect culture; and, ultimately and ironically, of not believing in the children who the country truly sings. As my Borroloola students so generously shared with me in another group poem from Diwurruwurru called ‘dance strong, dat country move en you’:

millad mob drive out bush long way
over dem hills to make bend like dis
an us mob see fresh tracks of big fulla
big an black an he biggest mob angry
he angry like wounded beast
with horns so wild an he growl us
but dis country ours an millad mob
know it good way so us drive on
all way to wandangnula
dem whitefullas call police lagoon
but us mob know it right way
an us see dem hills so biggest dry
an know where dat wurnamburna is
you know mista dat white ochre
it bend down like dis
an it hard but there biggest pack
ochre to mix with water an dig
millad mob dig like dis an fill
dem buckets right way dat white ochre
for dance an make us dance strong like tru 
aboriginal an make dat country move en you
us mob paint dat ochre here
on the face like dis an on our arms here
sum mob paint it on dem chest here an on legs
here an here but not us mob
millad mob paint here an here an here
like dis you see do it good way
an den us line up an start to move swingin
our arms an stompin feet to kick dust
it dance for country swingin stompin
lit by ochre as dem singers breathe
da language only dem old people know
us mob just too deadly steppin singin 

                                                up da storm.

It is a breach of trust to lose faith in these ‘deadly’ kids as they ‘sing up their storm’. For me, and my Intervention story, my way out of Cowdy has been to ‘return to Country, swingin’, stompin’, steppin’ and singin’ up dat storm’; this is possible because I sit with the bardibardi and listen; welcomed to their voice and Country; welcomed to listen and then to work hard; welcomed to sit still and listen.

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