Aboriginal advantage: an insider look at an Aboriginal community

27 May 2015

Parliamentary Library National Reconciliation Week Lecture 2015

Dr Laurie Bamblett[1]

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Laurie Bamblett, a Wiradjuri man of New South Wales, started as a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 2009. He is an adjunct research fellow at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University. Laurie has developed and conducted community education and health programs at his home community, Erambie Mission, for 22 years. His research interests include the ways that representations of identity affect engagement between Indigenous communities and mainstream institutions and services. 

Good afternoon.

I’ve been looking forward to talking to you today. I feel strongly about what I’m going to talk about. And this is my first time at Parliament House. People from my community have a habit of coming here to protest. Keeping that tradition I want to protest how people talk about our communities.

Especially the slogan ‘Aboriginal Disadvantage’. I don’t like it. It does more harm than good. I want to get rid of it. I’m not just here to moan.

I want to tell you what does work.

If I start by asking you what you know about Aboriginal communities, what image comes to mind? What do you see? I come from a mission called Erambie. I always describe it as paradise. I’m guessing that’s not the image you have. Am I right?

I want to change the image people have of our communities. I want you to see them how I see them. The way you see us and talk about us is important because we’re a tiny minority in a democracy and a lot of times we have to take you along with us to make changes.

You can all do a lot to help us by changing the way you talk about us.

I’m not minimising racism or the social, cultural and economic issues we have. They’re still there and I see them. I was born in a segregated hospital in Cowra. The ‘ABO Ward’ it was called. A few shop owners still follow us around their shop. Racism is still part of our lives. I work in community development so I see all the things we need to fix. I’m not trying to minimise them. I want to talk about Aboriginal Advantage because I’ve learned that it increases our chances of getting good outcomes. That’s what we do and it’s working.

Jane Murray: Erambie’s matriarch

This is a picture of Erambie’s matriarch. Jane Murray. A remarkable woman. A leader. She built the community with her husband. She was a midwife. Mother of 9 children. She worked with the doctor in Cowra who used to refer patients to her. He’d tell them, ‘If Janey Murray can’t help you then come to me’. I think this picture [is] a good representation of our community. She’s one of our advantages.

If our young people try to live up to her image we’ll be winning. It worked for me and my family.

Ever since I can remember I’ve loved sitting around listening to old people talk. Wherever I was on the mission, if I saw them coming together I would make my way over to them and sit and listen to them talk. I used to wag preschool to be with them. My mother likes to tell a story about that, which she thinks embarrasses me.

She was on the board of two preschools—one at Redfern and one at Erambie—but she could not get me to go to preschool. I wanted to be around the old people all the time. Later, when she got me to go to kindergarten she says that when she dropped me off something told her to go back and check on me. Sure enough when she got there I was running out of the school with a teacher chasing after me calling ‘come back’. Mum said that I was laughing.

I was heading home. I knew where I wanted to be. What I remember about that time was that each day around mid-morning Mum would go to visit one of the old ladies on the mission. I knew eventually they’d sit down for a yarn and that others would join them. When I followed her, mum would hunt me home, ‘stay there and play’. She’d even threaten to send me to school. But I’d follow her staying just out of range until she settled to talk to the ladies then I’d move close enough to hear them.

Mum stopped trying to hunt me when she says she realised that’s what I wanted to do. She started to encourage me to sit with them and listen to their yarns. I’m blessed that she recognised my interest and encouraged me to learn about what I loved.

What drew me in was the joy and laughter. They never seemed happier than when they were together sharing a yarn. The other thing I loved was the names of the characters in the stories. They had interesting nicknames and they seemed like important people. There was a Boomanulla, one called Geebung, Major, Doolan, Knocker, Buffalo, they called one fellow Old Tonks, my grandfather was called Knox, there was an Uncle Cutter and my idol was called the Black Prince. I used to love sitting and listening and thinking about what they were like.


Harry Murray Senior, Erambie community leader

They told funny little stories. They talked about normal people living normal lives. But they kept coming back to their love and admiration for the old people. They told me over and over how lucky we are to be Wiradjuri. They talked about how the old people gave them a good life on the mission.

I used to feel sorry for people that didn’t live at Erambie.

Not long after I got to high school and started wagging high school, I got into the habit of writing the stories down on pieces of scrap paper. I remember writing one into the margins of a piece of newspaper because that was all I could find. I’d study them. Those pieces of paper became a book about my community.

How that happened was that I enrolled in university as a mature aged student. University was good. It was mostly a positive, supportive place. It reminded me of the mission.

But, when I got to there, I was shocked to hear people saying that Aborigines are victims. They said that we had lost pride and that we had low self-esteem. I objected to that.

I said that it’s not what I know. That was new to me. In our stories we’re the heroes not the victims. We’re strong and confident. We’ve had some bad things done to us but we’ve never become the victims they were saying we are. I said to them that’s not what I know. And I kept interrupting and saying that. One lecturer used to apologise to me before class in case he offended me. He always did and I kept objecting. I kept saying that’s not what I see.

Next thing I know I’m doing an honours thesis and then a PhD to tell the counter story about Aboriginal Advantage that I know.

The gist of it is that we succeed because we’re Aborigines; not in spite of it. That we want to live up to images like this one of Jane Murray.

My family is doing well because I know our advantages. I have one son studying at ANU and four other children lining up to follow him.

It’s not just us. There are a lot of people who bought into it too and are successful. We had a few of our university graduates take teaching positions in the mid-2000s. It only took them a few years to reach parity in high school retention rates. Now we have five to six senior students each year and most of them go on to university. They’re studying law, health, teaching and the arts.

But it didn’t work for everyone. Even with all our successes, there’s another story about Erambie—one that you might be more familiar with. Some of them believe they’re disadvantaged. They give up.

We bury a lot of them. We started burying them young. Two of them we buried at 25 and 26. I’m 44 and so far we’ve buried 16 of my relatives that are my age—two this year.

I always have one of them front of mind. He was my age. We were a lot alike in many ways physically. At school we were very close. But he drank himself to death before we turned 40. The last time I saw him was at a park in Cowra. I thought about how we’d been so similar—now we couldn’t be more different. We buried him with the others. You probably recognise that story about us. We all hear it a lot, don’t we?

But how often do you hear about Aboriginal Advantage impacting our lives?

I didn’t end up like him because my family recognised the danger and grabbed me, physically grabbed me and said ‘that’s not us: this is us’ and they’d use photos like the one of Jane Murray. For every negative thing that happened or that was said about us they’d tell me ten positive things. Alcohol and drugs weren’t the danger they saw. It’s how we see ourselves. That’s the danger they recognised. That we become the victims people say we are.

We do have to talk about our grievances. But we can’t become them. So we have to be careful with the things we say. We have to have a good strategic balance in the stories we tell because young people are listening.

I do think we have a PR problem. Because I see all the things our community has done but others don’t see them. They see we do well in sport. We can also boast that the first Aborigines to make a record were from Erambie. The first Aborigine to be signed to a major record label was too. We have our share of successful people. The main story told about our success in sport and these other areas confirms the idea that our communities are bad places. The idea is that we’re motivated to escape.

Compare Don Bradman using a stump, a golf ball and water tank to become a champion. That story is seen as an example of Australian ingenuity and cheek. Evonne Goolagong doing basically the same thing to become a champion tennis player is seen as a poor bugger me story. It proves our disadvantage.

Think about this. There’s never been more than 28 houses at Erambie. No more than 200 people living there at any time. Yet on top of the success I’ve just talked about, we have PhDs, masters degrees, a barrister, lawyers, a Harvard graduate and university trained teachers. We have more at university now.

Do people see all of that as a result of our advantages? I don’t think they do. That’s probably because the ones who aren’t doing well are more noticeable. They confirm the image of our communities as bad places. One of the things people notice about Erambie is that every year a group of our young people get behind at school and then they’d drop out as young as 10. I’ve worked closely with all of them over the years and I know they were playing down to the low expectations because it was easier. They’re not interested in school. Worse than that, they lump reading in with school and they aren’t interested in reading. We ended up with a situation where not reading, not doing well at school, are seen as resistance. A lot of young people think that makes them warriors. That’s how they refer to themselves. There’s a lot of sympathy for that point of view in our community. But our problem is that too many of them are dying young.

How did it get that bad?

It happened over decades. Our grandparents and parents had terrible experiences at school and had turned away from them. As early as 1940, a researcher came to Erambie and reported back to government that the people there treated the school with indifference and contempt. He explained it as dysfunction and being irresponsible. But it wasn’t that. He didn’t ask anyone why. They rejected the substandard version of school they were offered. The teacher wasn’t qualified. The school didn’t have books and the kids weren’t being taught properly. The schools were segregated until 1953. The main reason they were integrated was to get the children away from the influence of their families on the mission. Not to give them better schooling.

So we have this longstanding disengagement from school. Our parents and grandparents understand when we dropped out. I dropped out of school and the only thing my mother said was, ‘No more school?’ She understood. But I already knew what I wanted to do so I was okay. It’s when they reject school, reading and employment as selling out without having an alternative that it hurts our community.

And we’re burying them and we go to their funerals and say we have to do something. We know the link between reading, doing well at school, employment and health. So some of us decided we had to make reading our thing. In 2009 we created a program we called Read With Me. The idea was to promote reading. We wanted to create a reading habit where there was none. And we had to do it with people who thought that reading—like school—wasn’t our thing. That it was selling out. To do it we really focused in on this idea of talking about our advantages. We’d say things like our people invented storytelling.

Shared reading is just storytelling so it is our thing.

These small things helped. They’re not tricks. We wanted people to look at reading in another way. Because the idea of resistance is strong we needed something to get their attention.

At least 95 per cent of the community participated in the program each year. We ran promotional events and capacity building workshops. In 2012, we counted only six of 800 people who didn’t join. In 2010, we counted more than 4,100 books read by our young people in 20 weeks. The littlest people, our preschoolers, now read books every night with their parents. We know because they have reading log books and they come to preschool talking about the books their parents read to them.

While we’re doing this we learned about how people read slogans.

Early on we talked about Indigenous literacy and people said ‘do you have to’? That got me thinking about how much resentment there is about slogans. I knew that people hate ‘Close the Gap’ and ‘Aboriginal Disadvantage’. You only had to mention either and people start swearing. But I hadn’t thought that they put Indigenous literacy in that category. They did. I found that out when I was planning a slogan, ‘Tackling Literacy’ and an event to get the football team involved. We had to change it to ‘Tackle a Book’, take literacy out so it wouldn’t be associated with those negative slogans. We learned that everything had to be about what we see as our strengths. Communal living, shared responsibility, storytelling and images of strength. That’s what motivated people. That’s what got them to turn up.

Reading as our thing 

Read With Me program

We went to the grandparents and asked them to help. I wanted them to approve what we were doing. They started talking about how their parents taught them to read. How they used newspapers and comics to teach them. How they taught them to spell using things that were around them. They talked about how much fun and laughter there was.

Their stories helped everyone see reading as our thing. We used that. We made posters out of this image of Jane Murray and others. You could see people’s attitude change. They took ownership. One grandfather came to a workshop we were doing and said he’d seen on the news a reading program that had stolen some our ideas. To him we owned it.

And that works.

Schools told us that they had a lot more contact with our families. Homework was getting handed in. Permission notes were coming in too. Where parents had ignored the school, they started talking to them. The best thing the schools told us was that in a short time—just months—reading ages improved by two and three years on average. And for the last four years Koori students who did our program have scored in the top 10 per cent nationally in reading tests. The biggest success is that our preschool kids now start kindergarten with outstanding reading skills. They’re outperforming other kids now. They went from last to first.

So everything was going along okay. We got some excellent results. We were especially pleased that our preschool children were moving on to kindergarten and doing well. Then the Prime Minister talked about the improved reading results from 2009 at one Cowra school. It was in a 2012 speech to the National Press Club. But she only mentioned us when she was defining the problem. She didn’t mention people at Erambie when she described how things improved. The school took all the credit.

This year it happened again. Another Cowra school hosted teachers from Queensland who saw the good results and were looking for some ideas they could use. And that principal took all the credit too. He didn’t mention the community or the program we made. There was a story about the visit in the local paper and he said it was all because of quality teaching. We said it’s not a coincidence that results improved from 2009 when our program started. We weren’t looking for all the credit, but no-one seemed to want to share any with us.

Read With Me program 

Reading as our thing

It doesn’t surprise us that people didn’t want to give us credit. There’s a history of that in Cowra. Not even Jane Murray’s character and the good things she did were seen as a credit to our community. She didn’t fit the stereotype of the dangerous Aborigine who had to be controlled. The manager at Erambie couldn’t have that. He was there because of the idea that Aborigines needed to be controlled. So she had to be explained. How he did that was he said she wasn't an Aborigine. He just started saying that she was a negro. That meant he could keep saying that the advanced nature of the community was because it was close to the town. They could say it was because of the hard work and diligence of the manager and his wife. And because the negro blood outweighed the Aboriginal blood in the community. That’s how they explained her. It’s just not true. She was a Wiradjuri woman.

Some of the other things said were ridiculous but people seemed to believe them. They took credit for the well-known football team, the famous Erambie Allblacks they were called. And they took credit for the popular singers and bands from the mission. People in town used to sit at the boundary of the mission and listen to the music coming from the huts. Large crowds followed the football team. They were both going years before the managers came. But the manager and his wife took credit for them.

The next generation didn’t get credit for doing good things either. During World War 2 singers and musicians from Erambie had a big following. Cowra had a large military training camp as well as the POW camp. 70,000 soldiers trained there. When the war ended, council thought about moving the mission into the POW camp. But it was too close to town. They preferred a site at least 20 kilometres from town. No locals objected. No one said: ‘wait a minute—more than a dozen of their men fought in the war’. No one talked about the thousands of pounds they raised to support the soldiers.

The managers said the men were bad characters and the women as the worst type. They said it all the time. The women from Erambie have achieved a lot. One Harvard degree. Two were awarded state funerals. An Order of Australia medal. One woman from Erambie was listed as one of Australia’s Living Treasures by the National Trust. She was awarded an MBE. She worked with Fred Hollows, Father Ted Kennedy and others to care for people. When she passed away she was given a state funeral.

Erambie pride 

Erambie All Blacks

But all that recognition came late. When they were younger no one outsider questioned the negative things said about them. Those words caused them grief. They live with the real threat that their children would be taken away.

In the early 2000s a man came to clean my parents’ carpets.

A lot of local businesses refuse to come onto the mission. Even Australia Post. But he didn’t care and he came to do his work. He looked like he wanted to say something but he didn’t until he’d visited a few times. One day he asked my mother, can you tell me what had happened to my school friends who came from here? He said one day they stopped coming to school and that he was never told why. This was 50 years later.

She told him what happened. His friends were taken away from their aunt who was raising them. That was the woman who was given the MBE and called a living treasure. In those days the manager could and usually did refuse people entry. Some ignored him. That woman was charged with having people on the mission without permission and it went to court. She won the case. After that the manager had it in for her.

Eventually he convinced people that she neglected the children so they went back to court, she lost and the police came. They surrounded the house. She brought them out dressed in their best clothes and they took them away. The woman sat in the house alone crying. They didn’t ever come home to live.

The man got upset and angry when he heard that. He said there’s no way they were neglected. He said they were always well dressed and clean. They were well behaved. They had better lunches than him. He was angry.

A police officer from Cowra once wrote about good things he admired about Erambie. He talked about strong people who had built a strong community. But he wrote that it ‘would be unknown to the whites in Cowra. For them it was another world’.

I think that’s still true. Our community is still another world that most people don’t know.

And that can be dangerous. Most don’t know enough to look past words like ‘the worst type’, like ‘dysfunction’ and ‘Aboriginal Disadvantage’. We saw that again from a teacher at the local school who told other teachers that they should excuse Koori students who use bad language because they don’t know any better. Nothing could be further from true. But it seems pretty easy to get people to believe bad things about us.

We had a meeting with the schools and some of our own people accepted the idea that our kids shouldn’t be held to normal standard. I object to that. I point to this photograph of Jane Murray and ask who in our community grew up in a house where bad language was allowed. No one can say they did. Our parents and grandparents didn’t allow it.

I want to tell everyone, teachers, parents and grandparents, to remember that this is where we come from and this is who we are. Because it’s a small jump from talking about disadvantage and dysfunction to low expectations. And that’s a problem. But the good news is it’s an even smaller step from this image of Jane Murray to high expectations.

If we talk more about Aboriginal Advantage we’ll be moving away from something that doesn’t work. Telling people they’re disadvantaged kills them. It takes their power and authority away. It disengages them. It makes it okay for them to say no. It frees people of obligation. The opposite of what we want. I really think those words ‘Aboriginal Disadvantage’ are that bad. Think about it. How would you like to hear that all the time? Not only that, how do you think it feels that it sometimes doesn’t even need to be said anymore. It’s just accepted.

We work every day trying to make sure our young people grow up in Jane Murray’s image. We see how the young people that we bury take on that identity of victim. It really does kill them. I’m not exaggerating. All of them that we’ve buried young took on that role to some degree. So we have a choice don’t we? We can keep doing what doesn’t work or we can talk instead about all the examples of Aboriginal advantage that show our young people how to live a good life.

When we started our reading program I invited the school principals to meet with the community. Their schools each have 20 per cent Wiradjuri students. It was their first time at Erambie. I watched one of them drive onto the mission. He missed the turn to come into the community centre. It was funny when he realised he was going too deep into the mission he slammed the breaks on and did the fastest three point turn I’ve ever seen. He was one of the principals who didn’t think to give the community any credit for improved reading results. And I think his reaction that day is connected to that decision.

Erambie All Blacks 

Erambie pride

While we had the principals’ attention, I asked the grandparents if they wanted to say anything to them.

One grandmother said simply and insightfully, ‘If you tell these children they’re bad, they can play that part too but what I know is that we have a lot of gifted kids. Look at this child, find out what this child can do’.

A good place to end I think.

This paper has been provided by a presenter in the Parliamentary Library’s Seminar and Lecture Series. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library.

The copyright remains with the original author and permission may be required to reuse the material


[1].          Permission to use the historic photos in this lecture is granted by Wiradjuri elder June Murray who is the granddaughter of Jane and Harry Murray. Permission to use the more recent photos is granted by Yalbillinga Boori childcare centre.