On 8th November 2000 I returned from the Alice Springs district, where Catherine Hassall and myself, as representatives of Culture Lab, were looking into any possible ways of supporting an Aboriginal centre there for recovery from alcohol and petrol sniffing problems. This is Intjartnama, near Ntaria/Hermannsburg, 125 km to the west of Alice. Intjartnama is the Cook family Homeland or Outstation.
It works, through Aboriginal management, with what is playfully known as the "four wheel drive" principles of culture. The steering wheel is TJUKURPA DREAMING/LORE and the wheels are LAND/PLACE/COUNTRY, FAMILY, TAKING CARE, and SPIRIT. What a fundamental way of thinking that is! Intjartnama is in a period of uncertainty and reappraisal after the death of Barry Cook, one of the founders of the program. His partner Elva Cook is the Traditional Owner and head of the family.
In the two week period I had two visits to Intjartnama when I stayed a couple of nights. Had such a rich and varied experience. Wonderful nights under the stars. Experiences of the loving commitment of both Aboriginal and non-indigenous people, friendly children. Also great hospitality for whole Alice Springs visit from friends of Catherine. For the first visit to Intjartnama I was with Craig San Roque, the psychotherapy consultant to the program. Craig has worked on addiction problems in Central Australia for the last decade, with a particular emphasis on creating deeper understanding through drama/performances, such as SUGARMAN. What follows is a story about the Intjartnama Four Winds Festival which gives a sense of what all this is about.
The second time I was with Peter Yates, another remarkable non-indigenous person in bridging Aboriginal/western understandings. Peter, who has facilitated the evolution of Aboriginal businesses for many years, manages Janganpa a group of traditional Aboriginal dancers/cultural interpreters, who gather at and work from the DESART Gallery, which in turn is connected to 39 Central Australian communities. Janganpa does tradition interpretation, including dance, painting and bush craft, as well as work on films. [Through periods visiting DESART and a Saturday trip into the bush I was getting to feel at home in their company and getting a faint glimmering of the Warlpiri language]
Since 1996 Intjartnama has put together each year, on Intjartnama land, a cultural event for local Aboriginal people and visitors. Each one has been different, each one has dealt with difficult matters, each one has broken new ground, each one has been successful and has helped encourage and carry on the work at Intjartnama for families and people affected by drunkenness and petrol sniffing. These events are an important, and are meant to bring people together, to encourage hopeful feelings and positive ideas, to help balance the sadness and stress. Funerals have become the most regular ceremonial activity for Western Arrernte people. We are tired of going to funerals and we want to help make gatherings which can stir up life- giving activities and enthusiasm for living.
We call it "the Four Winds" because it means people gather from all directions. The events are for Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people. The first event in 1996, "The Sugarman Story", brought together 400 people to show, in a dramatic sand hill setting, a traditional old greek story about the mythic origins of wine and intoxication. It is the "Alcohol Story", the good, the bad and the ugly. This amazing theatre work shows the wild young god, Dionysos/Sugarman, in his search for a cure for his spiritual and physical pain. His grandmother tells him that to recover his senses he must first listen to and accept his story. He refuses; but he only gets madder, so he comes to her for help. Sugarman is shown the true story of his family, his birth and his nature, all in a dream. The play is the dream. The hidden meaning of the story can be seen as a description of different kinds of drunkenness and spiritual pain. We see a way forward to recovery of mental balance.
"Sugarman" 1996 was a valuable experiment. David Roberts and Bob Randall have made a strong video doco about it. The Sugarman Project has attracted national and international interest as a different way of approaching the problem of drunkenness and its cultural issues. It is not a treatment program, but it helps people, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal alike, grasp deep issues and think about them in an imaginative way.
In 1997 we continued the Sugarman epic as a four week exhibition in the main gallery at the Araluen Arts Centre, with a program of performances, workshops and talks by artists, health professionals and performers on social and cultural themes relevant to concerns about alcohol uses and abuses as well as deeper themes about the human spirit. There were full scale theatre performances each Saturday night, from different stories in the Sugarman epic, including one at Intjartnama in the creek bed with the young people who were camped at Intjartnama as part of the petrol sniffing prevention program. Over 2000 people came to the events at Araluen and much interest as well as some bewilderment was stimulated by such a different approach.
The creek bed performance set the pattern for the next Four Winds Festival and camp at Intjartnama. Some of the Sugarman "Road Stories" have been broadcast, on CAAMA radio, by Samantha Cook and Warren Williams, with music by Frank Yama. 1998 saw the beginning of Injartnama's partnership with the traditional Aboriginal cultural performance group, "Janganpa". The Four Winds festival, as it has come to be known, was a three day event at the outstation including talks, sports, Aboriginal traditional cultural teaching, country and western music, the petrol sniffers band "Frankie and the Jerry cans", dusty dancing and an electrifying performance of "The Fire Story".
This was centred around the theme of Captain Cook bringing many things to Australia, including grog, petrol and a tricky character, Crow, who wants to eat children and who marries the local Punkalunka (Boogywoman) so they can team up to steal more children away from culture and family. This led on to a dramatic fire scene, with elders rescuing a baby from being burned up by Alice Springs, the petrol and grog. The performance itself was a ground breaking combination of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary performance. Over 400 local people came to this gathering, from all over the western desert region and there was much exchange of ideas and encouragement; in the midst of the despair. We are concerned about the future for our young people. We want to rescue them from the "fire". See the video,"Four Winds 1998".
1999 Four Winds Festival,Two, continued the same form, with sports workshops by Yvonne Goolagong Cawley, more cultural teaching and performance by "Janganpa", Hermannsburg Country and Western music, happy exchanges and singing among family groups, ngankari sessions and quiet talks with e.g. Bob Randall (Naidoc Indigenous Person of the Year). The keynote event was a series of workshop rehearsals involving children, visitors, the Janganpa performers and people from Ntaria, all working out and putting on together, a performance of the "Grog Runner and the Night Patrol", written by Samantha Cook from one of the Sugarman Road Stories. This chaotic, hilarious and moving performance is recorded on the video, "Four Winds Two". On the video you see Warlpiri/ Amatayere Night Patrol ladies, with Night Patrol men from Ntaria, acting as the Night Patrollers in the play, stopping the grog runners from carrying out their mindless, greedy, deadly, actions. Just like Crow, the local grog runners and drinkers end up destroying their own children. We only wish that the drinkers would learn a lesson from the past and from this ceremonial performance, listen to Samantha Cook's speech and give up their madness and their Crow habits.
These events are not the only part of Intjartnama's work with and for people affected by alcohol and petrol, but it is the one big event of the year where those who work with Intjartnama or are part of the network, can gather, relax and create, finding new ways of telling the story of what is happening. These events are always a struggle to put on, funds are low, people are tired and distracted but, nevertheless, the tradition continued into 2000.
The main activity for the 2000 Four Winds Festival involved the Janganpa women, Elva Cook and Alison Hunt introducing traditional dances and songs to students from Ntaria School. The students also participated in drama workshops and swimming in Ellery Creek. I also spent an afternoon and part of the next morning at Ntaria School at Ntaria/Hermannsburg, with a particularly strong contact with one of the men teachers.
And, of course I was saddened to see the "cycles of depression" associated with the addiction problems, and evident in many ways. The starting point of the trip was contact with Craig who is looking for more support around the financing and creative activities. In a superficial sense, the problems of Aboriginal groups and communities often manifest as addictions, such as petrol sniffing and excessive use of alcohol. Craig has supported and developed programs which are aimed at creating a context for family/community healing which works directly on transforming the underlying loss of "individual, family and community spirit" fundamental to the emergence of problems of addictions and their upsetting social consequences. For this deeper approach there needs to be continuity of funding over a long period. Unfortunately, much of the possible funding is very short term and must be applied to seek "outcomes" very specifically related to the addictions, rather than the deeper healing. We hope to start an action research project which helps with funding support and creativity.