Lessons from the past for a brighter future

Janice Reid Vice-chancellor, University of Western Sydney; 20/10/09;

When the homelands movement was gathering momentum in the Northern Territory in the early 1970s, Gawirrin Gumana was one of its most compelling champions (“All-in communities will be the death of the Yolngu, elder says”, October 17-18) . He explained to me in 1974 that since Gough Whitlam had come to power, Yolngu people were allowed to “go home”. The large mission settlement of Yirrkala was beset by tensions. The new mining town of Nhulunbuy had brought alcohol, petrol sniffing and violence. The proximity of strangers — European and Yolngu — fostered anxiety, political conflict and mistrust. People seemed to get sicker and die earlier than anyone could remember.

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Residents often blamed these calamities on the malign forces at work in the crowded settlement and nearby town.
As Gumana said to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs when it took evidence at his clan’s outstation of Gangan in 1978, those living on and looking after their ancestral lands were much healthier, happier and more industrious than they had been in town.
There are no blanket solutions to the aspirations and afflictions of remote Aboriginal communities, any more than there are in disadvantaged urban settings.
The solutions are local and the answers reside with those such as Gumana who have seen it all before and know what works and what doesn’t.
There is, however, one imperative: education. The level of education is the leading indicator of health and well-being the world over.
Australia has been a pioneer in remote area schooling, community schools, secondary boarding colleges and distance education.
It cannot be beyond the wit of a prosperous nation to learn from the past and to adapt the provision of education, as well as health care and housing, to the ways and places people choose to live.
See: All-in communities will be death of the Yolngu, elder says
October 17, 2009;  http://www.smh.com.au/national/allin-communities-will-be-death-of-the-yolngu-elder-says-20091016-h14x.html