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Liam Jurrah and Yuendumu

Liam Jurrah’s involvement in a violent incident in an Alice Springs court last week has captivated the Australian media for days. The 23-year-old forward at the Melbourne Football Club recommenced training yesterday, after being granted bail by an Alice Springs court on charges of unlawfully causing serious harm and being armed with an offensive weapon. The weapon is believed to have been a machete, and Jurrah is implicated in an attack that left a 35-year-old man in hospital with serious head injuries. The incident is reported to have been part of ongoing clan disputes that have plagued his home community of Yuendumu, 300km west of Alice Springs, for 18 months. This morning, The Conversation spoke with Jurrah’s biographer and friend Bruce Hearn Mackinnon. Mackinnon is a senior lecturer at Deakin University and hosted Jurrah on his initial move to Melbourne. He details the unique challenges faced by young AFL players relocating from remote communities, the harsh realities and obligations they leave behind, and how the AFL can better support them.

What are the realities that young men from indigenous communities face when making the move to Melbourne?

The first thing that people need to be aware of, particularly in the case of men coming from remote communities, is that language is a major hurdle. It’s not that they can’t speak English. Someone like Liam can speak English, but to have to move himself into a big city such as Melbourne where nobody can converse with him in his native tongue gives an incredible feeling of loneliness. It’s something that’s easy for us to overlook and forget. But imagine if I was dropped in the middle of a village in China where absolutely nobody spoke English. Even though I might have a smattering of Mandarin I would feel lonely. Added to that is that in most Aboriginal cultures, family and extended family networks are essentially what life is all about. Being away from the extended family is a major difficulty that people from remote communities have to cope with.

What are the issues facing remote indigenous communities such as Yuendumu at the moment?

It’s fairly well documented. There are problems of alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and violence more generally. There’s a shocking rate of imprisonment, poor health – in particular kidney and renal failure. These are shocking issues that are regularly mentioned, but they seem to be almost intractable problems that governments have not been able to successfully cope with. It’s a blight on our whole society. There are some specific tribal issues in Yuendumu that have received much media coverage.

 Is Liam’s case a simple matter of tribal conflict?

What we have to realise is we have people who have basically come from an ancient culture, who have all of a sudden been thrust into Western culture, and often people are caught somewhere in the middle. There’s a desperate effort to remain connected to their old traditions, in the case of Liam’s community, the Walpiri tradition, including customary law. But the simple fact is that a lot of those traditions and laws are not really relevant in the modern world, and so you get this conflict, which at times seem unresolvable. One of the other factors people tend to forget is that although we talk about these ancient cultures such as the Walpiri tribe, for thousands of years they never lived in one big community such as Yuendumu. These communities are creations of mainstream society, initially by missions and outstations. It was the Baptists who set up the community of Yuendumu in the 1940s and brought people in from the desert. Their whole culture was based on what was necessary for small family groups in a nomadic society. Their cultural laws and customs were appropriate for that way of life, but they’re not necessarily appropriate for a large community of 800 to 1,000 people living together and that’s what we’ve now got: this conflict, which they’re still trying to cope with.

Liam has been frequently referred to as a Walpiri elder. Is that accurate?

 That’s complete nonsense. Part of the problem is that people who have a little bit of information think they know more than they do. Liam Jurrah is a fully initiated Walpiri man, and he is considered to be leader in his community, basically as a youth leader helping young people and providing assistance in youth work. For that reason, he was awarded the Northern Territory Young Australian of the Year in 2010. But he is not an elder. Elders are primarily the old people in a community who are considered leaders, and maybe one day in the future Liam will become an elder in that community. But to say he is now is complete nonsense.

What kind of responsibilities come with the position he does have, as an initiated man and a leader in his community?

To be honest I’m an outsider to the community and unless you are of the Walpiri tribe and you have been initiated yourself, you can’t really understand the full implications of the obligations that come with being initiated. It is very clear, however, that Liam and all of the young men in Yuendumu who go through the process of initiation are imbued with a strict sense of obligation and responsibility. In most remote Aboriginal communities it tends to be focused on your family and clan obligations. On one level that can be a wonderful support network for people, but my own view is that it can also be a negative because it means people unquestioningly have to take sides in disputes, because they are obligated under Walpiri law to support their “mob”, if you like. Those issues are some of the issues that the community has been dealing with over the past 18 months with ongoing clan disputes.

Is there enough support for young indigenous players from remote communities from the AFL?

Liam was the first man from a really genuinely remote community to become an AFL player and that’s why his story is so remarkable, and why I wrote the book about him. But since then, two or three other young men have been recruited. There’s been a lot of talk about whether AFL clubs need to have indigenous officers working for them, but I’m of the view that they don’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of having an Aboriginal person working at a club. It’s about somebody, whoever it is, taking the time and the effort to engage with the community and the family the club has recruited a player from. It’s about developing a genuine relationship and an emotional connection with their community and their family, and that person doesn’t have to be indigenous to do that. It’s about making the effort. If that’s done and it’s done genuinely, and it does require resources, its benefits to the players, the football clubs and the wider community can be terrific.

What does need to be done to help resolve this situation?

One of the things that’s been lost in all of this, putting aside Liam’s individual case, is the tragedy in Yuendumu. Over the past 18 months the whole community has been fractured and divided. The Yuendumu Football Club was the jewel in Central Australia. It won five premierships in six years from 2003-2008 and was easily the best football team in the whole of Central Australia. But for the last two years Yuendumu hasn’t had a football team because of the divisions in the community. What that has meant is the young people of that community have not had the opportunity to make pathways, and the next generation of Liam Jurrahs haven’t been able to come through. I would hope that governments, whether it’s the Northern Territory government or the Federal government, and those with positions of authority in this country and significant resources, will be more proactive in trying to assist the community to resolve this dispute for the betterment of all the people of Yuendumu.

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