The View From Coker Island

It has now been ten days since I arrived on Croker Island. During that time, John Howard has demonstrated his new found concern for Aboriginal welfare. I have long held a cynical view of anything Howard does, and nothing has disturbed me more than his ill disguised contempt for the Aboriginal people of Australia over the past eleven years. His dismissal of ill treatment, dispossession, and murder of the past as a “black arm band view of history,” his refusal to acknowledge or to express genuine regret for the stolen generation, the disbandment of ATSIC leaving Aboriginal people with no substantial representative body to speak for their rights, are just a few of the glaring demonstrations of his indifference, if not malice. He has also, of course, undermined what progress has been gained in cases like Wik, by passing legislation to undermine those gains. What is the view, in light of Howard’s sudden ‘concern’ for Aboriginal welfare, from Croker Island?
I have been asked to write something on this subject by traditional owner Rachael, who I met early in my visit here. I had been wondering what effect the deluge of information over the last week or so would have on the sleepy, sunny and laid-back community of Minjilang. Rachael is the first to approach me directly, and has asked me to write of the concerns, as she sees it, of the community, something I do not feel qualified to do, being a mere visitor, albeit researching a positive story of black/white relationship in this region, 180 years ago. I am writing that story because I think it has something positive to offer, but it is not what Rachael means when she asks me to represent her view. I can only comment on what I have seen on my brief visit, and reflect on how the recent announcements may be affecting the community, through the eyes of a ‘Balanda’. 

There are obvious advantages to living on an island community, and disadvantages too, the most obvious being the high cost of transport for everything brought from the mainland, mostly by the weekly barge. This affects the price of everything, all of the consumer goods; cars here cost as much to ship as they do to buy. The advantages? I have seen no sign of grog at all in the ten days I have been here, and it appears that the isolation may have much to do with that. Within days of my arrival, after months, if not years of preparation, the controlled use of kava was introduced to the community. Just yesterday, the Howard government has announced a total ban on the import of kava, except for traditional (Pacific Islander) use. This is the kind of wide brush-stroke pronouncement which obviously must be upsetting communities across the territory. Do problems in some communities mean that it should be banned in all communities? Should communities who are handling their grog licenses in a responsible manner have their licenses revoked? Should the children of Minjilang, some of the happiest and healthy looking children I have ever seen in an Aboriginal community be subject to some compulsory medical examination, which may or may not be related to sexual molestation? What message does that send to responsible parents, who appear to be managing their community well? If Minjilang is not on the list of communities to be targeted, as seems likely, why did John Howard announce that every child in the Northern Territory under the age of sixteen would be examined? 

Speaking for myself, I believe that the Howard Government, indifferent to ill health, lack of housing, education or respect for the Aboriginal people for eleven years, is using the issue of sexual molestation to attempt to divide the wider community. I believe he is using the issue as a form of land grab, as he takes over the administration of townships, and coupled with his attempts to wrest communal land from communities, he seeks to dismantle and fragment what is left of traditional culture, deliberately or indirectly as the consequence of his actions. The people of Croker Island, have a vibrant beautiful community, despite a dark past when it served as a mission for the stolen generation, a plaque listing over 200 names bearing testament to a past when the Balanda thought they knew what they were doing, and got it wrong. The man who has demonstrated indifference at best, and hostility at worst throughout his political career towards the Aboriginal people, is now representing himself as the hero charging in on his white steed to solve all the problems, in a field where he has demonstrated an overwhelming ignorance. If it makes me concerned and uncomfortable, what effect does it have on the Aboriginal community?

On a brighter note, I was able, after nearly two weeks here, to meet with and to have a long discussion with Stephen Fejo, a resident of Croker Island, and a traditional owner of Raffles Bay. Stephen actually flew to Darwin around about the time I was flying into Croker, because of the pending death of a relative in Darwin hospital, and returned the day I went to Raffles Bay. We viewed the photographs of Iwaidja people taken in the 1880’s I had downloaded into my laptop, and chatted into a recorder as we did so. He was pleased to view the pics of Fort Wellington I had taken, and to hear that I had used my GPS to record the location of the remaining ruins.

 

Stephen was also very interested in the Commandant of Solitude, the book of Barker’s journals, which documents Barker’s daily activities with Stephen’s Iwaidja ancestors. I have left the details with him, and all of the writings I have done (mainly a brief summary of incidents of relevance from the journals) and photographs I have taken, and he now knows of my obsessive project. Hopefully we will get together again sometime to further it. 


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s