It’s 10am on Monday morning, and Yiriman Project co-ordinator Scott Herring is squinting at a scorching grid of dusty red streets through his Land Cruiser’s windscreen. This is Bidyadanga, Western Australia’s largest Aboriginal community. In the passenger seat beside Scott is Celia Bennett, an Aboriginal elder of the Karajarri people and traditional owner of this country.
Scott and Celia are trying to rouse nine kids out of bed for the first day of a ‘Caring for Country’ program. For the next six weeks these low-attendance students will go on trips ‘out bush’ with senior community members to learn about their country and culture, but this morning, the program is off to a difficult start. Many of these kids were out roaming the streets all night searching for something to do, and today, the temperature is soaring to a maximum of 43 degrees. They’re reluctant to leave their air-conditioned rooms.
Statistically, these kids are more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the world. Studies show the rates of Aboriginal suicide across the Kimberley are six times the national rate, and nearly double the highest country rate of Guyana. In 15 years, 40 reports have been produced on Indigenous youth suicide in the region - including three major coronial inquiries - but of countless recommendations and proposed resolutions, few have had any lasting impact.
Yiriman is widely regarded as one of the most successful models in tackling the crisis. This is a community owned program, run and managed on Aboriginal terms by elders like Celia Bennett. Most of the participants have been referred by concerned parents and grandparents, and each program is moulded by ongoing community direction. Ms Bennett – whose granddaughter is also a participant in the program – says Yiriman is one of few implemented practices that actually works.
“This is our community. If we’re going to build it up, it needs to come from us. Being out on country, it makes us feel alive. This is how we show our young people the way,” she says.
“This keeps them out of trouble, taking them out camping, fishing. We teach them stories, so one day they can pass those stories on to their kids. It’s fun, and good for them. It’s good for me too. This makes me so proud.”
The Yiriman Project is small. It subsists on modest funding of around $350,000 per year, provided mostly by private donors and philanthropic organisations. The state Department of Corrective Services provide a small amount of funding, but despite recommendations by the State Coroner and Auditor General, the WA government’s long term commitment to the project remains unclear. Co-ordinator Scott Herring says Yiriman is chronically underfunded, and in a constant struggle to survive.
“Some people struggle to believe what we’re doing is actually working,” Mr Herring says.
“We really need the government to have faith in what we’re doing and invest in Indigenous models of governance. This is cultural; the elders might speak different, sound different, and might not look like what you would expect, but this is serious business. The kids are doing real work, and this is where the elders teach. Yiriman is their bush school.”
Mr Herring is dismissive of bureaucratic intervention, and says past government policies have not been culturally relevant and ignored the underlying problems that have led to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse as well as suicide.
“It’s quite simple really. If you’re going to build the community up, it has to come from within the community. There is no good enforcing ideas from Canberra that bear no semblance to what is needed in the community and on the ground.
“What we’re doing is about building resilience. A good analogy I like to use is that it’s like tempering steel. You take the kids out and build them up, little bit little. Indigenous culture is one of the most resilient cultures – they’ve survived over a thousand generations – but on an individual level, there are not a lot of coping mechanisms, because of years of dispossession and disempowerment. This is about taking them back, and linking them back to that culture and that resilience. It’s about cultural solutions to contemporary problems.”
Its lunchtime when the kids arrive at the ranger base, but the day is only just beginning. We’re at the tail end of the dry season and a large bush fire is burning near the community. In the relative cool of the afternoon, two rangers head out to fight the fire alongside emergency services and local pastoralists. They’re accompanied by five boys from the program.
Working as a ranger is a highly desirable option for many young Aboriginal people living in remote communities. The boys’ excitement is palpable. Ultimately, working alongside the rangers will equip these kids with the skills and experience the job demands, but for now, it’s enough to feel valued and part of something.
The Yiriman Project has been running for 17 years. It began in 2000 at Jarlmadangah, a remote community 120km from Derby in the West Kimberley. Elders became increasingly concerned over substance abuse and self-harm by young people in the community and decided to take action. The miscreants were taken ‘out bush’ for 10 days. When they returned the problems ameliorated, and the elders realised the power of culture to heal their young people.
With the support of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, the project has expanded across cognate language groups to include the entire Southern Kimberley law block. Aboriginal elders across the Kimberley have expressed their desire for similar on country projects, but the geographic and cultural focus remains on the original four language groups.
After six weeks, the program in Bidyadanga is complete. All participants graduate in a ceremony at an important cultural site; attended by elders, rangers, local police, and school teachers. Since the conclusion of the program, La Grange Remote Community School Principal, Bronwyn Wright says she has seen a marked improvement in attendance and wider community engagement.
“We’ve already seen some of these kids coming back to school and wanting to re-engage,” Ms Wright says.
“Yiriman is a great opportunity for them to get involved in something positive, and break the cycle of disengagement. The hands on nature of it, that’s where its success lies. Kids feel that sense of self-worth because they’re contributing. There is a definite positive change, and it’s great to see these kids mature and start taking responsibility for themselves.”