Racism and parrots

To: Denise Goodfellow <>, John Harris <>, Debbie Lustig <>, Brian Fleming <>, Birding Aus <>
Subject: Racism and parrots
From: Helen Larson <>
Date: Fri, 3 Dec 2010 01:21:16 +0000 (GMT)
and Good on you Denise. I just read through the pile of Princess Parrot emails 
and was amazed at some of the comments. 

It's clear that many (dare I say southern) balanda have no idea of Aboriginal 
culture, knowledge and attitudes. Mind you, my knowledge is not the same as 


From: Denise Goodfellow <>
To: John Harris <>; Debbie Lustig 
<>; Brian Fleming <>; 
Birding Aus <>
Sent: Thu, 2 December, 2010 9:55:48
Subject: Re: [Birding-Aus] Racism and parrots

In 1988 my relatives in western Arnhem Land decided they wanted to become
involved in tourism.  This came about because, over the years, they¹d met,
and generally liked, some of the birders I guided ­ these were mostly
Americans, but some were Australian.  I agreed to help only because family
and clan elders asked me to. I was the only family member with any expertise
in the area.  

To explain the decision-making process, I¹ll give an example.  Some years
ago the Ombudsman¹s Office asked me to become an officer in Western Arnhem
Land.  I told them that I¹d need to ask my relatives, the most senior of
whom were staying with me at the time (among them my two older sisters,
Esther Maralngurra and Mrs. Nganjmirra).  My relatives told me to take them
to the Ombudsman's office so they could tell staff how they felt about my
appointment. There was no way I would have considered accepting that job
without their wholehearted approval.

The reasons my relatives wanted to be involved in tourism were threefold.
They wanted to Œmake friends¹ with balandas (white people); they wanted to
keep young people on their country, and they wanted to make a little money.
They didn¹t understand why people would want to visit their country or watch
birds.  This was voiced eloquently by Mirrar elder, Yvonne Margarula, senior
traditional owner in Kakadu, in a newsletter we later published.  They
didn¹t understand, but they accepted that balandas did such things.

However, my relatives were afraid.  Many had had negative experiences with
balandas, and, they didn¹t understand bureaucracy or know anything about
running a business. Also they thought they¹d have to go into tourism in a
big way.  They weren¹t wrong.  The formal tourism industry in the NT is
designed for mass markets (Dean Carson et al argue that it resembles a
staples economy, for those interested). When we approached Tourism NT for
help, they tried to pressure my relatives into taking on more visitors, and
to charge like wounded bulls, all so my relatives could become part of the
establishment.  We decided to skip the formal industry altogether and go
straight to the market.

My relatives had other fears.  Over the years they¹d heard tales from the
Mirrar about guides, operators and tourists who were ignorant,
environmentally insensitive, racist, or sexist. We all knew of a few in the
industry with a history of violence towards women.

It took twelve years for all in the clan to agree. I was outside of this
process, except for answering questions.  For example, I was once asked how
we could keep visitors away from dangerous dreaming sites.

The process was Œbottoms-up¹, ie driven by my relatives.  As a group we
talked over what visitors we wanted, eg. those who would Œfit in¹, and with
whom the community would feel most comfortable.  Then the senior traditional
owners as a group decided on how money was to be treated (it was handed to
the most senior woman who dispersed it).
My relatives, on my advice, were interested in the sort of people they¹d met
at my home eg mainly American couples, although later Australian families
and couples, small groups, and American students came too.  However, they
were still so scared that some ran away when I arrived with the first

We all realised that we had to keep all women safe.  Some of our men had a
history of violence, although they had always treated me with great respect
as their Œold lady¹. But as a matter of practice, my women relatives never
camped alone, and would not let me camp alone. Elders decided that any area
with a history of substance abuse or violence towards women was excluded
from our program unless they showed behavioural change.

We also excluded some visitors, for instance rabid birders who were prepared
to walk over everyone and everything to see a new bird.

Training was built upon my relatives¹ existing skills, knowledge and wisdom,
and was holistic, encompassing areas from common and Kunwinjku bird names
(we taught literacy using bird names), to basic computer skills, first aid,
and how to deal with misbehaving visitors.  Some courses resembled episodes
of The Goodies, but we had a ball and everyone, including myself, learned
and gained confidence.

I trained family members closest to me from elders to children, and then
they taught people on other outstations, moving knowledge crabwise and at a
pace and in a manner that supported and built upon traditional knowledge and
values.  There were hurdles - one respected tribal elder whom I call Œson¹,
refused to learn computer, saying he was Œtoo stupid¹ (yes, he learned that
at school). When he finally plucked up the courage to try, he was typing
with ten fingers in one day.

Families ­ seniors, women and children, were involved as guides and hosts,
not just men.  This preserved family structure and the status of women.  And
it made women safe.  The wisdom of this approach stood in stark contrast to
a southern tour operation whose drunk guides sexually harassed a bunch of my
American students. 

One of our goals was that relatives, male and female, would be able to make
informed choices further down the line as to whether they wanted to be
involved in tourism, and if so, how.  Some talked about guiding serious
birders both in Arnhem Land and around Darwin where my saltwater/Larrakia
relatives wanted to take visitors into the mangroves to show them birds such
as Chestnut Rail, keeping them safe at the same time.

Some government funding enabled me to hire vehicles to get to Arnhem Land,
and all was going well.  The number of visitors was low enough that my
relatives felt they could get to know them personally, and that the
situation was always under control. We were getting enquiries from a whole
range of interest groups, not just birders.  Some visitors had become
mentors and we were now hosting American students.

The death of two elders brought things to a temporary halt, but an even
bigger setback was the loss of funding.  Two reasons were given.  The
government department involved had decided only to fund courses run in
towns.  Secondly, neither I, nor any of any of the elders, had a Certificate
4 in training.  By that time I¹d one university degree and a postgrad
qualification as well as over 25 years¹ experience as a birding guide and
training Indigenous people.  Elders said that if I wasn¹t qualified, what
hope was there for them.  There are bureaucrats in the NT who ought to hang
their heads in shame.

Readers may ask about the training of Indigenous guides in Kakadu ­ I know
little of this as I wasn¹t involved, apart from being questioned about my
methods of training Indigenous relatives.  However, the feedback from
clients, friends (including some senior in BA) was not positive, and from
what I heard, it seemed like another Œtop-down¹ exercise designed to satisfy
twitchers, without taking Indigenous culture and practice into account.
Academics at Charles Darwin University considered writing a paper entitled,
and here I paraphrase, ŒHow Not to Train Indigenous Birding Guides in
Kakadu¹. They didn¹t, I¹m not sure why. But few lessons will be learned
until a paper exploring both the good and the bad of such efforts is

I wish the central Australian guides who showed birders the Princess Parrots
the best of luck.  They have control of birding and I hope they keep it.
Given the challenges my relatives faced, the institutionalised racism that
exists to this day, and the attitudes of some hardcore birders, they¹ll need

But those birders aren¹t alone.  Remember the German backpacker, taken by a
crocodile in Kakadu some years ago?  The Mirrar women were horrified that
for years their warnings about crocodiles had been ignored.  Yvonne
Margarula wrote in our newsletter that the Mirrar wanted Œto keep visitors
safe¹.  Seeing it ias their responsibility to prevent further deaths, they
decided to close off access to waterbodies inhabited by crocodiles.

The response of someTop End tour operators?  The Mirrar were just Œbeing
greedy¹ and wanted to keep the land and the money it brought all to

To Debbie, Anthea, John Harris and all the other Birding Aussers who can see
past the next new tick, you¹ve demonstrated a breadth of understanding that
I wish more displayed.  Good on you.

Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 3460 NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 0438 650 835

Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
PhD Candidate
Vice-chair, Wildlife Tourism Australia

on 1/12/10 12:49 PM, John Harris at  wrote:

> I second that, Anthea!
> Having done some birding with guides, I have been more than happy to
> pay their asking price especially if they are giving up their time and
> not part of their usual income/employment.
> If you think it is too expensive, then dont' go and don't whinge about
> it! Like everything else in this economy driven society, the price is
> what people will pay for that service.
> As for their (indigenous peoples across Australia - Murri's, Yolgnu,
> Koories, etc) connection with the land, it is generally deeper than any
> "WASP or Catholic" could understand. Having lived in indigenous
> communities in a few places in Arnhem land and only scratched the
> surface of this connection, I can only begin to appreciate this.
> So birders, be thankful that there is a way to see these parrots and
> benefit a local "economy" than not at all.
> Yours in all things "green"
> Regards
> John Harris
> Manager, Environment and Sustainability
> Donvale Christian College
> 155 Tindals Rd Donvale 3111
> 03 9844 2471  Ext 217
> 0409 090 955
> President, Field Naturalists Club of Victoria (FNCV)
> Past President, Victorian Association for Environmental Education
> (VAEE)
>>>> brian fleming <> 1/12/2010 2:01 PM >>>
> Thank you Debbie,  I agree with every word!
> Anthea Fleming
> On 1/12/2010 1:44 PM, Debbie Lustig wrote:
>> I have been reading people's opinions about the money being charged
> to see Princess Parrots and can hold off no longer. There is an
> underlying racism that lurks, a nasty little secret, beneath the
> comments of many. How else to explain well-meaning discussions along
> these lines (and I paraphrase):
>> 'If it teaches them - Indigenous people - to run birding tours then I
> approve' (for our - whitefellas' - benefit, of course);
>> 'If they share the money among their community then I approve' (since
> when were Europeans called upon to share their profits with their
> communites?);
>> 'They've been given enough money already so I don't approve'
> (over-simplifying an unbelievably complex situation); and
>> 'If they can get that sort of money, let them try (but I don't
> approve)'.
>> These sentiments imply a superiority and moral high ground we simply
> don't possess. They are more offensive for being subtle.
>> People have also objected to the traditional owner's scruples about
> (white) birders running around on his land, when we don't have a clue
> what it means to be custodians of the land. To protect the animals,
> birds and plants; to have a spiritual connection; to be diminished when
> the land is trampled on and ignorantly invaded.
>> Look at how we have managed custody of our own (stolen) lands, here
> in our cities and degraded, agricultural areas - we know only how to
> exploit.
>> I am fed up with reading this correspondence, couched in economic
> terms but informed by ugly, masked racism. From now on, could it be
> limited to the facts?
>>        ==============================
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