Outstation living at Mirrngadja in central northeast Arnhem Land in the 1960s. This is the pre-wet season camp of the brothers Baiman and Dulultharama, here gathering to sing in memory of a deceased relative in the late afternoon.

The quandary for Aboriginal outstations

Half a century of research into Aboriginal outstations landed an ANU academic in the centre of a political debate. EVANA HO reports.

It was 1966. Nicolas Peterson was at the edge of the Arafura Swamp on the coastline of Arnhem Land and he was fending off mosquitoes. Thousands of them.

Peterson was then living in just one of the Aboriginal outstations where he would stay across his nine months in the area, collecting data for his PhD thesis.

He has a black and white photo of one of those outstations and its residents, blown up large on a wall in his office. The living structure is tent-like in form, but it’s not a makeshift tent.

“That’s a house. It’s the kind of house they’ve used for thousands of years in the period immediately prior to the wet season,” he says.

As the photo on his wall suggests, Peterson’s interest in Aboriginal outstations has not diminished.

Fifty years on, he released a book with his colleague Professor Fred Myers from New York University titled Experiments in self-determination: Histories of the outstation movement in Australia.

It’s not a piece of political advocacy, although it was published at an opportune time.

In September 2014, the Federal Government announced that it would be withdrawing funding for about 180 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

Two months later, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett indicated that he would be passing on these cuts and ceasing to invest in services to any number of remote communities.

This decision will, inevitably, impact Aboriginal outstations, even though remote communities and outstations are not the same.

“Outstations are very small communities of an average of about 20 to 30 people that are established as satellites from a major community of several hundreds, if not thousands of Aboriginal people,” Peterson explains.

He says outstations are largely free of the violence and social problems that plague some remote communities. Barnett has cited these issues in defending his decision.

One of the reasons outstations have managed to avoid these problems is because they comprise such small groups of people – usually a family or two families.

Living as they do, even more isolated from urban centres, they are afforded self-determination.

“They can get a bit more control over their own families, over their own life and interactions with other people,” Peterson says.

That’s partly why he is so interested in outstations.

“In remote Australia, there’s not really the idea of career,” Peterson says.

“It’s quite difficult to see what people want out of life or what their long-term goals are. But outstations are one way in which you can see what some Aboriginal people’s life projects are.”

Talking about the funding cuts and what they mean is a fraught task. While the conversation has tended to coalesce around the word ‘closure’, the WA Government said it isn’t the intention to “force people off their land or prevent them from having access to country”.

The government will, though, discontinue services and infrastructure support to specific communities.

“[Continuing to give] low-level support to the relatively small number of people who want to live in outstations is probably a good cost-benefit,” he says.

[However], there is an equity issue in pouring money into small groups when there are whole communities of 1,000 or more who need more resources.

“But if people choose to live out in those areas then they are making a choice to live with fewer services. Fine, they're free to do that.”

For Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis, an ANU linguist who grew up in the Northern Territory settlement of Docker River, the potential closure of outstations is a serious issue.

As a teen, she used to stay with her family at the Tjukurla outstation, north of Docker River, on weekends.

“Our families went out to the outstations on the weekend,” Ellis says.

“To look after country, to make sure everything was in order. And to practice rituals and ceremonies.”

Ellis says that because there were fewer people at the outstation, this would build stronger relationships.

“You spoke more to the families around you. […] They had more time with you. Therefore you were learning more and doing things together more.”

Living in a larger community was stressful for Ellis as she struggled with the drug and alcohol abuse that other family members have to contend with.

“Outstations and small communities have an important role to play for people who live in bigger communities,” Ellis says.

“People [need] that outlet – going out bush to get away from the stress, even if it's for a moment, a day, then go back, weekends. Outstations and smaller communities are critical for the survival of our society.”

In the wake of Barnett’s announcement, Ellis was among those vocally advocating against community closures.

She organised a protest march in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands community of Wingellina; a march she told the media had been galvanised by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks about remote community-living as being a “lifestyle choice”.

“We don’t make a choice of where to live,” Ellis responds.

“We were living there before white people came to our country. We were living there and then this new age caught up with us.

“We're at home. And it's a hard concept for outsiders to understand. They think it's a choice but it's not.

“For us, it's a cultural obligation; a responsibility that you have to fulfil.”