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Monday, 16 November 2015 11:56

An encounter with Aboriginal culture and the Northern Territory Intervention

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aboriginal men holding flagOn a recent holiday to Central Australia, Gabrielle Fogarty experienced a Spirit-led revelation and awareness to the pain and terror that the Northern Territory Intervention had placed on our First Peoples living in remote communities in the Territory.

Leading a contemplative life develops an attentiveness to the presence of God in everything. It is therefore expected that when leaving to go on a holiday, you know that the God of Surprises will enrich that journey in a way you never expected.

So it was for me on a recent holiday to Central Australia, from Darwin to Adelaide. With Laudato Si sketched heavily in my consciousness, and armed with a book on the Northern Territory Intervention in my bag, I eagerly looked forward to experiencing the beauty, splendour and vibrant colours of the Outback, getting in touch with the "Earth - our Common Home". But what I didn't anticipate was a slow revelation and awareness to the pain and terror that the Northern Territory Intervention had placed on our First Peoples, the Australian Aboriginal living in their remote communities in the Territory.

My experience with urban Aboriginal culture has spanned nearly 20 years through Parish social justice initiatives. However it was my recent involvement of crowd funding and the subsequent publication of my holiday reading book The Intervention - An Anthology which provided a gradual awakening to the deep injustices surrounding events of the past decade denying Northern Territory Aboriginals of their human rights. Like many white Australians my knowledge of the Northern Territory Intervention was very limited, confined to news on TV and in the media.

The first thread weaving its way through this Spirit-led encounter came when, as a tourist trying to escape the hot Darwin temperatures, we took pleasure in resting our weary bodies in the cool air con and Gallery of the Northern Territory Parliament. I was alerted to the impressive exchanges by several Aboriginal female Members, debating a Bill to overcome domestic violence against Aboriginal women. Both sides of government were citing the ineffectiveness of the Northern Territory Intervention made by distant authorities in Canberra, an acknowledgement one may not have expected from this Parliament in Darwin.

Self-determination has been the goal of Indigenous groups since even before Mabo (the high court decision in 1992 to grant Australia's Aboriginal people fair land rights). The Northern Territory Intervention was a drastic and inhumane measure against the chronic issues facing Aboriginal communities and this involvement almost completely destroyed any concepts of self-determination. It was meant to overcome violence, but in itself awoke the memories of The Stolen Generation. Graham Innes, Human Rights Commission recalls with horror the day it was introduced in their community: "We were told to gather at Utopia, and became aware around us of public servants, the police, the army. We didn't quite know whether we were going to be shot or put into paddy wagons or whatever". Many Aboriginal communities don't have access to newspapers, or TV, and some live without electricity; they were not expecting or
prepared for this invasion.

"The greatest impact, five years on, has been on the mental and emotional health of the Aboriginal people in the Territory: people have developed a deep sense of insecurity that undermines their feelings of certainty and safety because age-old social structures are being eroded; those from remote areas are being forced to recognise their own vulnerability and their dependency on the system being forced on them and feel a lack of control over their futures" (Pat Anderson, Northern Territory Intervention).

Aboriginal people themselves and governments had faced and raised their concerns about the serious health and social issues of abuse and violence faced by their communities ten years previously. In 1991 the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody; 1997 The Human Rights Commission report; in 2001 the Aboriginal Health Council, and in 2006 Ms Pat Anderson, a distinguished Alyawarre woman, an advocate and Aboriginal Health Professional, along with Mr Rex Wild, QC were allotted the responsibility of cochairing an Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from sexual abuse. At the end of their investigations, they put forward almost one hundred recommendations to address the issue in their report The Little Children are Sacred. To Pat Anderson the first of these is the most significant and the one which the Aboriginal community was willing and determined to work alongside authorities:
"It is critical that both (the Northern Territory and Federal) governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities (to address child sexual abuse and neglect."

A prolonged lack of interest and inertia followed the release of the report and none of the recommendations were implemented before the Federal Government decided on the Intervention.

All parties agreed that some urgent action was needed to be carried out, but the approach to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage based on respect for their established rights was not included. In the long term, it is acknowledged, that this is the only thing that will work.

And then came another startling thread to the web of surprises. With the background of the Intervention alerting me through thoughtful reading on my journey, it was doubly confronting to come across this shocking sign at the end of hundreds of kilometres of rough, corrugated dirt road towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the Roper River. The sheer isolation and remoteness of this sign (one of the 75 signs naming and shaming Aboriginal communities) placed at the entrance to communities by public servants in order to implement the Intervention, seemed incongruous.

When Aboriginal people are given the same advantages as the nonindigenous white people they can flourish in their beloved country and teach us a love and respect for the land they walk on, a truth which Pope Francis has expounded in his encyclical Laudato Si.

Paying attention to the work of the Spirit, further threads of understanding were noted at the Katherine Gorge, now known as Nitmuluk. A proud, young, dignified Jawoyn man, presented to us as our well informed, considerate tour guide was a living example of personal achievement by Indigenous people when they are given half the opportunity. He brought alive with passion and sincerity the living vibrant culture we had travelled so far to see. His gentle but commanding voice encouraged these excited tourists to be still and listen in the silence to the voice of the Dreamtime Spirit as we drifted between the cliffs of this ancient Nitmuluk Gorge. He was demonstrating the deeply spiritual and contemplative characteristic of our Indigenous culture, from which we have much to learn.

A bond of respect, pride and understanding sprang up between us as I mentioned to him that on this very day August 26th that Iunderstood we were observing Aboriginal Freedom Day. He revelled in repeating part of their story; when Gurindji workers at Wave Hill Station went on strike against being paid in rations by cattle baron Lord Vestey. They demanded equal pay and Aboriginal land rights and won historic success in 1975 with the hand-back of Daguragu. Their walk-off galvanised Aboriginal rights activists and unionists across Australia, helping to catalyse the modern Land Rights movement.

49 years after Wave Hill, the Northern Territory Intervention has gutted the rights won by the historic Gurindji strike. The 1966 walk-off lead Aboriginal Australia in the fight for self-determination. But under this Intervention those rights have been removed.

It is our hope that next August we will be able to celebrate 50 years of Wave Hill achievement with Aboriginal people as they struggle to maintain their own languages, song and dance, and to live in and care for their own country.

It truly will be a SORRY DAY for ALL Australians if we continue our sorry history by:

  • failing to show Aboriginal people the respect and dignity they deserve as fellow humans and,
  • failing to close the gap on health and social issues.

(File photo from iStock)

Gabrielle Fogarty is Chair of the Carmelite Commission for Justice, Peace & the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) of the Carmelites of Australia and Timor-Leste. She has been involved in justice and peace issues for many years in both her local and parish communities as well as with the Carmelites.

This was first published in the November 2015 issue (#47) of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Commission Newsletter of The Carmelites of Australia and East Timor.