Feature letter: Wadeye youth can master their destiny

Wadeye youth can master their destinyI'm pleased that my Eureka Street comments challenged Channel 9 Sunday reporter Sarah Ferguson. Let me acknowledge that, unlike the minister, she spent time in the community and in her own words, had a "rewarding" experience.

I did make quite an effort to see the report, to see how people, whose first language is Murrinpatha, engaged with a journalist who spoke only English. Aside factual and pronunciation errors, I noted that Sarah sometimes offered words to the person she was interviewing, a tempting technique when people are questioning others whose first language is not English. She was interviewing young men whom she had earlier described in the following way: "They don't go to school and speak little or no English." Listening to young people who have difficulty expressing themselves in a foreign language, requires more than skill. It raises questions about proper and valid communications with young people across gender, age and culture.

My principal reaction focused on the report's claim to have documented the situation "inside the gangs of Wadeye... the cultural and social issues at play." I have known many families at Wadeye for more than 30 years. I spent a number of my early university summers there and was present when Cyclone Tracy was wreaking its havoc in Darwin. My last visit was a year ago. On the day I drove in from Darwin, one small group of young men was threatening another group. After my long relationship, I have become very suspicious of offering simple cultural and social explanations of life there, especially  in relation to the young men.

Wadeye youth can master their destinyIf I wanted to know "the cultural and social issues at play" amongst young people at Wadeye, I would need to have some sensitivity to language, age and gender, and further, understand how kinship and other cultural values were currently being expressed. I would also need to appreciate the history of this artificially constructed "community", and to appreciate how mission life has affected the parents of these young people.

Understanding life at Wadeye is complex. An increasingly large group of young people emerges out of intense and rapid social change in this community, all within 70 years. It is these factors, multiple and interacting, that have formed and narrowed social pathways for young men.

When the report suggested in the opening lines, "the young people of Wadeye are caught between two worlds" it adopted, like the minister, an old and problematic dichotomy. The simple "bush life of their ancestors" was contrasted with "modern youth culture". Such a simple, popular media distinction serves to make hunting "ancestral" and heavy metal music "modern", as if modern men don't hunt, and those who do can't enjoy heavy metal music.

Whatever the music they and other young men presently follow, they are not "caught between two worlds". I think they are trying to discover what it means to live within the complexities of this one.

Wadeye youth can master their destinyUnlike "our" culture, Aboriginal culture can be perceived as only having integrity when it lives in some idealised and ancient past. In this depiction culture cannot change and, if its young people wish to be "truly" Aboriginal, they cannot follow heavy metal music or by implication, rap, rock or even country and western. If they attempt to change, they are described as being "caught between two worlds". However, this isn't the view we take of our own evolving culture. I no longer speak Gaelic or Latin, and I don't consider myself caught between two cultural or church worlds.

In 1977, Mary Durack wrote Tjakamarra—Boy between Two Worlds, a fictional account of a young desert boy who left his desert home for school in Broome. Apart from it being a female and non-Aboriginal view of this young man's journey, it described his need to leave his Aboriginal world for another, better one.

What have we learned since then? Do we understand why young Aboriginal men follow particular social pathways and not others, listen to various forms of music and adopt different forms of social behaviour? How do we avoid simple explanations of a community's struggles to grow up its young people? How does the media scrutinise its own non-Aboriginal self to avoid reinforcing history and colonisation?



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