the man in the log I was told the following story. At the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, a secondee from inner-city Sydney was sharing an office with Linda Rive, an interpreter who had spent a good deal of time living in remote communities in the Western Desert. Linda mentioned that when she first worked out on the lands there was no accommodation for visiting whitefellas, and she had lived for months at a time in a The secondee heard the word, which means a traditional shelter, as “wheelchair”. Constrained by good manners from asking what disability Linda had, and having been told by the coordinator of the placement organisation not to ask too many questions, but to listen and learn, she absorbed this information. “It was pretty cramped,” Linda said. “Especially when other people moved in with me.” The secondee wondered how this might be managed, and towards the end of her placement she commented to her colleagues that Linda was a remarkable person, who had lived for months in the desert in a wheelchair, sometimes even sharing it. By the time the story made its way back to Linda it had become local legend. I love this story for several reasons. The image it conjures up, of Linda trundling over the dunes in her wheelchair, people clinging all over it, is much more beguiling than the reality of living in a shelter made of branches and spinifex. But more importantly, it reveals how easily wires get crossed; how readily we accept the improbable or outlandish when we are in unfamiliar territory; how acquiescence and good manners can allow the preposterous to go unquestioned. It’s a perfect introduction to an essay about communication at the edge of the incomprehensible. share a suite of characteristics that are rare or absent from most of the organisations that service Indigenous people. The organisations and projects that meet my criteria are anchored in long-trusted cross-cultural relationships, have evolved as a response to the wishes of Indigenous people, feature engaged Aboriginal participation, involve high-functioning white people who are in it for the long haul, share an equal respect for different ways of knowing and being, build on what is already there, and are process-based and responsive to change. The Uti Kulintjaku project has all these elements, but what is especially compelling is that it provides a framework for a conversation about the underlying psychological forces that drive human behaviour. This conversation is carried out across languages and between cultures with profoundly different belief systems, but which are attributed equal value. The project employs skilled interpreters so that people can think in their own language and share complex ideas, teasing out words and their meanings with precision and subtlety. Everyone involved with Uti Kulintjaku speaks about it with a kind of wonder. It’s the first time I’ve heard desert Aboriginal people express such enthusiasm for a project that isn’t embedded in country. Over several weeks I sit in on evaluation interviews and speak to people involved with the project. There’s something unique and important going on, something more than good practice and productive outcomes, though that’s unusual enough. Uti Kulintjaku evolved from the Ngangkari (traditional healers) project, which was also developed by the NPY Women’s Council, beginning in 1999. The Ngangkari project brought traditional healing practices to the health system in Central Australia, to help deal with the crisis in mental health among Aboriginal people. Conventional treatments were failing, and when Anangu (Western Desert people) were asked why, they suggested that their own healers were being ignored and should be brought into the process. Initially there was resistance from doctors, who were afraid that the ngangkari would discourage the Aboriginal patients from accepting Western medical treatment, but the Anangu healers insisted their role would be complementary. After all, most of them were on various forms of Western medication. The presence of ngangkari at Alice Springs Hospital became commonplace, producing a marked improvement in the mental health of Aboriginal patients. In the early stages, the ngangkari were astonished to learn that Western doctors can’t see or feel the spirits that are essential to human balance and health. How could they treat sick people if they couldn’t see if the spirit was out of alignment? The spirit is intrinsic in the breath, and must be in its proper place for a person to remain healthy. According to senior ngangkari Toby Minyintiri Baker, “Spirits are not particularly difficult to work with. If you can see them, you can get them! They are not overly clever or trying to get away or escape you. They are just confidently themselves and just need to be where they should be!” On a recent visit to Alice Springs wiltja. is the radioactive core of Alice Springs, impacting on everyone who lives here, even those who aren’t involved with the organisations that service, support and incarcerate Aboriginal people. Whenever I return, it’s like entering an energy field in which the cultures ripple through one another, obscuring, illuminating, interrogating, undoing. The deficit aspects of Aboriginal life are in full view, and the counterpoint to that deficit is a dynamic, enmeshed, inspiring enterprise playing out in multiple ways. I’m in Alice Springs to research a project called Uti Kulintjaku, which translates from Pitjantjatjara as “to listen, think and understand clearly”. In Pitjantjatjara, to listen properly and to understand are synonymous. You can’t listen if you don’t understand the language of the other people in the conversation. This isn’t a difficult concept, but it seems to have eluded the grasp, or at least the capacity, of governments, educators, police and health professionals. Since the publication and viral circulation of an essay I wrote several years ago about the dysfunctional world of whitefellas working in remote communities, I’ve been on the lookout for examples that run counter to that trope. These examples stand out because they The Indigenous world 51
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