I have just returned home after visiting friends in remote Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley.
This is the season of the 'grey nomads': older tourists escaping the cold and wet winter weather of the south; heavily packed and well prepared. It is a good time of the year to travel and explore the north. The weather in the Centre and Kimberley is ideal: cold nights and sunny days. The unsealed roads are dry and, while the cost of fuel can be high ($2.33 in one place), the land and people are warm and welcoming.
While one has to 'pay' extra to travel and experience what locals see as normal, much of the life of remote living can remain hidden.
I enjoyed catching up with families I have known for a long time, but had not seen for a year. As always, new babies, growing adolescents, long memories and old jokes.
In the beginning, time is put aside to pay respect for those who have died since my last visit. This takes the form of a handshake, sometimes an embrace, depending on my relationship to the deceased and their family. My friends gently remind me of those names I need to avoid repeating, in order to show respect for those who have recently departed.
Then we settle down to talk about football, local politics and the latest issues of concern. Their humour enlivens my spirit. Always quick, sharp and clever. Remote living may be tough, day following day and things improving far too slowly, but it always merits a good laugh.
At the same time, and despite the warmth and humour, this was a particularly sad trip. I became aware of the large number of young people who have died in recent years. Some were close friends; we had shared journeys, important ceremonies and special occasions.
So, before I returned home, I went down to the local cemetery to remember and let them know I had not forgotten them. There they were laid out before me: nicely tended graves, crosses, rosary beads and plastic flowers. They represented the painful trifecta of young peoples' deaths: car accidents, suicides and chronic disease.
I found myself quite sad. I have watched them come into life and grow up with all the promise that only the young can offer. Apart my own feelings, however, I could sense a deeper burden for families and communities having to live with such close, lingering and painful memories.
One of my highlights was to spend time with a young mother, her attentive husband and their first child. Her own mother is in an urban centre on kidney dialysis, her father is in a major hospital after a car accident, an older sister has an intellectual disability and an older brother died from chronic health issues; two other brothers have committed suicide. Whenever we meet I feel rather helpless and I wonder how she can cope in the face of what she and her family have experienced.
Yet, I found her resilient, often with a smile, showing great persistence and personal strength. Her daily and cheerful efforts to bring up her new family humbled and touched me.
I find this year's NAIDOC Week (3–10 July) message most relevant. The theme, 'Change: the next step is ours' comes with a poster representing the image of a First Australian family with linked hands, stepping out on the road to change.
It speaks to my recent experience.
On the poster the past is laid out, including The Apology, the Closing the Gap campaign and the Bringing Them Home report. To that past we could add much, much more. Most Indigenous families have been, and continue to be, touched by the effects of car accidents, suicides and chronic disease. Their past continues to inform their present, but it does not necessarily define their future.
I do not see this young mother dwelling on her family loss, as well she might and, I am sure, is tempted at times to do. I see her choosing to establish a new family, despite her history and the lack of family support around her. I find the steps she takes forward encouraging but also challenging.
I can be tempted to focus on her past and give priority to what is lacking in her life. Or I can choose to focus on the change she has embraced and the steps she is now taking.
While each daily step is hers, I cannot avoid examining more carefully my own attitudes and how my efforts support and encourage hers as well.
Brian F McCoy SJ is Senior Research Fellow, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at La Trobe University.