The creative young of Innisfail - a stamp of identity to an old sugarcane town

The creative young of Innisfail – a stamp of identity to an old sugarcane town

By Ian Browne Shamrock News

On the steamy Cassowary Coast in the far north of Queensland lies the old sugarcane town of Innisfail. In the lands of the proud Indigenous Ma:mu, it is popular as an Art Deco town. The older generation of Italian immigrants; Punjabi Sikhs; Anglo-Celtic sugarcane farmers, and Melanesian banana workers - reminisce this region’s rich heritage. The vibrant family-friendly Friday nights at Roscoe’s, where seriously deliciously affordable pizzas belay a juxtapose of empty stores and ghost town shopping arcades, bearing witness to the passing of intensive cyclones that have pounded the local’s financial resilience deep into the mud.

Knowing how to party well, British -backpackers arrive en masse to the Crown Hotel. Otherwise, many of the younger generation find this town a less than funky affair. They congregate with all generations, enjoying the splendid river views while spilling ale at the barefoot bowls club. Some revel in the team’s win at the local leagues club. Otherwise, it’s Cairns an hour to the north that draws the youth from this old township - where variety and positivity is offered in abundance.

There is change on the wind none-the-less. New blood has arrived in town at the Queens Hotel.

Invading from Cairns, its owners dutifully nurturing the town’s Art Deco past - while invigorating all with a dynamic menu inspired by owner Liam ’s time in Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean. Melbournian wife, Wendy, generously hosting the pub’s cosy-gentile, yet upbeat atmosphere. They have really spoilt me and made me feel very welcome. Wendy takes a noble interest in her guests, my nocturnal arrival accompanies one of my Trip Hop favs – Morcheeba - whispering mystically from the pub walls.

A change of the guard, as young talented locals busily stamp their identity on a region they feel could do with a boost of creativity, with an honourable contribution of energy invigorated by what they enjoy most. DJ Jeff and his wife set up their decks every few weeks at the Queens Hotel and let loose on the town with creative tracks:

DJ Jeff: “I like to DJ here to give the young locals some variety. They all take off to Cairns every weekend, there’s not much going on really.”

Of course, some local places do inspire and feather social esteems. Sapore di Italia really is the hub of this community. It is a colourful, happy place, where all walks of life slip in to feast on tasty Italian fare, or, like me, fill out the waistline with creamy cheesecakes and deliciously strong coffee. Feeling desperately homesick for Byron Bay while teaching at a local high school during 2018, this vibrant café drew me in and made me family. Polite, hardworking young chef, Dalton Taylor, fires up his talents at Sapore di Italia:

Dalton Taylor: “This is a tropical location where a lot of produce is sourced fresh from within the region. The area has many cafes with locations offering many different cuisines. This has allowed me to experience a variety of foods rather than sticking to one type. I enjoy experimenting with the local flavours. I started out as a work experience student at the local Coffee Club. Now I am an apprentice chef at Sapore di Italia. While still attending high school, I submitted applications for chef awards and was shortlisted to the top three positions for the Far North Queensland School-based Trainee of the Year Awards. I have had lots of support from teachers, co-workers and the local community.”

Owners of Sapore Di Italia, Alfio and Julie Barbera, enjoy supporting local high school students and young international travellers, while employing them at the café. They value Dalton’s commitment and charisma:

Alfio Barbera: “Appreciating head chef Massimo, who has taken Dalton under his wing - teaching him what the ‘ins-n-outs’ of what traditional cooking is all about. Dalton has immersed himself in his job here at the café, thoroughly enjoying the experience, while embracing interaction with all staff and clientele. As owners, Julie and myself acknowledge the effort and support all our staff contribute to Sapore di Italia - in this town we love so much.”

Photos for social topics: ALEXIS SHARP

- “It’s crystal clear - life is sacred!”

From the wilds of Far North Queensland, Alexis Sharp is a thoughtful young woman whose lifelong love of nature and respect for life has seen her capture the moment through her lens for all to witness. Proudly, I have been her Agricultural-horticulture teacher this year. Alexis – intelligent, kind and charming – this talented photographer has the world at her feet.

“I am lucky to live where I am in the tropics, I want to share where I live with everyone. Not everyone gets to see this. It’s very sad the way the world is going. I want to preserve the moment, allow people to reflect on how beautiful the environment is, and how it should be protected.”

Passionate, Alexis’ photographs have won her awards at Innisfail State College where she also raked in a bounty of academic awards across her studies this year. She loves to photograph in black-n-white surrealism, and within colourful natural forest and aquatic settings:

“I want people to interpret my photos how they like. One of my favourite places to photograph is the Babinda Boulders. There is such a wide range of wildlife: green tree snakes, frogs and forest dragons. One of my most pleasurable of pastimes is taking snaps of fungi, plus you have the huge trees that have been there a millennium. The water is so nice and green. It’s a sacred place, even though it has the darkness there (dark history) it is regarded as a special place to our indigenous people. I feel the need to protect it. The trees that have been there for hundreds of years; the boulders of many shapes. I feel inspired every time I go there, I just look up and feel inspired. It’s really weird.”

"In Innisfail, I go outside and breathe in the fresh air and smell the cane. I can walk down the road and swim in a creek. I love the history of the town, the beautiful Art Deco, the rich art and historical background. I so appreciate having all the fauna and flora around me that I love so much.I have always loved animals, even when I was a little girl. I have retained a vivid memory from when I was four. I grabbed some leaves and pods and seeds and smashed them up and made an ointment. I feel there are more uses to the natural environment than meet the eye."

"Half of my heritage is Greek, but when I was a child I visited Arnhem Land, and the ladies there gave me a Dreaming name which means ‘crystal’. I am going to return to Arnhem Land with dad to learn bush medicines with the ladies next year.”

I asked Alexis how she hopes to use her art in coming years:

“Other than wildlife and landscape photography, and my love of fungi, I hope to extend into portraits which will include controversial subjects - photos for social topics. Travelling Australia will be my first destination, taking in lots of places and scenes. I want to journal and photograph my whole journey. Along the way I want to learn many facets of life- especially the environment and how I can affect change. I am worried about all the problems occurring in the environment.”

“Hopefully while I am travelling, I can find work related to photography and stay in places for a while. Places like northern NSW. I have always wanted to spend time there, and I intend to. The region’s rich cultural background, I want to experience it all first hand and take in the environment there. I just love all the alternative lifestyle options: the bush parties, the art, the hippy nostalgia, and I am told the scenery is not so dissimilar to where I live. I don’t want to be just another backpacker in Byron Bay, but spend time learning from the locals, especially on the journey I want to take. They are earthy and really inviting.”

The town’s young futures are in good hands: two locally-raised teachers giving back to their region:

“The students are cheeky, but there are some really good kids here. They are unique and make you realise that teaching is indeed a worthwhile profession.”

One handsome cat, down-to-earth teacher, Kynan Isokangas, leapt from the fertile soils of this region and decided that arming the local teenagers with literacy wisdoms was a worthy career path. A thoughtful English teacher, he finished 2018 at Innisfail State College as Acting Head of Year 7.

Kynan Isokangas: “Both sides of my family travelled to Australia via ship in the 1950s, my mother’s side of the family from Greece and my father’s side from Finland. Upon arrival my grandfathers slaved away with cane knives, cutting cane for the local sugar mill. My Finnish grandfather Sauli, would ride a push bike sometimes 30 kilometres to work, 10 hours cutting cane, and then go to night school to learn English. Both families established businesses in Tully; a supermarket (Greeks) and a cabinet and joinery/sawmill which my father continues to operate today (Fins).”

“Growing up in Tully your reputation matters, everyone knows everyone, and because of this I believe the quality of person is higher. Walking down the street you felt as though you mattered, and people took the time of day to ask how you were, and genuinely cared. In Tully what you did on the weekend, or whatever you were doing was the business of the entire town, you could not get away with anything, but it didn’t stop most of us getting up to mischief and causing a little chaos. When you did something the embarrassment and guilt is much, much worse due to the closeness of the community.”

“My next-door neighbours were an indigenous family, they had two kids Mark and Ronald. We would get up to all sorts of adventures during the afternoons after school. We would do anything from fishing and catching yabbies down in local creeks, to skateboarding and BMX riding. We would hang around a diverse group of kids made up of Indians, Greeks, Italians, Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders, and Anglo-Saxons. Race was never an issue growing up in Tully, everybody got along, and all families got along as well.”

“I would like to think that my upbringing in Tully has given me a significant advantage, in regards to working with indigenous students. In culmination with my studies at JCU which involved an array of indigenous subjects.”

Sports mad & reading for a laugh!

Kynan: “I am a bit of a sporting person, growing up I enjoyed playing AFL, cricket, and loved getting out for a fish. Nowadays, I still love going fishing. Most of my students are big fishers themselves, conversations often take place in the classroom, and is a great way to engage some of the more challenging students.”

“I like reading books that make me laugh. If I am reading a book and somehow, I look up and 4 hours have passed, I think this is the best meditative process which gets the brain going. Some of the literature that I read probably wouldn’t be seen on school books list. At the present moment I have been reading Charles Bukowski. I guess being a professional I need to be on my best behaviour, and the idea to live the life of Henry (Hank) Chinaski is a little bit of a fantasy and would be interesting to say the least. As an English teacher my main motivation is to get students to understand the power that words hold. I want students to understand that English is not just about how to write a good essay or story. I want them to be able to critique different perspectives and ideas, formulate valid opinions which show they can critically think. For a student to create a well-reasoned opinion or judgment and be able to do this again and again on all sorts of issues and topics.”

“Working at Innisfail State College has been very rewarding, the staff that work at the school are what make the place great. The students are cheeky, but there are some really good kids here. They are unique and make you realise that teaching is indeed a worthwhile profession. Even though, these realisations may not occur all the time, when they do you can’t help but feel like you are doing something right. And that is a great feeling.”

“My students are what keep me going every day, I love talking to them, helping them overcome their own challenges and supporting them to reach their full potential.”

The local indigenous Ma:Mu hold a special place in school life of Innisfail - complimented by the Torres Strait Islander culture – and with local students whose ancestry hail from the Pacific, Italy, India and Vietnam - guaranteeing an interesting classroom. I asked a couple of year 7 girls about their ancestral past, only to be brandished gobsmacked when both rolled off family lineage that reached out to every corner of the globe - to at least 8 cultures each!

Having worked with around 70 tribal groups within Indigenous education - from Darwin down to northern NSW- I was blown away by Innisfail’s NAIDOC Week TSI & Aboriginal dancing and singing.The supportive community involvement in Innisfail, truly inspiring. The traditional TSI and Cape York Kup-murri feast at Innisfail State College on the final day of NAIDOC, a real treat. Ian Willmett and Tamara Jia’s commitment to the cause the very reason it was such a successful cultural celebration.

Another staff member who nurtures local culture and sparks an interest in life within the minds of local kids, is a young local Ma:Mu lady who also works tirelessly to provide future pathways for all of her students. School guidance officer, Rob Jones, has a lot of time for Kayla Casey, and has known this inspiring educator since she was four:

Rob Jones: “Kayla used to go to school with one of my daughters, and they played netball together. She was such a wonderful child. She would turn up to school every day with the most beautiful smile on her face. She loved her sport, a very fine athlete. She has always been very caring also, an inspiration to others. I really believe she could run a school, she would make a marvellous deputy!”

Kayla Casey: “I was an early childhood educator for five years but wanted to try something different that still allowed me to work with children. I began working as a Teacher’s Aide for the Closing the Gap initiative and this fuelled my passion. I decided after only working in this position for a short time, that this is the setting that I wanted to be working in and thought that I was ‘pretty good’ at making positive connections with students both Indigenous and non-indigenous. With the support and encouragement of my work colleagues I enrolled in University as a mature-aged student with the goal of becoming a Teacher in a secondary setting. I feel that being a teacher allows me to strive to make a difference in the lives of young people.”

Living Culture MA:MU

Kayla: “The Ma:Mu culture to me is about connection to the land in which we live, relationships with the community and building a strong sense of identity. My family ensure we stay connected to each other, support one another, and share stories and pass down knowledge. Much of our language has been lost but some of my older cousins love to teach words and phrases to the younger cousins and grandchildren.”

“As an Indigenous woman I feel being a teacher allows me the opportunity to tell people my story and share many of the challenges I have faced, and overcome, to be where I am today. I strive to be a positive role model to all young people no matter what culture they come from. I want students to know that they are capable of reaching their goals through hard work, persistence and a positive outlook.”

“NAIDOC to me is about engaging with other Indigenous people in the community and sharing Indigenous pride. The Innisfail community hosts a parade and family day in the CBD which involves dances, music, food, health information and encourages positive community connections to families in the community.”

How do you want your own children to engage with Mamu culture and a life in Innisfail?

“I would like my children to grow up knowing who they are and what cultures they belong to. My children will know about both their Aboriginal and Scottish heritage. I believe identity is important as it will allow them to be confident in themselves, stand out as individuals, whilst at the same time being a part of something bigger than themselves - as well as developing a sense of wellbeing and importance.”

“The Cassowary Coast region is my home and I enjoy living and working here. I would love to see more Indigenous teachers in the community, particularly the presence of more male teachers, so we can begin to uplift our young men to be the best they can be. My students are what keep me going every day, I love talking to them, helping them overcome their own challenges and supporting them to reach their full potential.”

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