Spending five days on Elcho Island was an eye-opening experience that will stay with me for a long time. Learning about the Law and ceremony of the Yolngu people, seeing how they practice it despite all the pressures from the modern world that dismiss it, was remarkable. Indigenous Australian law is probably one of the world’s oldest continually practiced traditions still alive today. Every time we have a national event like the Olympics, Australians are very proud to display their aboriginal history through dances and performances in public settings.
That said, if more Australians saw the living conditions of the people on Elcho Island whose tradition we say we value so much, they would be very confronted. Due to an extreme housing shortage, about 30 people live in each house, there are almost no jobs on the island, and English literacy is very poor.
The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (usually referred to as ‘The Intervention’) which aimed to fix a number of the issues outlined above is a subject of great controversy amongst the people who live there, with some feeling it unjustly disempowers the local elders and discredits their traditional way of life. Others feel that it is necessary to prevent further deterioration in living, health and education standards across the NT.
The school we stayed at was called Shepherdson College. It was a well-resourced school whose staff are doing some pretty amazing things. This news story is a great example of what can happen when elders are empowered to make decisions for themselves.
Our Scopus students were accompanied much of the time by children aged roughly 5-13. They were very friendly with us, often holding our hands and even adopting us into their families due to their complicated kinship system which outlines permitted and forbidden contact with people in the community.
The Yonlgu students enjoyed the activities we put on such as Israeli dancing and mural painting. We also enjoyed visiting their sacred sites and learning about their ancient law.
One thing that struck me when listening to the elders describe their law, was that in order to keep it, they must live in their ancestral land near the sacred sites, as the law is intrinsically tied to these places. They spoke proudly about how their law had not changed at all since their tradition began (cave paintings found in the area indicate that their tradition may be up to 40,000 years old).
After I heard the elders explain their law, which is intrinsically tied to certain sacred places, seasons and ceremonies, I reflected on the fact that I was very fortunate to belong to a religion that one can practice authentically in any place in the world. It made me think that perhaps one of the reasons that the Jewish people have been so materially successful over time, is that our law (halacha) constantly evolves through rabbinic interpretation in a manner that makes our traditions intrinsically portable and fully compatible with western notions of employment, income and social interaction.
Clearly there are some similarities between us, with parallels between sacred sites and the existence of Israel today (a point actually noted by one of the elders), yet the challenges that exist for a Yolngu person who wants to keep their law whilst living in a balanda (white person) society are still far greater than for a Jew. For some Yolngu, being asked to move away from one’s land for employment is forcing one to choose between keeping their law and having a job.
Before the trip, Emanuel Holbein, who is an inspirational teacher on the Island, successfully applied for a $2000 grant from the NT government in order to provide meals for the students at the school for the first week of the school holidays whilst we were there. Emanuel was expecting about 10 students to be at each meal. What happened in reality was that up to 50-60 people (young and old) showed up to each meal. It very quickly occurred to me that many people on the island are not eating three meals a day. Our students immediately swung into action by helping to cook and serve food for all the hungry.
I felt grateful for our over-catering, that allowed us to leave a great amount of kosher food behind for the students in the coming week. The knowledge that some of the students at the school may be hungry until school resumes in three weeks was challenging for all of us, and gave the Scopus students much to be grateful for in their our own lives back here in Melbourne.
I am looking forward to working with the school community next term in highlighting some of the issues facing Indigenous Australians today and exploring ways in which we can make a difference.
Reflecting on the difference between our lives in Melbourne and those on Elcho can best be described in this story.
One day a rich Westerner who had made millions from speculating on the stock market was strolling along the beach and saw the fisherman pulling in his boat with his meagre catch.
The rich Westerner stopped and remarked “not much of a catch today”. The fisherman replied “yes not much” but explained that his small catch was enough for him and his family.
The rich Westerner asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
“I sleep late, play with my children and have an afternoon’s rest under a coconut tree. In the evenings, I go to the local pub to see my friends, play some music, and sing a few songs….. I have a full and happy life.” replied the fisherman.
The rich Westerner ventured, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you…… You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.
With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have a large fleet.
Instead of selling your fish to a middleman, you can negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to a city from where you can direct your huge enterprise.”
“And after that?” asked the fisherman.
“After that? That’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the rich Westerner, laughing, “When your business gets really big, you can start selling stock in your company and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” pressed the fisherman.
“After that you’ll be able to retire, move out to a small village by the sea, sleep in late every day, spend time with your family, go fishing, take afternoon naps under a coconut tree, and spend relaxing evenings with friends…”
After reading that story, many might assume that the person whose society is most broken is that of the white fella who is working 70 hours a week and barely seeing his children for more a few minutes a day. On the other hand, the story does over romanticise the life of the fisherman, who whilst being happy with his life on the island, would also love to have the access to education, health services and emplroyment that are available in the white society.
My friend Howard Goldenberg who has spent decades working with remote communities across Australia has said that the main desire of the many Aboriginals he has worked with has been להיות עם חפשי בארצנו, “To be a FREE people in OUR OWN land".
Or in the words of Elcho Island elder Daisy Gondarra "The changes that have happened at Shepherdson College give students the message that there's a pathway for them, a purpose in life, to be able to get a real job. We want something better for students to achieve in the long run, a career pathway for them, not just a job for today but a job for the future. Our children have to learn to live in both worlds; that's the way forward. It's two types, Yolngu and balanda (white people), working together as equals."