**This piece of writing contains images of persons who have passed on and some of the content may be triggering**
RADIOACTIVE EXPOSURE TOUR
In September 2013, I found myself sitting in an apartment across the street from Nagano Park in Osaka. There was a ceaseless mechanical whirr of cicadas in the background and a sheath of fine sweat over my body as summer blared on. My friend Aki was a kind and gentle soul and patiently endured my indecisive outpourings. My visa was up and I was out of money and ready to start living off of my line of credit. I was deciding whether to return home to Canada or go back to Melbourne where my heart strings were tugging me towards.
My last day in Melbourne when I had traveled there the previous year was spent in the Collingwood neighbourhood and I wandered along the main drag on Smith St. enveloped in streetscapes of weathered Victorian architecture and graffiti murals. I ended up lazing outside of the Friends of the Earth cafe and answered a questionnaire for a young, shaggy, curly haired man with emerald eyes. Afterwards, I gave him a tarot reading from a small Thoth deck I was traveling with.
Even though Melbourne was a densely populated metropolis with a lot of activity going on around, I still found myself able to enter into an ethereal flow where the beauty of each moment could be seized and savoured. The scent of roasting kebabs floated down the street and the skies overhead shifted in dramatic swirls. An eclectic mix of artists, punks, flamboyant cross-dressers and other subcultural aficionados passed me by. Smith St. was also one of the few places in central Melbourne where there was an Aboriginal community.
In the end, I decided to return to Melbourne and on my first day back I walked up to Smith St. from the cozy, dingy hostel I was staying at and went right back in to Friends of The Earth. I ordered a tea and sat down at a table outside as if no time had passed. I hit if off with the girl who was working there and she asked if I would be interested in volunteering in the cafe. I showed up a few days later for my first shift.
In December, I ended up at a Mad Max-themed fundraiser at a warehouse in Brunswick. To get there, I walked from the tram and down a side street, then through a portal-esque laneway and then turned down another laneway where people were gathered in little pods and draped along the pavement smoking, drinking and chatting. I found my pod inside and we sat on the floor watching one of the opening acts, an upbeat folk-punk band called the Glitter Rats. People were walking around wearing elaborate homemade Mad Max-themed outfits with mohawks and smears of black eyeliner. Artwork and posters covered the walls and there were several mini bars. On the upper floor, where I found the cramped solitary bathroom, were enclaves where people lived. Everything was warm, wooden and electrifying.
When hip-hopper’s Combat Wombat started their set, we all got up and danced. As they were playing, the lead singer told us that they were raising funds to buy a bus, convert it to run on used vegetable oil and go out on an anti-nuclear campaign in the middle of the desert.
Four months later I ended up on that bus...
The Radioactive Exposure Tour was put together to educate people first hand about the nuclear industry and has been running for over 30 years. The 2014 tour was one of the most ambitious to date and was organized by the Friends of the Earth, the ACE Collective – an anti-nuclear group- and former participants who volunteered their time.
"People would be able to see and walk on the country affected, to hear what Aboriginal people had to say, learn about the anti-nuclear movement and strengthen opposition to the nuclear industry. We wanted to give people the opportunity to support traditional land owners in their opposition to the nuclear industry, so that the tour participants could return to their colleges, work places or communities with the story of their experience and to encourage them to play a role in the anti-nuclear movement."
-From The History of the Radioactive Exposure Tour by Ila Marks.
My journey began at 6:30 am outside of Friends of the Earth. After I hopped off the tram and made my way down the street with my gigantic backpack I saw a large 20-seater bus, with 'Road Warrior' spray painted on the outside of it parked outside and a mountain of other backpacks and camping gear on the sidewalk. A gnarled knot started twisting up in my solar plexus as vestiges of grade school social anxieties reared out from my body. I was excited to meet a group of interesting people and to be supported in learning more about these complex and heavy issues. Though as a person who needs a lot of alone time, I was a nervous about the prospect of being cramped together with a bunch of strangers for two weeks.
There were over 40 of us, including two nine-month old babies, four dogs, and people from Japan, France, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Canada (myself) and all over Australia. There was fleet of five vehicles and we were going to be traveling over 6000 km's to support a community living at Muckaty Station near Tenant Creek - it was the continuation of a passionate 7-year running campaign to oppose a nuclear waste dump on their lands. Some of the participants, like Kumar Sundaram from India, were long-time anti-nuclear activists. Others, like myself, knew almost nothing before embarking. We would be camping the entire time with the stars over our heads and the desert as our beds.
While we all hung around waiting for everyone to show up and the vehicles to be loaded, we were given a 2-inch thick blue folder filled with information about the nuclear industry. It included details about the history of global nuclear testing and nuclear armament, the Fukushima reactor meltdowns, the science behind uranium extraction, the dangers of nuclear waste, maps of nuclear reactors and uranium mines in Australia, and extensive information about the Muckaty campaign and other other grassroots Aboriginal resistance to uranium mining. There was also a beautiful photo booklet by Jagath Dheerasekara.
We headed out of the city as a blaring sun was rising and we drove through stretches of farmland interspersed with patches of eucalyptus trees and bush.
The first thing that had struck me about Melbourne when I arrived there was how giant and expansive the skies were. Coming from British Columbia, most of which is closed in by mountains, it felt really freeing. And the weather in Melbourne was quite unique, with warm northern desert winds mixing and colliding with icy southern winds, creating an ever shifting skyscape and extreme weather fluctuations. I fell completely in love with Melbourne and the surrounding areas and throughout the course of my interspersed time in Australia, I hadn’t left to explore any other provinces: I was going to make up for that big time.
Our convoy all met up in Beaufort and then we continued West of Melbourne past Mount Zero and some picturesque rolling hills. Then we went through the Grampions, Nhil and the entrance to Desert Park. Every once in a while, a grey Wallaby would hop by in the distance or turn and look at us.
I had read in a guidebook that part of why the terrain is so trashed and flattened in most of Australia is that it’s very old geologically and has been slowly eroded by wind and water and eaten into the earth. The further we got away from the city, the more a feeling of depth and vastness began to take over. The landscape has a way of slowly and quietly enveloping you.
My decision to come to Australia was somewhat reckless. I was pretty messed up from some personal traumas I had been through and I found the Pacific Northwest winters hard to take. There was a seat sale to Melbourne and I wanted to cheat the nature godds and get two summers in one year. I imagined myself on a pale sandy beach, sipping lemon sodas and meeting cute boys as my PTSD and seasonal depression melted away under a Southern sun.
The first shock I had was how fucking cold Melbourne is and that there was no central heating. I wasn’t the only one led astray, as there was a shivering young man at the airport who arrived at the same time as me in short shorts and a bright summery tank top.
The second, far more profound shock I had, was that I began to comprehend colonialism for the first time. Even though I had lived in a neighbourhood with a lot of Indigenous people, I never fully grasped the depth of what had happened historically. Not on a soul level. There was a lot of buffering and defensiveness in the way, and once that got peeled away, I was left quite broken.
I really didn’t know how to deal with the feelings that were coming up for me. I went through big bouts of sadness and grief over what I was learning about Australia and Canada, where the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was publishing widespread information about the abuses enacted on First Nations people over the years. And a lot of the people I tried to talk to about the stuff I was learning became pretty defensive. And in their defense, I was similarly defensive when I first moved to East Vancouver as a teenager.
I ended up coming across a documentary called Our Generation where I learned about the Intervention program, which was introduced in Australia’s Northern Territory region in 2007. The government claimed that there was a child sexual abuse emergency in remote Aboriginal communities and started a prolific and aggressive media campaign. They took full control of hundreds of townships and the military was deployed - yet no confirmed cases of abuse were found. Communities were devastated and the program has since been criticized as a human rights atrocity.
I wanted to try and be involved somehow in educating myself and bringing awareness; though I really didn’t know if I could do anything, or should do anything or how to approach the situation. I decided overstay my visa and join in on the RAD Tour.
We made it all the way to Adelaide on that first day, despite the big bus breaking down. We got it back up and running and arrived in the evening at a large country home on the outskirts of town where we had a big fire and ate a delicious dinner provided by Food Not Bombs.
I wandered out from the group and found a trail near the house that led to a small grove of trees and walked through with the light of the moon shining down overhead. The air was fresh and wet with the scent of eucalyptus. The time alone brought out pangs of sorrow and I curled up crying for a long time. I don’t always know what I’m feeling when piles of emotions puke out of me. What comes from my own personal tragedies, what I’ve absorbed from others and what’s coming from the collective grief pile of human suffering.
When I woke up the next morning my tent was soaked with dew. It was another bright sunny day though, and it dried out pretty good by the time we were all ready to leave. After the bus broke down the previous day, I ended up moving into an SUV with some long-time activists and they had tales of various actions they had taken to address the nuclear industry, logging and human rights. They were all incredibly intelligent, passionate and dedicated and had some amazing stories to tell.
Another reason why I was nervous to go on the RAD tour is that I haven’t always had the most positive experiences with activists. There can be a lot of insularity and self-righteousness in various political and social movements. So I was really appreciative of how instantly friendly and accepting everyone was and how open they were to answering the many questions I had.
Something wonderful happened after we got into the deep of the desert: all of the boxes of donated 'Loving Earth' chocolate – really fancy raw chocolate - started to melt. So we had to eat as much as we could in a short period of time. We were passing the gigantic bars around in the van and I shoveled back as much as I could stomach without getting sick and gave myself a huge head rush as we ripped down the highway.
We drove 300 km to Port Augusta and met a Kokatha elder called Eileen Wingfield, who was a lifelong anti-nuclear activist and was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003 for her participation in a successful campaign to oppose a nuclear waste dump in Southern Australia. She was also the author of a book called Down the Hole about her experiences evading the authorities when the Australian government was removing mixed race children from their homes. She was an incredible woman and had been involved in many campaigns throughout her life, often collaborating with “greenies” - as the mainly urban environmentalists were called- and she had 13 children.
We all sat around her near the port, and at one point she was asked to speak in her traditional language. It was interesting to hear her speak, though I heard her murmurinig under her breath "why don't you find your own culture?". And it did feel akward to put her on display like that. And she did have a good point.
Shortly after she finished sharing her stories and experiences with us, the night began to fall and the moon started glowing in the sky over the buildings along the water front. Eileen passed away a few months after the tour.
On a side note, in 2009, in an incredible act of hypocrisy, Peter Garret, lead singer of Midnight Oil, who in the 1980’s sang a song called 'Beds Are Burning' - a passionate plea for Aboriginal Rights - approved the expansion of the Beverly Mine and the opening of a new uranium mine in Southern Australia during his role as the Environment Minister after moving from music into politics.
From Port Augusta we headed to Woomera, a town with a population of 146, where the Australian and British governments carried out atomic testing in the 1950’s and 60’s. A former government employee turned whistleblower called Avon Hudson joined in on the tour and took us to our camp on the outskirts of town.
Most people in Australia like to camp in “swags”, kind of like a really big, cozy bivouac. At first I was scared to sleep out in the desert after hearing about so many deadly snakes and spiders in the bush. Though after a couple of nights in my tent, I craved seeing the sky - waking up periodically to catch glimpses of the constellations and looking around at the dozens of other campers- so I slept on a mattress on top of my flattened out tent for most of the tour.
The next morning Avon took us into Woomera and gave us a guided tour of the Missile Park. The town seemed to sit suspended in the emptiness of the massive desert and there was something deeply unsettling about the inert weapons proudly put out on display. We didn't end up visiting it, though there's a small graveyard that's mostly babies and children. Said Avon:
“I was there from 62-64 and there were 6500 people in Woomera and there were a lot of babies born there. These babies died in pretty high numbers for a little town. There had to be some reason the percentage of mortality was so high at Woomera. That reason was never looked into. It was covered up. It was remniscent of the Black Mist from the big bombs.”
When we travelled to our camp in the outskirts of town, the sun was still overhead and fractally clouds were gathered around the horizon. We made dinner in a makeshift kitchen and then sat around the campfire with Avon, who gave us more details about working for the government and the adverse effects that the tests they conducted had on the surrounding landscape, local residents, government employees and Aboriginals in nearby communities. Over the years Avon has single-handedly had huge area of the desert declared nuclear-free as a result of his ongoing campaigning.
After the campfire discussion by the light of the moon, I tried to walk out to a large craterous indent I saw in the distance. There were little mounds and dips all throughout the landscape and I saw a couple of frogs jumping alongside me making strange moonshadows. I starting running along the flat stretch and when I looked up, the biggest, brightest shooting star I’ve ever seen in my life streaked across the sky. It was like something out of a comic book. Then I remembered about dingos, got scared and ran back to the camp. I fell asleep to the sounds of frogs croaking.
As we headed out from our desert sprawl the next morning, the sun broke the silhouettes of all the small bushes and ridges. We headed further North, and the landscape flattened out completely. The earth was dusty red and there were yellow ochre rocks, and small greenish-brown bushes with hints of vibrant green on the tips of the foliage. I was still travelling in the small SUV and my travel mates gave me some background information on the mine we would by visiting in the town of Roxby Downs.
The town exists solely for the purpose of housing employees of the Olympic Dam mine run by BHP Billiton, which is one of the largest uranium mines in the world. We went on an official tour, asked some questions and took some photos. Huge amounts of water are used in the processing of uranium and the material is highly toxic and radioactive, so extreme care needs to be taken during the entire extraction and transportation process. The by-products of producing energy with uranium include plutonium, which is used in the manufacturing of atomic weapons, the most destructive force on planet earth. During the whole nuclear cycle, different levels of nuclear waste are are created, some of which is hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.
While we were on the tour, there was a lot of tension between the activists and the employees of the mine. I felt embarassed by how immature some of the comments our group made and could feel that the employees themselves were not bad in their hearts and really didn't understand on a deeper level the true implications of the nuclear industry. And being screamed at by bratty, entitled activists probably wasn't going to help to bridge that gap.
I ended up going to the bus to be alone for a while and shortly afterwards a young woman came onto the bus crying. I assumed she was upset and overhwelmed about what we were learning about the mine, but as she spoke it was revealed that she was upset by a personal interaction with another tour participant.
After visiting the mine, we travelled to Lake Eyre. The sun was falling into the horizon and as we arrived the sky turned neon orange and the moon was eclipsed by the setting sun.
That evening we all gathered around a bonfire and heard from two of the main tour organizers, Gem and Emma, who met at University, became roommates, “made pancakes together 9 times” and then became really good friends. They had recently travelled to India to learn more about the nuclear industry there. Kumar, who who they met during their travels, told us more about his activism and and how he was trying to prevent an upcoming nuclear deal between Australia and India, which could potentially lead to further nuclear armament in India. He also told us about a famous activist called Irom Sharmilla who had been on a hunger strike in response to a civillian massacre by the Armed Forces.
The days were starting to bleed together and the next morning we packed up all the cooking and camping gear and packed ourselves back into various vehicles to make our way to Mound Springs. I ended up moving from the SUV on to the big 'Road Warrior' bus.
Underneath the Springs is the most important source of water for Australia called the Artesian Basin. When Europeans came to Australia, the Springs were disrupted by settlement and farming practices and camels were introduced to the desert regions. At one point, Aboriginal trackers were used like animals to locate sources of water for the camels. Tribes from the area sometimes perished from dehydration when areas formerly known to them as water sources were dried out. There are song lines - a navigational mapping system that has strong spiritual significance and is part of Aboriginal Dreamtime consciousness - running through the whole area as well.
Pollution, farming and displacement of the tribes who once roamed the lands around Mound Springs have depleted the waters and poisoned many of the tributaries. 20-30 million megaliters of water are taken from the Artesian basin for the operation of the Olympic Dam every day, further disrupting the water system, and BHP Billiton pay no fees at all for usage of the water in processing radioactive materials. BHP’s annual revenue is between 40-60 billion dollars a year.
After Mound Springs, we were all lost in our own thoughts as we drove deeper into the desert lands. The ‘big wet’, which spilled out 2/3 of the annual rainfall for the region in a week, resulted in the cropping up of little lakes all around. Birds flocked to the water, the sun glinted off of the fresh electric green brush and vibrant little red, yellow, orange, pink and purple desert flowers were coaxed out of their dormant shells. It was ridiculously beautiful.
We stopped in a small roadside town for lunch and then pulled over at an area of road that had been washed out and had a swim. We continued on an unpaved back-road through the outback and reached a point where we didn’t feel safe going through at night with limited visibility so pulled over and set up camp just in time for a stunning, full-circle sunset. Half of the sky looked like a soft rainbow disappearing into the ochre earth and the sun burned like a torch as it fell into the opposite horizon. A big bulbous moon glowed red and the brightest stars started to shine through the sky as it faded to bruise colour and then to black. Even with the moon shining bright, I could still make out the Southern Cross and Orion constellations and see the arms of the milky way.
The next day we headed to Coober Pedy and I hung out with Fran and Jarrod from the Glitter Rats and their two young twin boys. There were so many awesome and interesting people on the tour and day-by-day I was getting to know more of them.
I ended up jumping into a different truck with Fran and Jarrod and we headed to our next destination, Walatinna Station, to visit Yami Lester, a Yankuntjatjarra elder who had been blinded by the atomic tests that were done in the 1950’s. As we drove out from Coober Pedy, the terrain morphed from bare pockmarked sandstone to an expanse of flat, pale sand with low brush and small rocks. More bright desert wildflowers were bursting out from the pastel backdrop. After about an hour, we officially entered the Northern Territory.
A hill appeared in the distance and the trees and shrubs darkened and became denser and larger. We turned West off the main highway into the thick of the hill and drove up to Yami’s place, where we would all be camping out for the night. The earth was a glowing otherworldy red, was soft and rippled from the recent rainfall and there were clusters of trees that provided some patches of shade.
The sun had fallen and the horizon was humming with reds, oranges, soft pinks, blues, and purples and a few illuminated clouds sparkled through the trees. On every other night the falling sun had been quickly followed by the rising moon, though that night the hills and trees kept the moon at bay for a couple of hours and we were able to see the unhindered beauty of the starry sky. Mars was out and the band of the milky way streaked over our heads like a fireworks tail. I laid down on one of the open areas of the property staring up at the sky until the moon crept over the trees.
The next day we all hung out with Yami, who had a generous spirit and a giant smile. He told us the story of how he had been blinded by the nuclear fallout from the testing that had taken place. It was 1953 and he was living in the bush near Maralinga with his family. None of them were notified of the testing.
“I wanna talk about the Emu bomb tests. There were a lot of people living here. I was born not too far from here in the creek and anyway in the 50's there the Australian government and the British government made an agreement to have a nuclear bomb test and they reckon 'we got to look after the sheep and the cattle station'. Aboriginal people were not important. The sheep and the cattle were more important at the time. I was just playing with the other kids. That’s when the bomb went off. I remember the noise. It was a strange noise, not loud, not like anything I’d ever heard before. The earth shook at the same time; we could feel the whole place move. We didn’t see anything, though. Us kids had no idea what it was. I just kept playing. It wasn’t long after that a black smoke came through. A strange, black smoke, it was shiny and oily. A few hours later, we all got crook, every one of us. We were all vomiting; we had diarrhea, skin rashes and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for 2 or 3 weeks. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all the sickness. The closest clinic was 400 miles away.”
Yami was 10 years old and within 4 years he lost his sight completely. He became an advocate for Aboriginal Land Rights and nuclear disarmament from the 1980’s until his death in 2017.
The following day, we were on our way to Alice Springs.
We woke up on Day 8 of the tour and drove down from the beautiful red earth hills of Walatinna back down into flat desert sprawls. We drove past the entrance to Uluru, saw the rocks in the distance, stopped at a gas station and then continued on. We rolled along seemingly endless stretches of earth, rock and low lying shrubs and at one point we saw wild horses galloping the distance. Then we started seeing low hills and mulga trees, and more vibrant green bushes. When we got to the outskirts of Alice, high rocky ridges started to emerge.
It was dark when we arrived and we were greeted by Barbara Shaw, an ardent anti-Interventionist and Aboriginal rights activist, who I recognized from John Pilger’s film 'Utopia' and the Our Generation documentary. Barb has ancestral ties to Muckaty through her grandmother and lived in one of the ghettoized areas of Alice Springs called a "Town Camp". Some of what Barb said when she welcomed us was:
"This town will inform you of race relations. All you have to do is walk around with your eyes open. Go into any supermarket and you'll see the difference in how we're treated to how a White person is treated. It's in your face. We don't expect you to bash every copper, unless you want to. Just take photos, put them on Facebook and let the world know what we have to put up with." She also told us that "you're not allowed to have ganja on ya" and that the police like to hang around the gates of the Town Camp randomly searching people.
We had dinner (including Kangaroo tail) with Barb and some of her family, friends and neighbours. I ended up hanging around a fire with a group of men who said they had all gone through initiation together. They were drinking beer in defiance of a large sign posted outside of the camp forbidding alcohol and pornography in the town - part of the Intervention program. The guy I spoke to the most said he felt that programs like Stronger Futures, the Intervention and Closing the Gap were only "widening the gap" between Aboriginals and other Australians.
We all slept in a horse paddock near the town camp and there were wild dogs cackling murderously in the distance as I drifted off to sleep. I woke up with hills and ridges behind me and gum trees nestling a dried out river in front of me.
I decided to walk from the camp along the Todd river and spend the day wandering around Alice Springs alone. When I mentioned it to some of the girls who were on the bus with me as I was getting ready to leave, they told me that I shouldn't go alone because I might "get raped". I left the bus and found one of the locals and long-time activists and asked her if it would be safe. She said that it wouldn't be a problem at all and I would just see "drunk people hanging out around the river". When I returned to the bus, I brought up the comment the girls had made previously and they denied having said it and said that that it wasn't what they meant. I left the bus and headed through the outskirts of the city and made my way to the public pool. I was ready for a hot shower.
When I first got into Alice Springs, I ended up running into a French-Canadian guy who was riding his bicycle around and I asked him what he thought about the Intervention. He told me that it would be hard for me to understand why it was necessary as a visitor and that I would "have to live in the town for a while" to see the dynamics and understand it better. I asked him if he thought it was racist and he said, “no”.
I had another discussion with a woman working at a hotel. She said that she thought the Intervention was a good thing and that it was necessary. She said that a lot of visitors criticized the situation and reiterated that one needed to live in the town for a "really long time" to understand the situation properly. She said that the town experienced a “real boom” as a result of the Intervention and that many houses were built and many jobs were created. I asked her if those benefits were extended to Aboriginal people and she said that they were for “everybody”, yet that it “isn’t in Aboriginal people’s nature to work”. She said that Aboriginal people have “heaps of money thrown at them.. heaps.. a lot of them are more cashed up than what I am and I work 12 hours day”. She acknowledged that there was no easy solution and that Aboriginal people should be living their “old ways”. I brought up some of the factors that have made this difficult like removing children from their families and taking over their lands. She acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and said that she “wasn’t racist”.
Once I got to the pool, I also asked an employee from the pool what he thought about Alice Spring and the Intervention. He told me that “It wasn’t like apartheid”, and that there’s “lots of great things about Alice”. I was like, “Okay, what?” And he was, like, “uh, like the community... like... that-” pointing to a large sports oval across the street from the pool that had one entrance and was heavily guarded all around. Only Aboriginals were playing games or in attendance and White police officers on horseback encircled the area.
As I entered the pool, two small children with trachoma came running in after me. One of them seemed to be blind in one eye. I hung out at the outdoor pool for a while and met an Irish couple who had lived in Alice Springs for a long time and one of them was a health care worker. She said that there was “a lot of racism” in the health care industry and in daily life and that it was really upsetting to witness. After my shower, I wandered back out into the streets and ran into an older Aboriginal couple on their way to the sports oval. They said hello and started chatting me up and then invited me to join them. They were from North Western Australia and told me that they spoke 4 different tribal languages and made the trip to Alice to watch their son play in a rugby game.
We entered in across from the pool and they took me over to where their friends and family were and introduced me to some of them. I chatted with them for a while and then I had to go sit under the bleachers, as it was too freaking hot. There were other people hanging out under there with tablets and snacks and they looked over at me curiously, then seemed to accept my presence. I sat under there for about an hour, looking out at the game periodically and wrote in my journal. As a person who’s a bit of a space cadet and a daydreamer, the thing that struck me right away was how deeply grounded everyone was. I had read that Aboriginal people had been living on their lands and practicing their culture for 40-50000 years: the oldest intact culture on earth.
I left at the intermission and as I walked out I waved goodbye to my new friends. Just as I was about to leave the heavily guarded exit, I saw two teenagers holding hands walking across the field. The boy had thick dark curls and dark brown skin and the girl had reddish-brown hair and was ivory fair.
As I continued my exploration of the town on foot, seeing the Third World living conditions in many areas was really upsetting and there was continual harassment of Aboriginals by local police. In the evening, we all gathered at the Totem Theatre to hear from people affected by the Intervention and learn more about the Muckaty campaign.
To enact the Intervention, the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act and in the 5 years that the Intervention program was active, only 4 suspected cases of child sexual abuse were found despite extensive medical examinations. The program allowed the government to take full control of Aboriginal governance, and was put in place with very little consultation with elders or community leaders.
The Intervention resulted in many government funded community programs in remote areas being cut, the speaking of Aboriginal languages being reduced in school curriculum and suicide rates increased drastically. Incarceration rates among Aboriginals went up and the number of children being taken from their homes increased. It created what some called "a second Stolen Generation”.
The housing and infrastructure so desperately needed by remote Aboriginal communities rarely came to fruition, yet many non-Aboriginals who were hired to enact the policies were provided with new homes. In many instances where housing was built, the communities had to give long term land leases on their property, which was especially devastating for tribes that had fought long and hard for land claims. After the Intervention was phased out in 2012, successive programs with nearly identical policies were enacted.
20-30% of the world’s uranium is in Australia and a large portion of that in the Northern Territory. Previous to the Intervention 55% of the Northern Territory was under Aboriginal governance. Following the Intervention, huge portions of those lands were brought under government control. It’s hard not to make a connection between the seizure of communities and the desire for resource extraction. Said Yananymul Mununggurr from the Djapu Clan in the Our Generation documentery “The government is after the mineral in our land.”
Part of the Intervention also involved the discontinuation of funding for many remote ‘homelands’ and the moving of people into hub communities controlled by White Australians. The homelands were places where people practiced traditional hunting and ceremony and many found a lot of healing there, so it was devastating for many to be moved away. In the end, the Intervention ended up worsening all of the social conditions that the program was upposedly trying to address.
A woman called Valerie who came from the outskirts of Alice spoke about the struggles of her community, "… it's hard to live in the remote area where we grew up and see young people struggling through this Intervention… now they're gonna supervise us how we live our life, we haven't got much right to say for ourselves now, it's hard, it's getting harder and harder we just gotta live with it. So the old people are crying now. Today it makes me really sad when I go into my own house and come up and sit down and we all cry together a few of us woman but it's hard.. there's a rumour, a rumour about a uranium mine and a waste dump but it's just a rumour. They tell us we have to live the White man's way, and there we are living the White man's way but it's hard. Even the culture, it's dying down, the young people are not showing much interest in it. A lot of people are sick of me, especially non-Indigenous people are sick of me. I'm going to their offices saying my people are suffering, help! They tell me 'you just have to wait, you just have to wait'. How long more can we wait? They're not listening to us… not listening to us. How are my great-great-grandchildren going to get by when I'm gone. How are they going to survive?”
We watched a short documentary about the Muckaty campaign and I had a breakdown in the theatre. I felt a heaviness sink into me and a blackness wash over me like a think blanket. I left the theatre, and when I was outside I ran into Valerie. I gave her a hug, which felt a bit pathetic after everything she had just said. When I got back to the horse paddock I cried deeply for many hours. The next day when we had breakfast, others in the tour opened up about their own grieving they went through as they witnessed the dynamics in Alice Springs.
A big darkness was opened up inside of me on that night and it’s something I haven't been able to fully reconcile within myself. And I don’t think I’m supposed to. It’s meant to stay there, stuck in my throat, reminding me that there is serious work to do in this world.
The documentary that brought up so many intense feelings also had a really powerful scene that stuck in my mind. It was a small clip of the Muckaty women marching down the street with banners and other supporters. There was incredible strength in that image and it's a feeling I've had a few times since then when marching in groups led by Indigenous activists.
The next day we had the option of participating in a demonstration at Pine Gap, a satellite tracking station jointly run by the American and Australian governments, which many consider puts Australia at risk in the event of global nuclear tensions. I ended up staying in town and spent most of the day hanging out around the camp. I wasn’t ready to do full-on direct action, though I admired those who were.
In the evening, I joined Denis, who I had first tavelled with in the SUV, on a drive out to Kevin Buzzacott’s place in the outskirts of Alice Springs, passing more high ridges, patches of shrub, tree carcasses and bright white-trunked eucalyptuses. Kevin is an Arubunna elder who lives in a bungalow tucked away in the desert. He came into Alice Springs with us and we had dinner with a group of people from the Beyond Nuclear Initiative at their office in central Alice.
‘Uncle Kev’, whose traditional territory is around Lake Eyre, has been involved in anti-nuclear and Aboriginal rights actions for over 40 years including sit-ins, peace walks, government eviction notices and participation in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. He reclaimed the emu and kangaroo from the Autralian coat of arms, charged the government with genocide and traveled to Europe in 2001 after winnning the Nuclear-Free Future Award. He’s been called a “jedi of the anti-nuclear movement”.
“Aboriginal people have lived here for more than 40,000 years and cared for this country, but now it's being turned into a sick and evil place. Myself, and others around this country, were born to be peacemakers. We mustn’t be frightened to educate others and fight, but not in a warlike way, to protect the earth and let everything run free. I don’t want to shoot or bomb the people from BHP and the others who are destroying this country because two wrongs don’t make a right. I think if I can help them to wake up to what they are doing then that will be punishment enough.”
Later on that night, myself and another tour member decided to sneak into what was being called “the biggest heavy metal spectacle the world has ever seen”, called Blacken the Globe that happened to be happening in Alice Springs on that night. I was thinking it might be like the underground music scenes in Vancouver that are somewhat racially mixed and have street culture elements, but that wasn’t the case. It was fun though; until security caught us and kicked us out.
The next day we drove from Alice Springs to Tenant Creek. Ridges and hills disappeared into dense brush, gum trees and light sandy expanses with stalagtite-esque ant hills protruding like bizarre polyps. It was a long drive and we stopped along the way and had a swim in a little lake.
When we arrived in Tenant Creek there were some community members (aka “mob”) there to meet us, though a member had recently died so a lot of people stayed home in mourning (“sorry business”). We all hung out by a river, had some snacks and then headed out to the outskirts of town where we’d be sleeping. One of the main campaigners against the nuclear waste dump, Diane Stokes - a Yapa Yapa elder, brought us to our campsite and welcomed us in her traditional language. She told us where to light fires for the spirits and to watch out for little men who roam around in the night. We set up our gear in the dark.
The next day we went from Tenant Creek to Muckaty Station driving along expanses of grassland and scrub. We heard Diane and some of the men in the community speak in more detail about the proposed waste dump. There were specific areas of the land designated for men and women (“mens business” and “women’s business”). The men went to where their sacred space was and Diane spoke from the women’s area. They all said that the land was too precious and they would never agree to have toxic waste stored there. Then they took us deeper into the land to a sacred river framed with eucalyptus trees and we were all invited to jump in.
When I went back to the bus to get my swimming gear there was a woman there by herself and she said that she was refusing to join because the community members were eating fried chicken from the supermarket. She was a strict vegan and said that she only supported the eating of bush meats and what was going on was unacceptable to her. That past evening another tour member had made a comment to me in private about the litter that had been left around our campsite, calling the community a “garbage dump” and stated, “why should we even bother protecting their land.”
Growing up in Canada, people would often make comments about the shocking things that go down on First Nations reservations and when I first moved to East Vancouver – where there’s one of Canada’s largest urban Indigenous populations - I could be really judgmental at times. And I felt judgmental parts of myself coming out when I saw some of the social conditions in Alice Springs. I was really thankful for the campfire discussions we had every night and the long-time activists were an incredibly intelligent, compassionate mix of people who were able to contextualize the emotionally heavy and complex issues we were encountering.
I think a big thing with Indigenous people the world over is that they are judged very harshly for social conditions that are a direct result of colonization. At the same time, without being educated, it can be hard to see the big picture when seeing things like glue sniffing and the neglect of children. I can understand that the vegan woman was deeply sensitive about the killing of animals, which I can totally relate to; at the same time, being a privileged urbanite of European ancestry, it’s a bit short-sighted to pass judgment on Aboriginal people for what they eat when the whole reason they’re not eating a more traditional diet is because of forced displacement from lands and unhealthy food rations from colonial governments. And the whole reason why wealthy urbanites can afford over-priced imported vegan food is because of revenue from colonization and the ongoing exploitation of natural resources.
Somehow when unsavoury aspects of the human condition arise in European society, it's treated less harshly. No one sent in the military to address the very real child sexual abuse emergency in the Catholic church. When Robert Long opened fire in an Asian massage parlour, he was just "having a bad day". Date rapes at Universities are swept under the rug and drunk and disorderly White people are just 'havin a time'. BIPOC men are often demonized, even though the vast majority of serial killers and terrorists in North America are White men.
I know for me, the first step to working through racist aspects of myself was to admit that I had ingrained prejudices. It’s something that took me a long time to come to terms with and it goes through waves where I become defensive and think I’ve learned enough and then I realize that there are more layers to uncover or I’ve gone astray.
Paralleling the Intervention program, which relied on the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act; both the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Heritage Protection Act were suspended during the site selection phase for the nuclear waste dump. As well, details of the agreement between the government and the Northern Land Council were withheld from the public.
The communities around Muckaty are culturally isolated and under-funded and English is the second language for most residents. The area is represented by a group of tribes called the Muckaty Land Trust. Out of the 4 tribes, one accepted the government’s 12 million dollar offer and the area was nominated for the disposal site. There was no further consultation within the community and members of the other tribes were contesting the nomination. A large portion of the money offered would be going into providing basic infrastructure desperately needed by the community.
As stated by Darwin’s Nightcliff Uniting Church in the Northern Territory. “To bargain with Traditional Owner’s for money that is to be used to pay for essential services (like roads and housing and providing educational opportunities for young people), which should come from the same public revenues as they do for all other Australians, is a complete scam. This is both disrespectful to Aboriginal culture and spiritual practice - and also a shameful, immoral manoeuvre by short-term, results oriented, political pragmatists.”
The people of Muckaty struggled to be heard and have proper consultation with government officials. Said Diane Stokes "One thing, these people didn't listen to us. We invited them to come here and talk to us in Tenant Creek. We want to talk to you people, we wanna tell you how we feel about our land. Our land is our spirit. Our land that keeps us strong."
The Minister of resources and energy, Martin Ferguson went so far as to say, “In no way can we allow any state or government to get in the way of establishing a repository.” Muckaty community members, including Diane Stokes, traveled to Melbourne to speak to Ferguson directly about their concerns regarding the nuclear waste dump and he locked the door to his office, refusing to see them.
“There was not a meeting in town consulting all of the Traditional Owners of the land, they just got the individual people they knew. The others, we were left out. We are going against it, we are fighting against it. We are going ot challenge them in court, then through our court – Aboriginal Law and Culture with the dot paintings on our body. Both sides have a law,” said Mark Lane Jangala from the Ngapa clan.
The Australian government has been looking for a place to put its nuclear waste since the 1950's and, as Ferguson stated in an interview with ABC News, "It's time for Australia to front up to it's responsibilities. It's a moral issue. If you want access to nuclear medicine, then take responsibility for storing your waste." Yet according to Nuclear Radiologist Dr. Peter Karamoskos the nuclear waste had “nothing to do with nuclear medicine" and is being used "to get the public on side through an emotive campaign of disinformation."
The waste needing to be stored included low level and intermediate level waste. Even low level waste remains hazardous “for about 300 years,” according to Karamoskos. Intermediate level waste, most of which is stored at the Lucas Heights reactor near Sydney and in Woomera is “the most dangerous waste in Australia” and “remains hazardous for many thousands of years."
Ferguson and the federal government in Australia were eager to get the waste dump approved, as Muckaty was the fourth site selection. Green Senator Scott Ludlam criticized the government process as being “based on the flawed premise that if you take some of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the country, you tell them this material is perfectly safe, and you offer them a cheque for $12 million maybe somebody will put their hand up. It’s an unbelievable way of dealing with the nation’s inventory of toxic waste.”
Diane Stokes (center), Bunny (foreground)
To finish off our Muckaty experience, more of “the mob” came out and spent time with us, including Kylie Sambo. Two fires were lit and a large group sat around each fire representing to different skin systems - one of the many complex social systems that are part of Aboriginal culture. It was nice to get to hang out with everyone again; we were able to have more meaningful interactions and I got to meet some of the local children. We ended up exploring the surrounding area and found an abandoned school bus to hang out in. We were all hopping over the seats and running down the aisles and they told me their real names and that they all spoke 3 different local languages.
When I came back to the fires, the other tour members were mingling with each of the skin groups and eating Kangaroo tail that had been slow cooked for many hours by being buried under hot coals. I ended up speaking with Bunny Nabarula, a Warlmanpa elder and one of the most dedicated campaigners against the waste dump. She told me about how she had traveled to Melbourne with her grandchildren to do activism and lamented that more community members didn’t get involved, saying they “were scared”. I also talked with one of the mom's and she told me that she often walked long distances with her children out in the desert and along the river and knew all of the local medicines and edibles.
When we headed out of Muckaty the next day we stopped at a cultural centre in Tenant Creek and saw some women making artwork. I was told that a lot of the distinctive Aboriginal dot paintings represents an aerial perspective and are the visions people see in the Dreaming.
On the way from Tenant Creek to Alice we stopped near Utopia and ended up helping a family fix their car that had broken down. The three daughters were really excited to meet us all and forced me to take multiple photos of them posing. Then they took pictures of us and we exchanged numbers so we could share them with each other.
We stopped in Alice Springs again for the night and camped next to the Town Camp again. The next day we drove from Alice Springs to Coober Pedy. I ended up staying with a German woman who lived in one of the famous dugouts. She was friends with one of the other tour participants, a retired woman who had been part of a previous anti-nuclear campaigns in Southern Australia and who had worked as a missionary.
The next day we drove all the way from Coober Pedy to Adelaide. I ended up in a pick-up truck with a group of awesome women for a long stretch and we ended up listening to 80’s music and had a dance party on the side of the Stuart highway. I spent a lot of time staring out the window and soaking in the landscape knowing I might never be back there again in my life.
We continued on and the scenery flashed by like a dream. There were run-down roadhouse cafes, wild camels and large ruddy Kangaroos out in the distance. There was a lot of roadkill along the highway of cattle, sheep and kangaroos, and I saw some bizarre, contorted, wild horse carcasses, thrashed and gnarled and melting into the sandy desert floor.
We spent the night at the same place we had previously on the outskirts of Adelaide.
As we were driving through the city the next morning, it felt strange seeing so many large buildings and clean and orderly streets after two weeks of rugged desert adventures. There were big stalky gumtrees and smaller, gnarled, twisted gum trees as we headed East. We passed farm lands, cattle, sheep, old metal windmills and there were thin country roads winding up into the hills.
We stopped in Beufort and had food and ice cream and then arrived back in Melbourne in the middle of the night.
Many people herald nuclear energy as a clean source of energy and the wave of the future. It’s hard for me to see that after everything I learned on the RAD tour. There are extreme hazards and environmental concerns from the astronomical use of water during the initial mining to the ongoing dangers of radioactive waste. And the continued nuclear armament of nations globally is really scary. We’ve seen what horrible destruction nuclear weapons cause in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the devastation of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. I remember reading Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen comic about living through Hiroshima, and it's hard to fully absorb the scale of the destruction caused.
It’s taken me a long time to write about this experience, which was one of the most incredible of my life, yet also one of the saddest and most heartbreaking. At the heart of the nuclear industry is the dark heart of humankind and our capacity for incredible greed, brutality and genocide. How to hold that within oneself and find some sense of hope and beauty in the world is difficult. The incredible spirit of those who organized the tour and many of the other participants made it possible to go into the depths of these issues without completely falling apart and I was amazed by their energy and dedication. I was also greatly humbled, as so many Indigenous people the world over live in pain and darkness every day as they shoulder the consequences of colonial expansion and global industrialization. Since going on the tour my entire perspective on the world and my place in it has changed.
One of the things I was left with was a strong sense of being able to make a real impact in the world. What a small group of people were able to accomplish with very little resources going up against powerful governments and corporations was truly remarkable. I often get deeply depressed and feel quite hopeless. I find strength in knowing that as more and more people begin to recognize the power that we wield collectively, things will start to change in really profound ways. Things are changing right now all over the globe, and when I can connect to that energy thread, I can pull myself out of entropy and apathy.
The other thing I was left with was a much deeper understanding of the global Indigenous struggle for sovereignty and human rights. I think a lot of the subconscious barriers and blinders in facing that throughout my life were around not wanting to go into to the grief and shame that I carry as a European person. Not wanting to rewrite my entire life history. Not wanting to free-fall into the emptiness of my own lack of identity. And not wanting to sit with the pain that comes with opening up the suffering of those who once thrived on the lands I call home. It’s like swallowing a 20-pound brick covered in razor blades.
Shortly after returning home I discovered that the Muckaty campaign had been won, which was so great and I know so many people fought so long and so hard! Unfortunately, the fight continues to bring awareness about the dangers of the nuclear industry, prevent nuclear armament, stop waste dumps from being imposed on other communities and seek a transition to clean alternatives to nuclear energy. And the policies of the Intervention have yet to be fully repealed.
I ended up becoming involved in a lot of First Nations-led activism in Canada (aka Turtle Island) and became part of the campaign to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Through that and taking friends up on invites to go to pow-wow's and ceremony, I’ve had the great honour to experience the creativity, strength, humour and resilience that's at the core of who Indigenous people are.
Through the ceremonies I’ve been a part of I’ve also formed a deeper connection to my own ancestry, particularly that of my mother’s side where there is deep trauma from World War II. I think a lot of the comforts, privileges and scapegoating onto others that is often part of Western culture can keep us insulated from our own grief. Humanity is in crisis right now and we need to go into our hearts and spirits and open up the pain we carry and open up to the suffering of others. The darkness of our collective sorrows is a portal to the beauty, hope, humility and wisdom we all need to cultivate in order to get though these chaotic and apocalyptic times.
Another thing, in being invited to participate so deeply in sacred cultural traditions, is that I make sure to honour and not appropriate. I find that I’m able to connect with the same creative and spiritual forces that I’m exposed to during First Nations ceremonies by connecting to the pre-Christian spirituality of Europe, and that’s something that’s deepened a lot since I returned from Australia.
While supporting Indigenous-led blockades, there have been times that it feels really overwhelming to be a part of such intimate events and hear so many details of the sufferings that communities have experienced. I still don’t know how to hold all of that and do it justice. It’s something I think about and feel nearly every day.
MORE ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIA / RAD TOUR INFORMATION:
lose your shit laughing and blow your mind at the brilliance of this TV Series shot in Arnhem Land
Radioactive Exposure Tours
a collection of RAD Tour pages by Friends of the Earth and nuclear industry resources
On the Road with Anti-Nuclear Activism
Jemila Rushton talks about her experiences on the 2014 RAD Tour
The Real Queen of the Desert
Starlady Starlady's amazing TED Talk about their experiences doing hairstyling and community outreach
INFORMATION ON THE NORTHERN TURTLE ISLAND / CANADIAN NUCLEAR INDUSTRY:
The Committee For Future Generations
a group opposing the nuclear industry on Dene lands