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Peter Yu delivers powerful calls to action at #LowitjaConf2019

Introduction by Croakey: A senior Yawuru man, Peter Yu, has issued a warning about the impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health from racism that is again on the rise, “like the influenza of social ills, constantly mutating and finding new hosts”.

CEO of the Broome-based Nyamba Buru Yawuru Aboriginal Corporation, Yu called on health services, research centres and others working in Indigenous health and wellbeing to step up into the political impasse on the Uluru Statement of the Heart and uphold its principles in their work.

He said any program or policy that seeks to improve Indigenous health but “denies the centrality” of four key values – identity as a people, territorial lands and waters, language and culture – “will be doomed to failure”.

Yu won a standing ovation and his name trended nationally for hours on Twitter on Tuesday after he delivered the opening keynote speech to the Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference in Darwin, on Larrakia Nation land.

The three-day event is being attended by more than 750 mostly Indigenous health researchers from across Australia, and the globe, including Bhutan, Canada, Hawaii, Indonesia, Nepal, Aotearoa/New  Zealand, the Philippines and the United States.

Delegates also heard welcome speeches from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO and Lowitja Institute chair Pat Anderson AO, and were also given a message and call to further action on Indigenous health from Lowitja Institute patron and namesake Lowitja O’Donoghue.

With the conference marking the UN Year of Indigenous Languages, Yu also talked about efforts to revive Yawuru language in the Kimberley after it was devastated during “mission era assimilation”, leaving only 10 people in his community able to speak it fluently by the 1980s.

“Losing these languages equates to the destruction of the world’s libraries,” he said. “It is to human thought and creativity what destroying the Amazon is to biodiversity.”

Yu is also chair of the Indigenous Reference Group to the Northern Ministerial Forum and signalled his intention to look beyond Canberra to Indonesia to build critical financial independence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Below is an edited extract of his speech, republished here with permission.

Yu also spoke to Summer May Finlay after his address. Watch the interview below and also listen to an interview with ABC Radio National.


Peter Yu writes:

Ngayu nilawarl Peter Yu, Yawuru ngany wamba ngangan Rubibigab.

Gala mabu jalinyji gurranyan ngayu burungan junggarrayirr nyambagun.

Ngayuni ngabindan nyambagun.

My name is Peter Yu, I am a Yawuru man from Broome

Thank you for welcoming me to your country here.

It is an honour to be here.

I want to start by addressing an issue that we see raising its ugly head on a more frequent basis than we would all like.

The issue is of course racism and its detrimental and insidious effect on us, our health and our country.

In considering the dismal state of Aboriginal health in this country, and in our failure to address it convincingly, we must be mindful always of the shadowy presence of racism. At the same time we must not succumb or be lured to a false sense of security and comfortability in the incremental nature of relative change.

Structural violence

I would define racism up front in today’s context as all pervasive in its systematic exclusion and structural discrimination.

It is an agile phenomenon, characterised by how it turns, shifts shape and emerges out of unexpected shadows.

It has a capacity to coalesce and to find solidarity in poisonous people, to manifest where fear and disenfranchisement co-exist.

And we see it again on the rise in Australia, in new ways, and in response to different perceptions of threat.

It cannot be quelled by a singular policy statement, or an institutional response or even by an election result.

It has no universal prophalytic, no vaccination or immunisation or moment of extinction. It is like the influenza of social ills, constantly mutating and finding new hosts.

The racism I’m talking about is not the booing that Adam Goodes copped, although that is emblematic of the story. But it is deeply embedded in the Australian nation state which violently imposed a western world on 60,000 years of indigenous societies. The beneficiaries of that violence have never come close to compensating Indigenous people for that history.

Neither in the nation’s response to Mabo, nor in other national milestones, can we yet discern the dismantling of the systems of structural violence, nor the legacy of dispossession and genocide.

That structural violence is demonstrated by our continuing and appalling health profile; mass imprisonment, youth suicides, and economic and social deprivation.

“We need empowerment”

Medical professionals and researchers do a great job at the front line with Aboriginal people – But as Pat Anderson once observed, in referring to why western medicine can only go so far….

“As Aboriginal people we need to have a sense of agency in our lives, that we are not stray leaves blowing about in the wind. In a word, we need empowerment”.

Discrimination is a potent enemy of empowerment.

The power of agency, of peoples’ capacity to act and to make change, cannot be ignored in any genuine conversation about Indigenous wellbeing.

In a western conceptualisation of health, once an illness has been diagnosed, a whole schema of medical interventions can be enacted to encourage a cure, be they hospitals, medicines, surgery and so on.

Aboriginal people do receive uneven access to these services, for a whole range of reasons, but to my mind, that observation zooms in on the tip, and ignores the iceberg.

The iceberg, the big submerged issue here, is that a western conceptualisation of health denies, or ignores, or even denigrates, the Indigenous one and in so doing, is incapable, despite the very best of intentions, of making much headway in terms of the wellbeing of First Nations people.

Self-determination for health

For Indigenous people, a healthy life is fundamentally connected to our universal demands for self-determination, for freedom from discrimination and for autonomous economic foundations.

We know that our culture, that our languages and systems and practices are protective of our physical and mental health.  Not as an add-on, or after thought.

Not as a policy of ‘cultural safety’ pop-riveted onto existing programs.

Developing culturally relevant tools for the measurement of wellbeing is crucial because it enables us to tell a story of our progress in a way, and in a language, that we own. And according to our own values.

These tools are important because they can articulate differences between Aboriginal people and everyone else, but they can also capture differences amongst Aboriginal groups as to what matters most.

This important work has to be conceived by us, driven by us and developed by us.  The journey undertaken by my people in Broome, the Yawuru people, to develop just such a tool, and then apply it, is ongoing.

Importance of languages

I want to turn now to the importance of language diversity and why language is so important to Indigenous identity and to our wellbeing.

2019 is the international year of Indigenous languages.

Like many of my generation, I grew up in the mission era of assimilation. Language, in fact any form of cultural expression or identity, was severely discouraged, if not directly punished.

Like most kids of my generation, I was discouraged from learning my own language.

Assimilation was the policy imperative of the day, underpinned by arrogant notions of racial superiority, and the misplaced belief that the dominant culture could re-structure the entire mindset of Indigenous Australians. The means by which this was to be achieved was via shame, physical and mental intimidation and punishment.

I remember the distinct impression I had on leaving Broome and arriving in Perth to attend the mission and boarding school.

It was a bit of a rude awakening, because you’re coming from a very secure cultural and social environment as a kid growing up in Broome, but with a kind of peripheral awareness of political matters that our parents might have been involved in.

But then, coming to the big smoke to attend boarding school, you realise that you’re part of this official program that this policy is driving, that they are trying to re-structure your entire mindset:

“We can’t do anything about your skin but we’ll try to do something about your head”.

For all people, language is the expression of a worldview, and of a value system; it contains the signifiers of cultural difference.  It plays a crucial role for our people in expressing our social identity, in capturing family relationships, in speaking to connections to places and to country.

It is the vehicle by which cultural difference is communicated from parent to child – it is through language that children acquire the ways and world views of their culture.

This is why the speaking of mother tongues was not permitted in missions, and schools, during assimilation era in Australia. Why children who were taken from families were punished severely for speaking in language – it represented the most powerful expression of cultural identity, and a challenge to the colonial world view.

It can be difficult for English speakers, or single language speakers, to comprehend why other languages are so important – particularly where you are describing a system of knowledge that is orally based.

Losing these languages equates to the destruction of the world’s libraries.

It is to human thought and creativity what destroying the Amazon is to biodiversity.

Language is not only a way of describing the world; it is in fact a way of knowing and comprehending the world, and of understanding oneself, relating to others and reading the natural world.

When I was involved in setting up the Kimberley language resource centre in the 1980s, my language, the Yawuru language, was considered severely endangered – and there were less than 10 fluent speakers.

“The best decision of my life”

When I became CEO of the Yawuru corporate group in 2009 – and in response to calls from the community – I invested in the Yawuru language and we formed the Mabu Yawuru Nan-ga centre.

In 2017, we began the Walalngga Yawuru Ngang-ga language program: this is a 2 year study program for Yawuru adults, and we aim to have 20 Yawuru language speakers by 2021.  It increases the use of Yawuru language amongst family and friends, and has kick started the process of intergenerational language learning.

We focus on day-to-day terms – language you would use in your home to speak to your children, or on country – phrases relating to places and to cultural activities – tides, seasons, fish movements.  The kinds of things that Yawuru people talk about.

We are aiming to create a community of adult Yawuru speakers, and we have a group of people men and women, who can speak to each other in Yawuru for an hour. This has not happened in my lifetime…

I want to read to you a testimony from my wuberjanu, my niece, Natalie Dean, a Yawuru woman who was one of the first graduates of our Walalngga Yawuru Ngang-ga language program in 2018. She said:

I have made the best decision of my life in joining this language course. It has changed my life completely, culturally, emotionally and spiritually.

I now know my connection to country through language, I have found my identity and I have re-connected to my great grandfather through language.

My children learnt Yawuru language before me at their school and it didn’t seem right.

So now I am teaching my children and grandchildren to speak Yawuru language. I am so proud to be able to keep my language alive.”

In 2019 the Yawuru language is taught throughout the Primary Schools in Broome, and it is reappearing appearing around the town – on buildings, organisations, helicopters, street names, conservation and housing estates.  The revitalisation of Yawuru language is an ongoing process, and one that I remain personally very committed to.

Truth, Treaty, Voice

For First Nations people the globe over, the struggle has been to hang on four things –   our identity as a people; the territorial lands and waters of our people; our language; and our culture.

Any program or policy – or research project – that seeks to improve our lot, that seeks to address our impoverishment, but that denies the centrality of these values, will be doomed to failure.

My final word then is an encouragement towards partnership which enables Indigenous people to be the architects of our own futures, and to enact our collective responsibilities to people and to places, and to future generations.

The extent to which these partnerships are genuine will determine the trajectory of First Nations people over the 21st century. I make this call of course to health services, and to research centres, and to all who work in the name of bettering the health and wellbeing of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

The calls made in the Uluru statement – Truth, Treaty, Voice – are translatable at scales below that of the nation.

While we wait for the national agenda to progress, as I am sure it will, it is worth reflecting on your institution, your research project, your professional practice, and the extent to which the principles embodied in the Uluru statement are upheld in the work going on around you.

I will leave you with that Gordian knot to untie, and commend this conference to you.


From Twitter

Peter Yu with Lowitja Institute CEO Mrs Janine Mohamed

Other opening session tweets

The conference hashtag trended nationally on Twitter for most of the day.


Summer May Finlay and Marie McInerney are covering the #LowitjaConf2019 for the Croakey Conference News Service. Bookmark this link to follow the coverage.

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