My first day of work in the Aurukun clinic I read local surnames on medical charts and repeated them to myself like a mantra, feeling the shape of them in my mouth. It seemed important to know those names. Now, years later, they are as imbedded in the landscape of my psyche as they are in the history and geography of the Aurukun community…Yunkaporta, Pootchemunka, Owokerun, Wolmby, Pambegan, Ngallametta, Ampeybegan, Kawangka, Kerindun, Koomeeta, Kowearpta…their syllables flow in a stream of meaning and belonging.
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.