ABOVE:At the pulse of Aurukun: Community police liaison officers Jennifer Woolla (left) and Evelyn Marpoonndin.
Jennifer Woolla is sitting with her tiny fellow officer under the spreading shade tree in the square that is the pulse of Aurukun.
In her police uniform, hair sleeked back, she rises from her seat with an easy grace to greet us in the morning sunshine.
Constable James Hunter, formerly of Hervey Bay, is surprised to see her. “Didn’t you work late last night?”
The community police liaison officer smiles, nods and speaks quietly. Yes, she had. She’s tired but still wanted to come on duty that morning as rostered. Last night when her shift should have finished, her cousin would have been on liaison night duty alone. She didn’t want to leave him in case he needed help.
We were in Aurukun in deliver some books for the Indigenous Knowledge Centre after James had sent word that any children’s book, including Little Golden Books, would be appreciated. The space under Isabel’s bed had been crammed with reading books, toys and puzzles generously donated after I put out an appeal on Facebook.
Jennifer, a young mother of two, is part of the community police liaison team of 12 helping build bridges and bring a more peaceful life to the challenged community. The liaison officers and other talented, inspirational identities form the other face of Aurukun, one too often obscured by problems highlighted in the media.
The liaison team combined with continuing prohibition in Aurukun have made an enormous difference in the last year, says the police officer everyone calls Jim. Problems are not going to be overcome quickly, however.
Richard Trudgen in his insightful novel on Arnhem Land, “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die”, pinpoints the core of the problem with the communities. Even when prohibition is in force, the welfare dependency exacerbates the anger in younger males. They have no clear role in life.
Women are adapting to new ways of life easier and are becoming strong leaders in the communities but that makes it even harder for the males. They have no need for hunting skills. Canberra provides. They need build no shelters. Canberra provides. Ways to stand tall are scarce: their attempts to carve a male identity are often illegal and too often violent.
Aurukun is spotlighted for its social difficulties but they are echoed in the welfare belts throughout Australia where work is scarce and the impetus for toil removed. Canberra has become the father figure; paternalistic pride is smothered. The male need to find a role too often erupts in destructive aggression that can subside into despair.
In Aurukun, skills once employed to build and hunt are refined to suit adept break and enter games, or playing cat and mouse in the prohibition game. With a bottle of rum retailing at $300, alcohol smuggling in dry communities is tempting to some residents and occasionally contractors. Violence erupts, inter-clan and domestic.
Authorities and community leaders are disappointed when alcohol gets through but often the outbursts are fuelled not by liquor but by the boiling over of pent-up anger.
A couple of nights ago police were busy trying to quell troubles. Tension had been evident in subdued atmosphere of the town square the next morning but this morning is different.
The square is recognised as the pulse of the community and today the mood is companionable. Relaxed people chat and stroll from the supermarket to the popular bakery that has just opened in the smart new building that houses the post office and Bank of Bendigo.
With Jennifer is a pint-size packet of energy, grinning infectiously and commenting cheekily. Evelyn Marpoondin is pound-for-pound one of the bravest ladies around, putting her life on the line for her community.
Not so long ago one of the regular female officers had her life threatened by a spear-wielding angry man. Evelyn coolly placed her diminutive frame in front of the target officer and talked the spear wielder into laying down his weapon. The bond between the community liaison officers and the police staff stationed in Aurukun is a strong one.
“We just do our job,” said Evelyn, a mother of two young boys. James reminds her one of the liaison officers had been taken to hospital after being hit on the head with a rock. “You were hit too,” she responds. Jim shakes his head. Not seriously.
A strong bond exists too between the elders and police. The imposing personality of Mavis Ngallametta materialises around the community, symbolising the Aurukun powerful art heritage that spans 50 years.
For 10 years Mavis has presided over the Wik and Kugu Art and Craft Centre. The gallery is rated as an important centre for the creation of authentic and high indigenous sculpture and fibre art.
Born in 1955, Mavis received a community arts achievement award in 2004 for her contribution to schools and community, teaching children weaving and traditional craft. Four years later she went into the bush, walked and searched for long hours and found the traditional ochres and colours used in paintings by her ancestors. She produced her first paintings using authentic indigenous materials and found instant fame. Within a year she found herself in New York art circles. Today her paintings cost around $50,000 and hang in prestigious national, state and private collections in Australia and overseas.
In the gallery, Bevan Naopnan is working with a group of other male carvers. He is putting the finishing touches to a striking crocodile a metre and a half long. Other carvings reflect the creativity of Aurukun.
Jim points out the neat home of Granny Bertha Yankaporta. A sign announces an award for the best kept house yard in Aurukun. We find gentle Granny Bertha sitting on the porch of the centre for senior citizens. Her 81-year-old face breaks into smiles at the sight of Jim.
In 1988 Granny Bertha and her husband Francis had represented Aurukun when indigenous community leaders were gathered to meet Princess Diana. She sighs at the memory.
“She was so beautiful and so tall. I loved her.”
Granny Bertha, now widowed, is the mother of six children. All work in Aurukun. When she was young she did the housework – payment was flour, tea and sugar - for missionaries Jim and Geraldine MacKenzie, who moved to the community in 1925. A group of about 75 Aborigines lived at the mission; communication with the outside world was by lugger until 1937.
In her diary, Gerrie MacKenzie wrote of the people: “I had learnt admiration for their hardiness, their cheerfulness in the face of odds that would have flattened me … The spaciousness and unhurried peace of the land they lived in had claimed both of us.”
One-time housemaid, long-time midwife, Granny Bertha’s gentle hands hold Jim’s arm as they talk; she pats her visitors as we leave. “I love you.” We leave her reluctantly.
Under the missionaries, the people of Aurukun had a market garden, a cattle station, a timber mill and incentives to learn trades. Under Canberra, much of that has disappeared.
Life used to be a hard battle for survival. Men young and old had important roles as workers and providers and went to sleep early at night because they were tired. Now money arrives without effort.
A few work hard and have done well but too many don’t feel the need. They stay up late and get up late. Lack of purpose and pride breed resentment and anger.
Gambling goes hand and hand with idleness in the community, exposing the frailty of the culture of dependency. Some are broke not long after the welfare payments come through.
Increasingly officials are learning that unearned money cannot do what Aurukun needs for many of its residents: restoration of pride. It will not happen overnight but in a year the community has come a long way. Dedicated, practical and brave people from within and without are making a difference.