Dan is a former school-teacher and now researcher developing a program to help Aboriginal students in the Pilbara area of Western Australia to complete high school. Jimmy is an Aboriginal man from the region, a teacher, and currently working with a mining company. The word ‘kardiya’ is a Kimberley/Central desert word which means ‘stranger’ but has become synonymous with ‘whitefella’.

This story, read by Paul David-Goddard, can be heard immediately below.

Dependency and Dysfunction

Dan’s chats with Jimmy and the interviews he’d done this week with the old Aboriginal women and men had left Dan very uneasy.

He’s struggled to work out why. At first, he’d thought it was about stuffing the interview with the old men. But, gradually, he’d realised it went deeper. Whatever their levels of formal education, all those he’d interviewed had shared wisdom, often in only a few words. And each had, in one way or another, raised the debilitating effects of dependence on their lives and how culture must flow to young people to help to overcome it.

Finally, Dan had rung Jimmy, asking to meet before Dan flew back to Perth. Jimmy had suggested Friday morning at the coffee shop in the  Shopping Mall, close to the exit near the public swimming pool. swimming-pool  westfield2

“Jimmy, do you remember a while back talking about a Ferris wheel and welfare and its effects?”

Dan had just ordered coffees for them.

“They’re topics close to my heart. I won’t forget them.” Jimmy smiled wryly. “What do you want to know,?”

“How can you make dependent people change?” Dan looked at his hands, rubbing his palms together. “How do you get them out of that Ferris wheel life you talked about – round and round but going nowhere – and start getting them to look for different outcomes, if all they know is based on hand-outs each week or fortnight?”

Jimmy leaned back in his chair, looking thoughtfully at Dan until Dan raised his eyes. “You can’t make dependent people change, Dan,” Jimmy  finally said. “They have to be internally motivated to want to change. Dependency’s like alcoholism. No alcoholic will be cured until he or she admits to it and wants to change.”

“Do you mean motivate by taking away your mob’s welfare money?”

“That’s kardiya thinking. Would you take welfare from kardiyas?”

Dan looked out at the mall, seeking a response but only found fear rising.Tacoma Mall, Tacoma WA - 1960s.0

“Why take welfare from blackfellas? Would you do it to kardiyas?” There was no animosity in Jimmy’s questions.

Jimmy let silence run as Dan struggled, before finally saying, “Help me. I’m way out of my depth here.”

“I reckon you need to know more about my Aboriginal world.”

Dan finally nodded.

“Okay,” Jimmy went on softly. “Three things define me as an Aboriginal man, and none is the colour of my skin. There’s my language, and through it, me knowing my culture and how it works. Then there’s me and my mob enacting and living that culture. Then last, there’s blackfella spirit, which what makes all us Aboriginal people who we are.”

“What does who we are mean, Jimmy?

“What does it mean to you? Do you know who you are?”

“I’m a … I was a District Director of Education and now I’m a consultant working in research and development,” Dan managed.

“You told me what do you, Dan. I asked if you know who you are.”

Dan tried to respond but failed. His sense of fear increased.

“What’s your language, Dan? Is there one, or many, like one for the family, another as a businessman, academic speak and one with mates?”

Dan spilled coffee and mopped diligently with a tissue.

“Do you know your culture, Dan? Do you have a strict set of rules that you live by consistently and with integrity, whatever aspect of life you’re dealing with?”

Dan kept mopping studiously.

“If you can answer those things and have one language and culture, then you’ll be close to defining who you are. And being that means being grounded, which is always thinking, feeling and acting in a line.”

Dan put the serviette in the saucer and stared at it, the words ringing despite his sense of fear.

“You asked about overcoming dependence,” Jimmy continued after a pause, in which Dan knew he’d been studiously observed. “It starts with blackfellas owning something. Whether we are talking a kardiya or a blackfella, owning something gives hope and hope motivates. Owning something gives richness to your life, and creates a sense of self-worth and self-determination. It allows control over, and commitment to, what is done and why. We must all own something.”

“Do you mean like, own houses?” Dan’s fear had subsided.

“That’d be good, Dan, but no, not to start with. That’s a kardiya meaning of ownership. Our ownership is different, like shared.”

Dan glanced questioningly and Jimmy chuckled at the expression. “I’ll try to explain, but it may take time for the meaning to come clear. Our ownership, unlike yours, is communal, not individual. I own my mob and they own me. I own my culture and my culture owns me. I own my language and my language owns me. If I respect my mother, meaning my country, my place, she’ll respect me. And all of us must work as one to create, keep and own the things that make us what we are.”

Dan tried to make sense of the concept.

“But our world’s changed, Dan. Whether we blackfellas want to be or not, we’re now part of contemporary society. What we used to be is going or has gone, and in most ways, sadly, to our detriment. But it’s happened. Now, for us to grow, we must recreate. To start that process, we have to visit our past, define who we were, where we’ve come from and recall our language and culture.

“But we also have to understand that our past isn’t our future. We can’t go back and recreate what was. We must move on, which means bringing our history into today, see what fits in this contemporary world, what doesn’t, why and what has to change. But no matter what we keep, give up, or change, we have to be blackfellas first. Then we can decide, from our strengths, what we need to fit in this new world we’re in. So the first thing we have to own is ourselves.

“And when that’s done, then we have to own something in this contemporary world that isn’t ours. To start with, it can be simple, but it must be shared with kardiyas and not allow them to determine how things will be for us and why. We, kardiyas and blackfella, must sit together and define ways forward as partners to meet our needs and theirs. That’s the next form of ownership.”

He paused. “Am I making sense?”

Dan had sat silently in a fog , rubbing his palms together again, before replying, “I’m not sure, Jimmy. Let me take what you’ve said for a while, and keep thinking about it.”

“Okay, then I’ll give you one more thing to think about, Dan.” Jimmy looked at the Mall. “Keep trying to work on ways for my mobs to own the idea you’ve been sent here to create. Make us part of it from the start. You’ve started by focussing on us to create the idea and that’s good. If you keep going that way, and keep all the blackfellas and kardiyas with you, you’ll have given us an opportunity to be equal with kardiyas and not reliant on them. That would be joint ownership and good.”

He stood and smiled. “See where it takes you, Dan. If you need to, give me a ring and we’ll talk some more. And thanks for the coffee.”

Despite still feeling outside his comfort zone, Dan grinned. “I’ve got a lot of learning to do in blackfella ways, Jimmy.”

“Well, at least you’re trying, Dan. Most kardiyas never do.”