'I was raised in East Kimberley, northern Western Australia, in a small community called Doon Doon Station, population about 50. There was one dirt road in, cold running water and electricity most of the time. We lived in a very basic three-bedroom house with a concrete floor and corrugated iron roof. There were usually between 15 and 20 of us - family, foster kids and a blind uncle who needed caring for. It was a struggle sometimes to feed everyone, but it was beautiful growing up with family all around.
If travellers stopped by, my mother, Nancy, always offered food and shelter - as is our way. I fished in the river every afternoon to catch bream and barra and I can still catch a goanna with my bare hands. Mum was illiterate; she couldn’t read books, but she could read the land and she gave me the knowledge of the changing seasons, what bush tukka to eat and where to find it.
There wasn’t a lot of employment, but back then we still had the Community Development Employment Projects scheme that paid my people to provide basic services and keep the community beautiful. My uncles worked as jackaroos and there was the occasional job as a teacher’s aide.
When I was nine, Mum moved us the 100 kilometres into town so I could go to a better school. It was important to her that I was educated and raised well. It was hard, though. I felt disconnected from my community and was constantly starving. I had to beg for food - meat and stale bread - and borrow money for Weet-Bix, milk and tea.
The high school didn’t seem to understand Indigenous kids’ needs - for a start, English is often our second language - so I moved to a boarding school in Perth. Mum returned to Doon Doon and I joined her every holiday; it was the highlight of my year.
After school, I landed my first job at the Argyle diamond mine in Kununurra. One of the senior secretaries, noticing my eagerness to learn and the fact I was always well groomed, took me under her wing. I loved the work and I loved flying in and out, looking down on country.
During those three years I’d often watch the Bush Tucker Man series on TV. I felt really excited watching Les Hiddins explore Australia and it inspired me to see more for myself. Initially, moving down the east coast was fine, but arriving in Sydney was a culture shock. I felt isolated, unsupported and a long way from my traditional values and sense of belonging. I felt I had no choice but to fit in with white man’s culture, as no one seemed interested in what I might have to contribute.
Despite this, I was never out of work. I had jobs with the ABC, fashion retailer Marcs and ING as well as running my own little advertising company. I dated men but never took any home. I knew they would see only the impoverishment, and judge me accordingly.
That was, until I met Michael Butler, a white filmmaker who was travelling into communities like mine, recording my people’s stories and making documentaries. He understood and respected my culture and was comfortable with it.
After seven years of being away, I returned to Doon Doon and took him with me. Walking back into my mum’s house - meeting her latest brood of foster kids - was like walking into a hug.
Out in the bush, Michael watched me catch goanna and mud crab and gather bush plums and boab nuts. I cooked over hot coals as I’d done as a kid and he came up with an idea: I would become Bush Tukka Woman and we’d film a TV series.
Michael pointed out that my ability to identify and talk about the benefits of bush tukka was essential in helping Australians hold on to a vital food source. Living in both black and white communities, I knew, too, how to cook bush tukka in a modern way: chilli and bush tomato mud crabs, muffins with white chocolate and lilly pillies, lemon myrtle damper with a crispy wattleseed crust. They were delicious and highly nutritious - the extraordinarily high levels of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins of many bush foods have been scientifically confirmed in a report by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, which has recommended more commercial development of these plants.
The series, My Bush Tukka Adventures, has screened on SBS and NITV. And through our company, Sacred Oz Productions, I’ve also helped Michael produce more documentaries, interviewing Aboriginal elders, preserving their stories and knowledge, and showing the strong, proud, positive side of Indigenous people. We’re now receiving wide international interest.
In 2006, inspired by my success, my brothers discussed setting up a company to bring tourists to Doon Doon. “I can help you publicise that,” I promised, and now they run the Myadi Arts Centre and Dambu Cultural Tours, which take people out on country, set up camp by a river and teach them to hunt, tell their stories around a fire, spend time with Aboriginal families, paint, get ochre from rocks, make a boomerang and basically understand our way of life.
Meanwhile, I’ve written a book, Bush Tukka Guide (Explore Australia), and for my next project I’m planning to create and sell a range of native herbs and spices.
Australia always promotes Aboriginal culture as a unique reason to visit this country. Communities like ours can be part of that, but I sometimes feel that the government doesn’t want us to succeed or feel pride in our achievements.
Last year, for instance, the Deadly Awards were cut after the Federal Government slashed funding to the Deadly Vibe organisation that devoted itself to celebrating Aboriginal achievement in sport, art, entertainment and community.
Not every community is perfect. There are problems with abuse, domestic violence and harmful substances - just as there are in white communities - but moving people into the towns won’t solve those issues. They’ll make them worse. Bulldozing their homes won’t save money; it will cost both in financial and human terms.
I look at Mum and her healthy, peaceful life. If she were forced out of her community and into a township, she’d end up in the scrub in a fringe camp. Stripped of her dignity and self-worth like that, I think she’d drink herself to death. Empowering and supporting the Aboriginals in those communities to contribute to a better Australia, to take pride in who they are and what they can do, that’s a much better way of approaching the situation.
I’m just one person and see how much I’ve achieved. There are plenty more like me where I come from.'
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