Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

A life of work in Arnhem Land

 Dr Neville White

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Transcript

David Hoxley

Hi there, my name is David Hoxley. I’m a physicist. I’m a researcher and a lecturer in La Trobe University’s Physics Department, and you are listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

Matt Smith

Hello everyone. I’m Matt Smith. Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. There are a few people around La Trobe University who get a bit of a reputation and I’m not speaking in a dodgy kind of way. I mean, every now and then they’ll come up in conversation. Today on the podcast is someone that I’ve wanted to get into an interview chair for quite a while.

Neville White

My name is Neville White. I have a PhD from La Trobe University in Genetics, as it was then. I’m an Emeritus Scholar at the university, having resigned from teaching in 2005 but I continued my long-standing work in Arnhem Land with the Yolgnu people of that region.

Matt Smith

Arnhem Land being a home to a lot of the Aboriginal community up in the Northern Territory. It’s remote, it’s not well resourced and the people who go up there to help out are really quite dedicated, passionate people. Neville White is one of these and he’s been doing it for the past forty years. He takes time to sit down for a podcast and tell us his story.

Neville White

Well, I came to La Trobe a few months after leaving the army. I was a National Service Infantryman. I’d served in Vietnam and within a few months of getting back here I decided I wanted to go to university and study, then Human Biology, and Human Diversity. And that was 1968, the second year of the university and in my Honours year I was in fact going to work in the area of marsupial ecology of all things, because at that stage, nothing really was offered in the area that I had expected and which is included in the handbooks of that time.

But the professor then, the foundation professor of Genetics, Peter Parsons, was a good supervisor for me because he let me do my own thing and he said, look, I have a small grant here in Aboriginal Studies. You can use that for your Honours project but you come back to me with the programs, so it was the sort of thing that suited me.

Why Arnhem Land? Well, I’d always had a longstanding relationship with Aboriginal people through my father, who was a champion professional fighter himself and then a professional boxing trainer, and we had a lot of Aboriginal boxers come from Queensland particularly, and live with us. So I went back and visited their families.

But when I got back from Vietnam, as I say, I wanted to understand a little more about not only our country but why people differ and try to make some sense of the mess that I’d observed, and in my reading I was aware that Arnhem Land had substantial linguistic variation. There was a big debate at that time as to why there was such linguistic variation in Arnhem Land. There were a lot of tradition-orientated people as there are still, and I took the opportunity to start some work in population genetics, and what I wanted to explore was whether there was an association between the patterns of linguistic diversity and population genetic diversity and how that might help us understand the processes of local evolution, which was called microevolution, why populations differ and how they do, and so that meant an examination of marriage systems and then measurements of diversity. At that stage I used fingerprints for a variety of sound genetic scientific reasons and they were also the least invasive.

So I was given the opportunity. I spent a lot of time reading and then I was told, you’re on your own mate. And I had as an assistant then a friend of mine who was a botanist, from Melbourne University and we went north at the end of 1970, the beginning of 1971, and that was my first long period of field work, where I visited about five communities across Arnhem Land and it was my first contact with the Yolgnu people of North-East Arnhem Land. I'd started at Groote Eylandt, a place called Umbakumba and then I went to the Tiwi Islands and then I went to then Oenpeli, which is called Gunbalanya. And then to Eastern Arnhem Land, to Elcho Island, the settlement of Galiwiniku.

Matt Smith

That’s more than forty years ago. What was it like up there then? They wouldn’t really have known what to make of you, I take it.

Neville White

Well, it was interesting then because the first phase was actually through large settlements and access was arranged through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, so we had to have ... I had to have permission of Aboriginal Affairs, who then contacted the Superintendants there at the time. They were then, they were expected and most did ... would ask the Aboriginal Council and if they said yes, I could come. That’s what happened. But it was on the second trip I think, in ’72 and then ’73 at Yirrkala, I met an old man who’s passed away now, on Elcho Island, very well known, who’d worked with a famous, well-known Australian anthropologist, now deceased, Ronald Burt, and he was interested in what I was doing and that is, trying, as I was working out patterns of relationships among Aboriginal people, Yolgnu people, and in fact how that related to their land use and ownership and through that, marriage. And he said to me, look, if you want to know, to learn who the Yolgnu lived before balanda, before white people came, then you should go to this community which was then called Donydji. It’s now called guramala as of last year, following the death of the clan elder. So out of respect they’ve changed the name to guramala which I'll use here.

You need to go to Guramala, those families have not left the land and you’ll get a better understanding of how people lived on the land. He then organised some radio link – they had pedal radios and those sorts of things. I went out in a charter flight in early 1974, met the people, and I've been going back ever since. But I've started working at the beginning of ’71 with the Yolgnu, and I continue work with them. I've not missed a year. So I've done field work for the past forty years with the Yolgnu, the same families.

Matt Smith

Is that home now?

Neville White

That’s certainly very much home. They see me as part of their family. I see them as part of our family down here. We bring down visitors. We try to raise money – I'll tell you more about that, but money to look after some of the people. But my focus has changed from the earlier days of focussed academic research, living and working with the people, and gaining some insight into the world. People were so polite and considerate and accepting of me, and then drawing me into their families and clan systems, to the point where I was honoured to be presented in about 1980 with a men’s ceremonial bag that is an acknowledgement of my place in one clan.

Matt Smith

So that sounds that somewhere along the line it really changed from academic research. At what point did that happen?

Neville White

I decided that I wanted to work on helping the community, applied research if you like, and move away from a position where I wanted to be the observer but not interfere. I felt that if I interfered then what am I recording? And it was an occasion when there was a rapid increase in dental disease and ulcers and abscesses in the late ‘70s. I went down one morning to one of the camps, and there was a woman, the wife of a particular man and who was sitting on the man’s chest and inserting a fire-hardened stick up into his jaw to try and release an infection, and he ... occasional moan, sweat pouring off his brown and he was in great distress, and I went back to my camp and fortunately I had with me a course of antibiotics. But I'd not interfered before then but I thought, bugger this, I'll do something, so I started him on a course of antibiotics, and the next day his wife came up one night and said, thank you for helping ... I called he’s better now and you’ve got really good medicine. This is what happened. And she took out a tobacco tin and in that tin there was ... it’s graphic, but there was a mix of blood and pus from the abscess and in that was a very large wood grub. And I said, where’s the wood grub from? What’s that. And she said, that’s what caused the sickness and your medicine drove it out. And so I learned from that a number of things. One is that one can’t just sit back if you’ve got an opportunity to help. You know, to be the objective observer just doesn’t work if you spend a lot of time in the communities, and then of course you’re I involved in change in what it is, if you’re describing ... that’s where I decided that I wanted to work with people to help people. And not do that through just academic publications.

But as to the grub, the belief was that during the night, in sleep, that his particular grub called gurumul, would enter the mouth and burrow into the tooth and into the bone. And that was the swelling. And so what I had done with antibiotics was force this grub out, and in the morning they found this beside his bed. And so they said this is obviously, you’ve cured it. And through that little study, apart from the realisation that I really wanted to help now, and sort of help with health services and so on, was a realisation that to improve health delivery services, we needed to have a clear understanding of how people themselves saw and regarded and acted upon wellbeing, and illness. When I realised that people attributed dental disease to these grubs, then I could say, as I did, that grubs are now becoming more common because you’re having a lot of sugar and it’s in your mouth of a night time and they come and eat the sugar.

And they discussed it and they then actually cut down their own sugar intake, because they saw that as being a story consistent with their own view of ill health and dental disease. So it was a little example that made me realise that one, if we could understand more clearly some of these belief systems, we’re in a better position to select those that are advantageous, that retain the positives, but act to change the negatives in a changing world.

So, that’s when I began to work more in the area of land management, ranger programs, medical anthropology and nutrition and so on, and for the past, probably fifteen years, focussed entirely on community development, through philanthropy.

Matt Smith

So, with all this travelling back and forth, back and forth between Melbourne and Arnhem Land over the years, how did you manage to get the funding for this? How did you manage to keep going?

Neville White

A lot of the work has been done as a PhD student with a scholarship and the university must remember that a lot of good work gets done in helping communities through the cheap labour of PhD students, and more should be encouraged. But I've been fortunate to have a number of philanthropic organisations, particularly through the Rotary Club of Melbourne who have been wonderful. And in 2003, they, with one other group, helped me raise money to build the first school in the community. So, since 2003, philanthropy through the Rotary Club of Melbourne particularly, has helped raise $1.6 million, which we’ve put into building houses, training workshops, schools, gardens, solar heating and we continue to do that. Most of the work is undertaken with volunteers, and many of those volunteers quite deliberately are Vietnam veterans, most of whom have had problems, have had to give up their work, but they’ve got a lot to contribute, which they have done. So they work with me and some student volunteers from La Trobe, particularly La Trobe and others, and we spend two to three months a year working with the young people of the community, now training and education is a priority after having built houses and the school. But the people had no school before we built one in 2003.

Matt Smith

Did they have education?

Neville White

In 1974, or ’75, the Gurumula school was, I think, the first homeland school. An Aboriginal man from that community with his wife had set up a little bush school. He had no formal training and his English was fairly basic, but he had a shelter there in 1975, logs as seats and bark and charcoal, and he ran that school as best he could for just over a year, and then I'm told, and it’s been confirmed by other Aboriginal people, that a bureaucrat, or bureaucrats came and said this wasn’t a recognised school and they weren’t getting any support for it and he’d receive no funding. They weren’t prepared to ... whatever money was going, either through welfare, but they said, this is not a recognised school. You’re not teaching an official curriculum and it ended, and he left and that was the school after one and a half years – their own initiative.

After a lot of lobbying with a friend of mine at Yirrkala who was a principal, we managed to get Elcho Island through Shepherdson College, to start a program again there in about 2001 and the kids were having their studies for one, one and a half days a week under bark and plastic – no walls around the bush shelter, and the hot winds would blast through and papers everywhere and in the wet season of course, it was impossible. We approached the authorities and they said if they wanted a school room they’ve got to demonstrate their commitment even longer, another eighteen months to endure these conditions, and then we’ll build a schoolhouse. And I thought that was discriminatory, awful and instead of rewarding the initiative and so we raised money and built a schoolhouse in 2003, and then they had about 34 students and a visiting teacher.

Then it dropped off again and after we built the school the government saw how successful it was and built another schoolhouse and a house for a teacher.

But as of last year, I went up to the clan leader’s funeral and there were 18 students and they were getting effectively one and a half days teaching a week, unlike other Australian kids. One and a half days and there were 18, 16 ... they got up to 20 once, so somewhere between 16 and 20, generally closer to 16, and they were told that they couldn’t get a teacher for more days a week, so a teacher would fly in by charter plane on Monday morning, from about 200 kilometres, they’d unpack, and then they’d fly back, sometimes on the Tuesday. One to one and a half days effective teaching. So I got a volunteer student through La Trobe Education Faculty here, they were really supportive, so a young man doing a Master of Teaching at Albury-Wodonga Campus, responded to a request that I made through their supervisors and asked if we’d be prepared to volunteer, so for the first semester this year, this young man, Adam Gregg, I took him up to the community, he lived there for nine weeks, on his own, and for the first time the lives of those kids, they had five days schooling a week. Now he’s in fact, as of two weeks ago, he’s gone back, he’s got a job up there. He so enjoyed the experience he’s got a job up there and philanthropy, the groups that are helping me, helped raise half his salary so the condition of the appointment is, if we pay half his salary, Shepherdson College pays half, but the agreement is that those kids would get five days teaching. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. It’s four, but there you go.

So it becomes from forty years ago, of academic study and population genetics, and anthropology, and now it’s truly a community development helping those young people to have something of a better career, a better future, in a safer environment.

Matt Smith

But there’d be a lot of young people up there, I imagine, or not even young people, who would never know a time when you weren’t around.

Neville White

That’s right. Well, it is, Matt, it’s a ... the oldest clan man, who died last year had asked me a year or so ago to take some younger men, in their 30s, to sites that I was taken to in the ‘70s. The old ones couldn’t get there now. One is now dead but the others are a bit too frail – I'm still managing to battle on. They asked if I'd use my maps, the information I was given, to take some men in their 30s back and I had the opportunity to take my son and daughter as well, back to a really important secret sacred site – it’s a very important place. It’s a wonderful place. But there I was, this old fella, using my maps and a compass, to take us back to where I'd hoped I'd recorded accurately and took the young people back. So, there’s a situation where they weren’t born when I first went, in their mid 30s, and now I'm in a position where it’s really as an elder, to help teach them and take them back. You know, these are people who don’t have much English, but they still haven’t travelled to some of these special places I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to thirty or forty years ago.

Matt Smith

That’s Neville White. He’s an Emeritus Scholar with the School of Genetics at La Trobe University, and he’s doing great work there up in Arnhem Land. Don’t forget you can find lots of podcasts on our blog – that’s at podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au. There’s lots of interviews and lectures and there’s also a lot to be found on iTunes U. I'm Matt Smith. You’ve been fantastic and thanks for listening.

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