Racism and parrots

To: Helen Larson <>, John Harris <>, Debbie Lustig <>, Brian Fleming <>, Birding Aus <>
Subject: Racism and parrots
From: Denise Goodfellow <>
Date: Mon, 06 Dec 2010 23:15:59 +0930
Thanks very much Helen, and sorry for the delay in sending this - I've been
ill.  I think the subtleties are difficult for many to grasp, but I felt I
had to try.  and here I'm going to expand on what I wrote in light of some
other comments that have been made.

Andrew, in his excellent email, mentions the feelings of Douglas, a
traditional owner, about trespassers.  But the feelings  go deeper than just
the act of trespassing.   My relatives view white strangers with alarm,
particularly when they appear on country.  I shall give a  relatively recent
and graphic example of why.

Some years ago, senior women relatives told me of police officers in Arnhem
Land who were assaulting Bininj (Aboriginal people). One of my
sisters-in-law was beaten nearly unconscious by an officer in an attempted
rape.  Another case involved a police officer trying to speak to a relative
who, frightened of the officer, had been avoiding him.  The policeman, a
bull of a man, twisted my skinny little relative's arm up behind his back,
and in agony and fear, my relative bit him.  The testimony of myriad
Indigenous witnesses differed, of course, from that of the one white
witness.   The result?  Gukguk (grandson) spent nine months in jail after
being found guilty of assaulting a police officer.

Together we women and some of the men tried to do something about such
policemen.   This did not go down well.  One officer, on discovering I was
involved in attempts to have him removed told my relatives I'd 'vanish' if I
returned to Arnhem Land.   Now, if this policeman could openly threaten me,
what could he do to Bininj.  People were terrified.  Men fled to the bush to
hide, leaving in many instances, women to cope with the situation.

Such balanda undermined a lot of the good work carried out by other
officers, and people in other fields, eg medical staff and teachers, and
Bininj were suspicious of virtually everyone.  I'll never forget driving
into a very remote outstation in central Arnhem Land with my father-in-law,
the senior traditional owner for that place, only to find it deserted.  The
women, having heard a strange vehicle, fled in terror with the children.
They told us two balanda strangers had turned up some weeks before, and they
felt threatened.

Yet there is so much the wider society could learn, particularly from people
such as the Kunwinjku  For example, at least on outstations, they do not
'waste' people - everybody is seen as useful, from toddlers to old people,
and all have a role to play in the community.  Contrast the attitudes to
seniors, particularly women, between western and Kunwinjku society.  Among
my relatives, it is a compliment to be addressed as 'old lady', as I often
am.  Now, who among the Birding Aus chatliners would own up to being an 'old
lady' a derogatory term in western society?

And then there are the children.  Whereupon westerners like to think of
children as sacred, in reality they're treated as useless and incompetent.
Yet among the Kunwinjku children learn to take responsibility for others and
themselves from the time they're knee high to a grasshopper.  My son, Rowan,
was only three when he was presented with a newborn infant and told he was a
'little daddy'.  This is how Kunwinjku kids learn to become competent
parents and responsible members of society.  The traditional ways of
education resemble that of Montessori education - learn by doing.

And then there's the negative attitudes.  Helen, remember Rowan, my son?  I
think you last saw him in 1995, when he was ten.  He is  'little daddy' to
several Aboriginal children.  When his school mates found out about this
relationship, they told him it was 'nothing to be proud of', because all
Aboriginal people were 'dirty drunks'.

How does one fight such attitudes?  My very shy semi-traditional son, an
Anglican minister, and biological father of Rowan's children visited Rowan's
class and tried to explain in his limited English, Rowan's role as a 'little
daddy', and how proud he was of his little brother.  Djedje (meaning 'my
child') was so scared he was shaking.  Courage to me is a small Aboriginal
man facing a class of children who had labelled him and his children, and
trying to defend his little brother.

Then take the efforts of the  Anangu elders to free Lindy Chamberlain, a
person they believed to be innocent.  This despite, their negative attitudes
towards both white people and in particular tourists who visited Uluru. I
only know of their efforts, because, after failing to make an impression on
Alice Springs police, elders sent messages through my Larrakia relatives,
asking me to help.  Such people are my heroes.  Sports stars and twitchers
with huge lists simply cannot measure up to such courage, in my opinion.

We're still fighting.   It's not just about recognising culture, but about
building trust and friendship.  And there are many ways of doing this, and
anyone interested is welcome to read my book 'Quiet Snake Dreaming, about
being a member of an Aboriginal clan.  I'm prepared to make copies of  '
available, free of charge, to any Birding Aus chatliner who wants more
in-depth knowledge of people such as the Kunwinjku.

Kunwinjku elders said QSD and another of my stories, 'The Baby'  would
'bring about understanding' between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
And they're still hoping.  So am I.

'The Baby', originally published by Ita Buttrose, back in the early 1990s,
is widely available on the web.

By the way, 'old' to my relatives means 'wise'.

on 3/12/10 10:51 AM, Helen Larson at  wrote:

> 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
> yours...
> Helen
> <')////==<
> ________________________________
> 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
> visitors.
> 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
> written.
> 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
> it. 
> 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
> themselves.
> 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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