Recent news coverage celebrating Patty Mills, who in June became the first Indigenous Australian to win an NBA championship, has been enthusiastic and well-deserved. But positive depictions of Indigenous Australians in mainstream media are sadly few and far between.
In her paper ‘The Portrayal of Indigenous Health in Selected Australian Media’ published in The International Indigenous Policy Journal, Melissa Stoneham (Curtin University) wrote: “Research suggests negative media in relation to Indigenous Australians perpetuates racist stereotypes among the wider population and impacts on the health of Indigenous Australians … A total of 74 per cent of the coverage of Australian Indigenous related articles were negative, 15 per cent were positive, and 11 per cent were neutral.”
Countering the negative public attitude towards Indigenous Australians is a big task. Narana – an extensive cultural and art centre which is both a tourist attraction and community hub – is having great success doing just that.
Established in 1992 by the Victorian UAICC (Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, AKA Congress) and the Vic/Tas Synod, Narana has long held a special place in the life of the synod. It’s been named Best Indigenous Operation in Victoria three times and inducted into the Victorian Tourism Awards – Hall Of Fame.
Vic Congress Resource Worker Rev Vladimir Korotkov is passionate about the future of the centre, which has undergone an exciting period of change and growth in the last six months.
“Our mission is to become a significant destination place – one which is generative and relational, with a welcoming spirit that invites visitors to ‘see history and the land with new eyes’,” he said. “A place which adds life to the word ‘Narana’ – which means to listen, learn and build relationships. And in all this to sense and partner with the Creator Spirit, both ancient and present.”
Originally opened to provide information about Aboriginal culture and history as well as a friendly forum for discussion of Indigenous issues, the vision for Narana is fast expanding.
Activities and attractions such as the Indigenous gift shop, bush tucker, nature walks sampling medicinal plants and presentations on boomerang throwing will continue as they have for years. But the new Indigenous café, art gallery, community hub and several additional staff have reinvigorated the expansive space which now hums with activity virtually every day of the week.
The sense of pride at Narana is distinctively uplifting, showing the strength of a beset but irrepressibly resilient culture. From the gift shop’s new red, yellow and black sneakers and NBA caps decorated with Aboriginal dot painting, to a community room (in construction) which will offer locals free internet access, Narana has become a place of not only Indigenous hospitality but fun. And refreshingly, the benefits of its success go back to the community it exists for.
The local Wathaurung Men’s Group meets on a weekly basis in one of Narana’s creative spaces to paint and talk.
“I’m a Yorta Yorta man (north-east Victoria) but I’ve been in Geelong for five years,” one of the group’s members said. “The group’s been going for years. It’s a really good, active group. We do a lot of different things together.”
Up until last year the group was run by an Indigenous leader who passed away at just 50 years of age. Unfortunately this is not unusual. Life expectancy for Indigenous men is at least 12 years lower than non-Indigenous Australian men (at the conservative end of recent estimates).
The group is also open to non-Indigenous people such as the Scottish man taking part in the art class who has two Indigenous sons.
Craig McGough, manager of reconciliation initiatives, sees inclusivity as a central value for Narana.
“I’ve been talking a lot with Uncle Vince [Vince Ross, Vic Chairperson of UAICC] about what I want for the place. I want it to be a place where Aboriginal people can feel really comfortable and feel like it’s their place. But also where non-Aboriginal people can come and feel comfortable as well.
“Travelling around Australia, I don’t think there are many places around like that – where non-Indigenous and Indigenous people can sit together and talk.
“So that’s my dream,” Mr McGough said.
“I’d like to see us get a lot more business too. I’ve lived in Grovedale for 15 years – everybody would just drive straight past this place and never know what was happening here. Now people are starting to come back. There’s a good feeling about the place. It’s got so much potential.”
‘You don’t have to drive past anymore’ was the catchphrase used in a recent Narana ad published in the local Surf Coast Times. As Mr McGough said, being on the Surfcoast Highway between Grovedale and Torquay is a great location.
An Indigenous café that boasts a fireplace, elaborate Indigenous ceiling artwork, exotic cuisine and seating for more than 50 people should go a long way to attracting travellers on their way to Torquay or the Great Ocean Road.
“Our menu has signature dishes. We’ve put some Indigenous flavours on the menu. I think we’re the only place in Australia to offer kangaroo sliders and kangaroo stir fry,” café manager Jodie Ryschka said.
Just outside the café are Narana’s two emus, a male and female, stalking around their enclosure. Jodie joked about adding Pavlova made with emu egg to the menu, to complement the already inviting list.
“We do pancakes, French toast, chicken salad, Seven Seeds barista coffee… and we’re open Tuesday to Saturday and offer ‘all day breakfast’.
“We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We’re not doing too badly at all and are slowly getting more people coming in.”
Providing training and employment for Indigenous staff has been a top focus for the café. Through the Indigenous Institute of Koori
Education at Deakin University as well as the Wathaurung Aboriginal Co-operative in Geelong, they have hired five young Indigenous staff so far – and Jodie herself is a Gunditjmara woman.
“My background is in hospitality and my customer service training has been quite high. Our plan is to give staff some training and up-skill them so that when they go to another organisation they’ll be well trained and prepared.
“You’ve got to look at your management style as well – let staff make mistakes but let them know we’ve got a business to run as well. By the time we’re flat out we hope to have got the new staff up to speed,” she said.
On 18 June, the new gallery at Narana opened its first exhibition: Anmatyerre Jukurrpa (Anmatyerre Dreamings) by sought-after Aboriginal artist Raymond Walters. Coming from a long line of artists, Raymond owns and manages Penangk gallery in Alice Springs. His presented works depict the richness of Anmatyerre traditional, cultural and customary law along with extremes of weather and landscape that have shaped the lives of his ancestors for thousands of years.
The team at Narana hope the new gallery will be a space for both experienced and up-and-coming artists to exhibit their work.
“We’re looking at supporting young artists, as a lot of galleries will only go for mid-to high-end artists because of market forces,”
Nicholas Boseley, cultural education manager, said. Mr Boseley is an Arrernte man born locally but whose grandmother was a member of the stolen generations. He previously worked at the Koori Heritage Trust in Melbourne as senior curator.
“We need to train people, give them exhibition experience. And not just the exhibition itself but doing floor talks with audiences and learning to talk about themselves and their work. And the administrative part too. It’s building up skills and knowledge about the art industry.
“That’s all part of my job as a curator, to support them and bring out what’s already inside them, and guide them in their careers,” he said.
Mr Boseley plans to connect with artists through Aboriginal art programs and organically through his familiarity with the Indigenous art community in Melbourne and Victoria.
Learning & listening
Mr Boseley’s family comes from a region two to three hours north-east of Alice Springs. As his grandmother was a member of the stolen generation, he said he still feels like a guest on Wathaurung country. This complex experience, like the situations of so many Aboriginal Australians, is not generally well understood by the Australian public.
“Talking about Aboriginal culture and the journeys people have been through, how do we treat Aboriginal people? How do we treat third generation stolen generation? Or those who have never been able to go home and have Mum help with the homework because she was only educated to Year 3 level? Do the teachers actually know that they’re not dumb, they just don’t have the same advantages as other kids?” Mr Boseley said.
“What about the lack of identity and how it affects Aboriginal people, how it can make them depressed or angry. Understanding what someone’s grandmother or mother has been through, and what issues she faces.
“It’s all about giving people a better understanding – knowing that we actually came from a great and complex culture, pre-invasion. Usually once we’ve explained all this, people have a lot more respect.
“They see what’s happened to the culture since invasion and have much more empathy. Rather than not understanding why they might act differently, why some people might not socialise as much or work as fast, why in their life they might have been rejected or even told to leave their home or workplace.
“People just don’t know. And the government has never really wanted to educate people. So there are a lot of things people need to catch up on in order to reach true reconciliation in our time.”
Narana hosts drop-in visitors, international university students and sometimes up to three school groups in one day. Groups are given talks, have the chance to ask questions and are taken on a guided tour through the three-hectare gardens on the property.
“We tell them about the Dreaming, when time began, and the complexity of the structure in terms of laws, lore and protocols,” Mr Boseley said.
“We tell them about the invasion, the mission system, the half-caste system/legislation and all those things that were government-sanctioned attempts at genocide.
“Along the way, we stop at different places in the garden to taste and smell edible and medicinal plants so that people get an idea of what and how we ate.
“We talk about how we used boomerangs for hunting, and the sustainable and respectful ways we caught animals to eat. Everything had to be pretty efficient; we didn’t want to waste too much energy or time and we couldn’t afford to dehydrate. “The things we’ve been doing for 40,000 years … it’s only really been the last 10 years that people have asked us about them.
“Right from the beginning of time, we knew a lot about fire, checked the heat, knew the different types of combustible leaves, checked the wind and knew how it changed intimately. We had six seasons, instead of the European four. We understood the subtleties of growth and nature that a lot of other peoples wouldn’t have observed.
“We didn’t consider ourselves above nature.”
Relationship with the church
Narana has played an important role within the life of Vic Congress and the broader Vic/Tas synod.
Since 2009 the centre has hosted the briefing and debriefing stages of AboutFACE (Faith And Cultural Exchange) program. Undertaken by Congress and Assembly, the program involves an immersive experience in an Aboriginal community to create an ‘about face’ in the attitudes and lifestyles of those who take part.
Valuable relationships synod-wide include the Centre for Theology and Ministry (CTM) who train ministers leading to their ordination. In May a group from CTM attended a day of cultural learning at Narana. Mr Boseley took the students through a visualisation exercise.
“I got them to take off their shoes and socks and leave their mobile phones. We went out in the garden, sat down and earthed ourselves a bit. I described what would be an old scene with Aboriginal people in their possum-skin cloaks, the men, women and kids coming through and walking past us, what they would do; what they might say to each other.
“We sat and listened to nature around us, to ‘earth’ ourselves and got a sense of what it might have been like a couple of hundred years ago. We went through some protocols and rituals,” he said.
Nicholas went on to discuss the topic of faith and the relationship between Indigenous spirituality and organised Christianity/religion with the students.
“I talked about my experience in terms of organised Christianity. Since going through the smorgasbord of religion, as my uncle says, and the quite bad judgemental versions… I had this burgeoning spiritual connection to country and Aboriginal culture, but there was something bigger I was connecting to as well. As I explored it, it kind of came around full circle – that it was all interconnected. And that’s a hard thing to explain to theological students who perhaps haven’t been through that experience.”
Mr Boseley said going through the visualisation in the garden acted as a useful reminder of childhood, which often naturally involves a stronger connection to nature.
“We talked about how culture is such an important thing, and not to dismiss it because of a white Anglo-religious point of view coming down at them; to resist developing discriminatory ideas. I know the Uniting Church is really good on that.
“The discussion came around to the Preamble [to the Constitution] and how I couldn’t necessarily give away parts of the culture I’ve inherited, even though I grew up away from it because of my stolen generation grandmother. It’s still there and you can’t just get rid of 40,000 years of instincts and connections and ideas.
“So we talked about the Dreaming and we talked about how Corroboree might be seen as a show of faith or worship. The Bible does say that God was omnipresent. Was he omnipresent but just not in Australia?
“What do you take from the culture and what do you leave behind? Should we be dumping so many different things from my culture, that I have ‘grown up’ with; things we think are good, for something that’s from a more mainstream white perspective?”