Sometime late in 1993 I was asked to investigate an issue that had arisen with a remote aboriginal community in South Australia. My job in the Government was Director of Schools, which sounds very important, but with most staffing matters firmly in the grip of the human resources people, and schools funding locked in except for minor projects, I was often a guy in a suit in search of a purpose. I’m pretty sure this particular task came my way because the Director General couldn’t think of who else to give it to.
The story really starts in 1953, when a huge area of the outback was allocated the honour of being a test site for atomic bombs. There were several explosions in the Great Victoria Desert, regarded as so successful that a new more permanent location was needed. The Australian Supply Minister, Howard Beale, stated in 1955 that “England has the know how; we have the open spaces, much technical skill and a great willingness to help the Motherland. Between us we should help to build the defences of the free world, and make historic advances in harnessing the forces of nature.” So Maralinga was chosen, because it was well away from any modern towns or grazing properties. It also happened to be the home of a large community of Tjuratja aboriginal people, who at that time had no land rights, or were even Australian citizens. So they were ordered to move out of the area to a new ‘aboriginal reserve’ at a place called Yalata, near the coast that borders the Great Australian Bight.
A few people ‘went bush’ to avoid being forced out of their homelands, but most left on the back of trucks early in 1956. Yalata was a troubled place from the start, with the traditional leadership structures disrupted, very few local hunting grounds to obtain food, and the challenge of continual, considerable resistance from the European community in nearby Ceduna. With jobs in very short supply, and very poor educational facilities, offending by young people, mainly men and boys, grew steadily. By 1976, when I was working in this field, a boy from Yalata had 44 times the likelihood of being charged with a crime compared to a boy from Adelaide, where I lived.
Around 1985, more than 20 years after the last bomb testing, the leader of the Yalata community, Yami Lester, encouraged anybody who wanted to return to the traditional lands to re-settle in Oak Valley, a traditional site just outside the restricted Maralinga area. This meant travelling several hundred kilometres in cars, trucks and whatever other forms of transport people could find, with no help from the Government, who were against the whole idea. More than 100 people made the journey, and set up in a valley where their people had lived for millennia. Their quality of life improved immediately. One result was that reported offences almost disappeared. With no police, no-one to steal from, and the added support of the re-established aboriginal justice system, young people were returning to hunting, making spears and other implements, weaving and building basic houses.
Within a few years, a small health centre was established, dealing with problems ranging from diabetes in epidemic proportions to skin, eye and ear diseases with young children, many the result of sleeping with dogs for warmth. Alcohol was a problem, but much less so than in Yalata, partly because now it was a very long trip to the nearest bottle shop. A very basic school was set up in the late 1980’s, consisting of a couple of caravans, staffed by two non-aboriginal teachers, usually new graduates looking for adventure.
During 1992/3, Yami Lester began pressing the Education Department for a properly-equipped school in Oak Valley. The schools building people were very wary of the idea, because they knew the remote location would make for very expensive classrooms, but more than that, they couldn’t be sure if the community might move again, leaving a costly white elephant sitting empty in the outback, for which someone would be blamed. But Yami was a very effective advocate, and well-known for the story of how as a boy he and his family were among those who went bush and stayed in the area when the bombs were going off. Many died, and Yami was blinded. Later, a reluctant national Australian Government would cave in and pay millions of dollars in compensation, but even in 1993, a demand from Yami Lester had real clout. So it was decided that the Director of Schools (me) would lead a delegation to Oak Valley to assess the feasibility of building a permanent school.
Oak Valley really is remote, even in Australian terms. It took most of two days to get to a spot roughly mid-way between the South Australian Coast and the Northern Territory border. About six hours travel to the nearest town. I think there were six of us, including a senior aboriginal bureaucrat, a superintendent of schools and a high school principal. An interpreter was needed, as most of the Oak Valley people spoke only their own language (Pitjanjatjara) and a smattering of English.
When we arrived, the person designated to negotiate with us was not available, so the men were invited to go hunting for bush turkey, while the two women in our group talked with the nurse running the community health centre. I’d never been in this country before, and I was surprised by its beauty. We could see the famous red dirt of course, but long grass was everywhere, and many small trees and bushes were bright with colourful flowers. Clouds of green budgerigars swept from tree to tree, and tiny red birds (I think Crimson Chats) flashed around us. We men found ourselves with three well-armed locals, who drove at high speed through what looked like trackless flat country to me, then after about half an hour stopped suddenly and motioned us to keep quiet. They cocked their rifles, and were still and soundless for about five minutes. Then out of the grass came several bush turkeys. Three shots, three turkeys, and the hunting was over.
Later in the day I wandered around the little town with the interpreter, speaking to several locals. I asked if I could see people making spears, and it happened that Jimmy (I can’t recall his other name) was just beginning the crucial stage of straightening out the long thin branches. He had a cone of fine hot coals, and he moved the branches across it, twisting, bending, inspecting by eye, until he had perfectly straight two metre shafts for the spears. Each one took about ten minutes. I got my first lesson in humility for the day when I asked if I could buy one. The interpreter spoke with Jimmy for a while, then said I would have to speak to Jimmy’s agent in Adelaide, who handled all his sales.
Next morning it was down to business. The lead negotiator for the Tjuratja people was called Wayne, and he spoke only in Pitjanjatjara thoughout. We sat in a circle of men in the dirt, with the women close by but off to one side, in a smaller circle. Wayne explained their need for a school in very simple terms. ‘If we want to get compensation from the government, and find new jobs for our young people, we must produce a few well-educated people every year. We will never have proper rights in this country unless that happens.’ That was fair enough in terms of community support for education, so we ticked that box. Then I asked as delicately as I could why they had chosen this particular spot to live. Which of course was code for ‘Are you going to stay here if we build a school?’
Wayne talked for a long time, pausing often for the interpreter. He pointed out specific small hills, told us about a water hole that never dried up, and the ‘ochre trails’ that came all the way from the Northern Territory and Queensland, though Oak Valley and on to Western Australia. These were the aboriginal equivalent of the Silk Road in Asia; trading routes for all types of goods, but especially rare ochres needed for ceremonial body-painting. He finished by saying, ‘We have been exactly here for thousands of years—the only time we ever left was when you white fellas took us to Yalata.’
There was a long silence. I felt stunned and embarrassed by my ignorance, and of the paternalism that we represented that day. Me, a migrant to Australia, been here for less than 40 years, asking people who hadn’t moved for maybe 40,000 years if they were going somewhere else any time soon. Their dignity and clarity of purpose was suddenly overwhelming.
In a perfectly-timed demonstration, just at that moment there was soft excited discussion among the women. Into our group walked a teenage boy and his mother, she in bare feet. He joined the men, and explained that they had just arrived after walking from Yulara, about six hundred kilometers north of Oak Valley. I asked though the interpreter how they survived without water for three weeks, and the boy said ‘There is water in every hole along the track, if you know the way.’ Lost Europeans have died of thirst out there regularly, but people coming to Oak Valley, barring accidents, get home in good shape every time. Never was a government building going to be more certain to be in just the right spot than the school in Oak Valley.
There was no need to summarise the meeting. They knew I had to speak to my bosses, and that government processes are never rapid or smooth. We shook hands all round, then sat down to a feast of bush turkey. It was delicious; even if I was slightly worried that we shouldn’t be indulging, because only aboriginal people are allowed to hunt this protected species. The things bureaucrats angst about.
Naturally my report recommended that the permanent school should be built as soon as possible. I’m sorry to say that it took nine years before the following item appeared in the newspaper.
Posted 4 May 2003, 11:37am
‘A school that was once dubbed the worst in Australia has been rebuilt and officially opened today.
The new $2 million school is at the Oak Valley Aboriginal community, on South Australia’s Maralinga lands.
For more than a decade, teachers described it as a Third World facility, a couple of caravans with no air-conditioning in the middle of the Great Victorian Desert, where temperatures range from zero to 50 degrees.
There was no running water – the only amenity, a long drop toilet.
Today, South Australian Premier Mike Rann travelled 1,000 kilometres north-west of Adelaide to officially open the $2 million school, with a childcare centre, flexible classroom spaces and new administration buildings – all air conditioned and with amenities.
Mr Rann says it brings to an end the appalling conditions experienced by up to 60 staff and children’
I know some of the reasons for this dreadful delay that cost a generation of children a basic education. About three weeks after I returned I lost my job, a delayed payback from a newly elected government led by a Premier I had crossed swords with in a past career. That was one advocate gone. The Minister of Education lost her job as well of course, just when she had become a fierce backer for accelerating the project. The new government had a lot to do, and this former priority went on to the back-burner while a swathe of funding cuts were implemented.
Even now I have to accept that this would never have been tolerated anywhere but in a remote aboriginal-administered township. Some hearts, including mine, were more or less in the right place, but that’s never enough to defeat inequality. I think it’s true that none of us are born racists, but by about the age of five most of us are developing the selective perceptions that allow us turn away from citizens who don’t look or sound like us. The road back, to the undoing of those blind spots, seems to take more than lifetimes.