Recently The Australian published two series of articles by Amos Aikman that I found very difficult to read. It wasn’t just the appalling subject matter, it was the sickening feeling of déja vu. I have read articles like this for decades, and I have witnessed the silent suffering of Aboriginal children, for much longer. And yet there is no effective action and those who speak out are silenced. The first series concerned the deaths by hanging of three girls aged between 15 and 17, in remote Top End communities. The police decided that they had suicided despite the fact that two suffered injuries consistent with sexual assault the day they died and the other a fresh facial injury.
All had been raped, one ‘probably’ three times, by three different males, when she was 12. Her family sought contraception for her as a result. Her mother had avoided neonatal care for her and had presented her later with a fractured arm. Apparently, she had been raped again on the day she died. Another was raped and stabbed with scissors by an older man at age 14. Yet another was raped by a young male who lived in the same house.
One was diagnosed with an STI when she was 13. An executive of Territory Families stated that nothing was done because there was no evidence that the male involved was ‘significantly older’. One, according to her ‘wrong skin’ partner had been savagely assaulted by her own aunt, triggering a miscarriage. One had been abandoned by a family member when she’d gone to Darwin for medical attention. The ‘carer’ left her alone to go drinking. When another was found wandering the streets of Katherine her family refused to take her back. The family of another, most uncharacteristically, cleaned the house thoroughly straight after her death.
One of these girls had been sent interstate to a boarding school because the man who’d raped her had threatened suicide and if he’d done that she would have been punished for his death as ‘payback’.
These aren’t isolated cases, they form part of a widespread pattern. The numbers of notified cases of childhood STIs rose by up to 180 per cent for some diseases between 2006 and 2016. In 2016 it was found that underage Aboriginal girls were 60 times more likely to contract syphilis than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, and 30 times more likely to contract gonorrhoea or trichomoniasis.
Then came the articles about the children who had died from petrol sniffing. A 17 year old girl suicided after sniffing for five years. She had been raped twice and had contracted an STI at age 12. She had been bashed, had self-harmed, and dropped out of school and had witnessed the suicide of a relative. Investigations were not conducted because she was being ‘looked after by a grandmother’, and the man who raped her was not a parent or carer.
The other cases involved the deaths of two boys of 12 and 13. All had a long history of self harm as well as substance abuse. The family of one boy had tried to get him into a residential rehabilitation program but he was considered too young. He died in his own father’s car next to a can of petrol. The other had sniffed since the age of eight, had smoked cigarettes at school from the age of nine and was sniffing ‘unsniffable’ Opal fuel mixed with orange juice.
It was reported that young girls across Arnhem Land were sniffing to get into rehabilitation programs and so out of their communities. The self harming, twice raped seventeen year old, threatened suicide and stated that she’d ‘rather die’ than go back to her community of Yirrkala. Yet she was deemed to not be at high risk. After getting into a fight with her brother and stabbing him twice she was taken home by the community Night Patrol where she hanged herself.
There are hundreds of cases of petrol sniffing reported in the Top End each year, most especially from the communities along the Arnhem Land coast. A fight at Yirrkala involving, up to 150, “sniffers” and “non-sniffers” armed with baseball bats and hammers would indicate that what is happening is well beyond the control of community leadership.
So, who is to blame and what are the solutions?
In the case of petrol sniffing, switching to low aromatic fuels has not worked. Social and spiritual problems are not solved by technical measures. The leaders of all of the world’s religions have always told us that. We stopped listening.
Once again government agencies are blamed. Laws and regulations have been ignored repeatedly without penalty. The NT’s Assistant Police Commissioner, Nick Anticich, identified his officers’ problem as ‘unconscious bias’, and stated, against all logic, that there was no evidence of foul play in the deaths of the three girls found hanging. This feeds straight into the idiotic, anti-police prejudice of the highly funded and organised, urban-based BLM protests imported directly from the USA. For his officers’ sake but mostly for the children’s sake, he should be fighting them not capitulating to them.
Governments were never going to solve these problems. The NT government has pledged a Task Force that will ensure that agencies finally coordinate and cooperate. This has been the policy of all governments since the eighties. Despite all of the billions spent, lamenting, apologies, all the targets, policy changes, restructuring, protesting, grandstanding, blaming and finger pointing government services didn’t work then and they don’t now. More kids are dying avoidably now than ever before.
The reason can be summed up in the least quoted, most ignored but most pertinent comment made in the report of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission:
“There is no other way. Only Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.”
Why don’t they?
Let’s take a quick look at the customary law that we have been told to acknowledge and respect. A former, now deceased, Chairman of the Central Land Council, stated the following in an ABC News interview in Darwin, in January 2009. It was in relation to a police woman entering the men’s ceremonial ground at Lajamanu in pursuit of an alleged domestic violence perpetrator:
… it’s against our law for people like that breaking the law, they shouldn’t be there, aboriginal ladies, they’re not allowed to go anywhere near that. If they had been caught, a woman, aboriginal lady got caught she (would) be killed. simple as that.
In relation to a horrific case of domestic violence perpetrated by his own nephew, a former, also now deceased, Chairman of the Northern Land Council told us in October of 2010:
… as far as the Aboriginal law stands, violence on an Aboriginal woman is not really terrible but a mild one … you can work around it.
Women in remote Aboriginal communities are threatened with execution, torture and rape for committing offences against traditional law. If you doubt this I refer you to the document An introduction to the Ngarra law of Arnhem Land, published in the journal of the NT Law Society in 2011. The author tells us straight out that both women and men can be executed, disciplined, re-educated and tortured for certain offences, some seemingly trivial to us.
Further, a woman who enters a men’s punishment camp at night:
… may be punished by being required to participate in sexual acts. This punishment may continue for some time, perhaps months.
I am reliably informed by Aboriginal women that this is a coy way of describing gang rape, a punishment for the commission of other cultural crimes as well in Arnhem land and elsewhere.
Add to this the forced marriage of sometimes pre-teen girls to much older men and I can’t really see how the uncritical acknowledgement of such a law and contemporary adherence to it would aid in the reduction of domestic and sexual violence and the sexual abuse of children especially when chronic and wide spread substance abuse is added to the mix.
All of the horrific crimes perpetrated against these children were committed by their own people. They were the victims of severe neglect, if not outright abuse, by members of their own families. There is no evidence that any of the Aboriginal organisations offering services to their communities and families did the jobs that they were funded by taxpayers to do and no evidence that Aboriginal leaders did much to prevent it all from happening. And yet it has been decided that government agencies only are at fault. Senior bureaucrats lined up to offer mea culpas and apologies and to pledge that next time they’ll get it right.
The coroner was told that police face ‘walls of silence’ within the communities. Another example of ‘unconscious bias’? It is partly the result of a palpable fear of payback among the victims of violence and their would-be supporters. Female victims of violence may not even seek treatment for their wounds knowing that health staff will report to the police and they will be punished by the perpetrator’s families if police act. The grandmother of the girl who was raped by her father , the case I sat through, incited her other son to assault the girl’s maternal aunt with an axe in her workplace, the local school, because she supported the girl in her dealings with the police.
Consultation doesn’t always work. Aikman informs us that a mother attended a consultation meeting discussing petrol sniffing in the Centralian community of Mutitjulu with her child sniffing petrol from a tin.
We will not see an end to this horror until we hear apologies from the families and community leaders to their own dead. We should also hear apologies from those who have run Aboriginal controlled services for forty years and from the well-paid and influential Aboriginal ‘leaders’ who have convinced governments that the best we can do for these children is to leave them in the hell holes they die in as long as they are ‘on country’, practice their ‘culture’ and speak their language. They should all feel deep shame.
The people of Arnhem Land have maintained their traditional culture and languages much more than most. They have owned their land outright since 1976 and have received more income from mining than just about any other group. Hundreds troop to their annual Garma Festival to learn from and celebrate that culture and be lectured by members of the indigenous power elite on the ills of government and the sins of the White Man. They pioneered bilingual/bicultural school programs more than forty years ago and have produced more of their own teachers than any other region.
They have sent three of their own to the NT parliament including the current Independent member for Nhulunbuy and the current Attorney General and Minister for justice, treaty, local decision making and Aboriginal affairs – and previously of education – whose mother was born in Arnhem Land. Both are serving their second terms. The current Labor Senator for the NT has connections to that country through her mother. And still they can’t stop their kids from sniffing petrol or protect them from rape bashings and suicide. Still they blame government for this disaster. We have heard nothing from their elected representatives on this issue. We have heard much from the Senator about flags and the need for yet another Voice. Perhaps 4 Corners will do a hard hitting exposé of the issues just before the next NT election. I won’t hold my breath.
Everybody knows the name George Floyd, a convicted, violent criminal who died while being arrested on the other side of the world. The names Fionica Yarranganlagi James, Keturah Cheralyn Mamarika and Layla Gulum Leering were known only in their own communities and to their own families. Now, thanks to Amos Aikman and the infamous Murdoch Press, all of us do – if we care enough to know.
Black Lives Matter! Say their names!
Dave Price, has lived and worked with remote communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia for a life time and has been married to Bess Nungarrayi Price for over forty years.