Northern Territory: A Distant Land

IMG_1086The separation of the Northern Territory (NT) from the rest of Australia is something which troubles me from time to time.

I mean, the rest of the country ignores us most of the time, and when they DO write about us, or pay us any kind of attention, they get it WRONG.

Shamefully, ignorantly wrong.

In fact, to other Australians, the NT might as well be a tiny nation in west Africa -or one of the ‘Stans.

To the rest of Australia, we’re the unruly uncle who’s buggered off into the bush to study insects, drink grog, and drive through fences, who every so often arrives home, having not changed their clothes or washed for days, full of incredible stories and tall tales…

… Of giant crocs (that’s Australian for crocodiles), cane toads, camels, Aboriginal dysfunction, and roads without speed limits.

And then, once uncle has spoken, you go back to your diet of My Kitchen Rules the Biggest Loser Block Idol and forget about him for another three years.

Well, that’s kind of how it feels living here in relation to the rest of the Australian population…

People from elsewhere don’t really ‘get’ the NT. They think we’re all racist, XXXX-or-rum-swilling bogans, hooning around in B&S utes, shooting buffalo, missing teeth, uneducated and disconnected from the urbane life of the ‘cosmopolitan’ south.

And yes, most of you are down south in relation to us, and we do call you ‘southerners’.

Some people don’t like being called ‘southerners’ because of the racist and narrow-minded religious bigot undertones that the term carries for Australians: you know, the white plantation owner, thumping the Bible and demeaning Black people.

However, the fact is that most Australians are geographically and culturally south of us. And like those stereotypical Southerners wrestling with atheism and the fact that Black people are humans, many Australian Southerners do not seem to understand the NT at all.

When someone from the NT labels you ‘southerner’ it has a more nuanced meaning than you might suspect.

This is what we’re actually telling you: a Southerner is someone who hasn’t lived here in the NT, but who believes that they can pronounce solutions for the Territory’s ‘problems’, based upon their perception of what the NT is (a failed state) even though they’ve never experience life in the Territory firsthand.

Failed States and East Coast Guilt

The Territory in our school day was always a rather vague country. Our knowledge was of scant population, of Darwin in the north and Alice Springs in the south with miles of desert waste in between. We envisaged a land occupied by small tribes (sic) of Aborigines and roving cattle herds on individual stations as large in area as one or two smaller States in their entirety. Our textbooks covered very little of the coastline or of the interior, because the Territory’s minimal economic importance compared with the States. – Alex Tanner, The Long Road North.

Nothing much has changed in the south’s perception of us, really, since Alex Tanner’s 1930s school days, apart from the fact that most people know that the Stuart Highway is sealed now.

When the NT Emergency Response (the ‘Intervention’ as it has become known), commenced in the dying days of the Howard Government in 2007, the reaction here was not the same as that in the southern states, amongst a certain… shall we say ‘inner city intellectual group’ and a number of Australian anthropologists.

The reaction was here was part anger: the bloody Commonwealth Government marches in and makes laws which we can do NOTHING about – apparently for our own good – and paints us all as dumb racists and paints ALL Aboriginal men as paedophiles. There was cynicism: Here we go again. More social experiments by southern do-gooders. There was also some hope: well, we can’t afford to fix up the housing and social problems in Aboriginal communities, maybe this will help…

We were likened to a ‘failed state’ – a third world country in Africa, where there’s been a succession of military coups, a largely corrupt and barely functional bureaucracy, widespread poverty and lawlessness.  As an example, I recall one post-structuralist/cultural theorist who bleated at length on the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, and on her own blog about the NT Intervention being about ‘bio-war’ and ‘bio-politics’ -basically the dominant society declaring a silent kind of genocidal war on Aboriginal minorities, just like those in Rwanda and Sudan.

The irony of this was that this theorist -by her own admission- had not only NEVER been to the NT, she had never -NOT ONCE- set foot on an Aboriginal community, and did not seem to understand that this immediately detracted from any credibility she might have had.

As an anthropologist who’s lived and worked with Aboriginal people in the NT for over a decade, I’m going to name as a FRAUD on any social commentator/theorist/social scientist/expert who has not EVER been here and yet claims to ‘understand’ what is going on. This includes government officials engaging in one or two day ‘tick-a-box’ consultations with Aboriginal communities. You need around two weeks in ANY Aboriginal community just to start to understand how things work, who’s who, and what’s really going on -and even then, things happen that simply can’t be explained.

Had this post-structuralist person bothered to actually spend some time here, she might have retracted the verbal and mental gymnastics she’d written, and viewed Aboriginal people as humans, rather than as literary figments of her imagination: the ‘subjects of power’ who were powerlessly ‘suffering a biowar’ of her own creation.

She might have seen that language, kinship and traditional (albeit modified) rites of passage and a lifelong massive, but utterly necessary, investment in sociality are the driving forces in Aboriginal culture in Central Australia – and no matter WHAT policy or imaginary post-colonial Foucauldian readings of power you might like to infer.

If your policy/polemic can’t navigate these structures, has no idea they even exist -these, the most basic, important things to Aboriginal people here in Central Australia, then your words are just tits on a bull.

Likewise, in the language of the NTER, throughout all of its incarnations, these things are mute; given lip service with terms such as consultation, culturally-appropriate, cultural awareness training.

What is ‘consultation’, really, but an Orwellian form of Newspeak: a ‘tick’ on a piece of paper to say ‘we told them what we want to do, we asked for their ideas, they talked” ? I’ll come back to the tyranny of consultation and participatory planning some other time.

Real story: When the former Labor government’s Indigenous policy, ‘Closing the Gap’, was announced, many Aboriginal people whose first language is something other than English thought the government planned to close up Heavitree Gap in Alice Springs to make a dam. These people are not stupid. It is the language of governments that is stupid: to quote my work colleague, Vaughn Jampijinpa Hargraves: White people talk all round things like wiggly snakes.

Yep. There's that gap they're gonna close!

Yep. There’s that gap they’re gonna close!

From the perspective of someone who’s lived in the NT for over a decade, it seems to me that the NT never ceases to be the playground of social engineers and ideologues on both sides of the fence, be it assimilation, land rights, self-determination or multiculturalism.

(I do note that Australia does seem to do multiculturalism better than most countries, most of the time).

The SIN that the Northern Territory currently has to bear is that of white, middle class guilt over the treatment of Aboriginal people -not just in the NT, but everywhere and all times in Australia. Coupled with this is the utter irony and ignorance of the rest of Australia that casts Territorians as dumb, drunk and racist -yes, just like the TV show.

We are supposed to bear Australia’s guilt, but we are apparently too stupid and rednecked to deal with it. We can’t be trusted, so the government has to deal with it instead.

(Of course, even more ironic and yet, UTTERLY revealing was that when the Indian TV crew of Dumb, Drunk and Racist came to Alice Springs, they were set upon by two drunk Aboriginal women for filming near the Todd Tavern… ).

Dumb, Drunk and Racist

I’m going to turn this on its head here.

It’s not Territorians who are dumb, drunk or racist.

We live with, are friends with, work with and encounter Aboriginal people every day.

We do not all drink – and neither do Aboriginal people.

Alice Springs has one of the highest populations of people with degrees and PhDs in the nation: we are not dumb. What’s more, what about the Aboriginal people who write their own town plans, only to have them trounced by white bureaucrats from Canberra? Again, we are not dumb. Don’t believe me? Ask the people of Yuendumu what happened to their 5 year town plan when the Intervention started.

The dumb, drunk, racists? Let me spell it out for you:

Dumb: It’s those people who see Aboriginal people as one great, big homogenous mass. Those from the southern states who ask me ‘Can you say something in Aborigine (sic)?” ignorant to the fact that there are over 50 languages still spoken here in the NT.

Dumb: To the depth of cultural differences between Aboriginal nations/peoples: from confident, tall, forthright Warlpiri people, demanding but also incredibly sharing Pitjantjatjara people, to the welcoming, quiet, but thoughtful Arrernte persona. These are as striking and individual as the national psyches of Germany, France and Italy – but UNKNOWN by most Australians living in the south, not because the information isn’t out there to learn, but because Masterchef is really much more interesting.

Drunk: On their own stereotypes about Aboriginal culture (warm, fuzzy, proto-greenies gone bad). This new age-noble savage fantasy completely misses the inseparability of social relationships from survival, identity, economics, safety, and what it means to simply be human in Aboriginal culture – to the point where, yes, dysfunction and poverty are often chosen over their opposites, because the alternative is often to refuse kin, to shame yourself and to behave inhumanly to others.

Drunk: On their own self-purported expertise on what to do about the NT and its ‘problems’. One hundred years of social experiments has made us the lab rat that everyone can write about -whether they’ve seen us firsthand or not. And if you haven’t seen us, met us, experienced us, well, go ahead then, just make up your own stories and call it biowar or the multidimensionalities of power or ‘failed state’. Stay drunk. You’ll never see further than your own pee-pee.

Racist: Every time someone from down south says: Australians must talk English, they deny Aboriginal people their identity and culture. Every time you like a ‘funny’ meme on Facebook,proclaiming: I’m an Aussie and I speak English, oi, oi, oi!’, you’re being racist to Aboriginal people – the First Australians. Every time a government dismantles bilingual education or defunds Aboriginal legal aid organisations and interpreter services, it is racism.

Racist: Every time some white theorist or ideologue purports to write about the NT when they have not been here, they are enacting racism. They are stealing OUR voices. Silencing us, rather than allowing our voices to be heard authentically in their writings, based not upon stereotypes, but firsthand experience.

Yes, You Can.

If this upsets you, good.

If you don’t like me calling you a ‘Southerner’ good.

If you’re an armchair theorist, an anthropologist or some other kind of blogger who’s never been here, and you’re upset at me, GOOD.

Because your stereotyping of the NT and its people is hurting us. Not just metaphorically, but in actuality. Think about this: the NT has been the playground of ideologues and social engineers for the last 100 years. People have died -are dying- thanks to these experiments.

Experiments, I note, which continue to run unchecked (land rights in its current form, the intervention, welfare, the way Aboriginal communities are structurally marginalised from the rest of Australia, dismantling bilingual education, the super shires … I could go on).

Connections must be made, common languages defined, issues debated. Stop seeing Aboriginal people as one dark, homogenous mass, get the voices of urban Aboriginal people out of your heads -these are NOT the voices of the NT’s people- and get yourself to the NT to unmask the fictions of your own making.

The answer is simple: the more Australians who come here, who spend real time here, who care about us enough to understand who we really are and give us our voice in their writings and most importantly: see us as humans, not just as the crazy uncle who lives in the bush and drinks rum, then the quicker the end to social engineering and pissing billions of dollars up against a wall that isn’t of the Territory’s making.


Once Upon a Time… or Yes, It’s True That My Body is Part of my Mental Health

This post follows on from yesterday’s post. I have down days, and writing about my feelings is the main way in which I process such mental states. Yesterday’s post was one such post. Today’s post is an archaeology of the self. A glimpse at the person behind the blogging persona… the real person who loves to exercise, who is and has been an endurance athlete and who was born with a naturally lean, hard athletic body.

I love my muscly calves (which look ridiculous in spindly high heels).  I love that I can ask my body to walk up mountains, to run 10 km, to hit the floor and pump out 30 push ups on my toes. I adore my small, almost flat breasts. In contrast to other many other women, working with the body that I was blessed with has been the doorway into my soul. Maintaing my bodily vehicle remains the cornerstone of my mental health.

Here is My Story. Straight from the heart.

As a child, I was outgoing, precocious and perhaps a little too confident. I was a slighty nerdy Tomboy, who hated dresses, Barbie dolls, playing mothers and fathers and all the usual things little girls did. Instead of dollies and make up, my life was one of adventure, bike riding, horses (I owned two), playing in the bush, reading books, inventing fantasy worlds and cultures with my friends (this is my best friend from primary school) and getting involved in a few outdoorsy-type sports. I was an explosive ball of energy. In essence, the child I was has shaped the adult that I am.

I was a disappointment to my mother who wanted a girly-girl, not a bookish, half-wild Tomboy. In many ways, my own daughter has fulfilled this role for her. I didn’t fail my father: I was his fishing, bushwalking and handyman mate (so was my brother). Dad understands me in a way that Mum never has.

At age 15 my boundless confidence and exuberance vanished. Overnight, I discovered that I was a young woman, and that I was sorely lacking many of the things that society dictates as being desirable in a woman: for example, being tall and long legged, being slender but not muscular, being able to fuss and primp endlessly over clothes, looks, hair, shoes and handbags. At that stage, I also lived near the beachside suburb of Cronulla (in Sydney’s south),  so having a good tan was a must. I failed on that variable, too.

Another other aspect of my retreat from self confidence related to boyfriends and bullying. I am purposely lumping together ‘boyfriends and bullying’. My first boyfriend was a serious, capital L looser whose repulsive actions resulted in me being bullied at high school.

The Loser was the kind of guy that most parents dread: a barely literate high school dropout with no idea about personal hygiene and no concept of responsibility. He was a guy with no work ethic, no job prospects (or interest in getting a job) and zero interest in going back to high school. The Loser was also mentally unbalanced: not only was he a compulsive liar (worse, he actually believed his own bullshit), he refused to leave me alone when I told him it was over after 3 months. Instead, he resorted to threatening self-harm or threatening to set his own house on fire (which he did). Eventually, he held up a petrol station and ended up in juvenile custody. A real quality guy…

However, my self esteem was so low at that time, I thought the Loser was the only kind of boyfriend that a girl like me deserved. After all, I lacked nearly all of the attributes that our society deems valuable in women.

The Loser, thankfully, was out of my life in a relatively short time (about 11 months), but his putridness stained me. He stalked me and my friends for another 18 months after my father told him to piss off at my request (I’d been trying to tell him to fuck off for 6 months but he refused to listen to me). He threatened a guy I started dating a few months later, who was a really nice, decent guy (this is Mark’s website. He is my daughter’s father).  Thankfully, Mark –who as far as I know has never been in a fight in his life- called the Loser’s bluff, and the Loser backed down from all confrontations, and apologised.

My point is this: the Loser and the period of time marked by his stain were responsible for creating in me an internalised belief that I was short, fat and ugly. This is a powerful tape in my life, and I revert to it now when I get depressed. Certainly, there was an element of truth in this belief. Whilst I’d been seeing the Loser, I recall living on fast food and doing almost no exercise. I put on weight.  Once I’d stopped seeing the Loser, some of this weight disappeared.

As a consequence of the Loser’s stain on my life, I underwent some pretty weird behavioural changes. For example, for years afterward, I could not go out of the house without:

  • Wearing full makeup, including (yechhh!) foundation (triple yech!!)
  • Wearing a collared shirt (for some reason, I thought this drew attention away from my litany of physical flaws)
  • Ensuring my knees weren’t showing (I hated my knees)
  • Ensuring that my hair always covered my ears (I thought they were big! Which they are most definitely not)

This kind of self-loathing continued until age 19.

And then I started cycling.

Cycling changed everything. Within in 6 weeks, I was eating a healthy diet, began going to gym classes, began running again. Of course, I lost some weight. (Please note that I was not overweight. I never have been). Yet these were only the outer, physical changes. Inside, the benefits of exercise wrought far deeper beneficial changes.

I regained the self esteem and confidence that the Loser had stolen from me. I was suddenly and unintentionally whole, both psychologically and spiritually in a way that I had not been since I was a child. My interest in spiritual development blossomed, my outlook on the world became positive. Everything I needed flowed effortlessly into my life, like some big 1980s new age cliche. In all, as I worked on my outer shell and my body changed, or should I say reverted to a truer form rooted in childhood, so too did my inner world and all aspects of life.

To be disconnected from this deep truth as I have been over the past 6 months is to be out of balance. Massively out of balance with dire consequences for my mental health.

For me, this precedes a descent into depression, a loss of self confidence and an accompanying social phobia. It has nothing to do with me conforming to society’s cultural norms about women’s bodies: women should be skinny but lacking muscular definition, women should not sweat, women should not be physically strong, women should not lift weights etc. Nor is this about me viewing myself as a ‘body’ and only being worthy as a body.

This is about me being true to my soul… me wanting to return to who I really am.

That was what yesterday’s post -a plaintive cry to the self- was about. Just like a shaman accesses inner worlds where transformation can take place, I access such places via my body. For other people, this journey comes about when they begin to study meditation, yoga, spiritual discipline.  For me, it’s exercise and the finely tuned vehicle. When I am in this finely tuned outer state,  everything -and I mean everything- in my life comes into balance.

Thus, the connection between my physical state and my mental health lies at the core of who I am. I don’t expect others to understand this connection… after all -it is my connection. Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy soul. It might sound like a cheesy marketing line for Metamucil, but it ain’t. It’s the simple, pure truth about who I really and truly am.

So yes, I am happy to say I am back at the gym and back into running, just as I went back to yoga two months ago, and I’m loving it all. I want to push myself simply because I enjoy pushing myself physically. It relaxes me -seriously!-I work out to relax like other people flop on the lounge in front of the TV. And I find pure, unadulterated joy in using my body and playing with its edges.

Sometimes I will have bumps on the road -like yesterday- where I look back and acknowledge that I’m not how I usually am –I allow myself to feel remorse sadness for what was. I allow it so I can write about it and move on.

Let the journey begin.

Tomorrow: Benny’s post and why it’s relevant to this discussion

Yummy Yoga Music

I used to be a sworn traditionalist, not using any music during asana practice. Having done the majority of my yoga in Iyengar classes and more recently, Satyananda, I thought that using music in yoga classes was a recent and somewhat inauthentic invention.

In returning to asana practice during the past month, I’ve started to use music. For the past month, I’ve used music for both vinyasa and yin/restorative sessions, and I have to admit … I love it! I was inspired by Nadine and Marilyn (Yogaway), who always use music in their classes. I thought I might share some of the albums I’ve been using:

DJ Drez: Jahta Beat and Jahta Beat – The Progression

I found Jahta Beat via the Yoga Glo website. I immediately loved it and downloaded it from ITunes. DJ Drez is an American ‘underground’ artist who mixes hip hop with jazz, blues and world music. The result is hypnotic, chilled with a good dose of spice. It’s definitely not wallpaper-type background music. DJ Drez is great for vinyasa sessions. DJ Drez’s website is here. He’ got a NEW album coming out soon.

Sacred Earth: Bhakti

Sacred Earth is the musical creation of Australian couple, Prem Aliyah & Jethro Williams. They use keyboards, infused with divine female vocals, singing mantra and songs of devotion. Supported by Bansuri flutes from India, shakohatchi, Irish whistle, something ethnic rhythms & acoustic guitar. Jethro & Prem Aliyah have embodied their experience as Yoga Practitioners and Teachers, Musicians, Parents and Lovers to bring into creation, Sacred Earth. An uplifting and spiritually inspiring performance touching the heart and soul. Bhakti is perfect for yin/restorative classes, or just for harmonising your room, mind or office. You can buy Bhakti here.

Soul Food: Yoga Groove

Yoga Groove was the very first album I used for asana practice and it remains my favourite. Some people might find it a bit Buddha Bar or lounge-y, but I find it a bit more upbeat and energising. It’s got a variety of moods suitable for vinyasa, static poses and even shavasana. It has a mixture of chill, downtempo and world beats, so you’re bound to find something you like. I love it. If I can’t figure out what to put on for asana practice, I’ll always choose this. You can read more about the Soul Food project here.

Of course, this is only a tiny selection of an ever-expanding collection of chill, down tempo and world music that I use for yoga. If you’ve got any faves, please leave a comment below and share them with us all.


On Completion and Nothingness

The thesis is finished. And now, I am basking in the deep low that comes following the ecstatic high of completion.

Life goes on … Before en-thesis-ment, chop wood, go to work. After en-thesis-ment, chop wood, go to work.

Perhaps I should explain some of the last five months, where I have become a hermit in more ways than making my online self less visible.

Emotional rollercoaster

One moment I was up, then next down. The ups and the downs were manic. There were few in-betweens.

Where I thought I was finished (my first draft, back in July), I was not. Where I thought I would feel happy or pleased with my progress, I was not. Where I knew I’d done so much, and needed time -15 minutes of internet meaningless surfing, others thought this was outrageous. Confusion. Mixed feelings. The closest thing to this I’ve ever experienced is post-natal elation then depression.

Yes, it’s really THAT BIG and I don’t think most people quite get that. Especially parents, whose comments are things like: “Oh, that’s nice. You’ve worked so hard. When’s the graduation?” ARRGGHHH!!!!


After August, I did not set foot in the gym nor a yoga studio. I felt like I had no time, nor should I permit myself these luxuries. Crazy? Perhaps, but it seemed the right –the only– thing to do. In their place, I took up Turbulence Training (oh, yes. You will be hearing a lot more about this) and subscribed to Yoga-Glo. These worked for me.

Exercise and yoga became impossible for me during a 6 week period in mid October to late November. The only thing I did then was to walk to and from work (a massive 20 minutes each way).

All of my life I have harboured a secret fear that there was a fat woman living inside of me, ready to explode the moment I stopped exercising. Whilst women who are tall and of normal height can get away with ONE or TWO kilos, I am the size of a 12 year old (158 cm). Extra kilos stick out like dog’s proverbials on us shorties.

Much to my surprise, the Fat-Woman-Living-Inside-Me-Waiting-To-Burst-Out did not burst out during my time of no exercise.

I gained no weight. I lost very little muscle definition in my upper body. I can still do one-armed pushups and Chautaranga til the cows come home. Thank you, 12 years of Body Pump. However, my legs and butt are a bit flabbier than I’m used to. So. Body Pump & Turbulence Training, here I come.

Other things I didn’t do after August: Spend much time commenting on blogs, or on Twitter (I did discover Farmville, though). Socialise. Go bushwalking or camping. Have a break.


I am mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. I feel spiritually disabled and empty.

The thesis took 10 years. It comprised 4 years, 2 months of fieldwork (in two periods of 14 months and then 3 years). During that time, I have re-written the entire thesis three times. The first full draft of the final incarnation (there were three incarnations) took two years to complete. My second and final draft took 4 of the most intense months of my life. I did this whilst working full time.

I do not, thankfully, have to do a dissertation defence. Australian universities don’t do them. Thank bloody goodness for that.

The emotional and personal costs of the thesis have been significant. I have suffered (and am at present still in the midst of) depression. I had a marriage break up 5 years ago – however,  as a result, I am with someone fabulous and far better matched to me.

PhDs are incredibly tough on your partner and family. We have had fights. Huge fights. Gary pushed me along constantly to do this. He would ask me when I was going to do some work on thesis -this pissed me off majorly at times when my muse just wasn’t working. He would come down on me for surfing the net -this pissed me off as well. Which, of course, meant fights.  I’m going to get Gary to do a guest post over the weekend, explaining what it is like to be the partner of a PhD candidate.

Would I study again? Yes, but I do not recommend doing a PhD straight after Honours, nor whilst working full time.

The Future

Right now, I need to rest. I am empty.

I would like a holiday but there’s no chance until February next year, due to my job.

I want, need, have to go travelling: Ubud would be nice. A whole week at Ananda Cottages, just chilling. The Simpson Desert would be fab as well… except it’s too darned hot (for those reading from the Northern Hemisphere, it is SUMMER in Australia and where I live, extremely hot – around 38 degrees Celcius every day). Bushwalking and camping are also out, because of the same reason. A week on a houseboat…yeah, but I can’t take leave til February.

So I’m trapped with my exhaustion. Gary is suggesting a weekend in Melbourne for me… but really, I desperately need a week away from everything and everywhere representing the normality of my life, to simply do nothing and recover.

I’m just not going to be able to do it however, so it’s limping along and sinking…

Apparently, this is totally, absolutely and utterly normal post-PhD.