Min. he’s a strange creature. Quirky, funny and my favourite nearly-4-year-old in the whole wide world. (absolutely no bias whatsoever) This is about his third week at Amata Anangu Preschool; an amazing place with so much wonderful stuff. Its so organic – inside its nearly all wooden toys; train sets, cooking sets, a light table to look at the collection of awesome bugs they have, a carpenters bench and an art area, then theres the story time room, which has a wiltja (shelter) of sorts and a beautiful area to sit and read a book. Then theres the outside, with this amazing creek thing for water play, which feeds into a mud kitchen!!! All this stuff makes me wish I was a kid! Tarsha the kindy teacher is amazing – last year the preschool celebrated achieving an “exceeding” score for all 7 of the National Quality Standards for Education. So basically what that means is that Tarsha and her Aboriginal Education Worker Josephine, are an incredible team, and this preschool is the shiz. Big time. So I was thrilled to be able to send Min – who absolutely LOVES it. Here in Amata the kindy kids do 4 days a week from 9-1 instead of the 2.5 full days they would in the city. they also start at 3 years old. I guess the reason for the shorter and more days is to reach as many kids as possible, to give them access to schooling. Education IS important here on the lands, and attendance is a constant battle. The thing is, from my perspective, is that cultural education is viewed by many Anangu to be as important, if not more so than white-man schooling. Which it is. Often kids don’t attend school because they are off attending ‘business’ – for initiation and such, but mostly lack of attendance is because there isn’t enough value placed on classroom education by parents, but in saying that, kids in the APY have been let down by the Education system for so long in so many ways, so its understandable. People like Greg, the principal, are working to change that. If only Anangu and Pirinpa (what the whitefullas are called up here) could really work meaningfully and harmoniously together to create a curriculum for the lands that values cultural education as well as western education. But that’s probably too simplified, as it’s a complex issue and I don’t have the answers. The teachers up here are largely amazing, who really want to help these kids get an education that will enable them to get the skills needed to perhaps work in, or even out of community – to walk in both worlds as it were. But that’s probably all for another post!!… Where was I? Preschool!! Its an absolute joy to be here at home and hear the bus pull up outside our house and the horn beep, to run outside and see the big doors open and my tiny little man hop off with a huge smile on his face, run into my open arms and give me a big hug, then turn to wave goodbye to his equally tiny classmates. Tarsha drives all the kids home in the bus, so that all the kids get home safely – I would never ever have even considered letting my little man take the bus home by himself in Adelaide, but here it’s a part of preschool life, and the kids love it! As it were, I’m sitting here at the dining room table typing, waiting for that bus to pull up any minute!! ….and there it is!!
Amata Anangu Preschool are on facebook! go give them some love!! https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CA4QFjAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FAmataPreschool&ei=RmfhVMT1CYuD8QXZ3IHADA&usg=AFQjCNFh7kAiQ3AlG2I508kRATxe9hpvqA&sig2=vZ_oGvb1eE5dAnjTQQeKSw
It’s a Sunday, probably around dinnertime. Matt has gone to bed because hes not feeling well; we’ve all struggled through this week. I had quite bad tonsilitis, the kids have colds and are miserable and today Matt has been struggling with the heat and feeling just generally poorly. The dogs start barking; I open the door and Reuben – the head of the Anangu Education Workers and his gorgeous, vivacious little 3 year old daughter Shefalie are at the door. They want to take us out somewhere. Fortunately Matt hears him and gets up and says yes he’ll come. Which I’m thrilled about – it wouldn’t be appropriate for me, as an Anangu woman particularly, to go alone with an Anangu man. I need my male companion there too. So Matt takes one for the team and we pile into ‘Mack’, our Toyota Hilux and head out of town. We head North East and after a while we turn off onto a dirt track – red sand and straw coloured grasses. The setting sun reflects of the ranges and casts an orange purple glow across the landscape. We head towards a rock hill, perfectly round, it looks like a small planet is imbedded into the earth. It has the same kind of texture to it as Uluru, red, rough and almost crumbly. We walk up the “hill” and Reuben shows us a perfectly round waterhole within the rock formation. The first thing I notice is a dead dingo lying beside the pool. And a snake. I say to Reuben “look, a snake!” “where?!?!” he looks around in panic, shuffling the kids out of the way. “oh its dead! Liz you scared me!!!” it was a small brown snake with a broken back and a few feet away was a dingo. Rigor mortis has set in, this poor guy had likely caught the snake, been bitten in the process, and they’d both died as a result. Such is desert life. We then travelled up and across to a cave with some ancient paintings. A cave that, Reuben explains would have been habitated by Anangu prior to white invasion and the forcing of Anangu into living in communities. Its incredible to see. I can almost hear the ghosts of Anangu past, walking around, talking in desert tongue, women caring for babies and children and Men returning from a hunt. Its filled with history. Reuben speaks of other places, with many artefacts like axes, all kept secret and hidden from white man so that they aren’t taken away to museums and such. “Many people don’t know this, but we take care of our sacred sites, we keep them hidden so that they aren’t trampled over by white man.” He tells Matt of other caves that he can show him but “not with Kungkas and tjiitjiis (women and children) – they are Mens place”. We climb to the top, and we can just see Uluru in the distance. The view is utterly incredible. We can see all of the ranges surrounding Amata Community, all of the landscape below; the red sand, the pale grasses, the lone trees. All bathed in thick, velvety dusk light. Its starting to get dark so we head back down to Mack, chasing Min and Shefalie who run off together “tjiitjii wiya!! Ngalya pitja!! (no, child! Come here!!). I cant wait for the next knock at the door.
my first piece of artwork here on country
Ive been a professional Aboriginal Artist for over a decade now (that sounds so impressive! Basically I mean people have bought my paintings. And commissioned me to paint for them – that counts, right??) and its taken off more so in the past couple of years – my facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Elizabeth-Close-Aboriginal-Artist/292984567420655) (shameless plug – but hey, its my blog! I can do what I want!!) has grown to nearly 950 ‘likes’ and I have a commission list that is six months long. Tjala Arts Centre in Amata is once of the biggest art centres in Australia. Tjala is the Pitjantjatjara word for the Honey Ant – and Amata Community is surrounded by Honey Ant Dreaming. So anyway, before we left, I contacted the Tjala facebook page and asked if I could visit. It isn’t a gallery, so its important to respect the privacy of the artists by not just swanning in expecting to be able to intrude and look around. So I finally plucked up the courage (I’m not sure why I felt so intimidated) to visit, and I crept in. 10ish Anangu Elder Women looked up at me; they had huge pieces of artwork out in front of them, they sat on the floor, and a few sat at tables, painting away. I said “Palya!!” and they smiled at me (sometimes having a baby wrapped up on my back is an exceptional ice-breaker!) Skye was really busy but she, in her fluent Pitjantjatjara, explained who I was (in any Aboriginal community – everyone knows exactly who you are, even if you don’t know them!) my family links and that I was an accomplished artist in my own right. She invited me to have a look around. I wandered through and spoke to some of the women about their artwork. I asked them of the stories that they were painting. One woman was painting bush onions, another the songlines of the country. Such masterpieces of vibrancy and depth; I felt the weight of 60,000 years of art and culture descend on me again, just like the first time I stepped foot on the APY and visited the Indulkana Art Centre. My eyes welled up and I felt a lump in my throat. That pain, that grief and despair at having missed out on the opportunity to learn from these women; my people, from the very beginning, was still there and still raw. Was I even worthy to stand among these women? I felt like I should take my little paintbrush and catch the bush bus back to Adelaide. But no. whilst I will never count myself alongside these incredible women, I AM an Aboriginal woman, and I AM an artist with a story to tell, and sadly, the impact of the stolen generation is a part of the tapestry of who I am as a person and as an artist. Skye said she was keen to talk about my involvement with the art centre; I dearly hope that I get the opportunity to sit alongside those amazing women to listen and learn. In the meantime though, I’m happy to be able to be on country and paint, even in my own home. There was something so cathartic about putting my first painting that I had done here on country, out to dry on the red sand of our front yard. Yep. Im home.
As an aside, this is the link to Tjala Arts facebook page! Go give them some love!! https://www.facebook.com/tjala.arts?fref=photo
Matt is settling in well to his new job – and the staff around him are friendly and welcoming. The schools up here have a high staff turnover so there are lots of new staff at Amata Anangu School this year. The principal and deputy appear to be strong leaders, and Matt is pleased to have them to learn from. The pool in Amata is a hub for the tjiitjiis (kids). But at the moment, keeping the pool open is a bit of an issue. We have a pool manager, but he needed a DCSI clearance (don’t even ask me what that stands for but it basically means if you’ve done anything bad, you haven’t been caught yet!) because of recent cases of crimes against children, these clearances have been taking months to come through, and unfortunately the pool manager doesn’t have his. Matt volunteers me (who has a DCSI clearance and senior first aid being an RN) to hang out at the pool so we can keep it open. If the pool isn’t open, often the kids will resort to swimming in the open sewer ponds, called the kuna ponds (pronounced Goona and means shit – so the shit ponds) because they can’t swim at the pool. Kids on the APY aren’t a priority for the government it seems. So I go and hang out at the pool with the kids for 3 days so that the pool can remain open. The Anangu kids LOVE the pool. They swarm in when it opens, when the pool manager blares slightly lame 80s music from the loudspeaker to let the town know it’s open. These kids – tiny tjiitjiis all of 4 years old are amazing swimmers! They far outstrip my nearly 4 year old who has had ample access to swimming pools! And they are delightful. The big kids take the baby from me and swim away with her! The smaller kids Mins age are trying to coax him into the pool to play with them. They ask me who I am and if I’m a teacher, I explain that my husband Matt is and they want to know everything about me and the kids. Some of the older girls ask me where I’m from. I tell them Adelaide, but I also tell them of my family link to Ernabella. I try my desert language on them and they fall over laughing at me! I ask them if I’m wrong – and they say “uwa! It’s right!” But they laugh at me all the same, which makes me laugh too! I guess I must have funny pronounciation! Min has always loved older girls – so he makes friends with some of the girls. There are fights to break up, dogs to chase out, backflips to stop, but by and large the kids are really good, they know that they’ll get kicked out if they’re not. The pool is also tied to attendance, so during the school term if they spend the day at school they get a wristband which means that they can go to the pool. Floating in this beautiful sea-green pool, surrounded by red dirt, magnificent ranges, laughing kids; it’s easy to think that Amata is an idylic paradise, without all the social issues, crime, violence, dysfunction and poverty. But for today, in this moment, I can close my eyes and smile to myself – I love it here.
So we needed some stuff – only so many foodstuffs you can drag up from Adelaide when you have two moronic dogs, two spirited children and enough clothing and whatnot to get us through until the truck arrives 10 days after we do! So anyway! We needed to go to the shop. The community shop is in the middle of town, in what looks like a big blue and green shed. Its surrounded by dogs sometimes more than 20 sitting outside waiting for their owners. Sometimes one might take its chances and try and get inside; only to be met with bellows of “PAYA” a word that basically means “dogs, clear off!!”. English is a second language here in the APY lands, Western Desert Language, which comprises, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages. Whilst many people here speak English relatively well – amongst themselves they speak their native language. So walking into the shop, a different skin colour, surrounded by a language that I don’t understand, surrounded by customs and ways that are different to what I’d experience in the city where I appear to be part of the majority; its confronting. I walk in, careful to not make eye contact with the men, because male/female interaction amongst the Anangu is very different here and I don’t want to do anything wrong! The shop is packed with Anangu. Here I am the minority. Even though I am an Aboriginal woman; my skin colour, my language – I am different. I have baby Emmeline on my back, and I’m thrilled and somewhat relieved when the old women sitting inside smile at her and say hello. Some people point, perhaps they haven’t ever seen a baby worn on someones back before – battered pushers rolling over dirt and rocks seems to be the norm here. Lots of people are looking at us and I want so desperately to fit in and be accepted, but I know that will take time. The shop is very basic; three aisles and a couple of fridge/freezer sections, and a section with clothing, random pieces of cookware, miscellaneous homewares, a washing machine and even a television! The stuff is significantly more expensive than in the city – its trucked down from Alice Springs once a week. Its $5.40 for a 1.25l bottle of soda water, $6 for a half-dozen apples. We get what we need and head to the checkout. Lots of people are using their “basics card” which is a card that centrelink pay their benefit money into and they can use to only buy certain things, food and toiletries. Each time I visit the shop and see the cards I am astounded and saddened by the paternalism. The government has deemed these people unworthy of deciding how they can spend their money. I haven’t seen white people in the city subjected to such indignity – but I’m happy to be corrected on that. **edited to add that we do have the basics card across the board, but I took this from a recent report by the Human Rights Commission “There are currently 17,215 people compulsorily and voluntarily income managed in the Northern Territory, of which 15,575 are Aboriginal. 90.5 per cent of income managed customers in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal. The issues presented here should be viewed in light of the fact that they disproportionately affect Aboriginal people, despite the purported non-discriminatory intent of the income management regime” I wonder if it has anything to do with the NT Intervention – part of which included removing financial control from the Anangu and other Aboriginal people living under the Intervention. Either way – I find it sickening.** As I walk through the aisles, Im reminded of my own privilege. When I get the internet set up, I can do a bush order and buy much more fresh food for my money than I could from the local shop. The Anangu here struggle to even get a phone line. Or I could drive to Yulara or Alice Springs to do a big shop; many Anangu cant afford the fuel, or don’t have cars that would make it on the dirt roads. Often they are limited to this tiny supermarket, with frozen kangaroo tails (malu wipu) in the freezer section. (that bit is pretty awesome though – I definitely wouldn’t see that in Coles back in Blackwood!) its loud, it smells different because of different concepts of hygiene here, I don’t understand much of what is said, I feel like a curiosity, like I’m being stared at. Min walks straight in, says hello to a few people and doesn’t seem fazed at al! I smile, I look around. This is my home now.
Here in Amata Anangu Community we are 115km due south of Uluru, and about 5.5 hours from Alice Springs. It was 300km on dirt, west from the Stuart Highway; the main drag between Adelaide and Darwin. After a 3 day trip with nearly 4year old Isaiah (whom everyone calls ‘Min’) and just-turned-1 year old Emmeline, and our two idiot dogs, Lottie and Spencer in tow, we are here. We made it. After years of my husband applying for leadership jobs in education up here so that we could support our family, and after gut-wrenching despair after missing out on several positions, I was facing the prospect of returning to work in Adelaide after my second baby; this one was our last shot. My husband was over the rejection and needed a break and I reeeeeaaaalllly didn’t want to return to my role as a Registered Nurse in the Emergency Department of a major metropolitan hospital. Not that I don’t love it – I felt uneasy going back to work this time around and really wanted to bring the kids home to country. Because of the significant cultural disconnect I have, I feel there are huge limitations to the cultural education I can provide for them. They need to be surrounded by, and immersed in, their culture, language, stories and art. So we were thrilled when my husband Matt got the Learning Co-ordinator role at the school; a role that was made for him, as curriculum innovation and learning by inquiry was at the centre of his role in the city. After weeks of sorting out details of the move, renting out the house and packing all our stuff – we were finally here and it was almost surreal. Driving through the red dust, seeing the wild horses, donkeys and eagles (I was so disappointed to not see a camel – of which there are hundreds of thousands in Central Australia) I felt like I could breathe again; like whilst living in the city I was surviving on tiny gulps of air – but here on the land of my ancestors I could breathe deep and fill my lungs. Fill my lungs with 60,000 years of history. Amata is like many other communities across the APY lands – it has a school, a police station (which is more like a compound, which contains the police housing, all within a fenced…. well, compound I guess?!) it has a shop, a TAFE training centre, an art centre (which I cannot wait to visit but I am conscious of the privacy of the artists), a clinic and a pool. The houses are all much the same, transportable housing with corrugated steel outers. All with iron bars over everything. Apparently crime is rife in the APY. Our house is lovely – and when we closed the front door, the back was painted in multicoloured awesomeness! The Deputy Principal commented that this place must be made for us! Over crowding is a continuing issue for the Anangu up here – so it saddens me to know that I have my 4 person family in a huge house to ourselves, while down the road they might have 15-20 people or more under one roof. The other thing I noticed were the dogs; Anangu and I think Aboriginal people in general, love their dogs. There are up to 10ish dogs per house lying around in the heat. Its too hot today to do anything other than lift a head or saunter over, but they can get aggressive in defence of their territory. When our two half-wits got out of the car, they were soon told who was boss – and it wasn’t them! So there we were, first night in our new house in the APY. It was real – we live in a remote Aboriginal community. Have we made the right choice?
So here I sit, in my house in the remote community of Amata in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands. I am an Aboriginal woman. I am technically an Anangu woman; but its more complicated than that. I have a black father and white mother – a father with no connection to culture and a curious sense of agression and defence about the whole issue. My grandmother, in the days before her death, told me of her removal from Ernabella community when she was 5 years old. She was the daughter of Ivy Baker and the product of an encounter between Ivy and a stockman. And that everything I thought I knew about my great-grandparents was that of her foster family. That’s where the trail ends. I had always known that I was Aboriginal but now I knew that what we now know of as the Stolen Generation had affected my family. My father had always shut down any talk of language groups and family ties, perhaps it was too painful. There are countless Bakers in the APY… perhaps they are my family. What I do know is; This is my home. This is my country. When I first came to the APY as an adult, pregnant with my second baby, I stood on the red dirt and sobbed. I was so overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the 60,000 years of culture that hung over me like a mist. Overwhelmed by my painful disconnection from that culture. Overwhelmed by how much I desperately wanted to immerse myself in the land, language and culture so that I could seek to try and teach my children their language, their stories, their culture and art so that it was not lost forever. So while I come into this community as an Aboriginal woman, I am acutely aware that my fair skin and lack of connection to culture and language mean that I come in, essentially, as Pirinpa – whitefulla. And I need to let the community get to know me in their own time. So I look forward to documenting our journey here. The challenges and the wonder. I’ll introduce my family; my husband and two children, and our two dogs who are both as dumb as box of rocks. I want to examine the disadvantage here in the lands, and discuss issues of race and privilege. I want to discuss motherhood, art, culture and why I’ve named my blog after a mysterious dingo, allegedly named Gerald who appears out of nowhere. This is my journey.