Going home: the great Aboriginal dream

We reach the rock art caves and everyone falls silent.

We reach the rock art caves and everyone falls silent. Later that night, the giant Northern Territory moon up and the mosquitoes and flies of all worlds swarming through the dark camp, the boys and the young men will talk of magic from up this hill and along the ridge where the rock art is. Kidney Fat Man and the Black Bushmen. Spirits that come to some but not others and come for both purposes: good and evil.

But for now we are up there, on the ridge, a drive and a hard walk from the camp through remote Northern Territory gums and pandanas, beneath squadrons of whistling kites, the scrubby ground crackling in the heat of the dry season. When we reach Yenmilli, the sacred rock art site, the boys and young men are suddenly still. They can talk all day and all night for hours on end in two languages and perhaps more, but not for now.

The sacred caves are small and under the crook of the ridge. The art is dots and hands, ancient and largely intact. Only one white person has seen it before, according to the family. Everyone sits. Black hands start tracing the white outlines on the cave walls and then black hands are placed over the drawn hands and most are an exact fit, like slipping into a glove.

Jules Dumoo, the eldest of the nine Aboriginal men here, a father to some of them and also a brother and uncle and guardian, sits in the dirt of the first cave where kangaroos now live but where his ancestors did also. He's only about 45 years old but his own uncles and his father are now gone.

In his own language, Marritjevin, he says: "Back in the old days, old people put their hand on the rock ... they chew the clay then put their hand on the rock and spray it around the hands."

In English he then says: "I feel like they are sitting here with us and we are sitting here together telling stories. Teaching the old stories. It makes me proud and happy. We gotta keep this thing alive. Our spirit is alive up here. It's important for us - very, very important. Hopefully if we keep it up things will change."

This is what the family calls "bush holiday" but it is way more serious than that. The homeland movement has been recognised by governments in the Northern Territory since the land rights uprising in the 1970s; now both federal and territory money is being used to facilitate Aboriginal people, usually displaced, going back to their traditional land.

The Northern Territory government has recently introduced a new homelands policy which gives $200 million over 10 years - with a large proportion of federal ALP money - to eligible homelands to improve infrastructure and services. The territory has also this year pledged $16 million over four years for grants for specific repair and maintenance work.

George Timson, the director of homelands, outstations and town camps for the territory government, says it is to "preserve Aboriginal people's culture and connections to the land". He says about 10,000 people live on 500 designated homelands across the territory.

The Dumoos desperately want to make it happen. But it isn't easy. They have not received any funding and like many do not know how to access the money. The aim is repatriation and in many cases it is a quest against the odds. It can be about trying to find hope in the face of hopelessness.

The extended family lives in Wadeye, a troubled Northern Territory town six hours south-west of Darwin. They have bought us here to a place called Perrederr where they are traditional owners yet don't have the means to live. It is their homeland, the site of their Dreaming and the location and starting point for all their totems, spirits and old-time beliefs. It is where their ancestors come from and where their ancestors, long gone, still reside.

"We want to keep our culture going," says Jules Dumoo. "We don't want to lose it. This is good wildlife country here, it's a beautiful place. Sacred sites to look after. As long as people respect us and respect what we want."

Since the death of his last remaining uncle recently, Dumoo has pledged to return his family here, on the harsh plains in the shadow of this extraordinary rock art, to live more traditionally. He hopes by doing this, and with a particular view to the vulnerable young men of the mob, to live with more peace, health and happiness.

The alternative and the default setting for many displaced Aboriginal families on the western side of the Northern Territory is Wadeye, the former Catholic mission also known as Port Keats, an isolated and dysfunctional town of 2500, a ghetto, where 22 disparate clan groups live.

Inter-clan violence and organised gang violence has been ruinous in Wadeye's recent past. One member of the Dumoo immediate family, Lenny, 35, is in prison in Darwin for killing a member of a rival family, the Jongmins, last year. His lawyer pleaded self-defence but he was convicted. After the incident he fled to Perrederr as if it could be some kind of sanctuary from his wrongdoing. But he was found there, and arrested.

Jules Dumoo's quest to return his family to Perrederr each dry season - in the monsoonal wet the roads are impassable - is an increasingly common aim all across the Top End. It is six years since the Howard government's intervention, which was prompted by conditions at Wadeye and also trialled there, and the homeland movement is undergoing a resurgence because traditional spirits and magic and totems do not move, even if humans do. Data shows that while 75 per cent of NT Aborigines know where their homeland is, only 35 per cent live on it.

Country to Aboriginal people is everything. The Australian anthropologist William Stanner worked a lot around Wadeye and Perrederr in the 1950s and '60s and said the word "land" was a white construct, yet when we took it from Aboriginal clan groups we took the source of life for the humans and the spirits.

A different tradition, he wrote, leaves us "tongueless and earless towards this other world of meaning and significance".

Perrederr has been returned under a Northern Territory indigenous land deal. To Dumoo and his people it is not a sanctuary to evade the law or somewhere to "get away" - as the Western sensibility would dictate - but a place to try to get inside, where the Dreaming is nearer and where old lore is closer.

But it is hard for the Dumoos, as it can be for so many like them. The bulk of the land at Perrederr is harsh. The outstation buildings - from the 1980s, a small clutch of about a dozen - are derelict. There is no power and limited water and the roads are rugged. They have had no indication it will ever be fixed up by government or government agencies.

The closest town with any infrastructure or services is Peppimenarti, population 185, an hour or two away, sung into folklore by Slim Dusty in his Plains of Peppimenarti: "The kangaroo still bounds on that rough and rugged ground, the ant hills and the old pandanas grow ..."

The coastal mangroves are about the same distance in the other direction. With factors such as worn-out vehicles, family business, money, food and the wavering will of the young men around Dumoo playing into the equation, it can be hard and sometimes impossible to get to Perrederr at all. Abandoned cars line the way in.

In East Arnhem Land, 1000 kilometres away, the homeland movement is a more established phenomenon. Near Darwin, though, it is more elusive, as elusive as the spirits and the deities and the spooked magic the Dumoo men tell us about while we are guests, sleeping rough on their country at Perrederr.

We have fires burning, one tent, swags, blankets, canned food and damper and rice. Tomorrow someone will kill a wallaby to eat, we will find bushes bearing the red lily, a strawberry-like edible flower.

"The small men live up there," says Willy Dumoo, Jules' brother. Willy is 20, his language name is Dirrinin and unlike some of his peers and family he is very engaged with his culture.

"Up the hill, the small men," he continues. "They can drag you away. The black bushmen, you can't see them but they can see you and they sing you and after you gone to bed, you gone. Kidney Fat Man cut you open but don't talk about it, don't think about it or he touch your shoulder."

The Dreaming here is the red kangaroo, the cheeky yam (a pumpkin-sized vegetable that grows underground) and the headache-Dreaming ritual, or pumut, in which one male's sweat is used on another to ward off illness or vulnerability.

The pumut place, says Willy that night, the Dreaming, is right over there. He points through the woodsmoke. "Look. Beside the water tank. Near that tree there. See?"

Wadeye can get pretty wild. Ion Idriess, the author of a 1941 geographic study, called it the "Wild Lands"; by 1963, another surveyor, Sidney Downer, settled on "The Badlands".

It was first mapped by white explorers in 1819 and evidence of Aboriginal life goes back at least 6000 years. Now it is the largest indigenous community in the Northern Territory and will be the fourth largest town in the territory within a decade.

The gang culture is dormant for now but is still plainly visible, with graffiti about the two warring gangs - Judas Priest and Evil Warriors - adorning many walls and fences.

At night, heavy metal or pounding techno blares from houses that all have stoves no one uses: food is cooked on fires outside. Feral dogs roam around, increasing in aggression as the hour gets later. Nothing much happens before 10am.

There's a supermarket, a bank, a police station, a school, a busy Catholic Church and convent, Centrelink, a health centre, two football ovals, a butcher and a takeaway. Many refer to their town as "Big W" because it has everything they perceive they need. Recently there was a festival in Wadeye promoting kidney health and trying to get parents to give their kids water rather than soft drinks.

The problems are as they always have been here - the primary problem is conflict between clan, language and family groups forced to live together. There are an estimated 22 different clan groups at Wadeye, which leads to deep-seated disagreements over culture, territory, relationships and ceremonies. The average number of people living in each house is 17. Almost half the population is under 15. Government and territory spending is low, unemployment is almost total, health is poor, death rates are high.

The school is poorly attended (only about a third of the children go; the high school finished with only two last year). The supermarket is limited and expensive. Centrelink distributes welfare and land rights royalty money but most Aboriginal residents (about 95 per cent of the population) live a listless existence reliant on handouts - "learned helplessness", as one of the school teachers describes it to me.

All is not lost, far from it. Ten years ago local Aboriginal people decided to resurrect the term "Thamarrurr" to describe indigenous governance; today that name is also used for the region and the region's council. Gas has been discovered offshore; mineral exploration leases allow mining companies to look for base metals and also diamonds.

Aboriginal leaders are at least "apparent and operational", says local consultant and academic Bill Ivory. But it is a deeply troubled place.

Jules Dumoo was born in Darwin but raised in Wadeye. The situation with his jailed relative Lenny Dumoo and the family his mob are warring with makes a difficult situation significantly worse.

"We are guests," he says. "It is not our place. Family groups here from outside, we are outsiders, doing work, doing this and that, supporting my family. In Port Keats there is trouble and the boys and the young women end up making trouble. There is pressure with the gangs. So much pressure. That's how the problems start."

When you boil it down, Jules has a dream, and that is to escape to Perrederr to insulate his family from Wadeye and all it brings. In Wadeye itself, many families settle for what they have been given. They like the shop and the amenities, however basic. "These fellas are conditioned by now to be incapable," says one of the town's long-time white workers. "This dream of going back to the bush is just that - a dream."

Yet it is possible. Closer to Wadeye than Perrederr and in much more forgiving country is the beachside homeland of Kuy, traditional country for about five families from the same clan. The man who runs things is another Jules. His surname in the Western sense is Nadjulu and he is married with kids. He was raised here with his grandmother, Mona, and his late grandfather. His own parents prefer Wadeye, evidence of how perceptions of traditional ownership can shift quickly between generations. Jules Nadjulu is 21.

"When I was a little boy my grandfather and grandmother were showing me where all the totem are, the country, the crab, that's my totem. We have goose, butterfly, goose egg and dingo. I learnt the stories from my grandpa, he showed me the story, I show my son. My children. Living in this homeland, I can show my kids the totems and where the totems stay."

Kuy has a school. Jules' wife is the teacher. "They learning their language and your language," he says, "two languages. If you go to Kuy school and look all them books it is our language. School is also fishing and crabbing and weaving. Then they go back to school and write that story in English and their language."

It is his grandfather's country, and so it is now his because he has consciously chosen it to be his. The system is patrilineal. His grandmother, Mona, her country is at Wadeye but after she met her late husband they came to live under the tamarind trees at Kuy. Now it is a model village, a paradise, almost - six or so houses, peach-mango trees, a verdant coastline - for those who can access it and also have the will to access it.

Perrederr, for the Dumoos, is different. Their will can falter, their vehicles can stop running. In many ways, they have more troubles and less ability to escape them.

Jules Dumoo's father, Johnny, and his uncles were the ones who initially got this land unofficially back for the family after it had fallen into the hands of an outstation caretaker. Now it's about trying to get there, trying to get the right people there, trying to survive once there, then trying to get back again another time to continue the learning.

On our visit, as soon as we arrive, the young men run into the grasslands and start burning it up, reading the wind and the land. Burning tells the ancestors and the neighbours they are there. Burning cleans the ground so more may grow and hunting and bush tucker collection is easier. Whistling kites swoop on the fires, picking up burning sticks to carry ahead and make new fire fronts to smoke out bugs. The fires burn for days.

"We still fighting for housing and roads and that is still the same," says Dumoo, "but it's good country for us and people from outside can talk about this country, but when you come you see we are struggling. This place doesn't look really comfortable, it could be more better, we are struggling. This is how we live and how we struggle. We are still here fighting."

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