Lots of things keep happening to alert me to things I have been so passionate about in the past and need to revisit.
Seeing this photo from The Sydney Morning Herald taken two days before the 1967 referendum, brought back some special memories of experiences I had when I was a special education teacher, flying around North Queensland with Distance Education in the 1980s.
A companion and I had visited Old Mapoon, where in 1963 the government, together with Comalco, evicted the residents off the mission. They were forcibly moved by the Queensland police from Old Mapoon to New Mapoon. The closing of the Mission was explained as being a measure to ‘rationalise services’ for the Cape Indigenous people. In 1974, several families returned to ‘Old Mapoon’ and by the time of my visit in 1986, there was quite a group of Aboriginal and Islander people working together to establish a community. There are many stories to be told of our experiences there.
Those few families that could afford to access distance educational services were struggling, but at least were having some educational assistance. For others there was nothing available until ‘Debra’, a beautiful young member of the community, took it upon herself to do what she could to provide some form of education for those that were missing out. Despite her having no teacher qualifications, we were really impressed with her efforts and gave her as much help as we could. We left Old Mapoon with mixed feelings, but the story I want to tell occurred several months later.
My companion and I were aboard a three-seater plane filled to the brim with educational materials as we travelled to a property at the top end of Cape York to what appeared to be a dry forsaken place in the middle of a desert. We were going to run a mini school for children gathered from a number of properties within hundreds of miles. It was our first visit and so we were unable to help the pilot as he searched for a place to land. He spied a large shed glinting in the distance and thought this might be it. I could see no sign of a landing strip, but down we went and as we hit the ground, contents of our boxes were dislodged, and paints seemed to fly everywhere.
As we bumped along I couldn’t help wondering where we were, but as the plane came to a full stop, a band of children came running to greet us. I felt emotional as we were greeted so enthusiastically by the excited group. One boy attached himself to me and as he shepherded me across the dry grass to the farm house, he told me that he had lived here all his life but the so and so’ Abbos’ were trying to take his land. It was early Mabo days and my heart sank. It was obvious that this young boy had heard some biased information. With my limited knowledge, I tried to explain that nothing was going to take them from this land, but its traditional owners just wanted recognition. My explanation was clumsy, but It seemed sad that this young lad was so filled with negative feelings toward Indigenous people. I was determined to address this as best I could throughout the week, but the next day something happened that negated my need to set things right.
We had stopped for morning tea when we saw a cloud of dust moving along the track to the house and as it drew near, we saw a weather-beaten car packed to the brim with Aboriginal children. Courageous ‘Debra’, had driven hundreds of miles to bring some children to our school. There was great excitement as the children tumbled out of the car, but I noticed that the young boy, who had shared his concerns with me, had hung back.
The week went well with lots of laughter and great exuberance. Each night when we finally had the last child settled for the night, the amazing women from neighbouring farms, made ‘Debra’ welcome as we sat around a large table consuming a rather dubious home brew and listening as they shared their stories. I felt so privileged to be there.
The week came swiftly to an end and as we gathered up our gear and Debra rounded up her mob, I fought hard to stop another flow of tears as I saw two little boys tearfully hugging each other. The young boy who had shown such anger towards Aboriginal people, had become firm friends with a lively young boy from Old Mapoon, and they were having great difficulty in saying goodbye.
We had endeavoured to make learning fun for them in this week, but I couldn’t help thinking that the best educational outcome came from Debra providing the opportunity for two cultures to gain more understanding of each other.