NT 'Growth towns' are the death of culture and wellbeing

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks ABC Indigenous 9th August, 2011

I can look back over 70 years on this part of the land. There was a richness of the relationships between people so you felt never alone. You felt secure, you felt you belonged. You also felt, from an early age, your responsibility, not only to the flora and fauna but to the song lines which tied you to the land. The land, we always said pmerel atnyenem, we never said pmer nhenh tha atnyenem. That means, country owns or holds you, not you holding the country and becoming master of the land. The land was your mother, your father and everything else.

Jump forward from that, this country here, it became a cattle station. Aboriginal people lived still on land, they say today, from eternity. They never moved away from here, the songs are intact; the country more or less is intact. In the 1970s it was purchased by the government on behalf of Aboriginal people. We then became aware of Aboriginal Affairs really having an impact on our culture. People started feeling second grade and degraded. Into this scenario came all the rules and regulations of being funded. Into that came being destabilised for the first time for centuries. Into that came the awareness there were other places, and also came access to alcohol and other substance abuse.

We became aware of the racist attitudes. On this land we had never felt deprived or poor. One of the most remarkable things my mother's sister said to me, in the 1980s when she was visiting Alice Springs for the first time in her life and she didn't like it, she said, 'I feel poor and naked in this town'.

Somehow at Utopia this seemed to have happened more slowly, simply because the things we needed were still on our lands. We still felt the strength and the security of our law and order, even as late as the 1990s. By this time we had established homelands which we still live on now, within the lease of Urapuntja.

Fast forward to 2007, we had the visit from departmental staff, the army, and the police. I clearly recall the day when the people came and told us we were now under the Intervention. We didn't know what the Intervention was. Suddenly there was a policy in the Northern Territory that took away our rights, and on top of that they also wanted to take away our land, through what they called a lease. I can still hear Lena Pwerl, one of our ladies, yelling out, 'No lease, no lease, not for one minute, not for one second, no lease, this is our land'.

So 2007 was a huge thing. It was assault. Assault to such an extent that it traumatised all of us, we looked around to see what made sense. What made sense was at all costs to hang onto the land. By 2008 it became so unbearable that I remember absolutely reeling in shock, and it appeared to me like we were made enemies of the state, or of our country. We had not been in an aggressive relationship with anyone throughout the world, let alone in Australia, let alone in the Northern Territory.

In 2008 I spoke in Alice Springs and I asked where do we go for help, who can help us to work through this absolute terror. I said, 'Where's organisations such as Amnesty International?' And a gentleman in the crowd heard this call. So I met this wonderful person and I felt there was a hand reaching out and saying, 'We can help'. From there, we formed a relationship, and a partnership, and an agreement, with Amnesty International.

As we go into 2012, we realise that the Racial Discrimination Act was removed by the government so they could put us under what they termed the Intervention. We see that there are certain Aboriginal communities earmarked as growth towns. Let me assure anybody who cares for the Aboriginal people of Australia that once we are moved from our place of origin, we will not only lose our identity, we will die a traumatised tragic end.

The fact is our body paint cannot be put on by just anyone, or just anywhere or on anybody's country. We only can do that on our land. We cannot have identity if we are put into these reservations that are now called growth towns because we will not only be second-class, we will become third-class, nonexistent human beings.

This is a tragedy that is unfolding through the policies of an uncaring government. We must stop this, and we must remain on our country. It seems sentimental and - I can't find the other word in English - about attachment to the land. It's not attachment to the land, it's survival of a cultural practice that is still alive in spite of what has been thrown at it.

The country is our lifeblood; that land which might just be filled with spinifex has a depth that the majority of Australian brothers and sisters don't understand, and it's so fragile. We need to stop the destruction of the oldest living culture in Australia.

This is an edited extract of the foreword from Amnesty International's report released today, 'The land holds us': Aboriginal peoples' rights to traditional homelands.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks is an Alyawarr/Anmatyerr elder, is from the Utopia homelands in the Nothern Territory.