Glimpses of Life in a Remote Aboriginal Community

Paul Prociv

When I recently came across Kim Mahood’s searingly frank description of whitefella workers in remote Aboriginal communities, I was swept back in a wave of nostalgia to my own brief exposure in Arnhem Land almost 30 years ago.  While I didn’t keep a record, and my three visits there amounted only to about a month in total, the impressions gained were powerful enough to have survived all this time, with only some of the detail (including names of most of the key players) now lost. 

It started around 1990, at yet another meeting of the University of Queensland’s then new Tropical Health Program, when I couldn’t help grumbling about how readily some mickey mouse research projects relating to indigenous health, generally of a “social science” nature (a successful one being praised was along the lines of “Birthing preferences in lesbian, single indigenous mothers”), were reliably and generously funded, while proposals for more onerous, hardcore science and medicine studies were far more competitive and less likely to score.  Some committee members reproached my envy, hinting at possible incompetence, even slackness, in compiling proposals with practical application.

This was a challenge that rankled, so shortly afterwards at a conference in Darwin I discussed the matter over lunch with a senior medical colleague who worked for Royal Darwin Hospital and NT Health.  He was a highly regarded and experienced clinician whose work at times took him to every remote community in the NT, providing intimate familiarity with health and other problems.  One that aroused my particular interest was childhood anaemia, found in up to 80 per cent of children in some regions.  It was generally attributed to “parasites”, essentially gut worms, and routinely treated with anthelminthic medications, given out to most amenable kids at regular intervals in some communities.  He advised running a study in what he considered to be the “most functional” community in Arnhem Land, Galiwinku (on Elcho Island), about 550km east of Darwin.  Throughout our casual discussion, he scribbled some notes on a small sheet of paper.  The conference soon ended, and I headed back to Brisbane, giving the matter little further thought.

You can imagine my surprise, about a year later, to receive a phone call from a bureaucrat in Canberra, announcing: “Congratulations, Professor Prociv, your application has been successful!”  Completely blindsided, I asked for an explanation.  He was from the NHMRC, which that year was running a special initiative through its Public Health Research Development Committee (PHRDC) in indigenous health for projects initiated by the communities. The submission, compiled by my note-taking colleague but nominally from Galiwinku, was approved and I was invited to be the lead researcher.  All that was now needed was the signature of the chairman of the local Land Council (as I think it was then called) on a formal letter of invitation, and the funds would be released for the project to begin.

Having decided this would provide for a solid PhD project, I sought out a suitable candidate — a BSc(hons) graduate who’d done my medical parasitology course, was temperamentally suited, and had considerable experience living and working with indigenous people. A scientific officer of the recently-disbanded Queensland Aboriginal Health Program agreed to provide technical assistance with the fieldwork. 

However, there was a glitch: my Darwin colleague informed us the critical letter couldn’t be signed as the position of Council Chairman (comparable to mayor) was vacant and would quite possibly  for some time because the community couldn’t agree who should fill it.  I later learnt that the population (ranging seasonally between 1,500 and 2,500, with 90 per cent indigenous) comprised members of about 20 different clans with extremely complex hereditary interlinkages, obscure to outsiders, who had been moved there, under a Methodist mission, in the 1940s for military reasons.  According to an official website,

During the 1950s a fishing industry started, a large market garden flourished and a cypress pine logging industry and sawmill began. During early settlement, the mission encouraged Aboriginal people to stay on their traditional homelands and use Galiwin’ku as a service centre. However, the mission ended when self-government came in the 1970s, and the community is now the largest Aboriginal community in north-east Arnhem Land.

The people call themselves Yolngu, which simply means “Aboriginal person” (as distinct from balanda, a whitefella) in the regional languages.  They had scattered homelands and outstations, and spoke nine major language groups, with many more local dialects, coalescing into two distinct clusters.  Difficulties in reaching consensus on local matters was only to be expected, so our first obstacle was simply one of those occasions.  With growing disappointment, frustration and then annoyance, we had to cool our heels another year, before finally obtaining that signature.

Eventually, the technician, my student and I were able to fly to the island in July 1994, via Darwin, to kickstart our project.  The final leg was in a small plane carrying about 10 passengers, of whom we were the only whitefellas.  A vociferous, inebriated male was seated at the back, loudly abusing, but being unable to reach, the pilot.  We found this most discomforting, while the other passengers seemed unmoved.  Arnhem Land was (and no doubt still is) well serviced with passenger flights (as daily back-and-forth “milk runs” between Darwin and Nhulunbuy), liberally exploited by inhabitants of dry communities (including Galiwinku) to quench their thirst elsewhere.  The flights also provided a huge boost to “sorry business” travel, about which there will be more below.

Even though the airstrip sits conveniently alongside the township, every passenger was soon whisked away by waiting vehicles.  We were met by the community doctor, an enthusiastic, idealistic young whitefella only a few years out of medical school, who most kindly invited us to stay in his house, as he was about to head home for recreational leave (I never saw him again; shortly after returning from leave, he’d been violently assaulted in the clinic and decided to terminate his contract).  His comfortable, two-storey home was centrally located in the main community, giving us a good vantage point for observing its street life.  My brief time there didn’t allow for a detailed appreciation of the fine details of local cultures, but my student spent six months in total there, spread over seven visits between July 1994 and October 1996.  However, my glimpses did provide insights into how the worldviews of the locals differed hugely from mine.

Our first evening was interrupted around 8pm by the howling of one, then a few, then what sounded like hundreds, of dogs.  Just as we were starting to wonder what sort of night was in store, a woman’s voice from nearby shouted out for them to shut up.  A few went quiet, but then started up again, so the voice repeated, only louder, “Shut the f*** up!”.  Instant peace – which reigned for the rest of the night (apart from the sporadic domestic altercation or kids running in the streets).  We quickly discovered that dogs possibly outnumbered people in the community, a consequence of uncontrolled breeding.  Without care, veterinary or otherwise, many were extremely scrawny and run down, some with severe scabies (“leather dogs”) and other issues.  While the responsible mites have trouble invading human skin, they do try, initiating lesions that readily become infected with streptococci, and so partly contribute to the high prevalence of rheumatic heart and chronic renal diseases in the human population.  Humans, of course, have their own specific version of the scabies mite, which only compounds the problem.

The first real jolt came the following morning at my meeting with the council chairman.  He was a man who had travelled the world, on various occasions as the official Aboriginal representative.  During our informal introduction, I couldn’t help noticing the Queen’s portrait hanging on his office wall, and remarked what a fine-looking young woman she’d been.  His instant response was, “So why are you blokes so keen to get rid of her?”  When asked to explain, he referred to the proposed republic referendum.  I started mumbling about our democracy, leading him to clarify, with a genuine quizzical look: “If she goes, then where will your money come from?”  It didn’t take long to realise that he was deadly serious.  Further discussion revealed that he firmly believed the Queen was the source of all money, which she handed out to governments, whose main job was to distribute it.  This then extended to his role in the community, directing where incoming money should flow – and might have explained the protracted fight over the council chairmanship.  I later found such understanding of economics wasn’t just a localised idiosyncrasy.

Another stark, early impression was how few people were to be seen walking around during the day.  I assumed at least there would be plenty of kids in the school, but that was not the case; just a few playing outside between lessons.  Then one day, as we ate lunch on our veranda around noon, the door opened in a hut across the road and small children started to trickle out.  First it was three, then five, mingled with a few teenagers, then a few adults; all up, maybe 15-20 people eventually emerged (like in one of those old silent movies).  I ran down to the street and asked some older boys what had been going on, and they declared it was the movie Robo Cop.  They also expressed a liking for Arnold Schwarzenegger, plus Hollywood soaps.  Instead of attending school, these kids were learning about the “real world” by watching junk videos.  Did they think that maybe I came from such a world?  

Looking through the door, I noticed there was no furniture, the floors being strewn with mattresses and blankets, upon which everybody had been sitting or lying.  I’d been told later that pornographic videos were widely enjoyed throughout Arnhem Land and beyond, at the time sourced by mail order.  Again, what impression would it convey about the world from which we came, not to mention human sexuality and the treatment of women?

A few days later we were driven a few kilometres across to the south-eastern corner of the island to meet the cargo barge, on its routine run along the coast from Darwin, which visited every three weeks to deliver essential supplies. It seemed half the community was there, waiting on the beach as the vessel chugged up the passage to drop its front ramp on the sand.   The whitefella crew most efficiently forklifted off pallets of 200 litre fuel drums, plus produce that included cartons of Coca Cola, potato chips, Twisties, Mars Bars, Kellogg’s Coco Pops and Fruit Loops, as well as large parcels and odd bits of equipment.  The unloading was all over quickly, and the barge headed off to its next stop, a day or so away.  Again, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the local people, especially the kids, had any idea of where all this stuff came from, how it might have been produced.

On the drive back to “town”, I asked about a burnt out, late-model Toyota Land Cruiser sitting on a bush track about 100 m off the main road.  It was explained that, a few barge visits back, this new vehicle had been delivered to its proud, local owner, who gathered a bunch of mates for a trip to their outstation.  Sadly, he hadn’t thought to fill the tank, and so it came to a halt shortly after they set off.  He’d left the vehicle there overnight, returning the following morning to find it had been set alight by a bunch of kids.  I couldn’t ascertain if there were any consequences (it seemed no one was too bothered about it), but also couldn’t help wondering what all those people involved might have known of the origins of such machinery and the money that pays for it.  Perhaps the kids had seen burning cars in some of their movies?  In my mind, “easy come, easy go” was emerging as the operating principle regarding much communal life here.

Shortly after the picture of the island water tower (below) was taken, some young boys climbed up there for a swim, and thoughtfully crapped into the water.  The system had to be shut down, awaiting arrival of engineers from Darwin to drain reservoir tanks and sterilise the system. This was overkill, in my view – those kids wouldn’t have had anything in their excrement that was alien to the locals. But it did show concern by administrators, plus made a lot of contractor money for some industrious tradies.

Another conspicuous feature on the outskirts of town was a quarter-acre compound, enclosed in a high, chain-link fence (topped with barbed wire) and holding new-looking trucks, bulldozers, excavators, graders etc.  My expression of pleasant surprise was met with the response that this wasn’t the well-equipped council depot I’d assumed, but a scrapyard!  Apparently, there were no locals who could fix any machines that broke down, and it was too expensive and difficult to bring out mechanics, so the equipment was simply left to rot.  I couldn’t help imagining how any keen entrepreneur could easily fix and capitalise on this treasure trove of heavy equipment. No doubt the administrative obstacles would be mind-boggling.

Next, we had to fuel up our vehicle.  The only “service station” was a metal shed holding several drums of diesel fuel, one of which was fitted with a metered hand-pump.  An exercise book and pencil on a string were hanging off the wall, for drivers to record their usage.  I noted the last entry had been a few weeks previously, and was told that, as soon as one driver failed to account for his consumption, that triggered others to do likewise.  The council, which purchased the fuel drums, regularly threatened to shut down the station if the practice continued, but to little avail.  Did the drivers ever wonder where their fuel came from, and who paid for it, or did they just accept it as a free gift, another “basic human right”?

Early in our visit, we met at the council offices with the chairman and a group of other key people, mainly whitefellas, whose exact roles I forget except for the community accountant.  They weren’t so much interested in the details or purpose of our project, but its financing.  It was peremptorily announced up front that the council would take 60 per cent of the total $115,000 budget for “administration costs”, while I could use the remainder for our work, which included all our travel, subsistence and lab expenses, plus the wages of the local assistant fieldworker/interpreter, a Yolngu nursing aide from the health clinic.  We did manage to keep our work within this budget, and to acquit our expenses at the end, but I have no idea where the “administration” allocation went.

We later visited the health clinic, to meet our local fieldwork assistant, whose command of English was hardly reassuring.  There were also several white workers and visitors, one a dietician from Darwin trying to improve community nutritional practices.  She proudly showed us her recently compiled recipe book for mothers.  First off in the compendium were instructions for making baked bean sandwiches: “Open a packet of sliced bread; remove two slices; spread butter on one side of each with knife; open can of baked beans  .  .  .”.  My conversation with the author revealed an appalling lack of interest by many adults, including mothers, in what their children ate. 

Of the few kids who attended school, many didn’t have breakfast at home beforehand.  It was not uncommon for a child’s daily rations to consist of a bag of potato crisps or Twisties, with a can of Coke.  I gained the impression, previously noted in some remote north Queensland communities, that many children seemed to free range, moving erratically from house to house and sleeping with different relatives (lots of “aunties”, “uncles”, “brothers” and “sisters”), so that parents often had no idea where their child might be.  Of course, when the child awoke in the morning, it had to fend for itself; the adults were either asleep, or showed little interest in preparing breakfast (this might be attributed to “traditional culture”).  Our idea of a nuclear family certainly didn’t seem to fit the pattern here. As I had learnt, this movement of children was often associated with a name change, which makes it almost impossible to keep track of them in health records without detailed local knowledge.

A visit to the local store, managed by a whitefella, revealed the same range of goods we’d watched being offloaded from the barge, with plenty of sugary drinks, lollies, ice-cream, sweet biscuits, long-life cakes, sausages and minced meat, white flour, white rice, and refined sugar, but almost no fresh vegetable or fruits (and what was there looked very tired).  The last items were understandable for such a remote location, but the manager did say that when he made an effort to boost the supply of heavily-subsidised fresh greens and fruit, the customer response was poor, despite initial expressions of enthusiasm, so that most had to be dumped.  An enterprising local had set up a hot, roast chicken booth nearby, and I watched as a child of maybe 6-8 years paid for a bagged chicken with a $50 note, trotting happily off without collecting any change.

During the mission era, apparently the community was almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, produced in its own thriving gardens and orchards, but once the missionaries were sent packing, this all fell apart.   Outside of town, alongside the outflow from its sewage treatment plant, I came upon a small garden and orchard established and run by a hermit-like Chinese/Aboriginal man regarded as an outcast by the main community; he produced very little surplus, mainly bananas and papayas, for sale.  (A recent website claims that communal gardens and orchards are making a comeback in Galiwinku, which I hope is true; maybe Dark Emu has provided inspiration?)

While there was much talk of “bush tucker”, I saw very little evidence.  On one occasion, with much fanfare, we were invited on a trip with some elderly ladies to seek food in the mangroves.  After several hours, driving and walking, all they came up with were some fat worms extracted from the trunks of fallen trees and eaten on the spot, plus one small crab and a few fat clams dug out of the mud, taken home for cooking.  Our few fishing forays provided extremely poor catches (and little relaxation, given the need to constantly look out for crocodiles).  These people depend almost entirely on imported, energy-dense, processed food, contributing to the very high prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

I saw very little in the way of meaningful work by any Yolngu people, with most adults, while outside, either idly sitting around and chatting, or driving around in vehicles.  The power station was run by a white engineer, with several local offsiders.  The store had a white manager, with local girls at the checkout (which caused problems when their relatives would demand payment-free goods).  The health clinic was run by white staff, with local assistants (including our interpreter).  The schoolteachers were white, with local aides (the same applied to the local cop).  On my last visit, I encountered a team of contract builders finishing six new houses in town (costing about $0.5 million each).  My query about the absence of local apprentices was met with awkward silence.  It later transpired that they had tried to employ local assistants, but the few youngsters who turned up didn’t show much sustained interest, were slow to learn useful skills, and were unreliable in attendance – it was far quicker, and less stressful, to do the work without such local “help”. 

There didn’t seem to be any skilled tradesmen in the community (above).  Blocked sewers, a regular occurrence with disposable nappies and drink cans being thrown into toilets, sometimes required calling out a plumber from Darwin or Nhulunbuy. 

Early one morning, on a walk along the island’s western beaches, I stopped to marvel at the swarm of white, plastic outers of disposable nappies that had blown ashore and caught up in mangrove roots and branches (the soft inner parts had long gone, seeing they comprise an essential part of the local canine diet).  An approaching middle-aged man could see my discomfort, and pronounced, “Disgusting, isn’t it?  When’s the government coming out to clean this up?”  It was clear he was not joking, that the locals take the meaning of “public servants“ literally.  Just a couple of hours of light work by a few energetic adults (or even kids) could have cleared it all up, but that would require a degree of organisation and initiative. 

Our study proceeded far more slowly than anticipated, for a variety of reasons, one being the frequent absence of our field assistant.  My student planned his biggest “onslaught” around the middle of his time there, aiming for three months of intense collection and interviewing.  He had arranged all his supplies and equipment, teed up with the assistant and flew off to the island only to find she’d gone away just before his arrival!  The explanation?  Sorry business.   This had happened on half of his visits to the community. Her involvement was essential, given the lack of English among the locals.  The few surviving elderly folk spoke English eloquently, having been taught by the missionaries, but the younger population, especially the children, could speak only bits of the exaggerated Hollywood-ese they picked up from movies. 

The current demands to teach local languages (already widely spoken) in remote schools when the children are in desperate need of mastering practical English is beyond my comprehension.

As for sorry business, this is based on traditional funerary rituals than can go on for weeks or even months.  In the old days, attendance would have been limited, in numbers and distance covered, but with modern communication technology, and daily flights to just about anywhere in Australia, not to mention the easy availability of copious food, this has become a dominant diversion.  Considering most Aboriginal people have many, sometimes hundreds, of “relations” spread widely across the country, this demanding practice can seriously intrude into work commitments, as we discovered repeatedly.

While it slowed and restricted his work, my enterprising student wasn’t too inconvenienced; he’d teamed up with some local young blokes to go exploring, fishing, hunting (mainly feral pigs, with rifles), and chasing rare pythons (he was a certified snake-breeder).

OUR study did eventually produce sufficient findings to allow a reliable conclusion: gut parasites were present in the people of Arnhem Land, but not at a level to account for the widespread anaemia in children.  While we didn’t formally evaluate nutrition, it was obvious that many kids were, in effect, starving; they were not eating sufficient protein or iron, both essential for maintaining adequate blood levels of haemoglobin.  This would have serious effects on their development, as well as physical and intellectual performance.  I conveyed this information to the council group on my last visit to the island, but felt my message didn’t register.  Their most pressing question: Could I provide funds to help sort this out?

It also reinforced my suspicions of “affirmative action” in supporting indigenous research – although it could be argued that our funding proposal, which I never saw, was an outstanding one.  And, strictly speaking, it was not submitted, or managed, by me, but by the community.  Furthermore, it did produce potentially useful findings. If only the community could be motivated to feed its children properly!

My visits to the island and community weren’t all bleak, and I came away with many warm and positive memories, but my point here is to convey impressions which highlight a fundamental problem in remote Aboriginal communities.  It fits consistently with observations elsewhere, and with the meticulously detailed conclusions of Tadhgh Purtill, whose ideas crystallised over two-and-a-half years working as manager in an extremely isolated community.  His The Dystopia in the Desert should be essential reading for all our politicians, as well as anyone else seriously interested in indigenous matters.  It is clear that traditional indigenous cultures are well and truly dead, being replaced by a rapidly emerging, hybrid culture, a symbiotic (host-parasite) patchy edifice that suits the needs of the locals (or at least their “leaders”, who are its main drivers) as well as of those outsiders whose careers depend on “helping”. I was repeatedly surprised by the daily comings and goings of whitefella newcomers, comprising community staff, government and NGO workers, consultants, tradespeople, occasional academics and others.  Some seemed genuinely interested in helping, others more like opportunists reprising the old adage, “missionaries, mercenaries and misfits”.  Where did I see myself?  Maybe a combination of missionary, given my belief/hope to be doing good, and mercenary, seeing this was integral to my academic career. As for “misfit”, that’s for others to decide.  There was plenty of talking and lots of meetings, again leading me to wonder what the locals thought “work” or “jobs” involved and how they visualised the world from which we came. 

Thinking back, I didn’t see a single “welcome to country” ceremony, nor leaves smoking, didgeridoos playing, clapsticks clacking or men in loincloths stomping about in the dust.  Either these hadn’t been invented at that stage, or were kept for special occasions to entertain and seduce gullible VIPs, politicians, business leaders and royalty.  What realistic impression could such shepherded and choreographed fly-in/fly-out visits give of life in such a place?  Even a month’s stay wouldn’t be enough, especially if one didn’t know the local languages.  For well-meaning but naïve and ignorant city-dwellers, there’s no hope of grasping the reality. Indeed, many seem to prefer believing in noble savages inhabiting traditional utopias, from which white invaders  forcibly evicted them.

The remote community dwellers depend entirely upon material inputs from the outside world, of which they must have a very distorted view. Add to this their concept of money, and we have a cargo cult mentality.  Everything arrives magically, fully assembled, and even the money to pay for it appears effortlessly every fortnight.  Where is the incentive to change any of this? 

As for the whitefella support workers, their careers are secure and well-paid, so why change anything from their viewpoint?  When the locals speak of “self-determination”, they’re not referring to taking over meaningful workloads, or administrative responsibilities, but simply the right to satisfy their needs, to point out what should be provided and what should be done by outsiders but without the imposition of external restrictions.  Demands for “local jobs” are no better than meaningless cliches.

As for “closing the gap” in public health and longevity, this is a useful mantra used to readily tap into whitefella guilt.  Personal health is not something to be handed to people on a platter, but the outcome of active personal involvement in caring for oneself and one’s family.  Most indigenous people living in towns and cities are no less healthy than their white counterparts.  Hygiene, nutrition, exercise, recreation and social connections all feed into this.  While significant, the contribution of the healthcare system is of secondary importance – provision of big, fully-staffed and well-equipped hospitals in each community would have little effect on overall population health without reciprocal effort on the part of individual inhabitants to improve their lot.  In effect, the “gap” serves as a tool for mega-humbugging, an extension of a traditional sharing practice by which less thrifty individuals are entitled to the resources of their better-off relatives. Anyone not familiar with humbugging is well-advised to watch David Gulpilil’s last film, Charlie’s Country.

My glimpses into this community raised other questions.  What is “reconciliation”, that drives thousands of our urban fellow-citizens to walk en masse across bridges?  I’ve always thought of it as a two-way process, between parties that have become estranged.  If it’s about reconciliation between remote community dwellers and the rest of our population, forget it – we hardly seem to figure in their thinking right now (except as the source of all their material sustenance, and televised entertainment).  If it’s about getting Australians to recognise and respect each other, then reconciliation in those communities should start at home, between the various tribal groups who live there.  Given that many have “always” been traditional enemies (“longest living culture”), this might be an insurmountable challenge. 

Related to this is the concept of an “indigenous voice”, which I find laughable.  It took more than a year for just one small community, made up of closely related tribal groups, to agree on who should chair their local council; what hope is there of more widespread consensus?  Every person has something to grumble about, something to request, which is hardly different from the rest of us – that’s why our political systems have evolved to their present state.

As a postscript, several years after the completion of our project, while visiting Nhulunbuy I was taken by friends on a sailing trip from the Gove Boat Club.  Heading down the inlet for a few miles, towards the Gumatj settlement (the Gumatj clan seems to dominate the Yolngu peoples, which some have alleged might be because of its stranglehold on royalties), we came upon a beachside, two-storied mansion.  Reaching out from it was a small jetty supporting a helicopter on floats.  “That’s where Galurrwuy Yunupingu lives”, I was told, and that was his private helicopter (presumably with a full-time pilot in residence).

Not far away was another, large, warehouse-like building, apparently the studio of the band, Yothu Yindi, made up of relatives of Galurrwuy.  I recalled the man from years before as long-time chairman of the Northern Land Council and regarded widely as the “king” of Arnhem Land, expert at schmoozing politicians (he’d been portrayed as a friend of PM Bob Hawke, among others) and directing expenditure of mining and alumina plant royalties.  Galurrwuy died only recently, in April 2023, still crying victimhood in advocating for extra compensation and increased government spending in the region.  Returning home, I started wondering if that had all been a dream, until coming across an old article in The Australian by Elisabeth Wynhausen* that featured a photograph of that helicopter and explained it was used for, among other things, fishing and hunting (possibly for buffaloes, turtles, crocodiles and dugong).  So much for socialism, or environmental conservationism, as deeply innate features of Aboriginal life – although many might think that nepotism seems alive and well. 

Paul Prociv MB BS, PhD, FRACP is the former Professor of Medical Parasitology at the University of Queensland

* as reproduced at Wynhausen’s archival web site, the helicopter snap is missing, though mention is made in the text.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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