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Death in the outback

death in the outback

Death in the outback

anna magnowska

This feature originally appeared in January 2015 in Mosaic - an online magazine from The Wellcome Trust which is dedicated to exploring the science of life. 

Healthcare in Australia’s Aboriginal communities is hindered by a long history of racial discord between very different cultures. Georgina Kenyon discovers the story of one young woman who died in the 1980s, and asks whether anything has changed since.

I sit with my friend Kay* on her old ‘Queenslander’ verandah, half-listening to the radio. It’s that half-hour just before it gets dark in the tropical north of Australia. The fruit bats are waking each other up with their chatter and the curlews join in, screeching and rustling about in the dry leaf-litter below us on the lawn.

Kay holds up her hand, drawing my attention back to the radio. I catch fragments of a report about complaints from Australians whose children and grandchildren were taken away from their families to live in institutions and in foster care. Some have since been emotionally abused and physically assaulted. It’s shocking news, of course. Dreadful.

Kay turns up the volume on the radio.

Almost 30 per cent of children in care in Australia come from an Aboriginal background, the reporter continues: “The Stolen Generation – when Aborigines were forcibly taken away from their families – may not just be a shameful part of Australia’s history…”

Kay’s face looks contemplative and sad.

“Is this seriously happening, in 2014?” I wonder. Most Australians are aware of the Stolen Generation, when it was legal for the government to take Aboriginal children away from their families. But this forced separation, I thought, had ended decades before.

The humidity has dropped and the sky is turning a grainy, dark blue. Even now, the stars are starting to blink, shining down on the corrugated iron roofs that are finally cooling down after the heat of the day.

Kay doesn’t look at me as she slowly starts to speak.

‘I had an Aboriginal daughter’, she says. ‘A foster child...’

“I had an Aboriginal daughter,” she says. “A foster child…”

For nearly ten years we have been friends but I have never heard her talk about her foster daughter before.

“Where is she now?” I ask

Kay is quiet again. I regret being blunt.

“No one can live without their own culture,” she says. “After a few years, I made the decision. I decided that my daughter needed to go home.”

Hannah


 © Andrew Khosravani

 © Andrew Khosravani

Fostering had seemed hopeful, kinder than the old ‘mission’ system. Many people in government and the church believed that placing Aboriginal children in white families would bypass cultural divisions in Australia and increase access to benefits like modern healthcare and a stable education. Today, the reasons behind the fostering of Aboriginal children can be viewed as fundamentally racist, although some children did receive better healthcare and education as a result. Yet for many others it did not work, and divisions remain strong today, still trapping many Aboriginal communities in a way of life awkwardly stalled between old traditions and new opportunities.

Hannah*, Kay’s foster child, came from an Aboriginal family who, in the early 1970s, had asked for help from the local government to bring up their daughter. They were Kuku Yalanji people, rainforest people. Yalanji is a language spoken from Cooktown in the north to Port Douglas in the south, and as far inland as the arid area of Chillagoe in the west, where Hannah’s parents lived. They were poor, and followed a relatively traditional, nomadic way of life, far from schools and hospitals, which they knew Hannah needed. She suffered from diabetes and serious kidney problems, and required regular dialysis.

So, aged 12, she came to live in Kay’s family home, with Kay’s husband and their own daughter, near the town of Mossman at the southern edge of Yalanji country. Over the next four years she intermittently returned to see her own family when she got too homesick. Fostering gave her access to education and healthcare, but it wasn’t a cure-all.

“What people didn’t understand was the incredible sadness she felt,” Kay says. “Half in white culture, half in black. Many Aboriginal people took their own lives because they felt they didn’t fit anywhere…there was a big incidence of suicide among fostered young people…”

Hannah did not commit suicide, but when she chose to go back to live with her family, she was effectively choosing to die with them.

Hannah did not commit suicide, but when she chose to go back to live with her family, she was effectively choosing to die with them.

It takes strong cultural forces to keep a family in the bush when their child needs regular medical attention. Hannah’s parents were scared of the mission near Mossman. Kay thinks they may have spent time in a mission in the 1960s; certainly some of their other relatives had been moved there. She thinks that’s why they opted for fostering.

“If you want to learn why people thought fostering was better than the mission days,” she tells me, “you need to go to the old mission up there.”

The mission

© Andrew Khosravani

© Andrew Khosravani

See where there used to be the fence? Even though the fence has gone, the church mission closed, over 30 Indigenous families now choose to live here. These people are the children of those forced to be here by the government up until the 1960s.”

Shaun Sellwood and his team work for the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) in the Mossman Gorge Aboriginal Community, a ten-minute drive from the town of Mossman. Today, the RFDS is not simply an emergency care service but is also involved in helping Aborigines on the old mission stations throughout Queensland. Shaun specialises in drug and alcohol prevention and, although he is white, has spent his life living and working in Aboriginal communities in northern Australia.

As we walk through the Aboriginal community in Mossman Gorge, a middle-aged man sits on a broken chair under a tree by the road, looking at us as we pass, while a small dog and a young man with a toddler in nappies and with bare feet walk up and down the street. It is Friday but many people seem to be wandering aimlessly around the town.

Shaun explains that many people in the Aboriginal community are on benefits, and that there is a high incidence of drug and alcohol problems.

Many people in the Aboriginal community are on benefits, and there is a high incidence of drug and alcohol problems.

I ask why people want to stay here, in a place where surely they have bad memories of the past.

“I know it’s hard for white people to understand why people do not leave this place,” Shaun replies. “Some want to stay because they see it as their home: they lived here on this mission with their parents and they see it as their land now. Others because they are Yalanji people…and this is Yalanji country.

“But others are here because they don’t know what to do. There is still an ‘invisible fence’ around them. It is almost as if the mission system is still alive today for many people.”

Spirits of the past

 © Andrew Khosravani

 © Andrew Khosravani

Mossman was attractive to white English and European settlers from the late 1800s, for growing sugar cane, mining tin and cutting down red cedar. Today the cane industry still thrives, and fields of sugar stretch to the base of vast green, forested hills that seem to touch the clouds.

Up to the 1960s the government forced many Aboriginal people, some of Hannah’s relatives among them, to move here from their traditional camps and ‘humpies’ by the river and from other, more remote communities. By 1934 one-third of Indigenous people in Queensland were living on missions and settlements like the one in Mossman Gorge. They were seen as cheap labour, like slaves in many cases. The mission had strict rules and harsh penalties if you broke them. The Indigenous people had to ask permission to marry, to travel and to work. 

The mission had strict rules and harsh penalties if you broke them. The Indigenous people had to ask permission to marry, to travel and to work.

This caused many to feel disconnected from their past, like they belonged neither to white nor Indigenous culture, and it was difficult for many people, after a childhood of institutional care, to feel a sense of purpose or independence. Some of Hannah’s aunts and uncles experienced this in the mission, and it was this feeling of dislocation between cultures that Hannah was to feel again through the foster system.

“When I first got to know Hannah,” says Kay, “she was pretty shy, but enthusiastic – just like most girls her age, and she liked going to school most of the time. Although I am a Christian and I taught her some of the basic ideas about what I believe, I didn’t force her to think differently to her old family ways.”

In return Hannah taught Kay about totems: many Aboriginal people are given several animal spirits to care for when they are born, and they must not hurt these animals at any time throughout their life.

“Hannah’s totems were the eagle, the snake and the bandicoot…she felt sorry for me that all I had to look after was our family cattle dog!”

Kay explains that Hannah’s family was deeply spiritual and that occasionally her female relatives would perform ceremonies near the caves of Chillagoe.

“Hannah would laugh at me, joking that we white people were boring, going to a church for ceremonies, when her family has all the richness of nature to celebrate with. But it was funny – Hannah seemed to believe in her own customs while also being able to take on board Western, Christian ideas,” Kay says.

The church

It is Sunday and a handful of Aboriginal men arrive in the threadbare, single room that operates as the church in Mossman Gorge. The men sit quietly on pews at the back of the room, many without shoes. They are silent when the rest of the congregation start singing and throughout the two-hour service. Many of the Aboriginal people here look unwell, some with their eyes running, some unable to move easily, others with skin problems. Sitting in front of me is a visiting missionary from Sydney, and beside me some local women and children, the younger ones smiling and wanting to play outside.

The local Indigenous Christian pastor, Janice Walker, sings hymns in a country-and-western style while playing the guitar. After each phrase she sings, she urges us to sing the words with her.

After over an hour of song she stops and everyone listens attentively: “Each one of you today made a decision. Each one of you chose to come here today to worship…and the devil does not like it…”

She pauses for dramatic effect, her voice rising.

Then she shouts, along with some people in the congregation who stamp their feet: “Hallelujah!”

Some women in the pews hold their arms up to the sky; others who cannot shout acknowledgement or stand up shake tambourines and clap instead. There is a feeling of evangelism here, and I must admit, some hope, and a sense of belonging.

Janice is one of the three women still alive who grew up in this community when it was a mission. She is about ten years older than Hannah would be if she were still alive. After the service I ask her if she knew anyone in Hannah’s family. She thinks for a while and she murmurs that she can’t recall, and then adds: “So many people died from drink, drugs or got sick, far too young. Maybe them too, I can’t say. Those mission days were brutal.”

She introduces me to her friend. Betty, a 66-year-old woman, holds up her arm for me to see the multiple skin grafts on her badly disfigured forearm.

“That’s what the missionaries did to me as a girl,” she says. “They were absolutely barbaric. They would strip you down and flog you in the showers if you broke the rules, and you would bleed and bleed.”

And breaking the rules could mean something as simple as trying to visit your parents in a nearby dormitory or climbing the fence. At the age of five Aboriginal children were separated from their mothers.

At the age of five Aboriginal children were separated from their mothers.

I ask Betty and Janice if they think life has changed for the better for Aboriginal people, as although they are now said to be as independent as whites, I still can see injustices and restrictions.

“There are some good things, sure, but we still have not got rid of all the restrictions on us,” says Janice. “You saw the boom gate that still prevents tourists and pedestrians from entering when you got here?”

I nod.

“It makes the community feel bad, cut off from the rest of society, like the old days.”

Betty gives the example of the government-issued BasicsCard. Under the system a percentage of people’s welfare payments are restricted to the purchase of food and other essential items. It is like a credit card where the owner of the card is not able to buy what they want, but just certain goods from particular shops. Although not limited to Indigenous people, the majority of those using the cards are from Aboriginal communities, giving some, like Betty, the perception of one rule for whites and one for Aboriginal people. She says it is like a modern-day apartheid.

“There is still a lot of pain here,” says Janice. “A lot of men in particular feel shame and grief from those days because their wives and children were forcibly taken away from them…and today they don’t have many skills and many are unemployed and ill. It’s hardly surprising that nearly every house in this community has a seriously ill or terminally ill person. Kidney problems, dialysis is a big problem, and heart problems and depression.”

I tell the women that Hannah also suffered from kidney problems throughout her life, and we discuss how she had to return many times to her family’s country for ‘sorry business’, the Aboriginal cultural processes of bereavement, which meant she missed a lot of school.

“Of course, it’s important to us, grieving for the dead, and our families are extensive, hundreds of people, cousins and aunties and grandparents. There’s lots of funerals. In our culture we believe we are all just passing through this life, we need to remember the ancestors,” Janice explains. She adds that Aboriginal ‘sorry business’ is critical in keeping families together, but that Christianity can also ease people’s stress.

“Our small church is giving some people hope here today,” she says. “Did you see some of the old men here today? They are doing so much better since they have come to church. So many people here have been ill for so long, they are looking better for coming to church.”

Health and welfare

© Andrew Khosravani

© Andrew Khosravani

Many of the people living in Mossman Gorge today are the children of people forced to live here. It is a community with complicated health problems. There is a high incidence of type 2 diabetes, for example, caused partly by poor diet. There are many people with cardiovascular diseases, rheumatic heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and poor eye and ear health, while others suffer from mental health issues.

Indigenous Australians suffer worse health than non-Indigenous people because of generally poorer living conditions and unhealthier lifestyle factors, such as higher rates of smoking. But they also suffer from being less able to access healthcare services. There are significant practical challenges to providing healthcare in remote and isolated communities: as well as providing doctors and nurses, resources are needed to maintain medical equipment and supplies, while flooding can close roads and cut off Queensland’s Aboriginal communities during the monsoon months.

Cultural issues are just as important, however, in determining how Indigenous Australians use health services and respond to health promotion campaigns – and they have a history of being overlooked. To try to address these problems, the RFDS have started weekend retreats and bushwalks, to help people feel more of a connection with their land.

It’s a small step but it helps people feel less stressed, to get exercise too and to learn how to express themselves,” says Shaun Sellwood at the RFDS Wellbeing Centre in Mossman Gorge.

Although Hannah suffered as a result of the gulf between Aboriginal and white Australian cultures, her parents were in many ways fortunate. Living in the bush, they avoided alcohol and the health problems associated with it.

Shaun thinks there are two reasons for the high incidence of alcohol abuse in Aboriginal towns. One is due to a feeling of hopelessness among Indigenous people, and the other is due to their historically nomadic culture and the related necessity of ‘bingeing’ when food was gathered, killed and eaten on the spot, with nothing being stored, unlike in European culture.

But today, some residents in Mossman Gorge are trying to help themselves not drink and to put a stop to the alcoholism in the community. Outside many houses there are now ‘dry’ signs on the fences, which mean that a house is an alcohol-free zone and if anyone comes onto the property drunk or carrying alcohol, the police can arrest them.

However, Shaun believes that the most important factors in a person’s life, especially when young, are neither health initiatives nor rules, but rather role models.

“What young people really need here are strong adults. So often a young person will find work, will feel motivated and positive just simply if there is an older relative in the family who has a job. Without work and purpose few people can feel good about themselves,” he explains.

More effort is made today to place Aboriginal children with a grandmother or an aunt rather than a white family.

It was exactly this need for a strong role model in young people’s lives that inspired the foster care system, with some positive but also some tragic results. More effort is made today to place Aboriginal children with a grandmother or an aunt rather than a white family. In practice, though, the government is unlikely to allow a child to be fostered in a household where, for example, another relative with a criminal conviction is known to come and stay. Given their large extended families and communities, this can make it difficult still to identify the best environment for an Aboriginal child to grow up in.

Love and loss

From speaking to Kay, it seems that Hannah saw her more as a kindly authority figure than as a mother.

“I loved her, we joked around together, I made sure she was safe and I tried to keep her in school,” she says. “I looked after her health as much as I could, I offered her advice and I think I was always there for her. But I never was a replacement for her own mother. I can accept that now.”

Hannah’s parents would sometimes visit, travelling in from near Chilligoe, sometimes staying with Kay. Sometimes they came to visit Hannah in hospital, as increasingly she needed more treatment for her kidney problems.

“Hannah was happy when they arrived to stay. At one point they asked to stay in our shed in our house in Mossman. They did not want to be any trouble, they just wanted to live in the same house as their daughter. It was difficult turning them down. But it just would not have worked,” Kay says with some regret.

Kay explains though that Hannah’s school attendance and performance were really poor by the time she was 16 and she was becoming more withdrawn. Her family had returned to the bush by that time.

“I knew, as a parent with my own daughter, when a child needs to go home,” Kay says.

Hannah went back to live with her own family. She died aged 24.

                                                                 §

A week has passed and I am back in Townsville with Kay, and we are toasting Hannah’s life.

My friend finds old albums of photos, showing an Aboriginal girl and her white foster family, her family. She speaks sadly about the Aboriginal girl who was her foster child and how it feels like a long time since she died.

“She was buried in a traditional ceremony, back at Chillagoe with all her aunties and cousins and uncles. Her extended family makes our white families seem so antisocial and tiny! But I wonder what her life would have been like now if I had not sent her home and what she would have ended up doing with her life.”

I think back to the radio report from last week and the announcement of a Royal Commission into foster care and abuse of children in institutions in South Australia, and it is obvious we have a long way to go to protect children – but particularly those in Aboriginal communities. Have we harmed too many Indigenous people, destroying so much of their culture? Would a girl in Hannah’s shoes today have any better choice than between her home and her health?

Into the silence, Kay says: “For what’s life without a heart? You can have your health, an education…but without your culture, you just simply aren’t you.”


* Names have been changed.


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