Between two worlds: 'I want my future to be on country'

Susan Chenery

“I want my school to be run by Aboriginal people.

I want adults to stop cruelling 10-year-old kids in jail.

I want my future to be out on land with strong culture and language.”

– Dujuan Hoosan, 12, becomes the youngest person to address the United Nations human rights council, Geneva, 12 September 2019.

The last light flares behind the ancient escarpment of the ranges, the salt bush silhouetted in the deep hue it leaves behind. The great spine of the ridge rears up, its ochre rocks sculpted by the elements across the millennia. The ferocious heat has gone from the day, the night is amniotic warmth, cicadas, dogs, babies. The entire community of the Hidden Valley town camp is out for its first-ever film premiere. In My Blood It Runs was filmed here among these overcrowded fibro houses, dust storms, hardship, the electricity being cut off. On this balmy summer night they are seeing themselves on the big screen; people who are not normally listened to or heard, people who are marginalised, on the wrong side of those ranges.

But in this moment, in this film, they have a voice, they are being seen, and this is their truth. This is much more than just a film for the Arrernte people of central Australia – for sitting behind In My Blood It Run is an audacious campaign for change, a program for addressing Indigenous disadvantage. They have the solutions; they are the solution.

“They are not sitting around doing nothing – they never have,” says the film’s director, Maya Newell, who found success with 2015’s Gayby Baby. “They have always been fighting for the same thing, and it is our turn to try and listen to them.”

In September last year the world listened to Dujuan Hoosan when he addressed the UN human rights council in Geneva. His speech accompanied a screening of Newell’s film and the opportunity to discuss with experts youth injustice and educational disadvantage in Indigenous Australia. It was a deeply affecting moment of truth-telling – a plea, too, to the Australian people and the Australian government.

“In school they told me Captain Cook was a hero and discovered Australia,” he says. “It made me confused. It’s not true because before cars, buildings and houses there were just Aboriginal people. I want Australia to tell the truth that Aboriginal people were the first people who had the land.

“My school report cards said that I was a failure. Every mark was in the worst box. I thought, “Is there something wrong with me? I felt like a problem.”

But this is not how he feels when he’s on country. “I feel strong when I am learning my culture from my elders and my land.”

In My Blood It Runs first captured this strength back when the Arrernte/Garrwa boy was 10 years old in Hidden Valley town camp. Exuberant, bright, energetic, in his own culture he is special. A healer, a hunter, speaking three languages, he was born with a memory of the ancestors. “History,” he says, “in my blood it runs.”

But history runs into him, too, at a transitional point in his life as he negotiates two worlds. Not only has he inherited an ancient history but also a recent history; grandparents and great grandparents being removed under the assimilation policy, generational trauma, pain. At 10 he was becoming aware of how that sat alongside the richness of the culture his grandmother was teaching him at home.

In the film he stands on top of that ridge and looks down at the big houses on the other side. He sees the disparity. “How come those people have got clean houses and not us? They got a good front, good neighbours. I wish I had one of those houses.”

At a mainstream Australian school, Dujuan is set up to fail from the moment he walks through the door. He is expected to learn in another language with a curriculum that holds no relevance or meaning for him.

Dujuan’s story is unique but it also is not – it is a reality for so many first nations children in the Northern Territory.

Maya Newell

He is disengaged, bored, doesn’t want to be there. So he isn’t; truanting, running away, running wild, determined “to be free”; going out at late at night with older boys, while his mother and grandmother drive around looking for him. His mother, Megan, receives a letter warning her that her welfare payments could be cut off if her children are not at school. In spite of his obvious intelligence, his school report brings only Es, making him think there is something wrong with him, a problem.

At 10 his rebellion and high spirits are still innocent, but he stands before a dangerous path. He is old enough to go to juvenile detention, the precursor to a life in and out of prison; to becoming just another statistic, another wasted life (100% of the inmates in Alice Springs’ juvenile detention centres are Indigenous). Footage of what happened to Dylan Voller at the Don Dale Detention Centre is on television, but he still ignores the last chance his headmistress at school has given him and is expelled. As his spark dims, the only time he is that joyful child again is when the family are out on country at Sandy Bore.

But Dujuan is lucky. His mother and grandmothers are prepared to fight for him and his future – and the future of all Aboriginal children – before another generation is lost. His own grandmothers are among the grandparents and families leading the charge of a new network of first nations educators from 15 nations – with their own languages – across the territory, designing their own education system, in which children are taught on country two days a week. Some of them, such as native title holder and elder Felicity Hayes, are western-trained teachers, Arrernte translators and educators, others are cultural professors of their own languages and culture. “Education that is hidden, silenced and undervalued in our western centric schooling system,” Newell says.

“Dujuan’s story is unique but it also is not – it is a reality for so many first nations children in the territory,” Newell says. “We have got children who are confident in their first language, they know their country, they know their songlines, they are supported by loving, caring families. And often when they enter the education system they are told that they are failures at school. So we felt that there was a story about how we measure success and how the Australian school system privileges only western world views, and that is seen so much here in the territory.”

William Tilmouth, former chair of Atsic, was a stolen child who grew up on a mission at Crokers Island. He was CEO of Tangentyere Council, which included Larapinta Valley town camp when it was known “during the intervention as the murder capital of the world because of the alcoholism, violence and murder rate”.

“On the advice of an old man who said the best way to teach kids is to sit them down with grandparents and learn together, we ran programs in the town camp. And what we noticed when we started was that the violence dropped, the alcoholism dropped, the participation in the centre increased dramatically. People were turning up when they weren’t supposed to.”

He teamed up with Jane Vadiveloo, who has spent decades leading reform in the territory, and founded Children’s Ground, a place of teaching children in their own language and culture.

“We absolutely believe that this is the structure that holds the solutions because it comes from 65,000 years and more,” Vadiveloo says. “And all the systems exist, education systems, health systems, all of them still exist but they are not understood and seen by the mainstream. Our kids need to be in an education system where they are going to succeed and be confident. What Aboriginal child is going to thrive in an environment that doesn’t recognise their identity and culture? Or their history? Somehow there is an assumption that Aboriginal children have a deficit and you need to fix it.”

As elder and Dujuan’s grandmother Margaret Turner says: “They are always telling us to make our kids ready for school, but when are they going to make schools ready for our children?”

Vadiveloo believes Aboriginal children don’t feel emotionally or culturally safe at mainstream school, something she learned from working in prisons and talking to the inmates. “They failed school because they were sitting in an environment with a whole lot of trauma in their head with someone who doesn’t understand them. They are getting told they are good at being a run-amok and so that is what they become.”

As the recent Close the Gap report – and every Close the Gap report – shows, these are some of the most disadvantaged people in the country; infant mortality, health issues, poverty, chronic unemployment, a close family member in prison. One young mother tells Guardian Australia they just can’t get jobs in Alice Springs. But they all say their children are beautiful; full of joy and potential.

In the 25-year Children’s Ground plan, elders lead the organisation and the Arrernte curriculum, including learning on country and inter-generational teaching. There are also trained western teachers. “In order to survive in this country for the amount of time we have,” Tilmouth says, “we had some education system there. And the grandfather was never far from the grandchild because the grandparents have direct responsibility for the wellbeing of that child.”

Our kids need to be in an education system where they are going to succeed and be confident.

Jane Vadiveloo

In the staffroom of Children’s Grounds in Alice Springs, it is clear from a whiteboard and what is on the walls that this place is child-centred. “It is around communities, families and the child. The child is at the centre,” Tilmouth says. “Everything satellites around that child; being on country, doing and exploring, and then as you come in you have got the social, your body, your culture, your learning mind.”

The program is ambitious. “Our goal and agenda is for reform of policy and practise nationally,” Vadiveloo says. “We are supporting a national network of first nations educators across 15 different nations. And we will be working with government to recognise Aboriginal education systems.”

At the moment there are only the funds for early childhood education. Tilmouth would like to take it through primary, high school and university. “From birth to 25, we are not here for the short term.” Too many children drop out of high school, if they even get there in the first place. Not finishing high school is the norm here.

Vadiveloo believes that “if somebody gave us $20m we would have early childhood and primary and secondary right now. We would have kids who are currently not in school coming back into education, without a shadow of a doubt.” Tilmouth shakes his shaggy head. “The amount of money they spend on jails and prisons and out-of-home care, it is massive, but they don’t spend money on prevention.”

Vadiveloo says Aboriginal children are committing suicide because they are being forced to live in two worlds.

“We are saying it is not two worlds, it is a single world where Aboriginal children have the right to be Aboriginal children, and enjoy the global opportunities around them. They will have the opportunity to learn and grow and be educated in their first language and culture. But families want their kids to learn English, numeracy, literacy, music, art, digital technologies – like any parent. And the outcome will be economic independence, but absolutely secure in their identity and their rights.”

Since he co-founded the program, it has grown organically, Tilmouth says. “Once the resources become available, we will fill the need as needed and follow the aspirations of people where they want to take their lives.” Ultimately, he says, “it is about taking the chains off to realise their aspirations and take their place in Australian society, as it should be”.

“We all aspire to the same things, no matter what culture you are in: to have a healthy life, have a nice house, have a job, dad’s working, mum’s working. Whatever people aspire to, it is the same thing.”