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.