MATILDA BOWRA: You grew up as an only child raised by your activist grandmother. She must have been an amazing woman bringing up her grandson while advocating for her community.
LEE JOACHIM: Yes, so my mother died when I was five and my grandmother raised me. I had a very political upbringing because of her. She was a great networker and a humble person, never put herself out there. “I did this, I did that.” It was not about that. It was about actually doing what was required to make sure everyone is cared for. I like that attitude, I want to share that attitude in life with my kids.
Was your grandmother the one who introduced you to culture?
Yeah, oh my gosh. As soon as it rained, we were out in the bush. Because she’s survived polio, she’d be sitting in the car giving me orders. She had a really fine sense of smell. So we’d be out in the rain and she could smell anything and she could tell me where to go. “No you are going the wrong way!” She knew that if this plant was growing here, then 100 meters away another plant would be growing there. So she understood the relationship of plant-to-plant to connectivity, and the plant-to-animal relationships as well. If there were these droppings there, if it was a possum or something that lived in a tree, she knew where the plant would be.
You have nine children yourself. As a parent how do you pass on culture?
I’ve got six girls and three boys with a set of twins in-between. The eldest is 26 and the youngest is eight. It’s really hard to introduce them to culture. The world has changed a lot from when I was growing up. Mine was a slower, sort of casual life. Today it’s extremely busy and you have to provide and bring in money just to survive. So it’s about creating the opportunity to make work for yourself that allows you to take your kids camping. “I have to go and research this or record this, so they come along for that journey as well.” And it’s throwing them in the deep end like that, understanding the respect mechanism of what elders bring to the table: this is your role and this is what you need to do.
Are they interested in coming along to learn?
The eldest daughter is working for an organisation that helps with revitalising Aboriginal languages. She works with communities all over Australia to try to assist them with reinvigorating their languages in their community. She has found her niche. One of the sons does a lot of cultural heritage work as well. So yes, they’ve been interested in all of this. Sometimes when I get international visitors come spend some time on country, my daughter will come out. I don’t have to ask, she just asks me, “Dad can I come?”
Sounds like you’ve done a pretty good job in fostering that interest.
Yeah, I think it’s important for the kids. It’s important to know where you come from and important to know your family history that’s connected to this country. I tell my girls and I tell my boys, we are a matriarchal society, so women rule.
The belief system of Aboriginal society is women are valued and children are even more valued because they are the future. As well as being a mother, a woman is also a provider and a protector and a teacher. That’s the way I was raised. I’m quite happy to have arguments with people about matriarchal systems, but I grew up with very, very strong women who did a lot for the Aboriginal movement. And it was a good life. I can’t complain. At the age of four I had to go to meetings, stuck under the table under the foot of my grandmother, listening to her argue. I was raised thinking I am second to no-one, but I’m not better than anyone. I want my kids to feel pride in who they are and to walk with their head held high. To know that they are important, but they are not better than anyone.
How have you instilled that in your children?
I think in the work I do. They’ve seen me at meetings and I’m quite upfront and direct with people, it’s just the way my grandmother was, challenging and asking questions and having that conversation afterwards in the car as well. It’s about trying to maintain relationships and understanding that avoiding confrontation is not always going to be a way of dealing with issues. You have to raise the issue and deal with the issue in its due course. But don’t sit back, don’t allow people to dictate to you, don’t allow people to direct you. Actually have some influence and know how to utilise influence around a table or in a simple discussion.
Education is one of your passions isn’t it? Tell me about your own education.
My mother died before I started school and so my own education was my grandmother supporting me through that process, making sure I turned up to school every day while she was doing this political stuff. There was some neglect through my childhood as well, because not often you’d go to school with food, and not often she’d be available to pick you up. So you had to be independent at the age of five to deal with this—this is what Nan’s doing and this is fine and look after yourself. If there were parent teacher interviews she was there. If there were problems, she was there. And she dealt with it as diligently as she could. But I loved school, I loved learning. I think learning is the most important thing in life. I’m almost 50 and I’m still learning. And people should have the desire to learn and experience new things. My grandmother taught me that, and showed me that through the activities we would do out in the bush and at home as well. We live in two worlds. I live in this black world and I live in this white world.
What’s it like living in two worlds?
Really difficult and really frustrating. I’m quite happy to lock myself in the black world and be fine, but at the same time the reality is that this is where we are living and this is what’s influenced us over the last 230 odd years.
Two worlds seem to really affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids who are not achieving educationally at a level comparable to non-Aboriginal kids. What would make education more appealing for Aboriginal children?
I think we have to look at the influence of environment where they are being taught. Four walls. Our elders always say, “Our university is the bush, you only have to stand out there and observe and you’ll learn something.” Whereas within four walls, you are structuring and you are locking in and you are shutting the outside world out. They have to experience the broader context of the environment as well as the classroom. There has to be some sort of change in that. There’s not enough pride in Australia with accepting the intelligence of Aboriginal populations. That really concerns me because we had to live on the driest continent, we had to survive as a community in that dry continent. We have knowledge. If the animals were out there breeding, great, more resources. It means we can breed as well. You lived within those limitations, that’s what I’ve learnt. I can live within the limitations of nature.
I think it goes back to how do you create change in Australia. How do you change racism in Australia? That goes back to influencing children. You start influencing the kids to have a different way of being and looking at the world for it to have positive effects.
I want to start with kinder and pre school, the introduction of Aboriginal language. In the first three years from prep to grade three it could be looking at the continuation of language. Four, five and six you start developing projects that look at the environment and simple collection of data. Let’s see what type of droppings there are so we know what animals live here. The next group can see what type of plants are here, the next group can look at something else. So you start getting them connected with their environment, and you build that up over a period of time. It all has connectivity. We are the land and the land is we. We’ve got a voice to talk and protect country as well.
What does that mean, we are the land and the land is us?
Well it’s through the creation stories, of Biami. The creation of woman first, the creation of the river systems, then just your epistemologies are so important. You know, let’s not treat these as bedtime stories for children, lets treat them for what they are. They are similar to the Bible I suppose, but our stories are telling us about natural resource management as well. And survival and change from an animal into a person, that exchange and that connectivity of who we are. We are only here for a short time, but we are going to return home. Where’s home? Home is the earth. Biami was created in a form of a serpent who created women from the earth. You look after the earth to look after you.
So there’s a spiritual connection and a sense of stewardship as well. You were saying with education it’s about getting children to understand we all need to be stewards of the earth.
Yeah, and during that period you are introducing epistemologies of many, many different Aboriginal nations across the land. You know. Desert people have a different epistemology to river people. Mountain people have a different epistemology to river and desert.
What do you mean by an epistemology?
So it’s your culture, your stories. If you are south of here, Bundjil is their creator. There are many people from Queensland right through Western Australia who have connectivity with Biami as their creator. There are fish people as well. So these totemic species that we have, like turtles, snakes, emus, goanna, birds even, are all a part of natural resource management. Because turtle people can’t eat turtle, emu people can’t eat emu and cod people can’t eat cod. Why? Because if we ate everything then we’d be dead. So it’s understanding the restrictions you have within your society, and bird people can eat the cod, and the cod people can eat the emu and the kangaroo.
It’s very sophisticated.
It was environmental socialism at its best. When we mention socialism, its Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. This is a more sophisticated system of managing environment and living as a society in cohesion with everything around you. It’s understanding that sophistication to observe what people and animals are actually doing and how they are interacting together. Everything has a right from the smallest insect, bug, slug to those that are on top of the food chain.
It must be confronting for Aboriginal people to see how the world is being affected by climate change. Tell me about the conference you went to last year in Vanuatu that was funded by the American Museum of Natural History. I understand it involved the establishment of the International Indigenous Network. What role do you think Aboriginal people have to play in dealing with climate change?
The role that we have is an education role for people to learn the minimal ways that we actually lived. European practices and science break everything down to the simplest, minute thing. It doesn’t understand relationships of everything in between. We understand that if this bird goes, then this insect will become a problem. We understand if this fish goes, then there’s going to be issues for people to survive. It’s understanding that changes are going to affect everyone. But the problem we have with this climate change is it’s man-made. And the elders will tell you it’s been happening over a few decades.
Climate change is basically about the whole system collapsing and I guess Aboriginal people have always looked at the big picture.
Well you have to look at the big picture because it affects how you are going to live and survive. We have to start making plans on when and if the Murray River goes down to a trickle—how are we going to survive, living on country. So it’s not hearsay that you made a life choice, so to speak. We are going to have to learn how to survive on that. People are still harvesting medicinal plants and herb plants out there in the bush, even though we live with Coles and Woolworths and the likes. We still go out and hunt and gather and fish.
What is the International Indigenous Network doing at the moment?
It’s a peer-to-peer network. We are looking at how we can enrich our lives, how we can learn from each other and how we can hopefully, jointly, coming together right across the Pacific and the Pacific Rim, influence change as well. It’s not about being the spokesperson for everyone, it’s about everyone supporting everyone to be a spokesperson for themselves. To protect culture, customs and languages. Let’s not all speak English; we come from different tongues, our mother tongue is different. Let’s respect that and keep that alive, and work among ourselves on how we are going to do that. Because it’s the generations after us who will be affected.
In my work for the Rumbalara Aboriginal Cooperative we’ve introduced this Heart of Community program. We are pulling that plan together and pulling the heart of the community back to Rumbalara. It offers health and dental services, there are housing programs, justice programs, juvenile justice programs, there are family services, domestic violence, early childhood. There were some issues in regards to the previous board. The organisation was bleeding money. So this revolt of the community went up and we put ourselves up for election and did the hard task of stopping wastage of money with extreme rents in Shepparton and stopping sweeping things under the carpet. All the services will exist here.
What’s your vision?
It’s about having all the service delivery done from one spot. If you come and present for a medical appointment, what else do you need? And it’s not dealing with the individual, it’s dealing with those that influence the individual as well, such as the extended family. You know, Aunt might come here with sore hand. But she needs a door handle at home that stops it from being sore. So what can Housing do? She’s got the grandkids staying with her so what can family services do to support her? And then get all the services sitting around the table and saying, “Hey, these are the issues.”
But, more importantly I want them to start collecting data. They do collect data, but I want us to interpret the data. We are funded by the government departments, if they want to collect data, fine we’ll hand that data over to them with a report. So you influence change in regards to how you interpret it.
It’s all about education. It’s all about building capacity and it’s understanding how to influence. How do you influence change if you are not reporting what needs to happen?
It’s trying to deliver that change, and its working with a great CEO at the moment. What I did as a chair is brought someone outside of the community, which wasn’t taken too well. Because it’s an Aboriginal organisation, they say it should be run by an Aboriginal person. I brought in, how do I say it, I’m going to say it, a black South African. I got his resume and I googled and LinkedIn, I thought he’s good, he’s nice and direct.
He’d get on with you then [laughs].
No beating around bushes. I can’t be bothered with people trying to sweet talk. It’s about bringing in someone who can deliver what is required for the community to grow and it’s building that capacity within the organisation. It’s about establishing the argument that we need this money and are doing the work to change and have influence at a political level, but at the community level as well.
No sweeping domestic violence under the carpet, no sweeping mental health issues under the carpet; start dealing with them. Oh there are privacy issues. Piss off. Go away. We have to deal with the issue of mental health within our community, domestic violence, drug and alcohol. Stop saying it doesn’t exist when it does. Just change. Not everyone likes me, that’s fine. But I do things and I like achieving things, and I like people achieving things. There was a lot of resentment from the workers in bringing everything back here and having a one-stop-shop where people can just come in.
We created the Elders Advisory Council. One of the Elders runs the soul kitchen here. We can’t keep maintaining that welfare mentality, giving out voucher after voucher after voucher for food and petrol. We have to start looking at how do we budget and how do we change. So having food here and people coming and learning about budgeting is a start. But also setting up a kitchen that allows people, if they are short of food, here’s a couple of litres of soup or whatever, take it home and break it up and start fostering that way I was raised. My grandmother fed others. It’s that caring and sharing mentality. Let’s get it back in the community.
Change is hard as there’s usually inherent resistance. Is it working?
Yeah, but I love change! Oh my gosh and I love challenges! Yeah I think it is working. At the AGM we had 360-plus people which is unusual for a community meeting. The last AGM 213 people turned up. We are trying to set up a community fund and support that and I want scholarships to be more than: “I need books and I need pens.” Nup, not doing it. Give them a four-year scholarship, maybe $5,000 a year until year 12 and get them do research projects, get them to do a report, get them to public speak, whether it’s to the council of Elders or to the board or at a community meeting. “I received this $5,000 and this is what I’ve done. This is my budget for the year and I’m presenting a report.” So you get that change mentality there as well. More importantly, how does the service delivery in supporting that child support the family in that journey for change?
It’s a very holistic approach.
It has to be, that’s how I think, the only way I know. You have to influence, but it’s good influence. Stop the: “I can’t get this, I can’t get that.” Just do it.
You’ve talked about what you are doing in your own community. Let’s talk about the big picture. It’s frustrating to read about the poor health outcomes for Aboriginal people and woeful Aboriginal incarceration rates that never seem to improve. What do you think we should be doing as individuals and as a community?
We need to really start focusing on the mental health conditions of these people that are going through this process. It’s a story of self-discovery for them and might be a generational process as well for people who are continually going through the judicial system and following the footsteps of their grandparents and their great grandparents. You can only create change by educating the younger generations and getting them to really impose a sense of strength within the family through education. You’ve got to do it as a whole family unit; you cannot do it by working with individuals, you have to empower the whole family in that process of change.
With those that are in the judicial system and going through it, they have to educate themselves as well. If people have a choice to drink and take drugs, that’s not necessarily in Australian Aboriginal society, it’s a learnt process. It’s a really hard thing to talk about. I can talk about it from a personal point of view in that I had visited, by the age of 10, every prison in the bloody state of Victoria because my grandmother helped raise a member of my family who ended up becoming a thief and doing stupid things and taking drugs.
You need to look at the trauma of families as well through colonisation. I took a process of understanding why my grandmother was the way she was and I found out through her that she was sexually molested when she was put into a domestic duties position. She was sent hundreds of miles away from her family. The only way she could get out of that situation was to contract polio so she let polio happen, then it stopped. She was raised by her grandmother who was raped by a group of loggers, up to 45 men continually until she got pregnant and started showing a bump and they decided to dump her on the side of the road. Then the missionaries picked her up and took her in and cared for her. My grandmother’s experience growing up was one of nastiness from her own grandmother.
At the moment we are on a drive to open up the reality of our world from different aspects of obesity and smoking and domestic violence so you put that out to the general population. We need to start looking at a way of influencing change within government policy settings and to start looking at ways to change aspects of our community that need to be changed.
How do you think we can stop that cycle of generational trauma?
It comes down to understanding self worth and how do you educate self worth. It’s really hard being black because you deal with the deficit model all the time. You know, I’ve got to go down the shop today so I’m going to expect some sort of racial discrimination’s going to happen. I mightn’t get served or they won’t talk to me at all. That’s the way I go to a shop.
You expect racism to be part of your daily life?
Yes. It is. How do you break that mentality? Well it’s fucking hard I’m telling you. I’m trying to deal with it. I can go to a restaurant and stand in line for quite a while before they take you seriously that you are there to spend money. In the city there’s always people who don’t want to sit next to you on a tram or a bus. It’s there, but you just probably don’t see or don’t experience it.
I think we do have a way to change and it’s through strengthening the education system and broader learning to really start a focus on the introduction of culture within schools. Not a culture that is seen as archaic or archaeological or anthropological, but around the importance of environmental survival in a harsh landscape. If people want to help, it’s how do we get those people who run great education facilities to start coming and having input into developing a unique education tool that they can learn from and we can learn from as well and working out how we can we walk forward together. It’s a new way of being and a new way of learning together on a very harsh landscape that’s only going to get harsher with climate change.
That’s why I work with people like Amanda Lynch from Brown University in America. She’s worked with other indigenous populations and she certainly understands there’s a new world. And David Briggs at Monash Sustainability Institute. He’s a climate change scientist and he’s learnt a different aspect about Aboriginal people as well. It’s great people like these who will change Australia by working together with us.
Are there other things we should be doing to bring Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians into greater understanding?
There’s an aspect there of looking at eco-tourism. Let’s start proposing that we take people out on country. I suppose it’s about assisting the Aboriginal people to continue to do the work that they do. From a Yorta Yorta perspective, I would say we have this wetland we have to observe, come out with us and do some of the observation with us. Let’s start recording the plant life within that and let us tell you about the importance of that plant life, whether that be a food plant or a medicinal plant and how we utilise it. It’s a very broad scope that they can come and learn and open up their eyes to another way of looking at the world.
Getting out on country breaks down walls. If you want to learn about people, then do it on the country that they belong to and they come from. You have to experience it to see the world through two eyes as we see it. It’s about creating opportunities to have those open discussions of an evening where you know, sitting around a camp fire and openly talking about people’s experiences, but also learning the influence of Australian political society in driving this wedge between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
It’s really up to the nation and I suppose an investment from government as well, into the process of supporting these ideas of opening up the eco-tourism world. Organisations like the Yorta Yorta Traditional Owners Land Management Board have an important role in breaking down some of those walls because they are creating a management plan for the Barmah National Park (in northern Victoria) that has to be respectful and ensure that both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people have a say in what’s going to happen.
Let’s pretend we live in an ideal world where your kids’ Aboriginality is regarded as completely normal, what would that world look like?
An ideal world would look like everyone is working together and there is harmony within that structure. Yes, we respect that you are Islamic and you are Aboriginal. It’s about understanding that the respect has to go back to the land where we live and understanding the limitations that it has to offer. Everyone can have an open dialogue with each other, but at the end of the day, respect each other and respect differences. It’s understanding how communities work and have to deal with each other and move forward to get the best outcome for the whole of the community, not an individual group. I want to see this combined, this multi-cultural Australian actually happen. We need more respect and respect has to firstly be shown to the land and then to each other. It’s understanding how the dimensions of the landscape actually work together to give us something that’s quite beautiful and quite unique in this country.
What do you hope for the future of Aboriginal people?
The hope for the future is to understand what self determination actually means and how to move forward as a united not divided race of people. And to understand the importance of education, but to recognise the fight that happened before us to get us to where we are today. Without the grandmothers and the great grandfathers doing their work, we wouldn’t have what we have today. It’s about a celebration of that and about a celebration of moving forward. Let’s not try and play the white game. It doesn’t work. Let’s play our game to our rules and recognise the need to build the capacity for ourselves as only we can do it and that interpretation of ourselves has to be solved by ourselves, not allowing other people to interpret what they’ve seen. Education, education education.