Aurukun Visitors to Yirrkala

Its been a year since I’ve written anything here. I have no good explanation for that except maybe I thought my attention would be so taken up with trying to publish my book that I wouldn’t have time for my blog. As it happens I’ve had time for neither. I’m still working at the health clinic in Yirrkala which takes most of my energy.

I had a surprise this week, when an old friend from Aurukun showed up in the clinic. Vera, along with six other women, were visiting Yirrkala this week to learn about Bilingual schools. I got to spend an hour or so with them at a bush medicine demonstration and had a quick chat. Now, after reading up on both Yirrkala and Aurukun schools I wish I’d spent more time talking with them. Education in both these schools is a vast and interesting topic.

Yirrkala is in the East Arnhem land region of the Northern Territory, Aurukun is on the Western coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. I’ve spent almost equal time in both as a remote area nurse. I’ve learnt a lot about Indigenous health problems, learnt some things about local cultures and been privileged to be part of some people’s daily lives. But my understanding of both communities is very limited, my knowledge of the Yolgnu and Wik languages scant and my comprehension of the problems the local people deal with exists mostly in my own imagination and thoughts. I already knew this at some level, but after reading about Bilingual schools and looking at the websites and facebook pages of both schools, I’ve realised yet again how very little I know about both communities.

Dr Marika, from Yirrkala, in the 1998 Wentworth Lecture is quoted as saying, “The Methodist missionaries came to Yirrkala in 1935…they banned the use of our languages in the mission school.” Over 40 years ago Yirrkala adopted a bilingual program that used Yolgnu culture to teach children to become literate in their own language while learning English and Western culture. Yirrkala is one of nine bilingual schools left in the Northern Territory, once there were 30. Lack of resources is the reason given for the reduction. There is extensive research available to read about the benefits of bilingual education. In the 2007 Little Children Are Sacred report, on page 147 it says, ” Schools teaching and instructing in English alone…develop a failure syndrome for many children as they return home at the end of the day often unable to remember what was taught that day-which causes them to become depressed”. Which can lead to non-attendance and the social and personal problems that result. Banbapuy Whitehead, a Yolgnu teacher at the Yirrkala school, says in an article for The Conversation, an on-line newsletter, “If I know what my language is, I know who I am, then I can see the others clearly…without language I cannot tell you a story, I can’t think. I can’t cry.”

Aurukun State School was opened in 1974. Vera told me the government wouldn’t allow the Wik language to be taught or used for instruction. Obviously the problems faced in Indigenous communities are much more complex than whether language is used in schools or not. But it is undeniably important for the maintenance of culture. I’ve seen first hand the loss of culture in Aurukun and the strength of culture in Yirrkala. Almost 10 years ago a system of teaching called Direct Instruction, a patriotic US privately owned system, was introduced into Aurukun schools. “It was developed for English speaking children with cognitive dysfunctions that inhibit their capacity to process language. The children in Aurukun do not have learning disabilities, they are simply learning English as an additional language. They speak Wik as their first language. Many also speak additional dialects in their daily lives…D.I. is, quite simply, the wrong intervention for the children of Aurukun.” (Dr Misty Adoniou 8/7/16 The Conversation). The Aurukun State School was closed twice in 2014 due to violence against teachers and the recommendation has been to reduce the use of D.I, in the school.

I can only assume, from my friends visit to Yirrkala, that the Aurukun community is now looking towards it’s own solutions based on the recognition of the importance of the their Wik language. This can only be applauded. Its to be hoped that the Federal and State governments can see the long-term value of continuing or instituting Bilingual education in it’s schools.

I’m so glad to have met old friends this week and to see their engagement and interest, strength and involvement in their community. So much depends on the continuing work of strong women.

 

New phone pics June 18 170

Expectations

When I arrived for my first agency nurse contract on Badu island in the Torres Strait I wasn’t aware of having any expectations. My main thought was that I was having an adventure. After a day or two I realized I was waiting for “something” to happen. Maybe shouting in the street, or some other type of sudden violence. The Cape York community I’d worked in for two years experienced a high level of violent outbursts. Raised voices in the streets were often the background noise to every other day. I had been initially shocked at that, but by the time I left I had grown accustomed to it.

The Cape York community was my first experience in working as a remote area nurse. I learnt my emergency skills there and began to have some understanding of the health and social difficulties of Indigenous people living in traditional lands. I didn’t know, though, that I expected every group of Indigenous people to be similar. Leaving the place I knew and arriving to work on a small island, my first lesson was about my own expectations. The fact that I had them, and that they were wrong.Since then I have worked almost two years in various Torres islands and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard shouting in a street. Becoming aware of my expectations and letting them go is a lifetime’s work. I learnt after those first few days to be more open to what I actually saw and heard instead of living from my assumptions. And I’ve been constantly and wonderfully surprised at the differences within Australian Indigenous cultures and individual people.

History

History put things in context. It isn’t just a boring subject with datelines and exam questions. It lives when stories are recounted and to the listening ear it gives a lot of answers.

I’m writing a memoir of my working life as a remote area nurse and I’ve struggled with how to write about some things I’ve seen in Indigenous communities. I don’t want to add to the negative views already held by much of the dominant culture. I was pondering all this during my last contract in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory when I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on cross-cultural understanding hosted by Richard Trudgen. He prefaced the two days by giving a short history of East Arnhem land. After he’d presented the past, the present was more easily understood.

I realized that my writing needed some history of Aurukun and other places to put the present into context. I found three well researched television documentaries about Aurukun from the ABC program “Four Corners”. Dating from the late 1070’s. I wasn’t prepared to be moved to tears by the interruption to the lives of local people from state government intervention with the introduction of alcohol, that alone caused social destruction on a large scale.

Now my writing is stuck at my time in Alice Springs…so here I go again to research some history of that place an