Blow-ins on the cold desert wind

EACH YEAR I drive from my home near Canberra to the Tanami Desert and spend several months in an Aboriginal community that has become my other home. The trip takes a week or two, allowing for the incremental adjustments that make my arrival one of recognition, pleasure and ambivalence.

There was a year I did it differently, flying directly to Alice Springs and travelling the thousand kilometres of corrugated and sandy desert track squashed into the back of a troop carrier with nine or ten elderly Aboriginal artists. We arrived in the early hours of the morning, less than twenty-four hours after I had left Canberra. The vehicle headlights lit a disorderly world of damaged houses, broken cars, lean furtive dogs and accumulated rubbish. This was a number of years ago, when I was still sorting out the uneasiness of my relationship to the place and people, and I felt the rise of old anxieties and discomfort. It seemed that, having departed from the orderly, over-planned surrealism of the national capital, I had arrived at its sinister twin. As I helped to drag tattered foam mattresses and assorted bundles from the back of the troop carrier, I thought of the plans and policies manufactured in the tidy hill-fort of Parliament House, and imagined them on their trajectory across the nation encountering a zone of refraction somewhere in the upper atmosphere, arriving as a mess of shattered fragments on this windy plateau. This image has stayed with me, a visual metaphor for the sustained capacity of remote Aboriginal Australia to subvert the best intentions of successive state and federal governments.

One of the results of moving on a regular basis between predominantly white urban Australia and predominantly black remote Australia is an awareness of the gulf of perception between those people for whom Aboriginal Australia is a reality and those for whom it is an idea. An idea can tolerate a number of abstractions. Reality, on the other hand, must tolerate a number of contradictions. The way in which these contradictions are bridged by both white and black is largely through humour, irony and a well-honed sense of the absurd – qualities generally missing from any public representation of white and Aboriginal interactions.


THE WHITES WHO work at this interface talk about Aboriginal people all the time. The trajectory of every conversation, no matter where it begins, ends up in the same place. These conversations are full of bafflement, hilarity, frustration, admiration and conjecture. They are an essential means of processing the contradictions with which one deals every day.

The Aboriginal people talk about the whites too, but I doubt that it is in the same sustained and obsessive way. I can't be sure of this, and it is something I will probably never know. What I do know is that the Western Desert word for white person, gardiya, runs like a subliminal refrain under the currents of ordinary conversation. No matter how much time one has spent or how strong one's relationships with Aboriginal people, the word follows you about like a bad smell. It is not intended as an insult; it is simply a verbal marker to underline the difference between us and them.

It becomes an insult, however, if one is Aboriginal. In the volatile world of family and community politics, it is the greatest insult that can be levelled at anyone who is suspected of harbouring gardiya aspirations and values. To take on any form of authority over your peers opens you to such an accusation, as does the refusal to share vehicles, money and possessions. People of mixed descent are continually reminded of their compromised status, and children with white blood are frequently referred to as gardiya.

To be white exempts you to some extent from the network of responsibilities and obligations. It is accepted that you belong to an inexplicably cold and selfish branch of the human family, and refusals to share what you have are accepted with equanimity. However, the boundaries become more difficult to hold as relationships deepen, and negotiating one's place in all of this is a continuing process.

By the standards of white Australian society, the life I lead is extremely provisional. I don't have a regular job, I don't own a home and my annual income is in the bracket that attracts a low-income rebate on my tax return. In the eyes of the Aboriginal people among whom I work, I own a reliable vehicle, I can buy fuel when I need it, I always have food in the house, I am allowed to run up an account at the store. These are indicators of wealth. Sometimes, as I weave my evasive course through a web of subtle and overt demands, carrying only small change in my pockets, walking instead of driving so my car is not commandeered as a taxi to ferry people home with their shopping, making continual small adjustments and compromises against my better judgement, I catch a glimpse of the truly provisional nature of people's lives. When I buy diesel at $2.20 a litre, when I pay $5 for a carton of soy milk that would cost me half that in a southern supermarket, I appreciate the mirage-like nature of money in this world. I understand why the fortnightly pension cheque is converted to cash and lost in a card game an hour later. Paul Virilio, in The Aesthetics of Disappearance(MIT Press, 1991), says "number games, like lotto or the lottery, with their disproportionate winnings, connote disobedience to society's laws, exemption from taxes, immediate redressment of poverty".


IF I WAS of an academic turn of mind, I would be tempted to pursue a thesis on the role and meaning of money in Aboriginal communities. There is no apparent logic to its availability. Acquiring it is a serious preoccupation, with none of the social prohibitions that disguise the same preoccupation in non-Aboriginal society. It is easy to become cynical at the manoeuvring to prove traditional links to mining land and thus access to royalties. It is easy to be appalled by the ruthlessness with which elderly painters are milked by their extended family, or to be exhausted by the relentless pursuit of payment for the smallest snippet of cultural knowledge.

These are the cross-cultural tensions nobody talks about, except in those gardiya enclaves within the communities, as one tries to find ways to dissipate the frustrations and misunderstandings. I found an explanation that took much of my own cultural distaste out of the equation when I made an analogy between hunting and gathering for food and hunting and gathering for money. It may not persuade others, but it works for me. One has only to listen to accounts of traditional itineraries to notice the preoccupation with food. Desert society evolved in the boom and bust economy of one of the hardest environments on the planet, and survival was predicated on the efficiency with which its resources could be utilised. My theory – not entirely frivolous – is that the same energy once spent on getting food is now spent on getting money.

To be white is to be seen to have mysterious access to money. Sometimes I think we are perceived by the Aboriginal people as money guards, standing at the door to vaults full of wealth and doling out pocket money to them while we take all we want for ourselves. The government supply lines that support remote communities are poorly understood by the recipients. In the tightening political environment, there is a growing emphasis on accountability and effective governance, with a number of training programs and workshops designed to assist communities. Earlier this year I was co-opted to assist in the trial of one such program.

"The Australian Governance Story" has been designed in response to a request from Aboriginal communities to explain how government works in Australia. Its purpose is to give the people an overview of where they fit into the larger structures of government, where the money that supports their existence comes from, and their rights and responsibilities in managing these funds and services.

Over the years of my involvement with the community, I have deliberately avoided the Gordian knot of bureaucracy, working instead on cultural mapping projects to record the stories and knowledge people still hold about their country. A fortuitous encounter with a deeply committed and imaginative public servant called Kerrie, one of those people without whom the really hard challenges would never be attempted, resulted in us throwing ideas around about how our different enterprises might assist one another. My brief assignment as a public servant was an experiment, to see whether my work could be married to the daily business of people learning to manage their communities effectively. My reasons for taking it on were self-interested. I try to spend several months of every year in this place, and it is a constant financial struggle to find ways of doing so.


THIS IS HOW I find myself with the task of explaining "The Australian Governance Story" to the community members and persuading people to attend a workshop – a proposition that more or less cancels itself out. I am up against the deeply embedded suspicion of and resistance to white government-driven agendas, even when those agendas are in response to requests and proposals from the communities themselves.

The workshop is planned for July, the time of year when the congestion of visitors is at its most intense. One of the major disadvantages of belonging to a disadvantaged minority, particularly one that is central to our sense of national identity, is the relentless stream of government officials whose job it is to assess and redress those disadvantages. On any given day between May and September (after the wet season and before it gets too hot, which happens to coincide with the southern winter), a number of spanking white four-wheel drives, doors decorated with logos, will be parked in the dusty quadrangle outside the office, while the government officials they have brought compete for the attention of the community residents. It's not uncommon to find a disconsolate government rep hanging about with a satchel of information and no one to deliver it to.

In any small community, there are a limited number of people who take on the responsibility for its social and practical maintenance. This is especially true of an Aboriginal community. Whether the issue is governance or childcare or aged care, social security, substance abuse, sexual health, store committees, education and training, tourism development, environmental management, fire control, dogs, housing or garbage management, it is the same seven or eight people who are in demand. Meeting fatigue is endemic. Burnout is a recognised syndrome among white staff in communities, but little notice is given to the same phenomenon among the Aboriginal people. When the pressure gets too much, they simply disappear for extended periods.

A three-day workshop is a big ask for people on whom the daily functioning of the community rests. It is a fine line I have to negotiate between the requirements of the government agency (I will call it ACRO) and the potential workshop participants. There are bureaucratic formalities to be met – numbers, names, the demographics of age, gender, literacy and language, signed agreements from participants that they will attend and complete the workshop.

This last requirement presents particular difficulties. It is as likely to scare people away as it is to commit them to coming. Signed pieces of paper are whitefella business, implicit with danger. I know that I can count on the core group of older women with whom I usually work, unless family business intervenes. They will come because I ask them to, because over the years we have established a relationship of mutual trust and exchange. But family business takes precedence, and signed papers will not alter that. Among the younger, overburdened community members, the risk of getting them to sign up lies in giving them too much time to plan their escape.

I re-read the list of selection criteria that applies to my temporary position as an Australian public servant: At "no. 4 – Innovates" I find what I am looking for: "able to develop solutions that are outcomes focused and informed by a strategic perspective". I interpret this to mean get bums on seats by whatever means necessary.


SINCE REBECCA HAS discovered that we have the same-sized feet, she has been humbugging me relentlessly for the slip-on shoes I wear, unimpressed by my refusal on the grounds that they are the only shoes I've brought with me.

"What am I supposed to do, go barefoot?"

She looks pointedly at her own bare hard-soled feet and says nothing.

"You're a blackfella, you go barefoot all the time. I have to wear shoes, my feet are too soft."

She throws me a grin that is knowing, charming and manipulative. "I got some old ones you can have."

"I don't want your old shoes. I'm quite happy with these." I beg a cigarette from her. My resolve not to smoke is folding, as it always does within a few weeks of returning to the community.

"Where's that thing you got for not smoking?" She's referring to the nicotine inhaler I've been sucking on since I arrived. I take it out of my pocket and show it to her.

"Doesn't work?"

"Not under pressure."

"Buy me a packet of cigarettes."

I agree to do this. That way I can beg one from her whenever I need to.

Rebecca is smart and literate, one of the people in constant demand to interpret the two worlds to one another. She fits the profile of the target workshop participant perfectly.

"You can have my shoes if you promise to come to the workshop."

"That's, what do you call it ... coercion."

"Fuck off. Do you want the shoes or not?"

"Okay, I'll come. Can I have them now?"

"No way. After the workshop. And you have to come all three days."

She gives me a deep, resentful frown, one of her stock array of expressions, all bordering on parody, which crack into broad grins of amusement at the absurdities we are obliged to play out. The self-satisfied crocodile grin appears; she has established that the shoes are negotiable. Whether she comes to the workshop or not, we both know which foot the shoe is going to end up on.


ENLISTING MEN WAS always going to be difficult. So many of the arenas in which their identities as men are formulated have been undermined. The radar alert for coercion is set at a hair-trigger. In any case, there are very few young and middle-aged men in the community, a fair proportion of them being in jail for various misdemeanours and crimes, mostly alcohol related.

My key target is Patrick, a man of standing in the community and a member of one of the strong families. He is a short, square, suspicious man with a flaring temper, and has just returned from a stint in prison for cutting someone with a tomahawk. A few days ago I gave him and his wife a lift back to the community from a broken-down car. Later that evening, I encountered him with his son and brother-in-law trying to get the same vehicle going, and loaned them my torch and tools. I have also loaned him jerry cans of fuel on several occasions.

"Patrick, I need you to come to this workshop. It's to teach people about how the government works, to help you to look after the community properly."

Patrick's expression is sceptical, mildly amused. Most of what is important in the encounter is unspoken. There is genuine liking here, and also an understanding that the situation is improvised, because neither of us has more than a bare glimpse into the other's thinking processes.

"You're strong. People respect you. If you come, some of the other men will come too."

The appeal to his vanity works. I get him to sign the paper. We both know that this is no guarantee that he will attend the workshop. What it does mean is that he will put in an appearance and that this will help to swing a few of the men and boys at least to consider attending.


PAYMENT IS AN issue. People are used to being paid for attending meetings. For those on the work-for-the-dole scheme, the hours spent in the workshop can be claimed, but for the rest there is nothing I can offer except the suggestion that it's in their own interests to participate. This does not wash with Fatima, who has the profile and character of a Roman potentate.

"You gardiya," she says, "always coming and telling us what to do. You want us to come to meetings and then you won't pay us."

Attack is the best form of defence with Fatima, who is one of the community powerbrokers. "Listen, if you were white you'd be expected to pay for a workshop like this, not be paid to come."

She leans her bulk back in the chair and smirks, satisfied that she's made me say something she can hold against me later.

"Anyway, it's about how to manage things yourself, so you don't have to put up with gardiya telling you what to do."

"You shouldn't get upset, Napuru. I'll come, just to help you out."


AND SO IT goes for the weeks leading up to the arrival of the training team. Kerrie wants a guarantee of twenty participants, preferably the younger, more literate members of the community. I tell her I can't guarantee anything, but I'm doing my best. Rebecca checks every day that the deal with the shoes is still on.

I receive a list of questions from the trainers:

Do people understand what it means to be a COAG site?

Do DOTARS, DEWR, ICC and OIPC have regional reps?

What is the current status of SRAs in the community?

Do people have an understanding of how the CDEP changes will affect them?

Will they come under an RAE?

How will it impact on NAHS, HACC and FACS?

Who is the local RSP?

Is the IPA funded by DEH or DIA?

What is the role of the KLC? Does KALACC come under the same umbrella?

Has anyone in the community accessed the ISBF?

Should one approach KLRC or KIC for interpretive services?

With the help of Rebecca and her sister Julie, I decode most of this curious document.

When the training duo arrives I am mending a flat tyre. They are called Bob and Deborah, and have been refining and delivering workshops to Aboriginal organisations for many years. They are experienced, good-humoured, flexible and tough. In the face of their professionalism I feel awkward and incompetent.

Kerrie and her ACRO team arrive the next morning. Things look moderately promising. The weather isn't too cold and most people have stayed in the community in spite of it being school holidays. This has also made it possible to hold the workshop in the school library, which is comfortable, well resourced and away from the distractions of the community. It is also potentially intimidating for people who don't usually sit at desks, but there's no better alternative. I have a list of seventeen possible participants, about half of whom I can be confident will turn up.

The workshop is due to start at nine. At eight-thirty I begin my rounds. There's a recognised protocol to this, which is to drive your vehicle as close as possible to people's houses and keep your hand on the horn until someone appears. After a few circuits I've roused most of the community and extracted promises that they will come down to the school after they've been to the shop. No one shows any enthusiasm. At nine I do another round and catch Fatima trying to climb into the Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) troop carrier, which is taking a group of young rangers away to a training workshop. I work her over with shameless emotional manipulation, payback for the many times she's done it to me.

"How can you do this, after you promised me? I thought I could trust you. This makes me really upset."

She casts a backward glance at the troopie, which is too crowded to fit her in, and pats me on the arm. "Don't worry, Napuru. I was going to look after these kids but you need me, so I'll come with you."

By ten-thirty about twenty-five people have wandered down to the school to see what's going on. The trainers give their introduction and we break for morning tea, after which the numbers drop to sixteen. Patrick has put in his promised appearance, lurking just inside the door and ducking outside after half an hour for a cigarette. I join him.

"What do you think?"

He shakes his head. "That stuff make my head hurt." He finishes his cigarette, gives me a nod and leaves.

After lunch the numbers are down to nine. By my reckoning the dropout ratio is one-third per session, which doesn't bode well for tomorrow. But the afternoon session becomes animated. Bob and Deborah know their stuff. They get people to unpick the network of organisations that service the community. Rebecca and Julie spearhead the group of women who reveal a sound grasp of the organisational network, which is astonishingly complicated. I am in sympathy with Patrick – it makes my head hurt too.

The challenge on day two is to get people to the workshop before the Tanami bus comes through on its bi-weekly run into Halls Creek. I collect them in twos and threes and drop them at the school. Half of them circle around behind the toilet block and beat me through the gate. They wave as I drive past, and someone calls out "Taxi", at which they all hoot with laughter.

I drive to Fatima's house to see whether she is coming today. Yesterday there was a nasty domestic incident involving her youngest daughter, who collapsed after being beaten by her husband and has been flown out on the doctor plane. This incident accounted for most of the absentees from the afternoon session. There's no response to my horn, but I see the curtain flicker in the front room. In attempting to get out of the car, I discover that the door lock is jammed. Fatima appears in the doorway to watch me climbing out of the window.

"What you doing, Napuru?"

"I can't open the door."

"You should get that fixed." She gets into the car. "What we doing today?"

On the way to the workshop, several of my previous passengers flag me down for a lift back to the school. They inform me that the Tanami bus has broken down and there's no run to town this week.


I AM IMPRESSED by the training team, who adjust seamlessly to the changing dynamics of the group, and keep everyone fully engaged. The day is spent outlining the structure of the federal government and the lines of communication from the community through to the various departments responsible for delivering services. Most people are not aware that there is both a state and a federal government. The most pertinent piece of information they absorb is that the budget is passed by law, and that once a certain amount of money has been designated it can't be altered, and must be delivered through the appropriate channels. At the community level, money is an arbitrary and unpredictable resource, so the notion that it is a finite and regulated commodity is novel. The trainers tell them that the money is provided by taxpayers. "Your money," they say. This bothers me, since I know that no one in the community apart from the white staff pays tax, although I appreciate the need for people to feel empowered. It's another of those irreconcilable contradictions.

At the end of the day, everyone agrees to come at nine the next morning. They say I don't need to drive around and pick them up, although they enjoy seeing me climb in and out of my car window.

"You should get that door fixed, Napuru."

That evening, on the downward haul, there's an air of hilarity among the workshop team. I remark that I feel like a hapless victim of fate, and we discuss the need for more hap to deal with events like this. This leads to reflections on being gormless and feckless. The next morning, the team leaders are sporting name tags that say Hap, Feck and Gorm.

At eight-thirty the wailing begins and my stomach drops. Someone has died, and I feel the fear we all live with that it will be someone you know and love. Life is so precarious here, death frequent and sudden. But it is Wendy's sister who has died in Derby, a woman whose life has been violent and troubled for many years. I join the group of people offering condolences, and sit with Wendy while the older women join her in the protocols of sorry business. So much for the nine o'clock start. It's out of my hands now; people will decide their own priorities.

Evelyn comes by to tell me she is going out with her family to kill a bullock. She says she will keep some rib bones for me, indicating that she feels I need to be compensated for her withdrawal from the workshop. She's learned as much as she wants to know about the "guvment". Her own concerns are closer to home, in the refined and complex politics of family and country. Rebecca has also dropped out with the excuse that she has to get organised to travel to her father-in-law's funeral. She wants to know if she can still have my shoes. We negotiate a debrief on the workshop when she gets back.

By ten o'clock there are ten people in the library. The new name tags of the training team members pass without comment. After all, people here go by names such as Rimikus, Spieler and Blah Blah. There is an air of empowerment among the stayers. They carry out enthusiastic role-plays of how to present a request to their state or federal minister. They have a far better grasp than I do of the labyrinthine structures at the lower levels of bureaucracy, which I have come to appreciate bear some resemblance to their own convoluted family and political structures. At the end of the day they are pleased and happy with what they have learned, and eager for follow-up sessions. The training team has a substantial list of adjustments to implement from the trial. Everyone but me seems to think that something has been achieved.


THE NEXT DAY, Bessie comes to the office and asks me to ring Peter Costello to ask him about funding for her outstation. I find the number of the Treasurer's office and tell her to ring him herself. Monica appears with a photocopied paper which shows the line of funding support for the Indigenous Protected Area.

"You can help me?"

"What for?"

She shows me the paper. "This for money in't it?"

"Only for the IPA."

She throws the paper in the bin.

Julie comes in and asks me when I'm going to pay her for her work as interpreter for the workshop.

"That's ACRO's business. They haven't paid me either. Where's that list telling us who to ring up?"

Fatima comes in and parks herself portentously in the chair beside my desk.

"Napuru, you know I'm always working to help people, old people and young people together and gardiya too. I should get paid for that."

Evelyn comes to tell me she's got some rib bones for me in the freezer at her daughter's house.

During a lull, I lock the office and make my escape. The community is quiet; today there are no visitors from the other world. The cold desert wind that seems to rise in agitation at the influx of too many outsiders has dropped, and the day is clear and sunny. I climb through the car window into the driver's seat, avoiding the broken mirror stem where the rear-vision mirror has been pulled off by a child doing chin-ups.

"You should fix that door, Napuru," someone calls out. "It looks like an Aboriginal car." Fatima appears at the passenger door with her shopping.

"You can give me a lift home, Napuru?"

In the car she says: "That was a good meeting. We should have more like that."

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