Australia If governments can't close the gap, Groote Eylandt leaders want the autonomy to do it themselves

02:15  27 september  2021
02:15  27 september  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Dennis Maminyamanja is worried not enough young people want to carry on their Warnindilyakwa traditions. (ABC News: Jane Bardon) © Provided by ABC NEWS Dennis Maminyamanja is worried not enough young people want to carry on their Warnindilyakwa traditions. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)

On remote Groote Eylandt off the Northern Territory coast, Dennis Maminyamanja is keeping his Warnindilyakwa culture alive by continuing the tradition of making spears, which he learned from his grandfather.

"We use them for ceremony, dancing and we used to use them for fighting, if somebody pinch[es] another man's wife, they use this one," he said.

But he and his colleague at the Angurugu men's art centre, Daniel Ngurruwuthun, are frustrated some of their efforts to make sure their knowledge is passed on to the next generation, by bringing teenagers here every week to learn, aren't working.

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"The young people should be with me and Daniel so they learn from the elders, this is for their future after I am gone, but no-one [is] interested, they just hang around the community, not working in a job," Mr Maminyamanja said.

"I'm worried, I want to see more men my age, under 30, come in here and sit down with us, because a lot of men here, my age, they don't do anything," Mr Ngurruwuthun said.

The art centre is just one of the initiatives traditional owners fund through their Anindilyakwa Land Council with royalties from the massive South32 manganese mine on their land to try to preserve their culture.

The land council's chairman Tony Wurramarrba said they also fund a women's art centre, a recording studio and a language centre.

"As Aboriginal people, it is very important that we maintain our identity, that's one of the strengths that we have, the culture within us," he said.

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"Young people in the community are losing their language, they are speaking Kriol, in other words, broken English, so we thought, we have to do something about this that will actually keep our culture alive."

Millions in mining royalties

The island's traditional owners view themselves as lucky that they have had a flow of hundreds of millions of dollars of mining royalties, over the last 40 years, which they have also been able to use to establish successful businesses.

These include a building company, Gebie Civil And Construction, which has won government contracts to build public housing and supplies the mine with concrete.

Its general manager Glen Smith said the company's growth has allowed it to spend $1.4 million a year on a program attracting and training up young Indigenous people.

He said 38 per cent of its employees are now Warnindilyakwa people.

"We've really built up in the last five or six years and been able to do bigger contracts and employ more Indigenous locals, at the moment turnover is about $24-25 million a year, that's pretty significant for a small Indigenous company," he said.

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Groote Islanders also plan to establish their own manganese mine and an aquaculture industry that will export seafood to Asia.

Some of the mining royalties haven't been spent well, including a decade ago when $34 million went missing from the Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Trust over two years.

'An example for others to follow'

But the way the islanders have used much of their royalties to develop businesses and culture programs has given them an advantage over other remote communities struggling without the financial resources to take more control of their destinies.

It has also helped to persuade the Northern Territory government to choose Groote Eylandt as one of the first partners for its Local Decision Making policy to return the power to run services to Indigenous communities.

This is the kind of agreement the federal government promised to back last month as a key way of closing the gap.

"By having local decision-making back on the island, it will give us the autonomy, the independence to run our own affairs," Mr Wurramarrba said.

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"And it will be a good example for others to follow in other Indigenous communities.

"It will take a lot of time for us to establish, it has taken us 10 years of talking to the communities and the government, up to now."

Social problems threatening self-determination

But the Groote Islanders are also very aware high rates of incarceration, ill health, welfare and substance dependence and poor school attainment are threatening their hopes of self-determination.

Less than a quarter of local children attend school regularly and people from Groote Eylandt are imprisoned at a rate seven times that of any other area in the NT.

Traditional owner and Anindilyakwa sea ranger Constantine Mamarika said community leaders know there is more work to be done.

"There is a high level of violence on Groote Eylandt," he said.

"It's worrying me because we don't want to lose our young people, you know? The ganja, it's controlling them  — that's why they're going off their head doing silly things, bad things.

"Sometimes, when kids run out of drugs, they talk in public that they are heading for suicide."

Last month, local children with long knives attacked the house of the school principal in the community of Umbakumba.

"The principal, she rang me up, she was really upset, and told me her house was smashed by the young group," Mr Mamarika said.

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"I told her I'll deal with them, so the next morning I went to the parents and talked to them very strong, you know, and talked to the kids."

Tackling issues head-on

Mr Mamarika and other Warnandilyakwa leaders are worried they are losing many of the young generation they are hoping will grow up to take control on the island.

They are using the NT government's commitment to let them run their own services to tackle their problems head-on.

They are about to start building a local boarding school to encourage young people to attend and a youth detention centre.

Building a local justice centre on the island was a key recommendation of an Australian Crime Commission report in 1983, which found sending Groote Eylandt people to prison in Darwin was not rehabilitating them, but actually increasing criminality.

At the time, the report found that people from Groote Eylandt were being imprisoned at a rate seven times that of any other area in the NT.

Mr Wurramarrba said the important thing was the community is actually responding to this with real home-grown solutions.

"There are a lot of social problems like many other communities, but we are actually addressing them, trying to get our children a better education and a rehabilitation centre," Mr Wurramarrba said.

Traditional owners have already used some of their business income to set up a program called the Gebie Gang to help troubled young people dropping out of school early to get training and jobs.

It also gets funding from the GEMCO mine.

The supervisor of the program, Fabian Lalara, said he has found the most effective way of assisting young people has been providing them with the support they have missed out on at home.

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He said he knows personally how vital this is.

"We had a couple of young men, women, been suiciding and we lost a couple of family members, one of them my niece," he said.

"The youth need someone like me to let them know they are not alone, we [are] there supporting them, giving them a job, giving them opportunity.

"We get them IDs, certificates, training, and out of my 10 boys, we've got five a full-time job, so I'm really proud of my boys and I hope they are proud of themselves."

He is hopeful some on the course will eventually become leaders.

"That's why I'm trying to give tools to my boys to stand up for their rights and talk for their land, talk for the people and what they need to have a better education and create more local jobs," he said.

"So Aboriginal people can work on their own land and make our own decisions, rather than listening to white people."

The Gebie Gang program only has 20 places.

But the young men on it, including Donovan Wurramara, said it has helped them a lot.

"We've been learning to drive a car, I'm getting my driving licence, also still waiting for my white card and I am hoping to get a job, maybe next week, doing roadwork, fixing roads," he said.

Women taking a lead

Jasmine Hastings, the leadership officer of Groote Eylandt's Milyakburra Strong Women's group, said traditionally, many decisions on Groote Eylandt have been made by men but that is changing.

Her group has established a small business Bush Medijina making skincare products which employs six of them full-time.

"I have seen small changes but significant enough to start a movement of ladies, empowering themselves to be able to make positive social change for their communities," she said.

"Sometimes the non-Indigenous people need to lean aside, to allow our local people to rise up and have a go at these things; have a go at leading our own community."

Mr Wurramarrba said he is now trying to recruit young leaders to follow in his footsteps.

"I see a couple out there, but they need to stand up, the young ones are hesitant at first, but I'm giving them the opportunity and the encouragement," he said.

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