Cry from the heart

by: Stuart Rintoul From: The Australian 19/05/2012

Bess Price, Australian, Aboriginal violence

It is October 1960 and a newborn baby’s cry breaks the silence of the central Australian desert on the outskirts of an Aboriginal settlement called Yuendumu.

She is born as Warlpiri children have always been born, under a tree in the bush. Her skin name is Nungarrayi. She can also be called Yunkaranyi Jukurrpa, Honey Ant Dreaming, after the place her child spirit came from. But there is no romanticism here. It is a hard world that she has been born into. Central Australia is in drought. She is the ninth child her mother has carried; four have died in infancy in the previous decade. She is tiny, sickly looking, the “runt of the litter”, as she will later describe herself.

Her mother, Clara Nakamarra France, makes a decision that is as old and harsh as the desert. She decides to leave the baby girl where she has been born, to be killed by a snake. The child survives only because an Aboriginal midwife known as Old Maudie intervenes, handing the baby to Clara’s sisters-in-law to raise. It is the first intervention in the life of the Intervention Woman.

Bess Nungarrayi Price is sitting in a dry creek bed near Alice Springs. It is a warm autumn day and she is in the small shade of a burned tree, legs crossed under her skirt, feet bare, staring at the coarse sand. “When Mum gave birth to me, I think she had just had enough of giving birth to babies,” she says. “Well, you can imagine … she’s had all these kids and lost a few on the way and her body and her mind wasn’t stable enough to look after me. I remember her telling me, ‘I left you for a snake to bite you.’ I just couldn’t believe it at the time. I thought, ‘OK, that’s what you thought of me.’ But I [also] thought, ‘Well, I’m still here and I survived’ … That’s how my life began.”

She pauses long enough for the memory, then pitches on through the tumult of her life: raised in humpies, promised in marriage at birth, pregnant at 13 to a young man who grew to like the taste of bashing her, falling in love with a white man, the death of a son whose memory casts her into silence.
She talks about the strength of her sisters, the wasteful deaths of her brothers and the apology from her mother, that she should never have left her newborn to be killed. She says she loved her mother and was with her when she died. She cries while remembering her father. “My father was wonderful,” she says, reaching for a scarf that is draped over her knees and holding it to her eyes. “He was such a good man.” While her mother was “the quiet one”, her father was curious about how the world was changing. “My Dad, he just wanted to learn,” she says. “He was eager to learn about white people and wanted to learn about how to get on and make changes.”

At 51, Price is also hell-bent on “getting on and making changes”. Over the past five years, she has become one of the most controversial – and determined – women in Australia. The publication in 2007 of the Little Children are Sacred report on the sexual abuse of children in the Northern Territory, and her outspoken support for the Howard Government’s shock-and-awe response to it – troops on the ground, medical checks, income management, increased policing, new alcohol restrictions, the removal of customary law considerations in court sentencing and the threat of new forms of land tenure – propelled her to national attention. Price was given a platform and she used it to say that Aboriginal communities were in crisis.

“The intervention came and turned everything upside down for our people to take a look at what the real problems were, because they weren’t admitting that there were all these problems and it was getting worse and worse and worse for our people,” she says. “We were living in denial. There was petrol-sniffing, there was suicide, there was ganja. I have heard stories of people showing their children pornography … and child abuse. Our children were being abused.”

She has been vilified by the progressive left and she has in turn accused them of not understanding the sometimes vicious reality of life in Aboriginal communities; of having a “Disneyland” idea of Aboriginal culture and too little concern for indigenous women and children. When opponents complained that the intervention (which has been substantially continued under the Rudd and Gillard governments) was degrading and racist and a breach of human rights, Price questioned whose human rights were imperilled. When they argued for a more nuanced and respectful approach, she said political correctness paved the way to abuse. “You need to listen to the voices that are usually drowned out by the strong, the noisy and the powerful,” she says. “You need to find a way to listen to those who don’t speak English, who are the most marginalised and victimised in our communities … If you really want us to have human rights then you have to find ways to protect the victims of black crime as well as white crime.”

The criticism was swift and personal. When Price appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program last year, indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt tweeted that she had been watching a show (Deadwood) where a man had sex with a horse and she was sure it was less offensive than Price. In the furious row that followed, influential indigenous academic Marcia Langton sided forcefully with Price, describing her as “a first-hand witness of terrifying violence against women” and describing her critics as “twittering sepia-toned Sydney activists” and “city-slicker Aborigines”. The conservative magazine Quadrant called Price “an exceptional Aborigine” who “stands out against the pack in an Aboriginal industry suffocating with pretenders”.

For her part, Price is politely dismissive of those who have spoken out against the intervention, which include peak Aboriginal organisations, the churches, welfare organisations, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson and former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent, who have all described the intervention as racist. “They don’t know anything about our people who live out here with the mangy dogs,” Price says. “They’re ‘sophisticated’ people. They think they know us and they think they can tell the rest of the world what is best for us.”

It is Price’s determination in the face of criticism that has won her admirers within Aboriginal communities, government and among those who began as idealists and have become harsh realists. She is hoping to build on that support to become a conservative Country Liberal Party member of the Northern Territory parliament for the seat of Stuart, a vast electorate that’s bigger than Victoria and spans the Tanami desert, the traditional home of her people, the Warlpiri. After a lifetime of voting Labor, she has become the latest high-profile disenchanted Aboriginal convert to the conservative side of politics. Her opponent is Karl Hampton, the NT minister for natural resources, environment and heritage, parks and wildlife, climate change, sport and recreation, information, communications and technology policy, and central Australia – and her nephew.

Price was recruited to politics by the indigenous politician Alison Anderson, a one-time minister in the NT Labor Government who switched to the CLP. Over a late-night coffee in Alice Springs, in a conversation punctured by the wail of rolling drunks, Anderson says she believes Aboriginal people are returning to the conservatism of earlier generations and that Price will be a formidable candidate. “Bess is a fantastic woman, you know,” she says. “She’s strong and I guess that strength is because of where she came out of. She was raised in a humpy at Yuendumu and the fact that she has her language, law and culture … that builds the foundation and the strength that she is showing to all of Australia today. You will see great things being done by this woman.”

Yuendumu, a strife-torn Warlpiri community three hours northwest of Alice Springs on the Tanami Track, has been racked by internal violence over the past two years that has spilled viciously into the town camps of Alice Springs. It began after a young man was given a football jumper and subsequently died of leukaemia, which was attributed by some people to sorcery. In the mayhem that followed, a 21-year-old member of the Watson family, a father of four, died after he was stabbed in the leg with a knife. Traditional payback was demanded and avoided. Clans rioted. Families fled to escape violence and the threat of it. But still it goes on.

This is where Bess Price was born and raised. It is the epicentre of everything she believes is broken in Aboriginal Australia. A desert settlement of breeze-block homes and rubbish-strewn yards, it has the desolate look of the shadowlands about it; as she moves about the community, talking quietly in Warlpiri, she remembers it as a more vibrant and harmonious place in her youth. Too many strong people have passed away, she says. And too few have replaced them.

“We are tired of the feuding and the violence,” she adds. “Most of us want Yuendumu to get back to normal.” She talks to children in the street. Some of them speak only Warlpiri and she says she fears for them if they are raised without the ability to cope in the wider world or to communicate abuse or neglect. There is division in the community over the intervention, which she attributes to “misinformation”. One of her uncles at Yuendumu, Harry Nelson, is an outspoken critic of the intervention, but she says kinship ties are stronger and deeper than political opinions.

A day’s walk from Yuendumu, on an outstation called Kirrirdi, Price and her aunt, Tess Napaljarri Ross, pick bush raisins (yakajirri) and bush tomatoes (wanakiji) and settle themselves on chairs under a tree to talk, in English and Warlpiri. It ranges from the feuding at Yuendumu to a rose-coloured view of life before white men. “We walked in peace, through the days, through the nights,” Ross says. “There was no problem, there was no hatred, just a good way that we were living. The old days was the best way of living our lives.”

Price does not disagree, although her life has been its own ambivalent response. She believes the problems confronting the Warlpiri are the product of the chaos that followed the end of old ways. “Now we live in a world ruled by a new law that is not sacred, that does not accept that magic exists,” she has said. “Now we are all equal citizens with human rights. Now we have property, houses, cars, grog, drugs, pornography. Now we live off welfare … The Two Laws, whitefella and blackfella, are based on opposing principles. My people are confused.”

Price has sat in courts where both perpetrators and victims are members of her family. Her 14-year-old niece hanged herself. Her sister-in-law died from stab wounds to the head. Her granddaughter was killed in a town camp, stabbed by her ex-husband, Price’s cousin. Three of her brothers drank themselves to death in Alice Springs town camps, which she calls places of sickness and self-destruction. “This is what we have to put up with every day,” she says. “I think that us Aboriginal people carry all these problems with us, all these issues, all this trauma, all this sadness.” In the year before the intervention, more than 30 deaths impacted on Price’s family, which weighed heavily in her decision to support it.

While Gupapuyngu elder Mathew Dhulumburrk, at Ramingining in Arnhem Land, says people living under the intervention feel as though they’re drowning, and Sydney activist Paddy Gibson says remote communities have deteriorated, Price says she wants to see a long intervention; she says it has brought improvements in housing, night patrols, child care, nutrition, community safety, child protection and employment opportunities. “And women now have a voice and a place in the community,” she adds.

Asked about solutions, she sets out her manifesto. Real education based on real standards, rather than “culturally appropriate” standards; real jobs in the mining, tourism and pastoral industries; alcohol rehabilitation centres “in the bush rather than just in town where the grog outlets are”; and a tough approach on crime in a part of Australia where many of the victims of crime are Aboriginal women. “We still need to work very hard at reducing violence against women,” she says. “Our kids still need to be protected from abuse and neglect. Communities need to be set up like normal towns with services and businesses to stop the drift to towns [like Alice Springs], which is disastrous for Aboriginal people and town residents.” She says her people fill the jails without understanding the law, “what it is and why it is that way”.

I ask Price whether she regards herself as a traditional Warlpiri woman or as a modern Warlpiri woman. “A modern Warlpiri woman,” she says, reflexively, then adds: “I think I’ve still got my traditions. I know what I have to do in regards to ceremonies. I think some of our traditions work for us, but in other areas, I strongly disagree with them. I go either way when it is needed.” She draws the line where women and children are abused.

Sitting on a plastic chair under a tree at Kirrirdi, Price waves her arm lightly to the west and tells how her father, Dinny Japaltjarri, was a boy out hunting with his father when he saw white men for the first time, riding on camels in the desert 200km west of Yuendumu at a place called Yampirri. It scared and excited him. He was initiated at the time of the 1928 Coniston massacres, the punitive expeditions led by Constable George Murray, a Gallipoli veteran, in which at least 52 and perhaps many more Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye men, women and children were murdered in the last act of the frontier wars. She says he never spoke of it.
Between the birth of her father, around the beginning of World War I, and Price’s birth in 1960, the world of the Warlpiri changed profoundly. If Yuendumu has a poor and ruined look now, there was a time, when she was young, Price says, when it functioned like “a proper little community” where “everybody did something”. There was a cattle company, a piggery and an orange orchard, a communal kitchen where “the whole community came and ate breakfast, lunch and supper”. Missionaries had brought the Warlpiri out of the desert and at Yuendumu, Baptist missionaries Tom and Pat Fleming built a house and a school and a church and exercised a strong moral authority. “Tom Fleming was tough and fair,” she says. “He was a good old fella.” She remembers him as a man who would walk into trouble and demand peace.
Price spent the first nine years of her life living in humpies her father built. She remembers them as warm and dry. Her parents were a presence in her life, but she lived with her aunts, Kay Napaljarri and Ena Napaljarri, their tribal husband, Jack Jakamarra Ross, and their children and goats. Then her eldest sister, Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan, “took me under her wings and did what she had to do to look after me”. It left her with a strong sense of independence. “I believed I was the runt in the family,” she says. “I had to fend for myself. That’s how I survived during my childhood and I think that’s what’s kept me going.”

Her father worked as a janitor at the school. Her mother worked in the laundry. “My father saw himself as a church-going person and a Christian and that’s how he raised us, believing both sides – the Warlpiri law and Christianity as well,” she says. “And that kept the families together.” She loved school. “During my time at the school at Yuendumu, instead of going out and playing out in the playground during morning break and lunch, I would be indoors reading,” she says. “Just sneak back inside into our classroom and just read, because I loved reading. That’s how my life was.”

When she was 10 or 11, she went to live with her parents, as they moved into the first of the one-room “donkey houses” that were intended to transition the Warlpiri from humpies to houses. They were roasting in summer and freezing in winter, but “everybody at Yuendumu felt special about moving into new houses”, Price says. She fought with her brothers for the right to sleep alongside her mother. “We would all fight and carry on. It was comfortable times then,” she says. But it was short-lived.
Price was promised at birth to her sister’s husband, Jimmy Jangala Egan. At 13, when he was in his early 40s, she was supposed to go and live with him as his youngest wife. She rebelled and convinced her father to allow her to continue with her education. “My father and my promised husband let me get away with it,” she has said. “They didn’t beat me up like other girls at my age who were beaten for refusing to go to their promised [husband]. I had a violent marriage to a young man instead.”

In 1973, she went to boarding school at Kormilda College in Darwin. “Young and naive,” she fell pregnant to a Warlpiri boy. After Cyclone Tracy levelled Darwin, she went home and gave birth to a son, Leonard Jampijinpa. She lived with the young man she calls “my son’s father” for five years and says her body was “decorated with scars” as a result. At 15, she started work, at the Yuendumu school’s literacy centre. In 1979, she ended her relationship and started teacher training.

Bess and Dave PRice, Australian, Aboriginal violence

Price’s husband, Dave, leans on an old table nearby, listening. In his own right, he is passionate and challenging. Ten years older than Price, he met her in 1976, when he was a teacher at Yuendumu. She was 16 and working as a teaching assistant in the school’s bilingual education program. She was still in her violent relationship, and his marriage was falling apart. “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on,” he says. “But what really attracted me to her was her emotional toughness, her courage and her fair-mindedness. She would come to work with her two-year-old son on her hip and a black eye after being up all night being harassed by a drunk and following him around to make sure he didn’t get in too much trouble. And she was a teenager.”

In the Easter of 1979, they met up in Alice Springs and decided to leave together. They went to Milikapiti, on Melville Island, then moved to Noonkanbah in the Kimberley in 1982. He continued teaching; she worked where she found it, as an airline agent, school cook, teaching assistant and shelf-stacker. Their families – and even Bess’s promised husband – supported them. Dave laughs and says that Bess’s father, gone almost blind, would introduce him by saying, “This is my son-in-law – he’s a white man” and Dave would remind him that they could see that quite clearly for themselves. In the early 1980s, Dave and Bess picked up Bess’s mother at Yuendumu and drove to Newcastle in NSW so that she could meet his mother. “I have a wonderful memory of the day our mothers met,” he says. “They hugged each other, laughed and chatted excitedly in two languages, each totally incomprehensible to the other.”

In 1981, Dave and Bess had a daughter, Jacinta, who has become a singer and a young mother herself with three children. The joy of it came with thorns. Late in 1983, Bess’s son Leonard was diagnosed with leukaemia. He died 18 months later, in 1985, aged 10. Bess slashed her hair and Dave, who had raised the boy as his own, almost went mad from grief. It was the worst of many deaths. Then, in 1987, Bess’s kidneys collapsed. Told that she was within 20 hours of dying, a transplant from a brother, who now lives on dialysis, saved her life. As she speaks of it, she says, “I believe I was kept alive to do what I am doing now.”

Price says she made the decision to run for politics after a white streak appeared in her hair and she became a grandmother. Unknown nationally before the intervention – and less well known before Behrendt’s tweet – she began the intervention translating for federal government officials. In February 2009, she was appointed to chair the NT Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council. In September 2009, then prime minister Kevin Rudd appointed her to a new Violence Against Women Advisory Group.

Before the intervention, Price rose within Aboriginal structures. She spent seven years with the Central Land Council, received a scholarship to study at Curtin University and obtained a Bachelor of Applied Science in Aboriginal Community Development and Management. In 1992, she attended the first World Indigenous Youth Conference in Quebec, and from 1995-99 she worked with the Northern Territory Employment and Training Authority. In 1997, she and Dave started a business together, providing Warlpiri language services and cross-cultural training. Her opponents have accused her of using it to profit from the intervention, which she angrily denies, saying it has been a modest independent income.

At their home in Alice Springs, Bess and Dave are sitting on the porch. It is a sanctuary, Dave says, “an island of civilisation” in a world of madness. “Nothing gets past that gate if I don’t want it to get past that gate,” he says. He is fiercely defensive of his wife. Asked what price she has paid for her outspokenness, he replies: “She has been vilified by a lot of people who call themselves indigenous, but most of the insults and vilification have come from whitefellas who see themselves as out there on their big white horses fighting for the rights of blackfellas. Some of them aren’t exactly sane. But that doesn’t bother her very much. She’s Warlpiri, so she’s a fighter. My wife’s a fighter. If somebody has a go at her, she comes out swinging. She doesn’t sit in a corner cringing,” he says, laughing.

While Alice Springs activist Barbara Shaw has called Price a “puppet” of governments supporting a failed intervention that has caused more distress than it has remedied, Bob Durnan – who arrived in the Northern Territory with Fred Hollows’ eye project in 1977, helped establish the Tangentyere Council and worked on the development of many of the Alice Springs town camp leases between 1978 and 1993 – says Price is unusually brave. “I think this issue of confronting violence and the silence about violence is really important,” Durnan says. “Unfortunately, it is sort of like two trains hurtling in different directions. There are people like Bess, who are trying to cope with the everyday reality of their families in the contemporary world, and there is Malcolm Fraser and Alastair Nicholson tooting the horn, saying: ‘We’ve got to save the Aboriginal culture’.”

Federal indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, asked her opinion of a woman who has supported her agenda while losing faith in the Labor Party, replies: “It’s not always easy for women to stand up and advocate on behalf of their communities. I respect strong women who take on this role.”

Family photographs flicker across a computer screen showing Price from girl to grandmother: with family at Yampirri in the dry heart of Australia, on the Great Wall of China, with Barack Obama and Julia Gillard last year in Darwin. She looks at them and says she is no longer the “naive young Aboriginal girl” she was. She says she wants to go into parliament to give voice to the Warlpiri and the vulnerable. As we part, I remark that in our time together she has never mentioned racism. “I have never faced racism,” she says. “Maybe once, in a clothing shop. But I have never really come across people who say all those things about Aboriginal people. They are our problems, we need to fix them and we are the only people who can do that.”