Firesticks > by Scott Foyster




‘Our stories are a firestick. We light the fire, and we pass it to you. You take it to other people, and they pass it on again.’ Ned Hargraves, Yuendumu 1-10-08

The patrol pulls to stop next to the basketball court. The red dust has settled and now we are back amongst the land of bitumen, concrete and metal cladding. A barbie sits next to the basketball court awaiting us once we’ve returned with Frank Baarda from the inaugural ‘Intervention Tour’. A tour that with sun setting and Frank not yet here is going to be short (as it turns out we’ll have to wait until the morning to complete the tour.)

Eventually Frank arrives and the 20 of us climb back into our vehicles forming a convoy behind Frank as he takes us to the Nest, Yuendumu’s nickname for the Government Business Manager’s compound. The compound, which was built in 5 days,[1] consists of three demountables surrounded by a cyclone barbed wire fence. When it was built this fence resulted in the humpy home of a young couple knocked straight to the ground. The couple were living in this humpy with their newborn baby in order to live close to their extended family. When the contractors came this house of a few months was destroyed in a matter of minutes to ensure that Yuendumu got it’s first barbed wire fence and that the Government Business Manager would be protected from the ‘sacred children’.

Unsurprisingly the Government Business Manager is not there. He rarely is. Paid $180 000 a year he spends most of his time back with his family in Perth. When he is in Yuendumu he engages with the community as little as possible.  A fortnight ago when Yuendumu won the footy flag in Alice, Noel did even bother attending the match. 

After the Nest, Frank drives out to the $200 000 cyclone fence that has been built around the new rubbish tip. The tip itself is 5 km from Yuendumu and, like the Nest, comes complete with three rows of barbed wire to keep the ‘dangerous children’ out as Frank jokes – apparently in one Central Australian language the word for ‘sacred’ can also be translated to mean ‘dangerous’.


the 200 000 fence in all it's glory photo alan miles

Here with the lights of the cars shining in his eyes Frank informs us of how the GBM compound came to be known as the nest. A story that goes like this: Frank was chatting with someone in his store who called the GBM ..., which is Warlpiri for egg. An egg sits in a nest being well looked after for doing nothing at all. 

Part 2 of the Intervention tour over, we drive back to the basketball court for the BBQ and community speakout. Ned Hargraves welcomes us in Warlpiri to the community, telling the crowd of kids, community members and ourselves that we are friends of the community who have travelled from around the country to listen and learn.

The night proceeds with a succession of speakers from the community standing up and speaking strongly and loudly against the Intervention.

Christopher Poulson, a former teacher, tells us of “the racial discrimination. There’s one job for you cos you are black and living in the bush.”

Kurt, a whitefella who lives in the community recording the community musicians, informs us that “what the Government is doing with this Intervention is telling Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory that they are useless.” And that “in all my days wandering around this country I have not found Aboriginal people that are useless.”

Francis Kelly tells us “that they should have a high school out in the bush where our people can go to instead of sending them to boarding schools in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide. That bi-lingual education is important and should not be touched [hinting at the diminishing numbers of bilingual education programs in N.T. schools].” He also tells us the difficulty in getting jobs in the community: “Our young people when they come back [from school], they have to start from scratch again. Some people got jobs in the mining others have got nothing.”

Sammy Watson told us that “Community is the main thing with us... other people are trying to take that away... we’ve gotta be strong, yapa people, with our law, our culture... we got stand strongly for our rights... the intervention is hurting us, yapa people... my people in my community, Yuendumu. The intervention is killing us.”

The evening ends with a rousing speech from Ned Hargraves in which he tells us all that “Yuendumu don’t want the Invasion. It’s doing us no good. It should go.”

The next morning the third part of the Intervention Tour is completed. Our guide for is the Yuendumu’s former domestic violence worker[2], the first community domestic violence worker in all of Central Australia. From the basketball court she points out the Men’s Shelter. It looks exactly as Frank described it: a miniature Guantanamo Bay. Two shipping containers with a padlocked barb wire fence. A prison built right next to the football oval in the centre of Yuendumu. Since it’s been built there has been one meeting in it and that is all. No workshops, no programs, no men staying the night. Little wonder its in public view, the door is locked and all it brings to mind is shame.

 mens shelter at yuendumu photo alan miles

The frustrating thing is that the community has been asking for a men’s centre for years, and because of the Governments failure to consult this complex won’t be used, and the need for a men’s centre will remain. The police themselves commented upon seeing the ‘men’s shelter’ that if someone is staying in there they should be staying in the prison cells. The fact that the men in the community, including the man who runs the community night patrol, breaking up arguments before they escalate into anything else, were not consulted about the best location for the centre is reveals the Government’s attitude to community “development”.

To top it all off, these same men’s shelters, have been built in 20 communities throughout the Territory. I’d hazard a guess but you can bet that they are probably not being used in any other communities either.

With the Intervention tour over we wander off to check out other parts of the community. Some of us visit the clinic, others take a visit to the Outback Store[3], others visit Warlpiri media centre- the first community TV station in all of Australia. A group of us head up to Warlukurangu Arts and where some artists are at work and the office staff are filling out orders. With all the art there and all the stories of carpet bagging it’s good to hear that all the money from the sales of the art goes back into the community.

Another group visit Mt Theo, a program set up by the community to deal with substance abuse problems amongst the kids. Part of their program involves a mechanics workshop where the youth of Yuendumu work on cars and buses learning how they work, as well as other youth development, training and mentoring programs. It’s a successful program reducing petrol sniffing in the community to next to nothing.  Visitors were shown a detailed plan for a bi-lingual culturally appropriate school program for high school kids, written in 1989 but not yet adopted. A town of 800, Yuendumu only has school classes to year 10 so those who want to continue on with higher education have to board in Alice, Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne. There is apparently a plan by a NGO to build one Walpiri bi-lingual high school for Warlpiri students in Willowra, Lajamanu, Papunya, and Yuendumu, an area of some 2000, servicing around 1500-2000 people.

After the arts centre we head back to the basketball court and vehicles, heading back to Mpartnwe - Alice Springs with the knowledge that Yuendumu is a strong community, resisting the Intervention every step of the way. A community that sees the Intervention as having brought nothing to it but frustration and anger. A community that knows what it’s capable of, and with some genuine collaboration and consultation could offer amazing opportunities for community growth.  It’s a shame the Government doesn’t see it that way. It’s a shame the only approach the Government has is paternalism.

[1] Yuendumu itself has seen no new houses for the community in the 15 months of the Intervention this in spite of the fact that house in the community are overcrowded and housing is supposedly a bi-partisian programme to close the gap. In fact like with other communities in the NT, Yuendumu will only get new houses if they sign a lease with the Government. No lease, no new houses, and only 20 new houses at that.

[2] She went on maternity leave in March. Since then there has been no worker in spite of the fact that there is funding for the position until mid 2011. The first worker replaced was given a home with a leaky roof, a window that didn’t shut and was located in the CDEP compound, a compound that is locked each night. She did not feel safe and so left. Since then a house has been built (six months after the former worker told FACHSIA that she would be going on Maternity leave in March) and people interviewed but as of yet no one hired. Since then people have stopped reporting assaults having lost faith in the program and the Government commitments to it.

[3] Outback Stores is an initiative set up in 2006 by the Indigenous Business Council. They state on their websites FAQ that Outback store is not compulsory for communities to sign up to however the only community stores that will receive funding in the future are Outback Stores. With the Intervention, the Outback Stores are the stores with the computer systems needed to implement the ‘basics card’ system.