Following the curves of shadows along the rock face we arrived at our destination. The red earth around the small pool of water, although undisturbed, had a sense of inviting, calling us to come and take a seat. In its purest form, we were being welcomed to country. To the land of the Anangu people, and the home of Uluru.
A bump in the red road drew my attention to a crooked sign bursting out of the red earth. The community of Mutijulu had ‘Restricted Entry’, but we had been granted permission under unique circumstances. As we made our way into the dry, dusty main street it became apparent how unique those circumstances were as every eye tracked our Jeep as it rolled by the small, corrugated houses. There were old cars rusting in the unforgiving sun, and every surface was lightly brushed with the rich red sand.
The months of excitement and anticipation leading up to this trip quickly dissipated into dread as we felt the enormous weight of the ongoing conflict between Indigenous and modern Australians consume us. Standing there in our ironed white shirts and shiny new boots, the ‘gap’ had never been so huge.
There were a few awkward exchanges as we entered the Childhood Centre. Not sure where to stand or put our hands, we felt every move being watched by the group of mothers gathering at the other end of the room. It was the children that eventually broke the silence. Despite the colour of our skin or the language that we spoke, we quickly discovered that a smile is universal. As we were dragged into the playground, our white shirts were quickly splashed with red dust, and the barriers started to crumble.
And so the learning began. We were not there to fix or change their ways, but to learn just as much as we taught. Indigenous children are reared quite differently to you or me. And there is a lot to learn from it. They don’t recognise nuclear families the same way we do, and believe they are taught by the earth and the spirits that inhabit it. If a child was not looking where they were running, we were not to warn them, nor fuss over them when they ultimately fell. Instead, the earth that scraped their knee would teach them, and the experience would be one they’d learn from.
A few days into our stay, the supervisor at the Childcare Centre changed. While Michelle had grown up in community, Nicole was raised in urban Queensland; the daughter of a teacher and pharmacist. Instantly I noticed a different style with the kids. The days became more structured, the rules more regulated, and our interaction more detached. To me, this simple experience spoke volumes to the greater struggle of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. That is not to say that one approach is better or worse than the other, but simply recognising that they are not the same, and also need not be.
But aside from this past, from this history that weighs more heavily on my core the more I learn of it, I saw a silver lining. Each day when we drove into the closed community, we were greeted with shining smiles. Aside from this past that had broken families, lost stories, and deprived many of their culture, they still smiled. They were willing to share their secrets to finding native ‘lollies’ on the trees, and creating paint from the earth, and they begged us to teach them how to play games and sing songs from our childhood.
It was on the last day, however, when one of the kids, balancing on a low-hanging branch, slipped and fell. Resisting my habitual urge to race to his side, it took me a second to register his mother actually gesturing to me across the yard to go and comfort him.
In spite of all that existed between our cultures, through the smallest act she managed to make me feel a part of something so utterly genuine and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced again. She lifted a weight from my shoulders and changed something in my very core.