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By Richard Trudgen

A discussion about the impacts of an unsustainable welfare system & the pitfalls of a Western education.

By Ian Browne Shamrock News

This book has been popular with those hoping to gain a better understanding of the impacts produced by a dominant culture’s manipulation of a region’s original inhabitants. Author Richard Trudgen’s experience and hard work in delivering this important book is a credit to his care and deep respect for the people of Arnhem Land. He has been connected to the Yolngu for more than 40 years. The negative implications associated with government control that have signaled the demise of many areas of Yolngu society has seen Richard become involved in helping restore social cohesion - always including the Yolngu community to allow them to take back control of their lives.

In another excellent book - ‘An Intruder’s Guide to Arnhem Land’ - author Andrew McMillan describes how the British enlisted the military muscle that defeated the warriors of the Zulu campaign - to in turn take control of the lands of the tropical NE of the Northern Territory. But the Yolngu of NE Arnhem Land would not relent, and the campaign failed. However, as time moved along, eventually the pastoralists moved in and stole land anyway. To this day, the massacres that have since occurred on Yolngu land remain in the memory and anxiety of these people, further allowing ‘our’ government to assert and dominate. More passively but even more destructive have been government initiatives that have directed Yolngu away from their cultural practices, providing ‘sit down’ money (welfare) and removing responsibility -and in some situations a work ethic - while whittling away at many aspects of identity, deep within Yolngu society.

Pronounced “yoong - oo”, historically Yolngu (Yolnu) have been generous to those who have turned up on their doorstep. The Macassar from Sulawesi, followed by the Japanese, both arrived to collect Bêche-de-mer (sea slugs) from the warm shallow waters of the Northern Territory. Popular in China and supported via the Macassar, this was probably our first international trade arrangement. These sea farers were welcome to set up camp in the Top End dry season. This allowed for the sharing of culture and technology between the groups. When the friendly German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt moved through the steaming hot November terrain, he too was met by the local’s goodwill. By this time the British had begun trying their hand at settlements in the harsh tropical conditions along the coast. But where the missionaries influenced negative implications to changes in the Yolngu’s traditional diet and health: as seen in John Cawte’s colourful book ‘Healers of Arnhem Land’, the welfare system of recent times has been a more thorough upheaval to traditional Yolngu routine.

It’s little wonder Galarrwuy Yunupingu has been vocal over the years in protest of a welfare system that has caused so much harm in NE Arnhem Land, and elsewhere. This book provides intimate knowledge of the problems associated with the welfare system, one that has hamstrung Yolngu society, and an education system that has become devoid of indigenous ways of learning. My own experience reflects this in some areas, as seen *below.

While reading this book you will be surprised that any sense of cultural wisdom has remained intact in Arnhem Land. Richard Trudgen provides real-life accounts of fascinating experiences which enlightens the reader as to how our government systems have failed Yolngu. Most Australians are unaware of the fact that indigenous societies have an intricate, dynamic, and intellectual sense of understanding and communicating long-held wisdoms in law, health, the environment, and spirituality. Yolngu and other groups found employment alongside the new arrivals during the buffalo hunting days, and WWII for example, but the depth to their knowledge was largely ignored by the policy makers. Richard Trudgen explores the way Yolngu have been treated as incapable of understanding in-depth knowledge, where medical practitioners offer brief descriptions of medical ailments, while prescribing the remedy not discussing the cause. However, any knowledge that is communicated by non-indigenous Australians (government) has to be broadly explained to Yolngu. Shamefully, it isn’t. They are asked to sign documents that make no sense to them, or are forced to reframe from practices that have long kept their minds and bodies healthy and inspired. As described in this book, different members of a clan have responsibilities as keepers of the knowledge of law and health. Government control of communities has seen the removal of these unique roles. When new information is passed down by government, health and education, it has to fit with the Yolngu way of understanding, or otherwise it is neither trusted nor believed. Bulldozing your way into an ancient culture and preaching the basics in a foreign language has failed! As elucidated within Trudgen’s pages, when providing in-depth knowledge backed up by visual and physical examples, Yolngu respond with a strong commitment to taking on the new knowledge and required practices.

Trudgen provides not only hope for indigenous communities but examples of where he has been directly involved in community coordination, in workshops that provide information allowing Yolngu to take back control of their lives. His involvement in the stamping out of petrol sniffing in Ramingining was brilliant! Once the community knew the exact information pertaining to the physical and neurological harm the petrol fumes possessed, they acted promptly to stop its use. The programs described by Trudgen - which include the community as whole - have been successful, and have vastly reduced government expenditure. Yes, your taxes have been wasted via futile Western ways at dangerously disrupting the lives of others (this book tells all). I found this direction involving community self-management massively inspiring! By once again trusting in their wise vision, the younger community members empowered the elders.

Though with some measure of goodwill on the part of a few - including those pastoralists who in time employed and treated the ‘locals’ well - the neglect and blunt arrogance practised by the invading dominant culture has seen warriors of many of our first nations people being forced to lie down and die! I just wish Richard Trudgen and the Yolngu themselves could have this positive directive framed within government policy as a ‘must do’, as this not only restores the health of indigenous societies, but where groups like the Yolngu are self-empowered, and have a broader say in all aspects of their lives, this too adds value to the way we all live and interpret life.

*A message from me, Ian Browne:

Yolngu teaching experience.

While teaching a very arduous unit of report writing to Yolngu and other remote Indigenous community students at the lower end of the English skills spectrum - one which failed to include any aspect of traditional ways of learning - I was at least interviewed as to the course’s pitfalls by NT Catholic Education at the unit’s completion. And though with hard work, and I’m sure much frustration, all my students passed this unit - I knew many months before I began teaching the new subject that it wasn’t designed for my cohort. The previous course unit was fruitful in allowing my students more freedom to practice their English skills, while proving that they had attained the skills necessary to pass their VETIS units. Thankfully due to my recommendations the high school I was teaching within promptly dumped the unit the following year. Sadly, Indigenous students haven’t always had such liberty, where even in remote areas the government has tried to remove traditional language from the learning experience. Just how successful would you be while trying to learn in another tongue? How are your report writing skills in general? Many of my students spoke more than three languages or dialects, English being used only when required.

Having worked with Yolngu in education from Darwin, I was privileged to gain a deeper understanding of spiritual identity via their inheritance of a wealth of cultural knowledge. And I made damn sure that their culture was embedded in my programs! I had Anglo-Celtic teachers working within my program who had lived and taught in places like Yirrkala, and they spoke Yolngu Matha. They were sickened by the fact that remote community schools were removing traditional languages from the curriculum and teaching in English alone!



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