When the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) asked me to take part in a field trip to the remote indigenous communities of the Tiwi Islands, I didn’t hesitate to accept. Since its inception in 2004, everyone in the Australian book industry has been keen to support this important charitable organisation in their efforts to improve levels of literacy in remote indigenous communities. Presented with this fantastic opportunity to see how the ILF went about their work first hand, and to witness the positive impact of more books in schools, how could I say no!
The ILF organise five field trips a year, including one major ambassador trip when they take along writers, artists, singers and authors to work with kids in remote schools on literacy projects that incorporate storytelling through painting, writing or song writing. Two or three representatives from the book industry also go along on each trip to support the various daily projects and to take stories of their time with the ILF back to the industry. On this trip, cartoonist Dave Hackett, Magabala Books’ artists and illustrators Fern Martin and Norma MacDonald and musician and educator Chris Aitken were joined by Kristin Gill from Penguin/Random House, Emily Harms from Readings and me. ILF director Karen Williams and Program Manager Tina Raye led the field trip.
Our eclectic group all met at Darwin Airport and made our way to the Territory Air Service, perhaps the smallest airline in the world. With much excitement we boarded three very small planes. The 19-minute flight took us over 80 kilometres of some of the bluest sea I have ever seen. So tempting for swimming but only the foolish would take a dip as it is full of crocodiles. August is the height of the dry season in the Northern Territory, so we landed on an airstrip of red dust, and stepped out into the hot air and dry bush of Melville Island. The Tiwi College principal, Ian Smith, welcomed us and drove us the small distance to where we would be staying for the visit. The college collects their students from all over both islands on Monday mornings and the kids stay in family group homes for the school week and then head back to their own homes and families on Fridays. Tiwi College is the only high school on Melville Island.
We arrived on a quiet Monday, a public holiday, and settled in before Ian and Tiwi cultural representative Greg Ortso gave us an overview of the college and Tiwi Island culture. It was fascinating to learn about the complex inter-tribal rules about relationships. Bloodlines, skin groups and country reveal how every indigenous person on the Tiwi Islands relates to every other person. This understanding and sense of place and belonging is developed and learnt from birth and is hugely important to everyone. It became very clear that ignoring inter-tribal relationships in the past has had a negative impact on educational success in the Tiwi Islands. Addressing this has had a positive impact.
An hour from Tiwi College, to the north, is the community of Milikapiti. It’s a pretty substantial community with a school, day care centre, clinic, shop and art and cultural centre. There used to be a police station, but no one has wanted to be posted in Milikapiti for the past four years. As a result, the Land Council have been given additional powers and the community effectively polices itself. The Land Council have created safe houses for both men and women within the community.
When I visited the preschool I learned that Milikapiti is famous for their ‘big piggie’. ‘Big piggie’ is a local pet and happily wanders about the community, like a roaming dog. The small preschool class was filled with 4 and 5 year olds and, like pre-schoolers all around Australia, they were quick to laugh and ready to play. The kids were learning to trace and were quite keen to share the results of their hard work. I was interested to see that a young boy named Kelvin’s tracing included lots of dots and I wondered if he had learnt about dot paintings at the cultural centre or from his family. Chris Aitken got the kids singing and dancing, which was great fun, for them and for us, and helped the class create a song about animals. Here I saw books donated by ILF in action. For two weeks, the Milikapiti pre-schoolers read and learn to treasure a touch-and-feel book donated through the ILF program, which they then take home to read with their families. It was obvious the kids loved their books and I also learned that these books may very well be the first books in their family home.
A mobile bush library or reading nook was set up under a tree and we were able to read with kids of all ages through recess. There is something magical about reading books out loud and kids plonking themselves down on a picnic blanket to listen and then ask to hear more.
Fern Martin introduced a class of ten-to-twelve year olds to some seriously impressive painting techniques and storytelling through illustration. There were sighs and gasps of wonder as Fern created a palm tree with a few clever brushstrokes. A class of eight and nine year olds joined in Fern’s painting session after about the first hour, and some of the challenges faced by teachers of small classes that span several years in age became immediately apparent. The kids were incredibly bright, but worked at different speeds, which meant that one child could be finished and looking for direction on the next step while another had spent that time watching and was yet to engage in the project. One incredibly bright boy told me that he painted whenever he was bored. He also told me he was bored a lot. When he felt that he had done enough with Fern’s class, he disengaged and became quite disruptive but I really enjoyed his rather inquisitive and direct questioning and could see his behaviour was because his attention had wavered.
At the end of our session, the whole school gathered for a book giveaway. Every student was invited to select a book to take home, along with an ILF T-shirt and bag. All the books supplied by the ILF are selected by a panel of book industry experts to ensure that there is a selection relevant to the children. There were many bestselling and popular books for the kids to choose from, as well as a great number of indigenous picture books and storybooks.
After saying goodbye to the kids and a visit to the community shop for some cold drinks to ease the heat of the afternoon, our group headed to the Jilamara Arts & Crafts Association for a tour of the galleries, museum and working studios. Our tour guides were Tiwi elders and artists and they walked us through the artworks explaining the local materials and key themes of Tiwi storytelling. There are men’s and women’s studios, kitted out to enable some seriously wonderful work. But this was not just somewhere to create and sell paintings and sculptures, Jilamara is also the cultural hub of the community, a place where elders can share stories with the young and various significant rituals can take place. The chance to spend time with the elders and learn more about their own stories as well as the stories of the Tiwi Islands was pretty special and one of the highlights of a trip I will never forget.
That evening, the ILF team hosted dinner for the teachers of Tiwi College, which included vegetables and salad freshly picked from the college’s extensive vegetable garden. The meal was delicious. During dinner, the teachers shared their experiences of working in a remote location and it was interesting to hear about their successes as well as the challenges they face.
The next morning was the ultimate highlight of the trip for me. Hachette Australia will be welcoming the senior girls from Tiwi College to our offices in Sydney in November to support their efforts to create a book. This was my chance to meet the girls and gain a better understanding of how we could make their time in Sydney as wonderful and as inspiring as possible.
The morning was spent taking in the editorial corrections for their current work, the story of Mia, a Tiwi Island teenage girl. Each girl in the class read a page of the book and, as they read, a quite brilliant story unfolded. Mia’s story is probably an amalgamation of all their stories; the challenges they face getting to school, their passion for sport and their connections to family. Some of their descriptions were incredibly vivid. I particularly loved ‘flowers as soft as jelly beans.’ The editorial process was great to be involved in and it really encouraged the girls to think about the reader they hoped to connect with and brainstorm for just the right word or sentence to properly express what they wanted to say. After a quiet start, the discussions became quite animated, particularly after a game of charades, played through a phone app. I am sorry to report I was quite rubbish when I had my turn, which the girls seemed to find rather entertaining.
Sadly, that was when my visit ended but, as I took off in an even smaller plane back to the mainland, I realised that my perceptions of remote indigenous communities had changed. I had met some amazing people and some truly great kids, and although there are many issues still to be faced by the island communities, I saw hope, humour and a determination to protect the Tiwi culture in everyone I met. Most of all, I witnessed a fierce determination to nurture and support their kids through reading and education, something often missing from the news coverage about indigenous communities we see in the media.
Perhaps one day, when literacy levels in remote indigenous communities match those in urban Australia, the work of the ILF won’t be necessary. Until then, I hope they can continue to expand their excellent program to every remote community in the country and that the publishing industry continues to be a passionate supporter of this brilliant initiative.