A Really Weird Show: A Month in Kununurra, WA

by David Allinson

[originally published in the Graduate Union Newsletter, February 2016]

For the past four weeks I have been doing a legal internship as part of the Aurora Internship Program for the Yawoorroong Miriwoong Gajirrawoong Yirrgeb Noong Dawang Aboriginal Corporation (MG Corporation) in Kununurra, Western Australia.

Kununurra is the heartland of the East Kimberley region. It is surrounded by landscapes formed into impossible shapes and sedimentary compositions by the pressure of ancient tectonic forces. The earth is the deep red of postcard fame, but the flora is surprisingly lush in the wet season. Boab trees, icons of the Kimberley, curve at the hip in a strangely feminine way. Their branches, stretching like hands, wave cheekily from among the bushes. Each boab’s greeting is unique, and they have been saying hello and goodbye to human passers-by for centuries: some are over 1500 years old. They are among the most ancient living beings on Earth.

Sitting atop the nearby Kelly’s Knob at sunset is a front-row seat to Edmund Burke’s sublime: on my second evening, from that vantage point, I watched a storm roll in – an unstoppable wall of water – raking the town from the earth to the sky. As the fat, tropical raindrops reflected the setting sun it turned them a light amber, as though it was raining gold. And you can smell the earth and the heat in everything you do. Kununurra is profoundly beautiful.

A storm rolls in over Kelly's Knob [image provided by the author]

A storm rolls in over Kelly's Knob [image provided by the author]

Like all beautiful things in nature, however, Kununurra is also dangerous. On a bush walk I followed a natural spring into a cave. Above my head flew dozens of tiny cave bats. The muffled sound of their wings was punctuated only by the occasional punch of air as they were snapped up by (what I quickly realised were) snakes dangling from the ceiling. I had interrupted lunch… I didn’t stick around for afternoon tea. 

The biological cornucopia of fauna that can kill a person in the East Kimberley is just accepted as part of daily life. Along the banks of Bindoola Creek, near a ranch I visited, lives Cedric. Cedric is a 6m salt-water crocodile (that’s the person-eating variety). You can’t let things like Cedric stop you from getting on with your life, however, and on the weekends the locals apply this logic by going camping or cooling off in the Ord River. There is a deeply romantic aspect of living in a frontier town, when the anxiety and tension of living a safe, comfortable suburban lifestyle evaporates. You embrace the heat. You embrace the latent danger. You embrace the alarm going off at 4:30am. You grit your teeth, or daily life becomes impossible.

The nearby Lake Argyle is visible from space. If you look for it on a weather report, it’s the dark blob at the top-left corner of Australia, near the border between WA and the Northern Territory. To reiterate an important theme so far: 35,000 crocodiles call it home. A local community leader also told me he has seen catfish up to 3 metres in length (though, I am sorry Ben, that catfish might be as long as the tale you told me). Stories form a huge part of life here. Social gossip spreads fast. Really fast. And the dreaming stories are a privilege to listen to. In contrast against those ancient stories, Kununurra is a young town and the stories of its birth pangs are still being written. An important part of that narrative begins with the birth of Lake Argyle. It is a man-made structure: a dam.

The construction of the Ord River Dam, and the creation of Lake Argyle, were completed in 1971. The Miriwoong Gajirrawoong people that lived in the basin the dam now occupies were never consulted. The Commonwealth didn’t give them so much as a ‘hello, sorry your homes will be 63m under water a few weeks from now’. Lake Argyle is now home to those 35,000 crocodiles instead. The memory of the flood that came and never stopped is only one generation old. There are still people alive who remember the water lapping around their feet.

The native title cases brought by Ben Ward and others in Ward v NT and Ward v WA were successful. Miriwoong Gajirrawoong people were given native title rights over most of their traditional lands surrounding Kununurra. The establishment of Aboriginal corporations under the Ord Final Agreement, between the state of WA and Miriwoong Gajirrawoong people, set out the terms under which the land could be developed. Government funding was allocated to support and strengthen the communities there. And that, in a way, is why I was in Kununurra in the first place. I was sent as part of the Aurora Internship Program as a legal intern with MG Corporation. The Program is an initiative that places students and graduates of anthropology, social science or law in organisations working to support the broader Indigenous sector that need assistance, and can support the experience of an intern.

Coming from a philosophy, politics, and government background I’m sensitive to the pervasive political aspect of everything I do. There are no secrets there. Gossip travels fast. Inter-family interests are so complicated from my perspective that it makes the patrician feuds of ancient Rome look like an episode of Neighbours. Meetings can be dramatic. This additional complication made the work I was doing more challenging and engaging, knowing that something was always at stake. There was no small stuff.

The direct relationship between MG Corporation’s work and the community relates to what I perceive as one of the benefits of working in a small organisation. Each individual bears a lot of responsibility. In my first week I jokingly described the Senior Legal Counsel as a one-woman legal army. Time revealed how correct that initial impression was. To be part of that has been an incredible learning opportunity, and for that reason (almost alone) I highly recommend it to any law student or graduate seeking a challenging and rewarding experience.  For example, I expected to be doing at least a little bit of photocopying. Not so. Almost everything I did involved complex legal reasoning, and a deeply strategic element to accommodate the political environment of the community.

One of the most important aspects of the surrounding political environment is the need for consultation. Consultation is done notoriously badly with Indigenous communities. See, for example, the creation of Lake Argyle. Aboriginal organisations aren’t given the time (even if they do have the legal expertise) to effectively and efficiently engage in legal processes that affect their interests. Consultation in Indigenous communities is also notoriously difficult. It is very important to get it right, however, both at the social level and one-on-one. I feel very strongly about wanting to do consultation right. And to do it ‘right’, consultation needs to meaningfully support the self-determination of those communities. One of the problems from my perspective as an ex-government policy worker in this area is that consultation is often approached as a process of rubber-stamping decisions that have already been made by organisations. That doesn’t support the self-determination of those communities at all. That process may as well not even occur. Supporting self-determining communities is the only conceivable reason why such consultation would occur in the first place.

As Janet Hunt points out in her paper, ‘Engaging with Indigenous Australia’, consultation is (at its core) a relationship of trust, respect and honesty. Good consultation, I think, involves little talking. It involves a lot of listening. In that spirit, I feel the need to be very, very concise. Not simplistic – just concise. And to not hesitate in responding. Sometimes to hesitate comes across as being duplicitous, because it might give the impression I’m being sneaky by thinking up an answer, instead of giving the one I know is right. It seems important, too, to not advertise the fact that I think I’m acting in their best interests exclusively. In most of the communities I’ve visited, the Indigenous people are promised the world by white people who come and pretend to listen and make all the right noises and then nothing changes. In fact, most times, things continue to get worse… there just happens to be a new mine next door and a few members of the community get very rich very quickly. That might sound cynical, but look at the statistics. Things aren’t getting any better. And every white person who has ever said ‘I’m here for you’ has tended to not in fact be acting in the best interests of the traditional owners exclusively. As Janet Hunt’s work also points out, that manipulation and abuse leaves deep emotional and psychological wounds on the collective psyche of Aboriginal communities. And it doesn’t do settler society any favors either.

The legal experience, the support and instruction, I gained in Kununurra were all excellent. The two best parts of being in Kununurra were not, however, directly related to the legal work I did. They were related to how much of the community I was lucky enough to get involved in. The Warringari Corporation runs a Soberup Shelter and a night patrol. This service ferries people around town to avoid drink-driving and other related issues. The shelter is equipped to sleep 24 people and is a safe place to get some food, a clean bed, and to sober up. The staff are a friendly mob of awesome people who work really hard for their community. They are typical of the powerful community leaders in Kununurra whose work goes completely unrecognized in the wider Australian community. These people do not get the attention they deserve.
Another amazing part about being in Kununurra has been what it’s taught me about myself. I know that sounds like earnest drivel, but it’s true. I have stayed in Aboriginal communities for a few nights before. I’ve never lived in the middle of one. It was incredible to see my latent prejudices fall away and suddenly re-emerge at unexpected points. When a drunk Indigenous guy walked past me with a knife one night, stared at me and called me a ‘white cunt’, I didn’t know whether to just run, tell him where to get off or to sympathise. It’s confusing. It turns out his name was David. As part of my volunteering at the Soberup Shelter I found this out because his family history was so horrific I can’t even write about it without feeling like I’m trivialising the sense of loss and grief David must have struggled with throughout his life. It’s not right to lower my expectations, and that’s not what I’m doing. I am simply struggling with my notions about what it means to expect someone to pull themselves up by their boot straps, kick the grog and become a healthy, productive member of society. Some dysfunction might be too ingrained.

Spending one Friday night at the Kununurra hotel was similarly interesting. It was so, so different to spending a night out drinking in Melbourne’s fashionable inner-North, sipping a fruity drink from a jam jar while bikes hang overhead for no apparent reason. Everyone was happy, and happy to share. Most people’s money went quickly. Not on their own drinks, but on those of other people. Despite this wonderful feeling of celebration with the people around me, one thing struck me as upsetting. As a white male in that community different standards applied to me. I’ve lived in plenty of places overseas. I’m not from Australia. And I know what it feels like to be treated differently (read: better) because I’m a white male. A female friend compared her experiences with mine. She put it better than I could: ‘it was probably the first time in my life where I understood what it was like to be judged by criteria that I formerly saw as having nothing to do with me personally. Being a white, western woman meant a whole bunch of things that I wasn’t able to control, both negative and positive.’ And the truth of her observation was palpable in my context: I was acutely aware that being a white man meant people either embraced me or threatened to kill me. There was no middle-ground. The white women in the hotel, however, were perceived as being loose, rich, and if unprotected by men or family were totally available for consequence-free sexual harassment. And I didn’t know what to do or how to feel about that. I didn’t intervene. I might have done. Arrogance is having different standards for yourself than those you have for other people. This wasn’t arrogance: at that point I wasn’t thinking less of the people around me and getting off on a sense of superiority. This was a point where my values and self-understanding were at their most compromised. At that point I realised that I was just confused. 

Don’t get me wrong: being here has been incredible. The people, the places, and the stories I’ve heard will stay with me, always. It’s just been upsetting and uplifting at the same time. At any given point I couldn’t decide if I wanted to stay for 5 years or get on the next plane out. The words of Kim Mahood, a Western Desert woman, were haunting me: ‘Kartiya [whitefellas who work in communities] are like Toyotas. When they break down we get another one’. I didn’t get on that plane, though. And I love Kununurra. I feel like it embraced me back. That sense of confusion I still feel is both understandable, I think, and a healthy part of any learning process worth embarking upon. That same friend I mentioned also recommended to me a quote by D.H. Lawrence. It didn’t solve my conundrum, but the following quote just helped me feel like coming here, and the feelings it produced, aren’t so strange:

‘If you want to know what it is to feel the “correct” social world fizzle to nothing, you should come to Australia. It is a weird place. In the established sense, it is socially nil. Happy-go-lucky, don't-you-bother, we're-in-Australia. But there also seems to be no inside life of any sort: just a long lapse and drift...’

To come somewhere totally different, to learn about a new place and to learn about yourself is to live, for a time, without the comfortable hand-rail of daily routine. Being no-one, ‘socially nil’ and making new friends is alienating. For a while it is ‘a long lapse and drift’. It is also, like the East Kimberley, a profoundly beautiful thing. Kununurra is indeed a really ‘weird show’, and one utterly worth the experience. 

If you are interested in undertaking a similar internship, the website for the Aurora Internship Program is: http://www.auroraproject.com.au/aboutapplyinginternship

Uphold & Recognise