My experiences of formal cultural awareness programs is limited to three. The first was a two day compulsory program provided by Queensland Health in the nineties. I worked in a paediatric ward of a base hospital, occasionally I cared for an Aboriginal child but rarely had contact with a child’s carers. Usually older siblings were sent up to the ward to visit and police were asked to find parents when it was time for a child to be discharged. I assumed Aboriginal people weren’t comfortable with hospitals. The two days I spent in a classroom hearing the history of the crimes of the dominant white culture against Aboriginal people didn’t give me any insight at to why I rarely saw the parents of Aboriginal children visiting in the ward. Was it a distrust from years ago?
The second cultural awareness talk was less formal but one I was hoping to learn valuable information from. It was two days after I arrived in Aurukun to work with Aboriginal people in the health clinic. I knew I needed to learn about the local culture. The senior health worker took me to a private corner of the room to give me a cultural awareness talk and said “Sometimes a patient comes into the clinic and they might be poison to a health worker.” I’m sure my mouth dropped open and my eyes widened…I asked “What makes one person poison to another?”…after a meaningful pause and a long sigh…the reply was “it’s always been that way.” And with those few words he stood up to leave, having given me the talk. His words left far more questions in my mind than I had before he spoke to me. It was many months before I had any idea of what he was talking about. The little I learnt about local culture was taught informally by the two female health workers on a need to know basis.
The third experience was a whole day at the Alice Springs hospital last year as part of their orientation program. It was run by a local Aboriginal woman. I learnt about kinship systems, cross-cultural communication, local history and language. It was fascinating and informative but by that time I’d already learnt much of it through my own reading, watching films and listening and paying attention to Indigenous people around me who’d been open enough to talk about their lives.
Education is an interesting thing, it can be both formal or informal and come at the right time to be understood and benefitted from, or a lot of money and time can be wasted on irrelevant information badly timed.
Those two security guards employed at the Aurukun clinic weren’t Tongan, they were both Samoan. Same thing you probably think, just as the Director of Nursing probably did if she stopped to think about it at all. It’s not the same thing, similar Pacific island culture that shares a few common words, but very different places, history and people.
Before I started to work with Indigenous people in out-of-the-way parts of Australia I thought of “Aborigines” as a whole group. I had no concept of different family and clan groups, different languages and customs. The way the phrase, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”, rolls out of the noise of the media so smoothly lulls most of us into thinking all Indigenous people are the same. It’s a falsehood and one that serves no good purpose to any Australian. It stops us from understanding our own people and therefore our history and land.
When we consciously or unconsciously assume a group of people outside our own culture are the same, we narrow our understanding of the world, we limit our own possibilities to learn and to have our experience of life enriched. We are often too lazy to pay attention or to listen to someone different, or maybe too busy, or worse, too bigoted and stuck in our own or our parents attitudes towards certain cultures.
I’ve caught myself assuming, not wanting to hear and thinking I know better, but as I get older and encounter more people from other cultures and other clans of Indigenous people I want to close my mouth and open my mind and be amazed at the variety of languages, customs and attitudes flourishing outside my experiences.
One of those Samoan security guards became my soul mate and opened up a world for me I barely knew existed, and helped me see close up cross-cultural communication at it’s best and worst.
A few weeks after I arrived in Aurukun I heard about a grass weaving workshop being held at the Arts Centre. Three elderly Central Desert women had been brought to Aurukun to share their weaving culture with the local Indigenous women. When I asked if I could watch them on my days off I was told I could join in. I was rapt.
I arrived early at eight, there was brightly coloured raffia lying around on the ground and the three visitors sitting among the tangled strands, gathering up dried grasses into lengths and drinking milky tea out of large enamel mugs. No local women appeared for a few hours. The visitors spoke no English, their soft voices sounded like a light breeze rustling through desert grasses. I’d never heard their gentle syllables before.
I sat down next to them after being handed a darning needle and being told to gather some raffia and grasses. I was disappointed to see the garish colours. The local Aurukun women wove pandanus grasses into intricately designed mats and baskets after they dyed them with various roots turning the grasses into browns/reds/yellows. Their finished products looked more natural than whatever we could make out of the cheap imported raffia.
I wondered just what it was that the visitors could possibly show the locals. A white man videoed the scene on and off throughout the day, as a few locals straggled in and out of the blue tarpaulin shelter. Some began a basket, weaving the dried grasses together with raffia in a blanket stitch, others made themselves tea and biscuits and wandered back up Kang Kang road in the Spring heat.
I sat for two days weaving with the desert women, they guided my hands and nodded approval. I finished my basket at the end of the second day. As I was about to leave a white woman told me that everything made at the workshop had to stay with the Art Centre for an exhibition in Adelaide. No-one had mentioned that and I was the only person to have completed a basket. I told her I wanted to show the other nurses, she agreed to let me but warned me to bring it back the next day.
Now, I don’t know about you, but her attitude made me angry. I’d spent two days making something which would have been at a negligible cost to whoever paid for the raffia and I wanted to keep it as a memory. She approached me at the clinic twice after the workshop demanding my basket. I refused to let her have it on the grounds that I hadn’t been told before the workshop and that the exhibition in Adelaide was for the work of Indigenous women. Did the fact that Aboriginal women collected the grass, guided my hands and inspired me with their voices…make my work Indigenous?
I still ponder this after five years….what makes a creative work genuine? and how, especially with handcrafts does the buyer ever know what they’re actually buying? It’s different nowadays with Aboriginal paintings Art Centres go to lengths to provide proof of the artist. But my weaving experience makes me wonder how anyone can really know if a work is made by the persons name on the accompanying ticket? and if you like it does it really matter?
I was collected from the airstrip by an Aboriginal health worker from the clinic in a white rodeo ute, he tossed my luggage in the back and drove without speaking to the flat I was to stay in. It was about a kilometre up the main bitumen road, Kang Kang road. The block of three flats was across a red dirt track from the clinic.
Six foot high barbed wire fencing surrounded the flats, the sturdy metal gate was padlocked with a chain around it. I wondered if the stories I’d read of violence in Aurukun were really true. Perhaps I had good cause to feel mounting fear, the pounding in my chest was maybe an accurate warning.
A few days later when I took photos of my surroundings and emailed them to friends and family everyone was surprised at the need for such security. One person commented that the photo of the flats looked more like South Africa than Australia. Fasi told me later that I looked scared of everything when I first arrived.
There were skinny, mangy dogs lying listlessly in the heat, everywhere. The Australia I knew wouldn’t have allowed the cruelty of ribs showing and bald patches. Local people yelled at each other up and down the main street until late into the night. There were limited places to walk before you met the sea or the thick bush of pandanus and gum trees. Small children were fluent in another language with harsh staccato sounds. I felt trapped in strangeness and didn’t have a clue what to expect, none of the behavioural rules I was used to seemed to be important there. Anything could happen.
I was driven to the store soon after landing by an agency nurse. It was a large square plain building, dark and musty smelling inside. Sweaty bodies milled around, lined up at check outs or stood around the entrance mostly speaking words I’d never heard. There was little fresh fruit and vegetables, I chose a few cans and bread and wanted to get out. As I was being served by a white woman she asked if I was new and if I’d worked in an Indigenous community before. I told her I was a new nurse there for 5 weeks. She advised me to google culture shock, her kindness made me want to stay near her, but there was a queue behind me so I had to move on. I must have looked as scared as I was beginning to feel.
In her book called “Other People’s Country” Maureen Helen wrote of her arrival in a remote desert community in Western Australia in the nineties…”Life’s experiences had not prepared me for the sudden loss of personal congruency. Disorientated and sick from culture shock, I couldn’t fathom what ailed me. It made no sense that I could experience such disorientation in the country where I was born and raised.”
It’s an oddly dislocating feeling to suddenly realize you’re a stranger in your own country. No-one had prepared me for that and that shop assistant has been the only person to even mention culture shock to me in the five years since arriving in Aurukun.