‘Let’s sit around a fire’

Went to a workshop by Richard Downs, one of about 30-40 Aboriginal Elders who took part in the Ampilatwatja walk-off in June last year – they walked away from their community in the NT to set up camp in the bush. He’s the spokesman for the Alyawarra people  living at the township of Ampilatwatcha, 350 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.

They’re planning to install a bore and make the camp entirely self-sufficient with solar energy and permaculture.

Richard Downs. Photo: The Juice Media

Everyone wants to go and visit the camp, but he said they can’t have visitors until they’ve got water. Now they’re carting water from the nearby township. They’re looking for donations and are getting some union funding.

“The water tables used to be high but the water level is naturally dropping. In the last 200 years there have also been so many bores sunk by mining companies.”

He said a diamond mine put a hidden 6cm hidden pipeline into a sacred spring that had never previously dried up. “It suddenly dried up. They [the mining company] pretended they hadn’t done anything until the pipe was discovered.”

Downs has a wistful, dreaming air and says we should be discussing these issues “not in air-conditioned buildings”. “Let’s sit out around a fire, under the stars. There needs to be a lot more sharing and caring. We can all discuss our connections with the land and the animals. We’re all connected to the rocks and the streams. Our strength is through the earth – it heals us and we heal it.”

He said it’s important for other Aboriginal groups to do walk-offs too. “We can’t be lone voices. There are talks of other walk-offs in Arnhem Land. We’re all on the same page. We might have to be away for 30 to 40 years.”

He said that when the NT intervention first occurred, they waited a couple of years to see if better conditions, facilities and policies would occur, but nothing had happened.

An Aboriginal spokeswoman outlined: “Not all Aboriginals are pedophiles. Each Aboriginal community used to have a community-elected council. All councils were dismissed and now the shires have a white fella in charge. We were being yarded up into little paddocks with no say.” (i.e. Aborigines are being forced to leave where they’re living and move to central hubs with more Western facilities.)

Downs added: “We have to start changing our tactics. We don’t want to be telling younger generations what to do. They need to add their voices. We need to be unified. We need to overcome fear. The government are public servants. We must hold them accountable.

“We need to have a ‘Macklin Watch’ and a ‘Garrett Watch’ and check when they’re speaking at events, so we can turn up and have our say.”

He suggested reading Bludgers In Grass Castles: Native Title and the unpaid debts of the pastoral industry, a 36-page booklet by Martin Taylor, from Resistance Books. The title was derived from Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles, about the Durack cattle dynasty. “Aborigines did lots of work for white fellas, their whole lives, and were only paid in flour, tea and sugar,” Downs said.

He finished by telling a story about meeting an Aboriginal bloke in Western Australia whose whole family had been herded off the land during World War II and this younger bloke was the first to recently return. “He’s the last of the Sunrise people. He took me through all the gorges and rivers. He was fearful that the Spirits are no longer there. I said: ‘You can hear the birds, insects, flying foxes. They’re happy, so the Spirits are still here, waiting for you.”

He said parts of Western Australia are “pristine and untouched” and “the last paradise”. “The Bungle Bungles in WA are beautiful.”

I had a chance to speak to someone who’d visited a couple of Aboriginal communities and asked what she thought should be done. She said the communities are different, so different strategies are needed. Also, that even those wanting to live traditional lifestyles will probably need regular government-provided income, as they are on such poor land and the traditional infrastructure is no longer there (since we’re living in all the choice coastal spots).

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