A Story from the Campfire – Intjiki Catherine Liddle

For National Reconciliation Week 2019, we share a special reflection on the practical contribution to reconciliation Jawun makes with this story by Jawun’s Regional Director, Central Australia, Intjiki Catherine Liddle.

My Grandfather was an Arelhe. The old man only measured in at about 5’7, but it is said that there never stood a bigger man. If he were alive today, you might call him a whisperer. He’d never met a horse he couldn’t tame by talking to it, he’d never met a frightened bull that he couldn’t swim across a swollen angry river by placing his hand on its neck. What we understand today is his ability to connect to animals applied to everyone he met and everything he did. His real gift was understanding the value of the individual, the collective, and the gift of a relationship, and that is what this story is really about.

I work for Jawun. This word is not from my country, it comes from the Kuku Yalangi people of Cape York. It means friend and it was given to the organisation that I work for as a gift in recognition of its relationship with the Aboriginal people of that area. The rainforest this word comes from, with its beautiful trees and rich green foliage, is a long way from where I come from. Here the earth is red and our beautiful blue skies rarely see rain. The two environments couldn’t be more different, but as I sit on a camping chair beside a crackling fire pushing the red sand at my feet with my boots, it occurs to me that this word is very much at home on my country.

Yesterday the person who lit this fire had never so much as touched a log of wood. Today he stands proudly, hands on his hips, about a foot away from the flames laughing as he dodges the smoke. He looks around eagerly hoping that there are more fires to light. To his great pleasure, there are. Without a fire, there will be no warm showers tonight. He looks to the person standing next to him and they grin before they race off together to light the donkeys (old gas bottles adapted to heat the water). Three days ago, these friends had never laid eyes on each other and now they speak simply by making eye contact.

The past few days have been long and exhausting. As I reach out to warm my hands on the newly lit fire, I notice the red dirt underneath my fingernails. This is my grandmother’s country, here we are not known as Arelhe, we are known as Anangu. The red dirt does not discriminate, we are all covered in a fine layer of dust. Five people bustle in the kitchen. Like our fire starters they are working in tandem. They have found a rhythm that belies that they were strangers just days before.

Around me, the team members start to gather. They are setting up the tables for dinner and moving the camp chairs closer to the fire. To my right, two more of the team appear. They are scrubbed and fresh from the shower. Those donkey heaters work fast. The two women smile as they talk of how good it feels to have showered with warm water from fires they lit themselves, a small but important lesson in the value of empowerment. The team gathers around the campfire, warm bowls of stew in their hands. The many have now truly become one.

We call this team NPY19. They are the 19
th group of Jawun Secondees to come to the Central Desert. They hail from all over Australia and they have brought with them some very precious luggage. Skills and contacts from their corporate and senior public service roles.

For the past few days, we have put them through the wringer. We have pulled and stretched the team’s understanding of Australia’s history, Aboriginal culture and values, and postcolonial development. Days have run long, not always to plan. They have had no control of their environment or their time management. The team has met with many different people and many different organisations. None of them the same in their approach. All of them advocating for an empowered life for Aboriginal people. It’s been a heavy load but the real heavy lifting is yet to begin.

Over the next five weeks, this team will proliferate across the Purple House, Regional Anangu Services, NPY Women’s Council, Empowered Communities, First Nations Media Australia, Nganampa Health and the Central Australian Media Association. Following the lead of their host Aboriginal organisations, team members will work on projects and plans that align to strategic goals and operational priorities to improve organisational capacity and efficiency. As an observer from the outside, I have seen these organisations show extraordinary Aboriginal-led growth with this approach.

From the inside, as a relatively new Regional Director, what is reinforced to me as an Aboriginal person is that we have always known where it is we need to get to. We just haven’t always had the tools to fashion the key to open the gate to the right path. The journey that these secondees will take will see that key forged with all the teeth and notches it needs for its environment. Too often, we are given these keys with missing bitings. The real beauty of this key however, is that once that gate is opened it will need another key to make it swing the opposite way to achieve two-way learning.

It is a model of business that is both new and old to me. My Grandmother is a lore woman, at 93 she is constantly doing business. Negotiating and partnering with people from different nations to achieve a common goal in relationships that are balanced and reciprocal. This is called Napartji Napartji. This is how I was raised to understand the world. I also understand that this is where it gets complicated, because I do not live in one world. I live in two and these two worlds are not always synergetic. The other world has a different rhythm; you have probably already felt the change in my voice as I moved from one to the other. In this world, relationships with Aboriginal people are rarely balanced.

Where I live, Aboriginal people are an industry. This is not a throwaway line. The health care and service sectors in Alice Springs are amongst our top economic drivers and Aboriginal people make up the vast majority of the clients serviced by those sectors. Stellar careers have been built climbing these sectoral pillars of Indigenous affairs and those careers are rarely ours. I’m not ranting, it is what it is.

This is not to say that there aren’t good intentions or even great programs designed to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage, and therein lies part of the problem. Looking at us through a lens that concentrates on disadvantage means that the relationship is deficit-based. It ignores completely that we are rarely given a well cut key to the gate of empowerment, or that an equally well cut key is also needed to successfully unlock the other side of the relationship. To be able to work in an environment that partners with Aboriginal organisations as they design those keys in a relationship that flips and then levels the power base, this is new to me. To be able to watch it take form, change form, get tested, tried and then turned, is something quite remarkable.

At the core of all of this lies an openness to a new relationship that enables mutual understanding, achieved not by two worlds clashing into each other or by one world eclipsing the other, but rather by recognising the value of the relationship of each world to the other. NPY19 has only just started this journey and I am in no doubt that during their time with their host organisations they will do great work. I’m equally aware that by the time they leave their hosts, they will be a very different team to the one that I first met. Already as a collective the team is connecting dots and building a template for its own keys. When the team opens the gate to return home as individuals they will take with them a new view of Aboriginal Australia, tempered with the strength of new skills and understanding.  

So I leave this story the same way I started it. With an Arelhe that understands the value of the individual, the collective, and the immeasurable value of a gift that is a reciprocal relationship.