London ~~ Monday December 3rd 2007
By working as a teacher in Australia's rural communities, Sinem Saban came to understand the forces that keep the country's Aborigines at a disadvantage to the rest of society. She is currently making a documentary about the treatment of the Aborigines at the hands of the government – specifically its drive to take ownership of their ancestral land and force them to pay rent as tenants. She talks about what it means for the indigenous people to know that a new prime minister has been elected – one who promises a long-awaited reconciliation
Sinem Saban with some of the community children. Photograph: Sinem Saban
I was adopted into an Aboriginal family while I was at university. I had decided I wanted to be a teacher and had chosen to get my teaching experience in an indigenous community in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory.
When I first entered the community I stood out like a sore thumb. Not just because I was white but because I wasn’t part of the kinship system. I had no relation to anyone else in the community. When I was later adopted, however, I suddenly had mothers, brothers and uncles all over the place. On one occasion, when we had all gone hunting together, a baby was thrust into my arms. “Here, you look after it,” I was told.
It made me realise that when the government says that there is child neglect in these communities, what it doesn’t understand is that these children have deep connections to people other than their own mothers and can be looked after by any number of them. Mothers will even share the breast-feeding.
I’m now part of the kinship system and I’ve got some confusing relations, like a father who is five years old and a son who is 50. It doesn’t work the same way as real families and is all about symbolism. You can even have “poison cousins” who you’re not supposed to look at or talk to.
That five-week teaching practical and all the relief teaching I’ve done since was really an excuse for me to go into the communities and find out what was going on. And what I saw was that 20 or 30 people were living in a two-bedroomed house; that eyes, ears and skin disorders were rife; and there was a big problem with education.
Aborigine kids don’t learn in the same way that westerners do; they rely on observation. If you take them outside and show them a tree or a turtle, they’ll take it in because it’s real to their lives; but if you read Humpty Dumpty to them in a classroom they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot.
There’s so much money being pumped into the education system, and there are great facilities, but the content of the curriculum is useless. The next generation of Aboriginal kids is coming up with literacy and numeracy problems. Most of the non-indigenous teachers in these community schools feel the same way as I do, that they’re hitting an invisible wall with these kids.
Another worry is the alcohol abuse in some communities, which has become a bit of an Aborigine stereotype. But it’s obvious that there’s something emotional going on. You can’t just tell them to get over it. The assumption that indigenous people are alcoholics creates a blanket over the real issue – that they’ve lost their purpose and dignity. The men turn to alcohol because they’ve lost their role in the family, and don’t know who they are any more. They don’t hunt and don’t really understand the idea of going out and working because no one has taught them about it.
On thing I noticed living in the communities was how rarely Aborigines complain about anything. Those of them who have never ventured into the cities have no idea what their rights are. They don’t realise that they can claim better health and education. As someone who is constantly moving between the communities and cities, I’m always trying to feed them information about their citizenship rights. The more they know, the more they stand up and voice their needs.
From my perspective, it’s all about choice. There has never been choice for Aboriginal people in Australia. It’s always been white people telling them what they think is best for them. There has been no dialogue, no sitting at a round table and discussing what to do, or how to use innovations to move on together. There has never been any give and take. And that’s all the Aborigines want.
All the diseases that now afflict the communities had never existed before they were exposed to a western diet. There was no tooth decay, high blood pressure or diabetes. White people have injected their western ways into Aboriginal culture, giving them junk food, pornography and alcohol and then coming back to find alcoholics and children who aren’t learning in school. Then they hold them up to the rest of Australia as an example of how “useless” indigenous people are.
Last year I was sticky-beaking around and I stumbled across a meeting in one of the communities. Government officials had come into Galiwinku, on Elcho Island, where I spent a lot of my time. I happened to walk into a meeting and they were talking about changing the Aboriginal land rights act. They were asking the traditional native landowners to give them the 99-year lease of the land in exchange for better houses, education and job opportunities. They basically wanted to take the land and sub-let it back to the Aborigines, making them pay rent on their own land.
The Aborigine landowners have an ancestral, cultural link to that land. Their way of owning it is to look after it and be part of it. They are the land, and they don’t think in terms of swapping or selling it. The government said that it would provide basic citizenship rights if the Aborigines handed over the land, which in itself is a breach of citizenship rights.
Mal Brough, who was the indigenous affairs minister at the time, promised to give the Galiwinku community 50 houses if they would sign the lease. After not getting very far with them he announced that if they didn’t sign it they would only get 10 houses. It was outright blackmail, but he still couldn’t convince any of them to sign.
Then in June the government issued a report, entitled Little Children are Sacred, stating that child abuse was rife in the indigenous communities. I don’t deny it goes on, but it’s certainly no more than in any other section of society. You don’t have to look far to see it happening elsewhere. The report created an excuse for the government to seize the communities and compulsorily acquire the land for five years.
They official line was that it was an emergency, and they had to go in and help the children. A legislation was passed preventing Aboriginal people from complaining to the anti-discrimination or human rights commissions. The state of emergency over-rode any complaints bodies. The government had got their lease in the end.
I was in London at the time that all this happened. I flew straight back and went to Galiwinku to film their response to it. It’s amazing what happens when you put a microphone in front of an Aborigine and give them a safe platform on which to speak. You suddenly realise that they know exactly what’s going on, they’re just too scared to speak out against the government and they don’t trust a lot of the people who go into the communities to extract stories. They know their words can be skewed.
Interestingly, a month after the legislation to seize the land was passed, Australia signed a uranium deal with China and Russia. Around 40% of the world’s uranium is in Australia. Most of it is in the Northern Territory; a lot of it is on Aboriginal land.
John Howard has gone now and the future is Kevin Rudd, who has said he’s going to sign the UN declaration of indigenous rights. It’s token and has no legal power, but it’s a great gesture. Rudd says he won’t just say sorry, he’ll go and talk to the community members about the best way of saying sorry. Finally, it’s a meaningful move towards reconciliation.
• Sinem Saban was talking to Anna Bruce-Lockhart. View the promo of her documentary about the plight of the Aborigines in Australia HERE. Or get in touch with Sinem via her guardianweekly.co.uk profile, HERE.