At our meeting on November 25th Michelle spoke to us about her experience as a School Counsellor in remote NT indigenous schools. She is based on Groote Eylandt servicing 3 schools on the island, one on a neighbouring island and one on the mainland. She shared some history of the island, the cultural practices and how that can impact on school attendance.
To see her slide show follow the link . The text related to the slides is in the Story Content below.
Where is Groote
Groote Eylandt is 600kms east of Darwin by plane, flying time approximately 1.5 hours. It is the largest Island in the Groote archipelago and is one of only two islands that are currently inhabited, there were a number of other islands historically inhabited but they are no longer.
The Island
There is one mining town, Alyangula, on the North west side of the Eylandt (500 people) with a majority white population. There are two main communities, Angurugu 20 minute drive south of Alyangula (1000 people) and Umbakumba on the east side of the Eylandt. (500 people).
There is a small community on Bickerton island (80-100 people) This is known as a calm place where people will go to get distance from fighting. There are also a number of inhabited outstations.
The indigenous communities are a majority TO (traditional owner) population with a handful of service providers (primarily nurses, teachers and council staff).
Brief History
The people of Groote Eylandt speak Anindilyakwa as their first language and are often referred to as the Anindilyakwa people. They belong to 14 different clan/family groups with no agreed collective name.
Groote was first impacted by missionaries in the early 1920’s, as is a common story across Australia, during this time people were moved off their lands and into missions. Emerald river was established first (although that mission no longer exists) and then Umbakumba. Angurugu was then established and the people living at Emerald river were moved there. Angurugu location was chosen as it was on rainforest land and the missionaries planned to establish agricultural practices and wanted fertile soil. Unfortunately this has led to complications in the current day, as Anindilyakwa people are Salt water people and the majority of their cultural practices revolve around the ocean. Having a community inland, has led to many people not being able to access their land, to fish and hunt as they traditionally would and it also impacts on ceremonial practices that would traditionally happen by the beach.
There are strong family ties across all of east Arnhem land and even over to Indonesia – following hundreds of years of trading with the macassans. This trade was originally trepang for alcohol and tobacco.
Mining started in the 60’s many of the older generation tell stories about their first experiences seeing the large mining vehicles. The mine is now less than 200 metres from Angurugu and causes significant issues with noise pollution and impacts on the sleep and health of community – children falling asleep in class.
Kinship Systems
Culture vastly different across the communities. The Kinship system is based on the 14 clans being split into 2 moietys and they intermarry across moietys. They have many relationship protocols that protect against what they call wrong way marriages to maintain strong bloodlines. There are often young marriage leading to difficult relationships and jealousy. The culture includes the concept of “Poison Cousins”, who are not supposed to be in each others proximity. Sorry business (death) also has very strong cultural practices.
The GE people are very proud that their language is still strong and has survived. Children often aren’t exposed to English until they start school.
Every year, around August, a large group of young men and their families from Groote head to Numbulwar to participate in their men’s ceremony. This ceremony is very secretive and much of the activities of these ceremonies are not shared with women. The boys attend these ceremonies anywhere from as young as 12 and they return to their community as men. Ceremonies run from full moon to full moon.
Groote Eylandters were forced to give up their ceremony around the mid 80’s, so ceremonial practices didn’t happen for a long time, but around 20 years ago the nunggubuyan people in Numbulwar invited Groote Eylandt people to begin participating in their ceremony.
One consequence of ceremony is children missing substantial school time.
Fishing and hunting are a huge part of people’s lives with popular foods being dugong, turtle, turtle eggs, sting ray, oysters, fish and crayfish. Hunting/eating land animals is much less part of the cultural practices, though some of the older people will eat wallaby, monitors etc if given the opportunity. However, rarely set out to hunt these animals.
Children begin learning to hunt as soon as they are able to stand and there are 5-year olds who are quite adept at hunting with machetes and spears.
Sugar bag is also hugely popular, this is a type of honey from native bees that establish hives in tree hollows. To find it you look for little openings in the tree with bees flying in and out or if you know what you are listening for, by putting your ear to the tree and listening. This is a favourite activity among the women and children.
Land Ownership
All of Groote is Aboriginal free hold land according to the Aboriginal Land Rights act – So the land is held in trust by the Anindilyakwa land trust on behalf of the traditional owners. This means they are the owners of the land and have full land ownership rights to lease and develop land. There are also distinctly understood land boundaries between the families / clans.
My Role
Michelle has held the role as School Counsellor for the last 4 years, employed by the NT Dept of Education. She provides counselling services and support to 5 schools, 3 on GE 1 on Bickerton Island and 1 on the mainland at Numbulwar. There is therefore quite a lot of driving and light plane travel.
The purpose of my role varies across the schools but includes Individual counselling, workshops, home visits and family support, parent programs, staff PDs, language resources development.
Play Therapy
Michelle identified gaps in the way her current skills addressed the needs of community so she engaged in training in Play Therapy and Sand tray therapy to provide culturally safe support. This helps to address language barrier and reduces the need for interpreters, which has been problematic.
Sand Tray
Way of inviting children to create their world and is more age appropriate than play therapy for older children.
Parent Workshops
These are mainly targeted at helping parents and staff understand brain development. People in community want this information to assist their parenting. There is poor understanding of the impacts of trauma on development.
Critical Incident Response
Perhaps the most difficult part of her job is critical incident response. In some situations, she has been required to fly (at short notice) to communities where she has no established relationships, to provide support following critical incidents such as suicides, death of a teacher, serious car accidents that are impacting on the school community.
The practice of Cursing/black magic still happens and there are regular trauma events.
There are many challenges to school attendance which results in challenges to her job. She can’t provide service if the kids aren’t coming to school. There are many reasons for low student attendance as well as the transient nature of the community, high staff turnover, poor health and the conflict of 2 very different worlds. For this reason it is challenging to establish and maintain relationships.
Local Perspective
Freda – Cultural Advisor – and the senior elder  - Angurugu School
Michelle spoke with Freda and asked her two questions –
What she loves about her job and what visiting staff should know when coming to work in the community.
These are her words – “For my role I like working at the school and supporting and encouraging our community and the staff, teaching the kids and showing them a better way and to get more confident in themselves. I am trying to build them [students] up to have a good relationship with the school and staff. Working at the school is hard, but I know that I can do it. I do this work for my community and my people, so they can have a good future for my grandchildren [Freda is grandmother for many of the children attending school]. I am so proud for this job. I went to a cultural advisor conference and I look forward to challenging my community with the ideas from the conference. AT’s and local staff need to be strong and aware that we own this school and the white people are coming to help and support.
I don’t want my own people to lose their language and their culture, it’s very important and strong and it connects our hearts. If I die, who is going to be the next Cultural advisor to talk to white people and support them?
We need to be smart and learn and not to want to white people to take over.
My mother and father, they couldn’t write and it was important to them that I got an education.
It is important when people come here that they show respect and friendship and they communicate with each other. White fella’s when they come here should come to indigenous people first and ask before they act. They need to listen to indigenous people.