Views and Visions: Posts from our People

Project Leader and PhD Student
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White Toyota = Whiteboard”, Grace Daniels makes a point late in the late afternoon at the Limurlee workshop
White Toyota = Whiteboard”, Grace Daniels makes a point late in the late afternoon at the Limurlee workshop

Important work that you can't find on a map

Long drives are normal in the Top End. Dave Campbell and I had started a bit after lunch and it was now nearly 10:00pm. We were heading to a place that had no name on any map that we could find. The headlights picked out the lane between through the woolybutt woodland. It was time to make a decision; stop and camp or brave the feral buffaloes for a bit longer in the hope of reaching our destination. 

We were on our way to a workshop partly funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC to examine traditional approaches to tactical leadership in natural disaster management. People had been arriving since yesterday and we were looking for a campsite “upstream of the road's crossing of the Blythe River”. Just as we contemplated our decision to stop for the night we came to a river. On the remains of a sign leaning on a gravel windrow, all we could read was "the River". This must be "The" place! The crossing was rocky, uneven and deep. As we clawed up the steep bank on the other side we saw the lights of a campsite. We stopped a respectable distance back and, leaving our headlights on, walked across to see if it was our colleagues.

There is something particularly comforting about a bush welcome. Handshakes and hugs by the fire and cups of tea from a giant steel bucket. It turns out we had arrived at the workshop venue. We were hosted by the traditional owners of the place, Rembarranga mob, and supported by ARPnet members from West Arnhem and the Roper Gulf. 

The place is called 'Limurlee', it is not marked on map and it is hard to pick out on Google Earth. As a visitor I was pleased to receive the formal welcome to country next morning when it became very clear that this place may have 'no name' on a map, but is well understood by locals. It's a special place, there are two clapsticks in the river nearby, and a bit upstream is the brolga dreaming. A little to the northwest is the sun dreaming and there is also a catfish dreaming nearby. In the river further upstream is 'sickness country'. So it's not just that there is a place name, there are many place stories that link here and now with the past, the rest of the land and downstream, to the sea. We are told to be very careful as we walk into the bush and start to worry that some malevolent ancestral being is lurking nearby, but it turns out to be practical advice; "old men driving through shoot buffalo but maybe they don't kill 'im - some just wounded. Those old buffalo ... like to chase you!"

The workshop starts after a hearty breakfast and lashings of tea and coffee. Old women come to sit in the shade supported by enormous enamel cups of tea. Quite a number of the participants have been involved in previous workshops held for the CRC Building community resilience in north Australia" project. Those workshops identified some profound cultural disconnects between the overarching emergency management resilience paradigm and remote communities. At a fundamental level people did not have a clear concept of what 'resilience' meant. Further inquiry also found that, on the whole, people were unaware of the existence of community emergency plans and, where they did know about them they were daunted by the fact that the actual plan is housed at the local police station - a place with largely negative associations for most Aboriginal people.

We talked about tactical leadership as it is understood in emergency management and asked about how leadership in Aboriginal communities works. Some of the information presented here should be seen as providing only a small window into what the knowledge holders involved in the discussion shared with us. This led to a wide-ranging discussion of leadership in general, its philosophical and spiritual underpinnings and the deep sense of responsibility that all Aboriginal leaders have to their communities present and future, but also to their ancestors past. For these communities leadership is the ultimate shared responsibility that links the ceremonial life, the land and kinship. Power to make decisions exists, but is fettered within protocols that are well defined and which are actively audited. And this power links to land and ceremony. Beyond the bounds of these definitions, the senior leader becomes a follower - willingly submitting to the 'big boss' for another country. The illustration presented in the Figure presents some of the key actors and levels in the decision making framework and also the complex connections between them.  

Figure 1 is a first approximation of the leadership arrangements for several communities in western and southern Arnhem Land. It does not purport to represent all, or even most, Aboriginal communities, but it does seek to portray a model of leadership that is markedly different to that of the ‘standard’ emergency management model in Australia. 


Figure 1 (Source –based on information from Knowledge holders in West Arnhem and the Roper Gulf)
Figure 1 (Source –based on information from Knowledge holders in West Arnhem and the Roper Gulf)

In the diagram a complex series of interactions requires that individuals fulfil specific roles in attending the decision-making process. The Darlnyin is ‘the big boss’ but refers to the Djungkayi, ‘the manager’, the Mingkirrinji 'traditional owner' and the wider family in taking a decision. If the decision has regard to fire then the ‘firemen’ – senior men with totemic affiliation and deep practical knowledge of fire – are critical players. Indeed the Darlnyin may also be a fireman. The Njirri has special powers and can act in a way that is similar to an auditor, ensuring that proper protocols are observed throughout the process. Unlike western auditors however, the Njirri with agreement of the many clans, may also effect punishment for breaches of protocol.

In addition to these ‘statutory’ considerations, decisions need to be made that reflect the universal dichotomy of people and land into Dhuwa and Yirritja. All people and all parts of the landscape are designated Dhuwa or Yirritja and no decision is made without affecting a balance between the two.

Not surprisingly, governments of all stripes have had difficulty 'mapping on to' these traditional systems of leadership. The concepts are quite alien to a western society that elects or appoints its leaders based on popularity or qualification but with no necessity of a deep local connection to country. But more than this, when asked if they had ever been asked about their leadership structures they shouted out as one "no", "never", "nothing!"

As the workshop rolled on, broken up by tea breaks and trips down to swim in the river, the holistic world view of Aboriginal culture made itself apparent once again. Conversation about leadership moved to the land and its management and inevitably to the importance of maintaining ceremony. In just about all contexts, talking about disasters, social problems, youth, conservation or fire, people stress the importance of traditional ceremonies. A number of the workshop participants are senior ceremony leaders in their community and go on to describe how a leader’s role is learned through ceremony and then applied in the field as people grow through the stages of initiation into adulthood. This is then linked to different parts of the landscape, with participants extending their arms or pouting their lips to indicate a direction, and others nodding - fully comprehending the meaning of the speaker, but leaving those of us who have not been through ceremony having only a vague idea of the import.

What we do comprehend is that there are layers and layers of understanding of the landscape, the impact of natural hazards and how they are managed. These are inexorably linked with an understanding of the right people for managing these issues at each place across the landscape.

As people pack up for the long drive home, they yell their thanks and ask when the next workshop is? They say 'this work is important' and 'we need to work together to get good emergency management for all these communities.' We drive off, understanding a tiny bit about more about the local knowledge that exists for all these places that don't have a name on the map.

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