Have you ever played tip with a buffalo? The kids in Yirrkala do it all the time. For fun.
A group of children from as young as four years old will wander through the bush and search for one of the many Asian water buffalos which roam free in Arnhem Land. Not the domesticated buffalo which plough the rice paddies in Asia, but the feral, wild, big and dangerous kind of buffalo which infest the tropical regions of northern Australia.
Once the children have located a buffalo, they line it up. One or more of the children will pick up one of the bauxite stones which cover the earth in north-east Arnhem Land and will place this stone into their slingshot.
The children will hold their collective breath in anticipation and get ready. The slingshot draws back to its full length. The fingers pinching the slingshot ease then…SNAP! The slingshot is released and the stone goes flying towards the unsuspecting buffalo which is happily munching on the grass. In the split second that it takes the the stone to travel from the slingshot to the buffalo, the children stand on full alert, their senses heightened and their eyes widened to capture the charge of the massive buffalo.
The stone strikes the hind of the buffalo and the huge angry creature charges into the bush in the direction of its attackers. The wild, muscle bound animal powers head long into the throng of children who scamper in all directions with the buffalo at their heels. In bare feet, the skip across stones and thorns and twigs in a race for their life, knowing full well that the beast behind them can squash the bonnet of a SUV upon impact and could trample them to death. They charge through spindly trees and over fallen logs while screeching and laughing and hooting in fear and glee. Slightly older children grab slightly younger children to save them from impending doom and the bush comes alive with the streak of junior humanity.
The buffalo snorts and grunts in disgust at having its lunch disturbed and sets its horns on its target – any of the children who broke it from its reverie. The buffalo has only revenge on its mind and dedicates every ounce of energy to that task.
Somehow, all of the children find safe ground as the powerful buffalo tires and ceases its pursuit. The children re-gather in a gaggle of laughter and wicked smiles, their little hearts pounding with adrenaline and gratitude. They escaped this time. They rest and recover.
We were supposed to take the entire school out to a homeland to collect Guku, or wild honey. We now have to find another way to entertain the students for an afternoon. What will we do?
And before we decide what to do, how did honey season come to such an abrupt halt?
Honey season occurs at a particular time of the year in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and is a highly anticipated season among the traditional owners of these lands, the Yolgnu. The children venture out into various parts of their family’s homelands to collect wild honey from certain trees, under the direction of the women. The women knew when to go, and where to find the honey, and the children have always looked forward to sampling the rich honey to complement what was traditionally a sugar-free diet.
The kids consume a lot more sugar these days, but they still love the sweet taste of wild honey.
Hours of planning had gone into the activity, which would include all of the students at the school, the staff, the elders and a group of visiting indigenous athletes in a group called ARM, or Athletes as Role Models. The ARM program was created to encourage indigenous youth to participate in healthy and constructive activities and to eat healthy food. Thus, a walk through the bush, in the sunshine, to eat wild honey and connect with their traditional culture was an ideal afternoon activity.
The ARM participants were lucky. Many of them were city folk and they just happened to be in the community of Yirrkala during Guku season – or so they thought.
The Guku site was beyond walking distance from the school, so transport had to be organised. Being a government school, first aid and other equipment had to be taken in order to keep the children safe, and to satisfy the bureaucrats and protect the teachers from a lawsuit. Not that the Yolngu families would ever undertake that kind of proceedings against the school. It always struck me as humorously ironic that we teachers would take so many precautions for the safety of the students during outdoor activities, while the Yolgnu children, especially the younger ones, would wander through the bush in bare feet, no shirt and no hat, and run freely across the bauxite gravel that covers the earth in this part of Australia. They would also run bare foot across coral in the rock pools, and even swim in crocodile infested waters at the beach, as they have done for thousands of years. They very, very rarely got hurt.
Shovels, axes and other digging equipment were organised for extracting the honey, and receptacles were taken to carry the Guku, as well as some bread and other food items with which to enjoy the honey. I was looking forward to it, as I have a dangerously sweet tooth, and the rest of the school was excited about the activity.
The elders had been consulted as to the best day to conduct the activity, the best site to visit and the cultural significance of the process. Permission had been sought from the traditional owners of that particular piece of land. Many different language groups live together in Yirrkala, but each piece of land belongs to a particular language group. Organising the activity was therefore quite an effort.
The teachers had built up the activity quite a lot, and everyone was excited. Then, two hours before we were set to depart came the bad news:
Honey Season is Over
In the space of two hours, honey season had been declared finished, and we couldn’t do the activity.
I have no idea.
I had no time to ponder, though, because we needed to find another way to entertain the students for the rest of the afternoon. Thus, while various teachers were dispatched to deliver the bad news, a few of us tried to devise another activity. The sea breeze had picked up, so the best suggestion was to fly kites.
But we have no kites.
That’s no problem, in fact it could be the solution. We can make kites. The students can sit down with each other, the teachers and the athletes, and can build their own kite before decorating it and flying it. Great idea, we thought.
“Do you know how to make a kite?” we asked each other.
It was then that Ray Minniecon, one of the group leaders from ARM, walked in. Ray is a well-known Aboriginal community leader and activist who was accompanying the athletes on their tour of various remote communities.
“So, you need to know how to make a kite,” he said.
“Yes,” we answered with more than a hint of desperation. Time was running out.
“I know a way”
And with this, us two whitefellas from the suburbs waited with baited breath.
Were we about to share some ancient Aboriginal wisdom about traditional kite making? Were we about to be privy to a little-known Aboriginal technique in the creation of airborne art? We expected to be taught about a tradition that that had been passed on from generation to generation through Aboriginal oral history. Did Aboriginal people make kites before colonisation, were they used for hunting, communication, recreation or for spiritual reasons, or were kites a preferred method for communicating with the gods?
Were kites used in every part of the country, or maybe only in Ray’s ancestral lands, we wondered. Perhaps they were only suitable in certain climates, certain geographical regions, just like the boomerang. The commonly-known boomerang, the one made in China and sold at souvenir shops all over Australia, was not used in Arnhem Land for example. A boomerang like that would never come back. In Arnhem Land, the trees would get in the way.
And what were we to do with his knowledge once it was shared with us? Would we be free to disseminate it? Could we divulge this secret years later during a blog post? The responsibility felt immense, were we ready for this?
Thus, we listened intently for Ray to share this ancient wisdom. And Ray, being a wise old man, sensed our mood and leaned in slightly, pausing for dramatic effect, before telling us:
“Just google it.”
And he cracked a cheeky smile.
We did google kite making and found a suitable method that kids, teachers and athletes could understand. The students gathered various materials from the school and the surrounding bush land and put together their best imitation of a kite. They were creative and colourful and some of them actually flew. Even the ones that crashed spectacularly provided much amusement, and the kids were outdoors and smiling.
I never did taste wild honey.
Will I ever get the chance, who knows?
Who knows when we will be able to travel freely to north-east Arnhem Land again? Who knows if the Yolgnu can maintain their traditional cultural practices and protect their lands from mining companies, developers and an Australian government which seems determined to destroy this country’s natural environment?
Will the rest of Australia do what is needed to help protect the world’s oldest surviving culture and enable everyone to enjoy the taste of Guku?
Apartheid operates in Australia. It operates to this day.
Apartheid exists in remote Aboriginal communities in the form of liquor permits for residents.
Basically, if you’re white you get one, if you’re black you don’t.
A liquor permit is a piece of paper which allows the holder to consume alcohol inside the physical boundaries of the community. Permits are awarded by the local council, which is administered by the Aboriginal community in conjunction with the government. To my knowledge, the system still operates in 2018.
There are a few conditions governing the liquor permits. Holders may only consume alcohol in their own home, and only in the presence of other people who hold a liquor permit. If only one person at a social gathering does not have a liquor permit, no one can consume alcohol. For this reason, obtaining a liquor permit was one of the first things that I did once I arrived in the community of Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, in 2004; not because I was desperate for a beer, but because the other white fellas in the community, most of whom were my teaching colleagues at the local school, insisted I get my permit as soon as possible.
“If you don’t get one, none of us can drink when you’re with us,” they informed me.
I was promptly issued with a permit after visiting the office. It didn’t seem very difficult for me to get one.
I couldn’t help thinking, why was it so easy for me to get a permit? There was not enough time for the issuer to run a background check on me. Is it because I was a Teacher? Does that automatically make me a respectable citizen? Yes, Teachers are respectable citizens, but I certainly wouldn’t have been the first Teacher with a drinking problem, especially in a remote community – it’s a tough job.
The only conclusion I could make is that it was because I’m white.
In my mind, that equates to apartheid.
So, should Aboriginal people be given liquor permits as well?
Alcohol is destroying Aboriginal communities and a lot of the good work that is being done, including at the schools, is rendered redundant through the destructive power of alcohol. To solve the massive problems in Aboriginal communities, it’s imperative get rid of the alcohol – as a starting point.
Of course, the permit system didn’t stop Aboriginal people from abusing alcohol. Groups of men would gather at the town limit and drink to excess, in plain sight of anyone driving in or out of the community. They would then stroll back into the community and cause problems. There were also many venues in the nearby mining town of Nhulunbuy which served alcohol.
The white fellas would also abuse alcohol, so it was not as if all of them were worthy of the permit. There also seemed to be a reluctance among some white fellas to leave behind some of the comforts of their urban upbringing, such as Friday night drinks, when they chose to move to the remote community, despite the fact that they saw the damage alcohol was doing on a daily basis.
Apartheid is not new to Australia. The liquor permit is one of the last vestiges of this discriminatory colonial practice.
Pubs throughout the country once posted the ubiquitous signs, ‘No blacks, no dogs”. Many cinemas reserved the best seats for whites and the worst seats for Aboriginal people, and of course Australian history since 1788 is full of occurrences such as The Stolen Generation, blackbirding and genocide which saw Aboriginal people stolen, enslaved or murdered.
Apartheid occurred, it just wasn’t given a name. As a white South-African once told me, one mistake the authorities in South Africa made was assigning the word Apartheid to their system of racial discrimination. This opened up the Afrikaans to criticism from authorities throughout the world, many of whom, including the British, imposed exactly the same discriminatory practices on indigenous populations, but escaped the criticism because they didn’t label their practices.
Why is this not commonly known?
Because, like so many incidents and stories involving Aboriginal people since 1788, they are simply ignored or covered up because many Australians are too uncomfortable, too patriotic or too ignorant to talk about them.