By Nawoola Loonmi Miriwoong (Kununnura, Western Australia)
Interviewed by Les Thomas of #SOSBlakAustralia
Can you tell us your name, your mob and a bit about the work you’ve been up to?
Celina Newry is my gardiya [white] name. My bloodline is through Gelberd and Jebabi, which is all the Miriwoong elders. I’m a Miriwoong woman living in Kununurra [in the North-East, Kimberley], a grassroots community member, a younger Miriwoong person who takes teaching and language from my old people and I receive all my mandates from my cultural leaders.
Kununurra is 45 kilometres from the Northern Territory border, right at the top of Western Australia. We kind of come under two jurisdictions because part of our land is on the West Australian side and part of our land is on the Northern Territory side.My dawang (country) is Wirrjilwarrim (WA side) and Jarnum (NT side).
You’ve had large protests last year opposing community closures. Certainly some of the earlier rallies took place in Kununurra and other parts of the Kimberley and WA. Can you tell us your experience of that?
Yes, I was the one that coordinated the rally in Kununurra. I did it from a total grassroots perspective with all of the backing from my old people and from community leaders. Kununurra is such a transient town, so we had a lot of people from out of town, a lot of people on country. We managed to get about 80 to 100 people down at the park for the rally, which was really good and really powerful. I also invited the mob from Wyndham and Oombulgurri to come and speak at our rally. That was really powerful, having one of the younger leaders [Ronald Morgan] from Oombulgurri talk about the process the government went through in removing them from country and closing down their community. It’s just really heartbreaking hearing what they went through and the promises made to the community, which nothing has ever eventuated from.
We do have quite a few people from Oombulgurri living homeless, on the streets in town and it’s really disappointing to see these people have been left with nowhere to go and no real support in trying to address their needs.
Yes. I guess that was part of the wake up call, seeing that the WA government had done nothing to provide any kind of shelter or services for people who had nowhere to go.
Yeah, and that’s what brother boy Ronald was saying from their perspective: don’t believe this is just a threat; this will happen and they’ve experienced it themselves. There were promises from Holmesworth to help people into housing that’s never happened.
From our point of view, on the Kununurra side, from the list that was handed out that had the different town-based communities with the different categories — Category A, Category B, Category C — we had 15 communities in the Category C and they were the ones that were most threatened with being closed down. When I did more research, it said that Category C had “no room for economic development” and that’s why they were at risk of being closed down. But it was really concerning because some of those communities sat right under our native title. Like I’ve always said, native title is just a fraudulent title. It’s just a title and we don’t need a title when it’s our land anyway. We’ve been guaranteed by our corporation that communities are safe and our land is safe, but we’re also aware of the compulsory acquisition clause under Native Title.
Kununurra and its surrounding area is very rich in minerals. We have pretty much every mineral that you can think of up here, so we’re very aware that the government has plans for mining our country. The government doesn’t take into consideration that us being on country is not a lifestyle choice. It’s our cultural obligation to our old people and to our culture to learn everything we can from our old people and protect that land for our future generations.
What would you say the mood is with your old people and the wider community, one year on? How are people feeling?
I think people are feeling really disheartened, because my old people sit on the committees and councils that are set up through native title, but our old people’s voices aren’t getting heard. The people that are the top of these committees are supposed to be the voices for the old people, but information isn’t getting filtered through to the grassroots mob and old people like it’s supposed to be. That’s why my old people are really on me to gather that information about what’s happening at a political level and from the rest of our political networks as well. And they also know the information I give them is true and that at least we’ll speak up for them. Everybody is really disappointed because they feel like anything they do is not going to help. They don’t see any of the situations getting any better. We still have people living in such gross poverty; we still have overcrowding of housing; we still have domestic violence and alcohol and drug issues; lack of employment; lack of skills; lack of education.
The government is making everybody stay in town to be part of these job network providers so that their Centrelink doesn’t get cut off through the White Card, which means that they can’t be out on country because they have to be in town to sign off on the participation agreement, so it’s a real double edged sword.
So, Nawoola, are those cards already in full effect in Kununurra at the moment?
No, as far as I’m aware, it starts in a month.
- And basically anyone outside a larger town won’t have the ability to purchase essentials?
Yes. The only people that will be exempt from the Healthy Welfare Card will be pensioners, which we fully believe will put the pensioners at risk from the young people, because, when we’re talking about people with addictions, they’re going to need to access money to fulfill their own needs. And we feel this Healthy Welfare Card and the way it’s being set up will make our old people very vulnerable.
Has there been any protests or opposition to the cards around Kununurra?
No. I’ve just been speaking to my elders this afternoon and some of my other family members who’ve said they want a community meeting to try and block the Healthy Welfare Card. We’re aware that Halls Creek has already blocked the Healthy Welfare Card. And, like I’ve reiterated to my old people, that has happened because that community has stood strong. We have the opportunity to be able to do this here, but it’s going to take the whole community to stand strong. And when people are stuck in a cycle of welfare dependency it makes it really difficult, because people are frightened for their housing and frightened for their payments as well.
Can you tell us about the experience you had with a film crew earlier today? It sounds like a very telling example of how outside media treat our communities.
I’d been contacted last week to be involved in this interview regarding the threat of community closures and also the Healthy Welfare Card. So I’ve actually taken the afternoon off work to able to go and do that. They’d come to my work and I couldn’t give them permission to film without the committees’ approval. So I’ve taken them down the park to meet my old people. My old people told them straight out, Nawoola is the one that will speak for us. I did tell them about the situations that we have with overcrowding of houses, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse. So then they’ve said they wanted me to drive them through communities so that they could see an overcrowded house where there was drug abuse and stuff happening. I’ve said I can’t do that. I said they might be able to be arranged with my brother and my elders directing that, but I’ve said toy them I can’t make that call and I will not make that call. So now they’ve just said, for them to interview me, it won’t even make the cut. So now they’ve gone to speak to the corporation bosses and lawyers. So that’s really frustrating, because once again our voices aren’t getting heard and they’ve gone to speak to the people who are not listening to the grassroots people anyway.
It’s the sort of stuff that happens time and time again. What do you feel is the most critical message for the wider world to understand?
The thing that people need to be aware of and need to understand is that we have cultural ties to our land. Speaking as a woman who didn’t have culture when I was young, I was very lost. I know through personal experience, coming home and finding my culture and learning my language has really empowered me and given me that strength to hand life in Western society as well. I feel that everything that’s happening with the closure of communities is in total contradiction to what the government is suppose to be doing. They’re supposed to be empowering us people. The government should helping us working towards asserting our sovereignty, going off the grid and helping us establish our own economically viable and sustainable communities. We have so many resources and minerals that we could utilise ourselves in our communities that wouldn’t damage our land, that we could our own eco businesses out there that we could employ our people and have all our people out on country, but the government won’t support that. Everything the government is doing in terms of the Healthy Welfare Card and moving people off land is coming through Empowered Communities, but we’re all aware that it’s Noel Pearson’s model from the Northern Territory Intervention that’s just been tweaked. Everything revolving around the healthy Welfare Card is a band-aid fix. There’s nothing being put in places that helps people address their core issues.