Impasse at Wadeye

Nicholas Rothwell’s essay on education in Wadeye titled ‘Where Classrooms are a no-go zone’ in The Australian (March 13/14), unfortunately does not go far enough. I am a great admirer of Nicholas Rothwell’s writing, particularly on aboriginal art. I have an article he wrote on the APY desert painters still pinned above my desk. I was mesmerized by Rothwell’s description of a painting by Ginger Wilkilyiri, ‘The sound of moonlight striking ground by night’ Only a desert aboriginal mind could possibly paint that, or indeed, think that – and only a writer with such a strong sense of poetry as Rothwell, could describe the importance of such art (such seeing) in the Australian landscape. So I was disappointed that Rothwell did not describe more fully the reasons behind the unwillingness of young parents in Wadeye to send their children to school. 

The parents of which he speaks in this essay are described by Chris Pollard, education consultant for the indigenous Catholic community schools of the NT, in public testimony last month, as the ‘So-called lost generations of people who did not come to school themselves, they are now parents of kids who are not coming to school. They are quite anti-school actually’. Parents yell out to the school bus driver as he passes by ‘we’re not sending our kids there’. Rothwell then puts in a strange unexplained quote, ‘This is the time of “the rise of the child” in Wadeye’ he says, and leaves it at that. Yet the children in Wadeye are not rising, they are sinking early, many are addicted to drugs or seriously abused before they are ten years old. 

In December 2008 I had noted the following in my diary:

I have seen children walk in through my classroom door over the last six months who have not been fed since their last meal at school yesterday, who have minimal dirty clothes and have not washed all week, who did not have a blanket nor a mattress to sleep on last night, who may not have been to bed all night, who look as if they are on drugs, who suffer from alcohol foetal syndrome and who live with grandparents or aunties because their parents are in jail, or who watch through the window as their father is taken off to jail in the big police helicopter. Is this what they mean by human rights? 

‘the rise of the child’?? 

That phrase in Rothwell’s essay must have come from somewhere else – it is illusive, but it worries at me and I remember that children were set free in Wadeye by aboriginal parents pretty much as soon as they could walk. In general, aboriginal mothers in Wadeye, and aboriginal parents allow a much greater freedom to very young children than do white mothers or parents. Very young children are often not supervised in Wadeye. Many are not toilet trained and large groups of children walk around Wadeye late at night. Even children younger than five can be found wandering around because each child has such a large extended family they can sleep in any number of houses on different nights. If one tribal group is having a feud with another tribal group, which is usually the case, the family, children and all, hole up in one house for a period of time in order to protect themselves better. The children are not allowed to go to school because the feud could and often does spill over into the school ground. If this is what Rothwell means by the rise of the child – then yes there is a developing anarchy with regard to the level of freedom granted children in Wadeye. Yet, the children of Wadeye are also following the black armband pied piper (their parents, the film industry, the school, the church and the state) out into the land of despair (of addiction, alcoholism and a life of welfare) with the Catholic Church and its education system, chanting ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’. 

We need to look at not only the fact that this entire ‘lost generation’ of parents at Wadeye did not go to school, but also at why they see this failure as a revolutionary victory and want the same failure/victory for their children. 

The six hundred or so school aged children in Wadeye who do not go to school, have never been to school, do not read nor write in English nor in Murrin Patha, and do not speak English, consider those who do go school as Uncle Toms. Children are regularly berated when they speak English out in the community away from school with – ‘don’t speak English, speak Murrin Patha – you’re aboriginal, be proud.’ I heard it said many times, even in my short stay. Though the teachers in the school are very very good, and have the word ‘Sorry’ blazoned all over the Principal’s door, and teach Kevin Rudd’s apology, the stolen generations, invasion and genocide, the overwhelming majority of the aboriginal people in Wadeye still do not like them and do not trust them. They trust no whitefellas, not even women whitefellas. Some – enough to be noted, actually hate whitefellas, and are given plenty of ammunition via SBS and the ABC each night to point the attention of their children toward Rabbit Proof Fence and First Australians or Australia or The Circuit or Living Black and any number of other popular films, songs or television documentaries – all of which highlight the evil of whitefellas and the rights of aboriginal people. 

It is doubtful that a copy of Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History Volume 3 – The Stolen Generations will ever find its way into Wadeye. If it did, it could not be read and there is no known aboriginal language into which it could be translated. The languages available simply do not support the necessary concepts to enable such a narrative.  There is not a true seeker of truth there who would read it.

Patrick McCauley’s "Impasse at Wadeye – 2: The Whitefella Issues" is here…

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