As he looks out at the sprawling land and horizon, former professional boxer Eugene Eades starts singing.
“I will teach you the old people’s way – then your culture will be back to stay,” he calls melodically.
“You heal me, I’ll heal you.”
Eades has devoted most of his recent life to healing what he calls the “walking wounded”.
For the past decade, he has designed and run programs at Nowanup – a property nestled in wheat country near Albany, 410km southeast of Perth.
Eades, a Noongar elder, says his Healing Land, Healing People program attracts individuals from all walks of life.
“There’s rich and there’s poor, there’s pretty and there’s ugly,” he says.
“They all leave [Nowanup] feeling much better than they came.”
Eades says he has helped heal troubled Aboriginal youths and adults from the Stolen Generation as well as troubled “Wadjela” [white] people too.
He refers to his program as a “bush university” and says it focuses on reconnecting Aboriginal people back to their country, language and culture.
Often, he says, young Aboriginal people come to Nowanup with no knowledge of Noongar language, country or law.
He says these things make up every Aboriginal person’s “cultural toolbox”.
“When colonisation came and government was set up, the toolbox was taken away,” Eades says.
“All the tools have been locked up for a hundred years – we need to start using those tools again.
“So I want to take [Aboriginal people] out there and [teach] them about language, about their totems, … about Noongar law and about the dance of corroboree.
“All those things that are missing from these young people’s lives.”
Eades says when people leave Nowanup they “stand tall and proud”.
“No round shoulders – straight back, square shoulders,” he says.
“Proud because they are singing songs in their language and dancing to the beat. These are the things that are missing from all our young men.”
Youth worker Gary Bonney took a group of young Indigenous people to Nowanup while working for Save the Children in 2013.
Bonney, a Wongi man from the Goldfields region, says Eades connected the group of 11 to 17 year olds back to the concept of country.
“At each particular place he took the young fellas he would tell them a story about that place that linked those young people to those stories, because their families are part of these stories,” Bonney says.
“That was a real eye opener for the young crew.”
Bonney says this was the first time some of the boys had been “out bush”.
He says it’s important to have Indigenous-run justice diversion programs.
“We know what works for our people,” Bonney says.
“The one thing that has always kept us strong is our connection to culture.
“And when there is a loss or disconnection to culture, that’s when things start to fall apart.
“When it’s taken away, that is when people start to lose a sense of identity.”
Eades says he has not received any funding for the work he does at Nowanup.
He says funding would enable him to provide a justice reinvestment program for Aboriginal inmates who are about to be released from prison.
This, he says, would help break the cycle of Aboriginal incarceration.
“When [Aboriginal inmates] are coming up for pre-release programs at the present moment, there is no consideration for Noongar engagement,” Eades says.
“That’s what is missing from the justice cycle now.
“We do it a bit different, but we can almost guarantee the outcome.
Eades says pre-release programs under the “Wadjela” system are “clearly not working for Aboriginal people”.
“What’s happening now with the pre-release programs is that you get your parole and will be told your due date for release,” he says.
“And that there is a plan in place for you and you will be sent to regional TAFE college.
“They are told: ‘Because of your previous offences being drug related, we have made an appointment for you at this place for analysis every Wednesday. Then you have counselling at this place on a Friday every week’.
“But they have never sat down with an inmate and asked what they would like to happen or what would make the biggest difference.
“That is what we would be asking in order to fulfil the dream of this person.”
In a speech delivered earlier this year, WA Chief Justice Wayne Martin said the rate of Aboriginal incarceration in Western Australia was 70 per cent higher than the national rate and radical changes needed to be made.
In his speech, Justice Martin said it cost about $120,000 a year to keep an adult in prison, meaning the state spends about $260 million a year incarcerating Aboriginal adults.
Despite all the money being spent, Justice Martin said the rate of incarceration did not seem to be reducing crime.
He offered a range of short, medium and long-term responses to the problem, including diversion programs “designed, run and presented entirely by Aboriginal people”.
Eades says his dream would be to set up six locations like Nowanup and have 15 inmates at each location for a period of three to 12 months, depending on their personal needs.
He says these programs would save the tax payer money, costing less than it does to keep an inmate in prison for the same amount of time.
Bonney says the justice system needs to undergo a “radical shift in thinking”.
“Clearly things aren’t working,” he says.
“We need to exhaust all of our resources in terms of finding people who can contribute to turning things around.
Eades says cultural awareness will start to be more present in pre-release programs sooner or later.
“Through the goodness of Wadjela people putting up their hands to build partnerships with Noongars for justice reinvestment programs, we will fill the void,” he says.
“I believe that may be the way it will turn out.”
But Eades says whether or not he receives any funding in the future, he will not stop his work at Nowanup.
“I would still want [Nowanup] to be a place we could come to heal our wounded people,” he says.
“I haven’t received a wage for the work I have been doing for the past few years.
“But I see the rewards when families come here and say: ‘Where’s Uncle Eugene? We want to thank him for changing our lives’.
“That means more to me than all the money in the world.
“If that’s the way this place has got to be run, then so be it.
“Because somebody has to do it. It’s a cultural obligation.”
Photos: Rhiannon Shine
Categories: Indigenous affairs