Indigenous Australian stories – and digital technologies

In my recent on the literary road post, I referred briefly to Indigenous Australian stories. Rather coincidentally, I have just spent three days at a conference titled Information Technology and Indigenous Communities, hosted, primarily, by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) with the aim of exploring “the ever-increasing use of IT to access, create and collate tangible and intangible cultural information and heritage”.  That’s the background – now onto more the interesting stuff!

Nabulwinjbulwinj rock art at Nourlangie Rock

A warning and a story: Narbulwinjbulwinj is a dangerous spirit who eats females after killing them by striking them with a yam

As I said in that literary road post, indigenous Australians have a rich story-telling culture. Theirs was a non-written culture and so stories and traditions were passed on orally and via art, music and dance. All these forms of communication have continued post-contact but, due to breaks in contact with country, many stories and traditions have, tragically, been lost.  It was consequently encouraging to hear, at the conference, about how remote indigenous communities are using modern digital technologies to tell stories – traditional and modern – and thereby re-engage with and reinvigorate their culture.

I hope this doesn’t sound paternalistic because it is not meant to – and I hope it also doesn’t suggest that the real problems don’t exist – but it was exciting to hear positive stories about these communities because most of what we, living in predominantly white urban Australia, hear are the negative – and hopeless sounding – stories of substance abuse, domestic abuse, and the awful health problems that are resulting in unacceptable disparities in life expectancy.

We were given a wonderful taster of what is being produced at the film night held on the first evening of the conference. We saw films by professional artists such as Warwick Thornton and Tracey Moffatt and by makers from various remote community projects. You can see a couple of these on the internet:

If you’d like to see more, here are a couple of sites, both providing access to self-produced and home-grown audiovisual content:

  • Mulka Project from the Yolngu people in northeast Arnhemland – and to see some of the variety of their work, using live action, animation, archival footage, check their YouTube site
  • IndigiTube, which contains media produced by a number of remote indigenous groups. If you click on Watch Videos you will see on the right hand side the variety of topics the videos cover from informational to “creative”, from traditional to modern.

But none of this is easy:

  • resources are minimal, so people spend way too much time writing grant applications – not just to run projects but for their very existence;
  • training is difficult and tends to be organised in-house often by people already stretched too thinly; and
  • access to the Internet is expensive, usually slow, and flakey or non-existent – the digital divide is a fundamental problem. (This was well demonstrated at the conference when they could not get a Skype session to work from a remote community in central Australia but could for a speaker from Montreal).

In other words, the challenges are immense, but the commitment and creativity are inspiring. There’s a long way to go and what culture has been lost is unlikely to be found, but the opportunities digital technologies offer for people to re-engage with each other, their communities and their culture are immense. It was a privilege to be able to there.

14 thoughts on “Indigenous Australian stories – and digital technologies

  1. This sounds like an awesome conference I would have loved to be at! And how big are the yams there that Narbulwinjbulwinj can kill a woman with one?

    • It was a great conference, Stefanie – very inspiring, with a couple of interesting databases and data collecting tools being demonstrated, as well as the other things I mentioned.

      As for the yams, must admit I wondered that too. The ones we dug for on the Animal Tracks tour would have barely caused a bruise!

  2. Fantastic to hear this is worthwhile – not just the conference, but the implementation of technologies to protect/encourage/save culture and art. Can’t wait to hear about it in more detail 🙂

  3. Fascinating. The Internet is great at empowering (dreadful word) people to communicate in ways undreamed of before. My concern about digital technologies is their transient nature – we really don’t know how digital records will be preserved in years to come, with current physical media becoming obsolete to rapidly. Its going to be down to the great national libraries to managed the onward transmission of key texts and media but with budgets under constant pressure I suspect that old media is going to be more reliable

  4. Hannah: Any time, though I think the best is what you can see in those links. If you want to know the politics though…!

    Tom: One of the big issues featured in this conference was (is) archiving. A lot of these organisations are archiving materials with the national cultural organisations – but the quantity that can be produced digitally is immense so, even as storage comes down, storing, adding the appropriate metadata, migrating etc are challenges that aren’t really going to get easier in the near future I reckon.

  5. I can attest from personal experience the difficulties of getting projects going in Central Australia.

    For example, back in 2005, the Tjuwanpa Community Ranger Group (from Hermannsburg) had no lack of enthusiastic Western Aranda guys wanting training and jobs as rangers.

    The Central Land Council’s Land Management Section was given a piddling amount of money to run a trial of the group, which included costs for a vehicle and a coordinator. I was involved with Tjuwanpa through Parks & Wildlife’s Flexible Employment Program – we agreed to provide them with projects on NT Parks and pay CDEP ‘top up’ so the rangers were paid something like decent wages.

    After an outrageously successful 6 months, the poor ranger group coordinator then had to spend a ridiculous 18 months writing bloody (excuse the swearing!!) grant applications and the momentum he’d built up on the ground evaporated.

    When some Commonwealth funding eventually came through, the coordinator had to rebuild the group from the ground up.

    And that’s just ONE example of red tape that secretly destroys opportunities in Aboriginal communities.

    The other thing your article correctly identifies is that many Aboriginal communities lack the basic things we take for granted: internet, phones (I don’t mean mobile phones, I mean LANDLINES!) and proper schools.

    Many community schools in the NT operate for 4 days and sometimes, only 3.5 days per week. Yes. three and a half days per week.

    Worse, brand new, naive teachers -straight from SA &NT universities- are sent to remote locations, are chewed up and spat out. I am not having a go at teachers – just the system that forces people who would never otherwise desire to live in a remote Aboriginal community to go there. And leave ASAP.

    Then there is access to high school.

    There is only ONE high school in an Aboriginal community in Central Australia (Arlperre, approx. 300 km NE of Alice Springs) (although there is a college at Yulara). Do you KNOW how BIG Central Australia is? A big as Texas.

    Sorry to rant, but education is the key to improving Aboriginal people’s lives, and no government gives a damn about giving communities the schools and teachers they need.

    Here endeth the rant

    If we are serious about telling these stories and keeping culture strong, then goverments have to get serious about education in Aboriginal communities.

    • Thanks for the rant, Amanda — the more of us who hear the facts from people on the ground, the better!

      I could sense the frustration in many of the people there but they keep on going. So impressive. I said to a local librarian in one of the breaks that it’s so difficult because they have to spend so much time of their time writing grant applications, and she said we all do that. I replied that “we” do that for special projects not to keep ourselves going. I wasn’t sure she got the point but I hope she did.

    • Hannah, in my sidebar I have a “Copyright on images …” statement. In it I say “Any photos not attributed to others or to public domain are mine. Unless otherwise specified, you are welcome to use them under the Creative Commons license described under Copyright on my content above”. It is therefore a photograph I took. If you want to use it please see the “Copyright my content” statement, which basically says you can use it free of charge for NON-COMMERCIAL purposes, and you must acknowledge Whispering Gums as the creator. OK?

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