Papunya – Arrival

“When the white people came to Australia, they brought with them white people’s technology” commented Blair McFarland, leader of the Caylus Anti drug, alcohol and volatile substances project in Alice Springs. 

As we walked though some scrub, he pointed out various trees and plants that to local people is the food garden. “So when the whitefellas used shovels to plant food, which didn’t grow, the locals just thought “why bother, look around, everything you need is provided by the land, it’s always been here”, and sat down to watch. The whitefellas generally concluded they locals were lazy and ignorant and carried on with their technology, with little real successwhich almost saw the colony wiped out.

That’s the thing about the culture in the remote communities, technology is still largely provided as a shovel. Whitefellas have devised numerous reasons to need technology out in the red centre. Schools use it to teach computer skills, and the government uses it to make the people fill out online forms of various types – usually related to other technologies such as money and banking in the post Intervention era.
Blair tells me a story about some people who came out with digital cameras. Their idea was to get the Papunya locals to make digital stories about food. They spent some time explaining how cameras work and how to put them on the computer (not bothering to find out if they knew already). The people are kind and accommodating, so would sat patiently while everything was explained in detail. Finally, they were told to go and make a digital story about local cooking for the day and meet back later. The locals of course make stories about how to make a hamburger and fish and chips to the amazement of the camera bringers who concluded that in the community, these people no longer used ‘bush’ ingredients and methods to cook and had become westernised.
“What they didn’t understand is that ‘bush’ cooking was public domain knowledge, everyone knows how to do it, and therefore has little value. To cook a hamburger was secret knowledge as not everyone knew the ingredients, methods and what to choose from the shop. This knowledge therefore had a higher value and was worth documenting.” concluded Blair.
So this was lesson one in Alice. A gentle warning about the week ahead.