Today, I’d like to introduce you to moving words from Rosalie Kunoth-Monks which appeared as the Foreword for the report The Land Holds Us: Aboriginal Peoples’ Right to Traditional Homelands in the Northern Territory. [Please note that I have broken up a few of Rosalie’s original paragraphs, just to make the document a little easier to read on a computer]
“I can look back over 70 years on this part of the land. There was a richness of the relationships between people so you felt never alone. You felt secure, you felt you belonged. You also felt, from an early age, your responsibility; not only to the flora and fauna but to the song lines that tied you to the land.
We always said pmerel atnyenem, we never said pmer nhenh tha atnyenem. That means, country owns or holds you, not you holding the country and becoming master of the land. The land was your mother, your father and everything else.
To the Alyawarr Peoples, the land owning you means that through your song lines, you’ve got to know which part of the land owns you and where you are responsible for the wellbeing of that earth.
From time immemorial there had been an order that was in existence where nobody queried who was who, who had the right to speak, who had the right to be a ceremonial leader and everything was orderly, yet inclusive.
Jump forward from that, this country here, it became a cattle station. Aboriginal Peoples lived still on land, they say today, from eternity. They never moved away from here, the songs are intact; the country more or less is intact.
In the 1970s it was purchased by the government on behalf of Aboriginal Peoples. We then became aware of Aboriginal Affairs really having an impact on our culture. People started feeling second grade and degraded.
Into this scenario came all the rules and regulations of being funded. Into that came being destabilised for the first time for centuries. Into that came the awareness there were other places, and also came access to alcohol and other substance abuse.
We became aware of the racist attitudes. On this land we had never felt deprived or poor. One of the most remarkable things my mother’s sister said to me, in the 1980s when she was visiting Alice Springs for the first time in her life, was, “I feel poor and naked in this town”.
That was quite a telling remark as far as I was concerned. Within the culture, in the security of our land, she had never felt that she needed anything outside of her heritage.
Somehow at Utopia this seemed to have happened more slowly, simply because the things we needed were still on our lands. We still felt the strength and the security of our law and order, even as late as the 1990s. The 1990s saw us still living on our lands.
By this time we had established homelands which we still live on now, within the lease of Urapuntja. We still felt that carrying out our laws - carrying them out as our forefathers did - was holding us together and the community was still cohesive and strong. We were floundering a bit, thinking, “Where to from here?”; we wanted two-way education. We still feel that strongly. Education is very important in modern-day Australia.
In the year 2000 there was pressure for us to conform. Ali Curung had been established quite well, that’s the next big place to us. We were well and truly aware of dysfunction in communities, of people dying in their 20s and 30s because of alcohol and other abuses and in car accidents, and also of being arrested and taken into Alice Springs to stand trial. These were new experiences, relatively new to this area.
Everything then began to merge and our young people started to want to go into Alice Springs, Mt Isa, Tennant Creek, and even further afield. They did have the wherewithal to travel; quite a few earned a little bit of money working with art galleries and so forth.
Fast forward to 2007, we had the visit from departmental staff, the army and the police. I clearly recall the day when the people came and told us we were now under the Intervention. We didn’t know what the Intervention was.
Suddenly there was a policy in the Northern Territory that took away our rights and on top of that they also wanted to take away our land, through what they called a lease. They wanted it for five years and to make Arlparra the centre. I can still hear Lena Pwerl, one of our ladies, yelling out, “No lease, no lease, not for one minute, not for one second, no lease, this is our land”.
So 2007 was a huge thing. It was assault. Assault to such an extent that it traumatised all of us, so we looked around to see what made sense. What made sense was at all costs to hang onto the land. On that day when they said we want your land, there was an outcry all over Australia, I believe, from Aboriginal Peoples.
By 2008 it became so unbearable that I remember absolutely reeling in shock and it appeared to me like we were made enemies of the state, of our country. We had not been in an aggressive relationship with anyone throughout the world, let alone in Australia, let alone in the Northern Territory.
Nevertheless, we believed that we would work together to be accepted and to accept each other. In 2008 I spoke in Alice Springs and I asked where we go for help and who can help us to work through this absolute terror. I said, “Where’s organisations such as Amnesty International?” And a gentleman in the crowd heard this call.
So I met this wonderful person and I felt there was a hand reaching out and saying, “We can help”. From there, we formed a relationship and a partnership and an agreement, with Amnesty International. Without over-exaggerating, Amnesty International held us together and really helped us think through the trauma that we faced.
As we go into 2012, we realise that the Racial Discrimination Act was removed by the government so they could put us under what they termed the Intervention. We see that there are certain Aboriginal communities earmarked as growth towns. Let me assure anybody who cares for the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia that once we are moved from our place of origin, we will not only lose our identity, we will die a traumatised tragic end.
The fact is our body paint cannot be put on by just anyone or just anywhere or on anybody’s country. We only can do that on our land. We cannot have identity if we are put into these reservations that are now called ‘growth towns’ because we will not only be second-class, we will become third-class, non‐existent human beings.
This is a tragedy that is unfolding through the policies of an uncaring government. We must stop this and we must remain on our country. It seems sentimental and - I can’t find the other word in English - about attachment to the land. It’s not attachment to the land, it’s survival of a cultural practice that is still alive in spite of what has been thrown at it.
What we now need to do is to access all of the richness of Australian life and of global life as citizens of Australia but also as citizens of humanity. The country is our lifeblood; that land that might just be filled with spinifex1 has a depth that the majority of Australian brothers and sisters don’t understand and it’s so fragile. We need to stop the destruction of the oldest living culture in Australia.”
Alyawarr/Anmatyerr elder, Utopia homelands