I would like to pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of this land – the Gubbi Gubbi people; past, present and future, and recognise their unique country, culture, language and knowledge systems. Growing up on the Sunshine Coast it often becomes easy to forget the true history of this land, the dispossession that Indigenous people have faced and the intergenerational trauma it has caused. It was not until I enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Sciences (majoring in Development Studies and minoring in Indigenous Studies) at the University of the Sunshine Coast that I met the knowledgeable and passionate mentors who have given me a deeper understanding of Australian history and what it means to be Australian.
After graduating at the end of last year, the first step towards beginning my career in the Indigenous sector was to apply for an Aurora internship; a competitive placements program which places students and graduates with a background in social sciences, anthropology and law in NGO’s within the Indigenous and native title sectors across Australia. I was placed at Ninti One, a community development and research organisation known for their innovation in remote Australian research. I was set to move to Alice Springs, in the heart of Central Arrernte country, for a 6 week internship starting in May 2017. The locals warned me from the beginning, “6 weeks will turn into a lifetime,” as everyone who comes to the Northern Territory falls in love with it and cannot leave. I can concur, as I have overstayed my original 6 weeks and have now been here for 2+ months with no intentions of leaving anytime soon.
As I flew across QLD and Central Australia, the landscapes beneath me dramatically shifted. From the lush table lands of Queensland’s hinterland to a vast red desert. The speckles of yellow spinifex and shrubs followed the curves of ancient river systems and mountain ranges. I was in awe at how these landscapes accurately represented the dreaming and traditional artwork of the people from Central Australia. I still cannot fathom how a population some 40,000+ years ago could envision these landscapes on such a magnitude without access to a bird’s eye view, basing their very spiritual, cultural and physical being in relation to it.
Ninti means knowledge in Pitjantjatjara, the dominant language of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankkunytjatjara (APY) Lands people located close to Uluru. This is a true reflection of the core of Ninti One, as I’m continually surrounded by knowledgeable people. This abundance of knowledge has been earned over the years of Ninti One’s operations and reflects the roots of its research with knowledge informing practice. To me, the most defining characteristic of Ninti One’s work is their unique and desirable approach to community development and research, basing their operation on the employment of Aboriginal Community Researcher’s (ACR’s). The ACR program employs and trains local people throughout the Northern Territory to engage with communities in a culturally and linguistically sensitive manner. Local knowledge is utilised to deliver sustainable community development projects as well as provide invaluable social research data. The ACR program has been so successful that its framework is starting to be employed nationally in many different projects aimed at improving the lives of Indigenous people, even on the Sunshine Coast.
Although bound by the social dysfunctions of a traumatised colonial past, Alice Springs is a mesmerising place, which has the ability to capture the past, the present and the future all in the one breath of air. Living here, you are surrounded by Central Arrernte sacred sites, which tell the spiritual and cultural histories of the local Arrernte people. The shadows of a colonial past remain, with the mission at the Telegraph Station being a constant reminder of the whitewashed history of the stolen generations. The impacts of this era are evident today with family violence, substance use, suicide and poor health conditions being far too common. Despite all this, Alice has a strong community feel. People of all backgrounds come together for events which hope to move the town forward. Just to name a few which have taken place in the short 2 months I have been here, we have had NAIDOC week celebrations, a ‘violence against women in town camps’ protest march, the beanie festival, numerous arts and crafts events, the 10 year anniversary of the NT intervention protests, angkentye anwerne-kenhe impene anthurre (our language is essential) as well as numerous open public forums with local elders. Alice has no shortage in making friends with open minded and interesting people. Weekends can be filled with hiking the West MacDonnell Ranges, exploring gorges, swagging it under the stars of the desert sky or sticking around town where some unanticipated but exciting events will be bound to be taking place.
The Central Arrernte language is still alive and embraced here with bilingual schools, town buildings named in the local tongue and language schools open to all. The encouragement of language is a positive example of our move toward a shared society and is seen as a way for Aboriginal children to regain their sense of identity and culture. I have just signed up for an Arrernte language class and am so excited to learn the language as a sign of respect to being on country, just as anyone would if they were to visit or live in another country.
For me, the Aurora internship program has been life changing. It opened the door to my first paid role in the Indigenous sector, it has allowed me to learn amongst a supportive team at Ninti One, and has given me the opportunity to explore and experience the land in Central Australia.