All-in communities will be death of the Yolngu, elder says

Ancestral homelands are a life force

Dr Gawirrin Gumana

Under threat…Dr Gawirrin Gumana fears ‘we will be gone as a people.’ Photo: Glenn Campbell

Gawirrin Gumana is deeply troubled.

Sitting in a wheelchair with his Order of Australia insignia around his neck, the most senior traditional leader in Arnhem Land warns that white men’s politics threaten his Yolngu people’s future.

“I feel empty because people have been using my name to please themselves and our traditional laws have been usurped,” he says, waving his leprosy-disfigured hands.

“I fear we will be gone as a people. Everything important to us will be gone.”

Dr Gumana, 70, rarely exerts his authority but here, under a shelter in the red dust of

Arnhem Land, he has decided to challenge the formation of a new indigenous parliament called the Dilak Provincial Authority, which is supposed to represent 12,000 Yolngu from 40 clans across Arnhem Land.

He says he fears government policies that are starving ancestral homelands of funding will destroy his people if they have to move and live on the land of other clans in bigger communities.

Dr Gumana says he invited the Herald to his homeland at Gangan, 150 kilometres south-west of Nhulunbuy, to explain to the rest of Australia the importance Yolngu place on their connection to their land and a complex system of kinship he fears is under threat.

He explains how Yolngu cannot live with the “spirits” of other people on other people’s land. “The spirits don’t recognise us,” he says.

Dr Gumana, a renowned artist, asks why the Northern Territory Government sent $250,000 to an organisation controlled by the Arnhem Land leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu for the newly formed Dilak authority to consult on Working Futures, the government policy that will channel most indigenous funding to 20 selected growth hub communities.

“Any move like this should have came after the traditional leaders from all 40 clans across Arnhem Land discussed whether they wanted to make the way for it to happen,” Dr Gumana says through an interpreter.

“I knew nothing about it and still have not been consulted … ” Dr Gumana’s stand comes as the federal and Northern Territory governments reconsider their growth hub policy that would force 10,000 indigenous people living in about 500 Northern Territory homelands or outstations to move into the bigger communities to receive health and education services.

The Rudd Government is under pressure to change the policy that will see hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the growth hubs while a funding freeze remains on development in the homelands until at least 2012.

Representatives of the two biggest homelands organisations in the Top End last month went to Canberra to plead for change to the policy in meetings with the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, and other ministers.

One of the strongest public advocates of the homelands movement is Alice Springs-based Warren Snowdon, the Minister for Indigenous, Rural and Regional Health.

Mr Snowdon says the homelands movement – which began in the 1970s when elders took their people back to ancestral lands from troubled mission-run larger communities – was “one of the few initiatives in indigenous affairs which has worked and continues to work … “

In an unreported speech at the recent Garma indigenous festival in Arnhem Land, Mr Snowdon said: “There is very strong evidence that homelands provide positive, creative and constructive lifestyle choices for indigenous people.”

He quoted reports showing the health of indigenous people in homelands is much better than those in bigger communities. He said that a 10-year study in the Utopia homelands of Central Australia showed the death rate from all causes was 40 to 50 per cent lower than the NT average for indigenous adults.

“Government policy settings that reflect the strong attachment of indigenous people to their traditional lands and their rights to live on those lands are likely to have benefits not only for those indigenous Australians but the wider community as well,” Mr Snowdon said.

“All homeland communities have needs and deserve … being considered for support.”

Back in Gangan, Dr Gumana says he does not want to criticise Mr Yunupingu, an Australian of the Year and Arnhem Land political power-broker, who he regards as a “son” because he “walked together with his father in the past”.

Yolngu avoid directly criticising others.

“I am asking the question: what was Galarrwuy thinking when he forced this Dilak [Provincial Authority] without consultation in the traditional way?”

Mr Yunupingu was interstate and unavailable for comment.

His lawyer and key adviser, Sean Bowden, says the money is facilitating Dilak meetings, which are ”going well”.

The Northern Territory Government has been unable to explain why the $250,000 was sent in secret to Mr Yunupingu’s organisation and has refused to make public any agreement detailing how the money was to be spent and accounted for.

Another $250,000 grant was sent in similar circumstances to an indigenous organisation in Wadeye, the NT’s largest indigenous community.

The NT Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, insists publicly his Government will not change its growth hubs policy and that only its implementation is up for grabs. This contradicts the former indigenous affairs minister Alison Anderson, who secured the payments days before she quit in June over the NT Government’s indigenous housing policy.

She told the ABC the grants were to bring clans together.

The growth hubs policy has generated so much fury in Arnhem Land that indigenous people have been burning the Working Futures document in protest. The Government has admitted it is already doing its own consultations about the policy and has refused to explain how the two grants of $250,000 were selected.

Richard Trudgen, a Yolngu expert who has lived in Arnhem Land for 30 years, says Dr Gumana is sending an important message that the Yolngu culture will be destroyed if the ancestral lands are depopulated.

“It is quite clear. If you bring a whole lot of clan groups into a central hub – on somebody else’s land – you destroy everything that is good about Yolngu culture,” Mr Trudgen says.

“The traditional lawmen have no authority on other people’s land. People learn a new culture … white man’s culture which revolves around grog, drugs, prostitution and social disorder,” he says. “Violence erupts between clans.”

Dr Gumana says he is the last old warrior left of the old people in Arnhem Land.

He sees it as his duty to speak up now, before he passes and his name cannot be spoken under Yolngu custom.

In the 1970s he led his people back to their land at Gangan from Yirrkala and the ravages of alcohol that arrived with a white man’s mine.

Although his body was crippled by leprosy in the 1960s, he built an airstrip in the wilderness with a shovel and axe.

With a population of 80, Gangan is today acknowledged as one of the notable success stories of the homelands movement.

[Source] All-in communities will be death of the Yolngu, elder says