We have been in Broome all of five minutes, waiting for our bags at the tiny tin-roofed airport, when my eight-year-old daughter, Cameron, makes her first sighting. ‘There’s one,’ she hisses excitedly to her older brother, tugging at his arm. ‘Come on, Dec – let’s go over and look.’
Always the more cautious of the two, my son shifts his small backpack from one shoulder to the other and rubs his nose thoughtfully. ‘Nah,’ he finally answers, though I can tell he’s tempted. ‘Mum wouldn’t like it. We better stay here.’
I’ve been scanning the conveyor belt, searching for our luggage, but I turn at this exchange to see what they’re talking about. A gecko, maybe, or some other kind of foreign fauna. I am ready to shoo them off, to encourage their interest in their new environment, until I follow my daughter’s gaze and discover not a lizard, not a bird or a flower or a fruit, but an elderly Aboriginal man sweeping the waiting area.
‘He’s really black, isn’t he, Mummy?’ asks my daughter loudly. ‘Can I go up and look at him?’
Embarrassed, I only just resist the urge to clap my hand over her mouth. The woman standing next to us gives me a tight-lipped smile as she locates her case and moves away. Wait, I want to call after her, let me explain. Though, of course, I don’t. In my daughter’s eye, the Aboriginal cleaner is as exotic as an elephant. Actually, I reflect as I lug our bags to a taxi, in her short life she’s seen far more elephants.
Broome is located in the far north-west of Australia, well above the Tropic of Capricorn and almost as far as you can go without falling off the map. It is a place of vivid and vibrant colour: red earth, white sand, turquoise water, the green of the mangroves, the glitter of the sun. Travel brochures invariably advertise the area using pictures of camel trains on Cable Beach at sunset, and it’s true that this is a lovely sight. But Broome is so much more: the ochre cliffs at Gantheaume Point, the streets lined with frangipani and mango trees, the long, low verandahs of the old pearling masters’ houses, the wet-season storms crackling across the night sky.
My husband and I made the decision to move to Broome for a year on a bit of a whim. He had a large slab of annual and longservice leave that his employers were anxious for him to take; we had holidayed in the region previously and were enchanted by its beauty and climate. The timing was perfect, he enthused as he laid out his plan: having just signed my second novel, I could put my regular job as a neuropsychologist on hold for a bit and concentrate on my writing; our two children, both at primary school, were old enough not just to cope with the change but to benefit from it. We could see the National Heritage-listed Kimberley with them, he argued, though I didn’t need much convincing. They’d go to school up north, be immersed in a different culture; we’d get out from under our over- scheduled lives and actually spend some time together as a family before they turned into teenagers and disowned us. Within two days he had found us a house in Broome; within two weeks I had given notice at work and told the children what we were doing.
They were both excited by the idea. When I opened up the atlas to show Cameron where Broome was in relation to our home in Melbourne, she studied the map for a good few minutes. ‘It’s a long way,’ she finally pronounced, tracing with her finger the vast diagonal from the bottom right to the top left of Australia. ‘Will it be different from here?’
‘It will be hotter,’ I told her, ‘and your school will be bigger. There’ll be a lot more kids, and some of them will be Aboriginal.’
My son’s ears pricked up. ‘Cool,’ he said. ‘Will they have spears?’
Sadly, it was a genuine question. Growing up in one of those suburbs frequently described by real-estate agents as ‘leafy’, neither of my children had ever come in contact with an Aboriginal Australian. Questioning elicited that Declan’s understanding of Aboriginal culture extended to ‘they’re really good at AFL’, some stuff about corroborees and the Dreamtime that he’d been taught in Grade Four, and two viewings of Crocodile Dundee. Cameron’s understanding was even more limited. Nonetheless, they received the news about their new school with gusto.
‘I’m going to make friends with the Aboriginal boys so we can play footy and hunt lizards,’ announced Declan.
‘I’ll look so different that all the kids will want to be friends with me,’ declared Cameron, with the vanity of the only blonde in a family of brunettes.
The reality, however, is somewhat different. During our first few days in Broome my children concoct a game: to say ‘hello’ to every Aboriginal we pass in the street or at the beach. The great majority return the greeting or even pre-empt it, teeth flashing like lanterns against dark skin. Then one morning an elderly man tells my son to Fuck off, whitey. A week later Cameron is punched in the shoulder at the local markets after inadvertently cutting in front of an Aboriginal teen. The game stops, and the questions begin.
‘How come they drink so much, Dad?’
‘Why didn’t that man like us?’
‘Don’t they have to go to work?’
I cringe at they. In Declan and Cameron’s eyes – and increasingly, I have to admit, my own – the community is cleaving into two distinct groups: those who go to work or school like we do, who are clothed and clean and fed, and those with grubby singlets and unwashed hair, who sprawl all day under the boab trees on the oval next to the shopping centre, encircled by barking dogs and runny- nosed toddlers.
Homelessness, alcoholism and unemployment are ‘rampant’ in Broome, in the words of the Shire President. The park near our house frequently features groups of men and women either sleeping off a bender or commencing another; television advertisements screened during the afternoon cartoons implore Aboriginal mothers to give up drugs during their pregnancies. What my children don’t see, however, are the Aboriginal people who do have jobs, or are off fishing, or are in homes like ours. We try to explain this to them, but I fear the die is cast. In their eyes, it’s simply black and white.
Of course, these issues are complex and rooted in history. The Kimberley was once one of the most densely populated areas of Indigenous Australia, comprising over 30,000 natives with 50 distinct language groups. In Broome, the resident tribes were the Yawaru and the Djuleun, ‘a quiet, inoffensive people’ wrote Hugh Edwards in Port of Pearls (1983), who hunted the muddy mangrove flats and lived on shellfish and crabs. At their first encounter with white men the Djuleun people are reported to have hidden in trees, hoping the intruders would go away.
The intruders, however, had discovered the oyster beds that for a time would make Broome the world’s largest producer of mother-of-pearl, then highly in demand for its use in buttons and ornamental inlay. In contrast to almost every other region of Australia, there was no armed conflict between the two races, largely because the pearlers looked to the sea rather than the land. Nevertheless, the native population was swiftly depleted – captured and forced into diving for shells in a practice known as ‘blackbirding’.
Despite not being seafarers, the Broome Aboriginals were found to be excellent skindivers, able to retrieve shells ‘in their bare pelts’ from depths of up to 12 metres. As such, they were swiftly exploited. A 1904 West Australian Royal Commission into ‘The Administration of Aborigines and the Condition of the Natives of the North-West’ found that pearlers were able to ‘work blacks without a contract (or) wages’, to punish them at will, and had no responsibility if they fell ill or were injured, as divers often were. High levels of ‘drunkenness, prostitution and … loathsome disease’ among the Djuleun and Yuwaru people were remarked upon, as was the fact that over 50 per cent of Aboriginal children from 10 years of age were indentured to the pearling industry and taken out on boats.
A further Royal Commission in 1935–36 gave local authorities the power to take Aboriginal people into custody and retain them without trial or appeal; to destroy the camps and homes of whole tribes and confine them instead on reserves; and to take Aboriginal children from their parents and place them in state care. Individuals were not permitted to work or travel without a permit, to own land, drink or vote, and ‘need not be paid wages for work’. These restrictions are particularly noteworthy given that Broome at this time was the only town in the country exempt from the ‘White Australia’ policy. While the Japanese divers brought in to work the deep-sea beds were given grudging respect and permitted to drink, gamble, run businesses and buy property, the native population was either shunned or abused.
Today, Indigenous Australians comprise 36 per cent of the population of Broome. At the school where my children are enrolled the numbers are higher, with around 55 per cent of students coming from Aboriginal families. For Declan and Cameron, the contrast with their previous starkly white classrooms is marked. ‘The boys play footy barefoot,’ Declan tells me in tones of awe at the end of his first week, then adds that ‘only the white girls’ actually bother with shoes at all. He is also impressed by the way teams are decided at lunchtime: ‘It’s blacks down one end and whiteys at the other.’ The teachers don’t do it that way in sports class, he admits when I probe, but then shrugs and says that they should, because it’s easier: ‘That way, everyone knows which side they’re on.’
At school assemblies, my children sing Advance Australia Fair accompanied by a didgeridoo, and recite ‘Welcome to Country’, a proclamation acknowledging the traditional owners of the land. They learn about the local Lurujarri song line in cultural studies, and have a special week set aside each term to focus on reconciliation issues and action.
I am thrilled that they are being exposed to such things, and by the unexpected resources this state school has access to due to their large Aboriginal population. Each classroom has a smart board and a bank of shiny PCs; free, cooked breakfasts are provided every morning for anyone who wants them; free dental examinations and treatment are carried out via a mobile surgery.
Cameron comes home one day carrying three brand- new books – worth at least $60 in total – and informs me that she is allowed to keep them. I check with her teacher and find that this is part of the ‘Books in Homes’ program aimed at encouraging literacy in disadvantaged areas, and that both children will be able to choose nine new books over the course of the year. And if that’s not enough, free after- school sports programs followed by a meal are provided for all children from Grade Two up, a local initiative designed to both improve nutrition and decrease obesity rates.
My children make the most of this unexpected munificence, yet quickly realise such programs are in place for a reason. ‘Our reading groups are a bit like footy,’ Declan remarks over dinner after a month at his new school. ‘The black kids go on one side of the room, the whites on the other.’ Reading groups, I learn, are streamed by ability. In Declan’s Grade Five class, the lower two groups are comprised solely of Aboriginal students, some reading three or more years below their expected level. This division is replicated in Cameron’s class, and almost uniformly across maths and spelling groups for both year levels.
The problem, a former teacher at the school informs me, isn’t aptitude but attitude. Formal learning carries little status for a proportion of the Aboriginal population, she explains, and a number of families fail to enforce or even encourage their children’s attendance at school.
After coming over to play with Declan one Sunday, an Aboriginal classmate mentions casually that he won’t be at school tomorrow. ‘I don’t feel like it,’ he says. True to his word, the boy is absent the next day, and I suddenly understand the attendance awards handed out each week at school assembly, something I thought a bit of a joke when I first arrived. Of course, a number of Aboriginal children swap between schools when their family decide to visit relatives or attend gatherings elsewhere in the state – go Walkabout, to use the vernacular. Last term, three children left Cameron’s class in this way, while four new ones arrived.
Poverty, too, impacts on school performance. At a meeting with Cameron’s teacher I hear that four or five of the Aboriginal students in her grade often fail to show up because they are embarrassed at not having the right uniform, or extras such as a library bag or a full set of pencils. One eight-year-old boy hadn’t attended for three days in the previous week, he’d told her, because there had been no food in the fridge at home and he was scared the other children would make fun of him at lunchtime when he had nothing to eat.
I catch a glimpse of this for myself when I drop one of Declan’s friends home after a school event. No one is there, but the Aboriginal girl is unconcerned and tells me that the house will be open. It is. I take her in and am quietly horrified by the lack of furniture, the state of disrepair of the few appliances, the holes in the kitchen lino, the broken windows. I hustle my kids back outside, into the car, as Declan starts asking me why Tia has to share a bed with her sister. A dark-skinned child kicking at a beer can on the nature strip snarls at my daughter, ‘What are you looking at, cunt face?’ I drive away as quickly as I can.
It’s difficult explaining all this to my children. My husband and I have talked with them about the Stolen Generations, about injustice and racism and blackbirding, yet still their questions stump us.
‘How’s it going to change, Mum?’ Declan asked on the way home from Tia’s house.
The resources and the programs and the reconciliation weeks are a start, but there is still such a vast divide between the black and white cultures at the school, in this community.
After three months in Broome, my children no longer say hello to every Aboriginal person they pass in the street. Instead they stick close to us, their glances and whispers reflecting both fear and pity, sometimes even contempt. The change in their attitude saddens and disappoints me.
And then we go to the local pool. It’s a Saturday afternoon at the end of the wet season. The weather is hot and sultry, but the beach is closed because a tourist has collapsed after a jellyfish sting. My kids are desperate to swim, so I take them to the Broome recreation centre. To our delight, we find it has a giant inflatable set-up in the outside pool, and Declan and Cameron run to take their place in the queue. Our local pool in Melbourne had one, and the kids know the rules: one child at a time, no bouncing, tripping or pushing, and wait until the person on the inflatable is safely in the water before the next one commences.
But that’s not how it works here. The first time Declan steps on to the slippery plastic he is bounced from behind and sent straight into the water. Cameron makes it to the first obstacle – a small hill she has to crawl over – before a child scrambling past upsets her balance and sends her flying. Outraged, both children look immediately to the lifeguard for their transgressors to be punished and their turns reinstated. He just laughs and continues to spray the inflatable, sending both of them back to the end of the line. With a sinking heart I realise that every other child waiting with them is black; that the lifeguard is Aboriginal also.
Their second try is much the same. Cameron is pushed and falls; Declan doesn’t even make it to the first hill before another child trips him. I sit on the sidelines, wondering if I should intervene. I don’t want to make a fuss, but this isn’t fair. The rules have changed, and no one has told my kids. Then Cameron takes matters into her own hands. Always the more tenacious of the two, the next time she is pushed, she pushes back, somehow clinging to her inflatable perch and knocking her assailant into the water. He grins up at her with a whole-faced smile, then swims to the side. For the first time, she makes it to the end, then turns and yells encouragement to her brother.
I have no desire to turn this into some sort of reconciliation fable. My family and I are still trying to understand Broome, still coming to grips with the dichotomy of its stunning natural beauty and its stunting divisions. It seems to me, though, that respect and understanding have a big role to play in any dialogue, any interaction, between the two cultures here, and that sometimes either or both sides might also need to adjust their rules and expectations, to push or give a little.
In 2010, the West Australian government signed off on Australia’s largest native title deal to date, restoring ownership of over 5300 square kilometres of land in and around Broome to the Yawuru people. The Rubibi claim, as it is known, is worth around 200 million dollars, with some of the land earmarked for commercial development and the remainder to be used for housing, cultural and heritage conservation. Aboriginal elders have warned that the former is not to come at the expense of the latter. The manner in which this is managed will be both a reflection and a test of relationships between the traditional owners and the local authorities and community. I will watch with interest, but my family, I find, has already learned that only one thing is certain: nothing is black and white.