Movie stars, rock stars, politicians and world renowned activists all say the work of Robert and Selina Eggington must be preserved but the future of an amazing cultural and historical operation remains in doubt. The 28 year strong Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation is at risk of losing its tenancy at the Clontarf Academy grounds in Perth, once a place where much ill, including sexual abuse, befell children, Black and White, when it housed an orphanage. The new landlord, the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), and the longstanding peppercorn tenant, Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, are mired in a sad struggle.
Far too many families, mostly Noongars, but many other language groups too from all over Western Australia have depended on Dumbartung for healing, resilience and empowerment. Dumbartung’s directors, Robert and Selina Eggington were featured in internationally acclaimed journalist John Pilger’s documentary ‘Utopia’. But Mr Eggington said there is an agenda by the ILC “to covertly close Dumbartung and its Kyana Gallery.”
The ILC stated they “acknowledge and respect the cultural, social and historical significance of the Kyana Gallery and the importance of their contents as acknowledged by Noongar Elders.”
But the ILC states there are structural repairs that have to be made to the buildings occupied by Dumbartung and in particular the Kyana Gallery. The ILC stated that as the new landlord it inherited the “repair costs” and will meet them. The ILC stated that as long as Dumbartung agrees to “outgoings” they will be offered tenancy. The Eggingtons stated they have been on the Clontarf site longer than any other tenant and their ongoing value to the Noongar community has been achieved “off an oily rag.” The organisation has done what it does by thousands of volunteer hours contributed by the Eggingtons and others and by some piecemeal funding.
Many do not understand why the wealthy ILC does not absorb the outgoings required of Dumbartung. The outgoings are pittance to the ILC but substantial to Dumbartung. Noongar stalwarts Robert and Selina Eggington have spent their whole lives archiving a history of their people through the Kyana Gallery. The Kyana Gallery, and the Eggington’s healing work with hundreds of Noongars and other First Peoples has long held stature among all layers of society. But both Kyana and Dumbartung are under threat, with their futures in question because of the damn quid.
Mr Eggington is frustrated by the quid always getting in the way. He said there is so much of the quid on offer but mostly for armchair advocates but not for those at the coalface such as himself and his wife.
“How much money in the world of artistic creative expression can be made from the pain and the suffering?”
“How many academic theses, doctrines, and professorships can be awarded to research fellows for theorising trauma associated with genocide, racial oppression, brutality including self-injury and suicide without ever leaving the comfort of their university or political office. These people become armchair human rights advocates.”
Prior to the Western Australia premiere of ‘Utopia’, John Pilger released this statement, “The film you are about to see – which took me two years to make – is being shown on Noongar land in a State that features prominently in the film. The planning of Utopia began soon after the infamous ‘Intervention’ in 2007. I believed this demanded a documentary response. But the film received its greatest boost when I came to Perth early in 2010 and met Robert and Selina Eggington and saw the remarkable work of their healing centre at Dumbartung. Listening to Robert and Selina then, being guided by Robert through the Kyana Gallery, I was reinforced in my belief that the uniqueness of Australia lies in the First Nations of my homeland – and that justice for them ought to be the nation’s highest priority. The film you are about to see is made in honour of them.”
But because of the quid Dumbartung is now a key ongoing concern – that is unless the ILC can step up and assist.
“Instead of working something out with us, to give us certainty rather than this uncertainty, we were informed that the ILC would change the locks on the Kyana Gallery. We are the only ones with keys to the Gallery. We have read much into this,” said Mr Eggington.
But the ILC stated that the ceiling is at risk of falling in and they are only changing the locks as a safety check.
The Eggingtons presented the ILC a petition of over a thousand signatures supporting Dumbartung and Kyana. The ILC responded that they “fully respect the right of people who have exercised their democratic right and put their name to a petition supporting the Kyana Gallery. The ILC also believe that in exercising this democratic right, people also have the right to access a balance of relevant information about this issue, so they can make up their own minds about the merits undertaken by the ILC at Clontarf.”
The ILC was gifted the Clontarf site by the Christian Brothers in January 2013. The site is home to the Clontarf Aboriginal College and to a few major Aboriginal organisations.
The ILC stated that when they “acquired the property a number of heritage buildings were in poor condition. The cost of repair the ILC has inherited has been estimated at between $750,000 and $1 million.”
“The ILC has a legally enforceable duty of care to make sure Clontarf is a safe and healthy working environment for staff and visitors. Each individual organisation at Clontarf – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – pays their proportionate share of outgoing costs for the services they use.”
“It would be unfair if all organisations were fully paying for their outgoings and one organisation was not.”
But because of the public value of the work of Dumbartung and Kyana, the other Clontarf-based organisations recently offered their support for Dumbartung and to be exempted from outgoings.
The ILC stated that the “current building which houses the Kyana Gallery is in an unsafe condition, particularly in relation to the structural integrity of the ceiling.”
“It currently poses a threat to visitors. For safety, the Kyana Gallery collection has been moved, and the ILC has restricted access to the building to ensure the safety of Clontarf campus staff and visitors. The ILC has commissioned a structural engineering report to recommend improvements to the Kyana Gallery building to avoid further deterioration of the roof and ceiling structure and any damage to people or contents within.”
The ILC stated, “The identification and securing of revenue streams by Dumbartung is critical for its future accommodation on campus, including paying its fair share of outgoings on the same terms as other campus tenants. Since March 2013, in an effort to help Dumbartung, the ILC has waived its outgoings, at a cost to the ILC of about $25,000. This is over and above what the ILC normally provides as the ILC cannot fund operational or current costs for Indigenous corporations.”
“Dumbartung is being asked to do the same as other Indigenous organisations at Clontarf.”
“The ILC chairperson (Dr Dawn Casey) has written to Dumbartung a number of times explaining the cost recovery model for the operation of the Clontarf campus. The ILC does not charge rent for the buildings but expects tenants to cover their own outgoing costs. Dumbartung has been offered a peppercorn rental for the office building it is currently occupying for 2015.”
“The costs projected for Dumbartung’s tenancy in 2015 are based on the costs that the ILC has waived for Dumbartung in 2014 – approximately $16,000 per annum.”
“If Dumbartung can pay its share of outgoings like all other Indigenous organisations currently on the site, then the ILC remains committed to offering Dumbartung a continuing tenancy on the campus.”
John Pilger who visited Kyana Gallery was haunted by its voluminous visual histories. He was so inspired by the work and sacrifices of the Eggingtons that one day soon after his visit a cheque for $20,000 arrived in the mail.
“We were shocked. It was a beautiful gesture by John Pilger,” said Mr Eggington.
“Dumbartung has been of service to the Noongar community for the past 28 years. The Kyana festivals from 1991 to 1993 are still the largest cultural gatherings in the living memory of Noongar people,” said Mr Eggington. “More than 30,000 people attended the first Kyana festival and this number nearly doubled during the second festival.”
“Dumbartung is responsible for a prisoners’ art program, the Kyana Gallery and the sacred keeping room. In 2010 the Federal Government acknowledged the Gallery, providing it with a significant assessment in recognising its collection of materials that are of significance to the Australian peoples – to our history.”
“Dumbartung has been at the forefront of advocacy and protest movements – at the forefront of political activism in Western Australia, and we have led the way in the protection of Aboriginal intellectual property rights.”
“Dumbartung organised and co-ordinated the Yokai, the Yenna, the Wumbudi, the Djiddar Boodja and many other rallies and protest movements.”
“Our wall of Shame samples and displays the exploitation of Aboriginal culture.” This wall is a truly haunting experience and an in-depth look into narratives that many have presumed have been told, but their texts and sub-texts are in fact untold.
Mr Eggington led repatriation programs for his people’s historical cultural materials and objects from around the world. He hounded private collectors, auctioneers and museums.
He led the campaign against Marlo Morgan (more on this later in this feature), against Elizabeth Durack and Colin Johnson – in trying to reclaim First Peoples truths and identity by bringing them to account for misappropriations and misrepresentations of Aboriginal cultural and historical identities.
“Thousands of groups have visited Dumbartung during the last 25 years, visiting Kyana, listening to lectures, coming here for cross-cultural programs,” said Mr Eggington.
“We were the organisation that completed more tenders than any others on behalf of the victims of the Stolen Generations.”
“We completed over 500 applications for Stolen Generations members who were seeking compensation for the abuse and neglect they suffered during the time they were institutionalised in missions across Western Australia
“We developed and implemented Kootamiarra Quab Aboriginal Women’s Healing program which utilises our culture and spirituality as a means of healing our peoples from their traumas and suffering.”
Selina Eggington said that the program arose in part from her own experiences as a Noongar woman. Ms Eggington found that using art and culture were powerful opportunities to heal trauma and grief.
There is a mourning tribute area within Dumbartung which recognises loss and grief.
“We have maintained Aboriginal history and ensured the Noongar community’s rights to adequately archive our history and for its proper interpretation. We have ensured the right of our peoples to manage our own history through the Kyana Gallery.”
“If Dumbartung is not funded by Government, through heritage and cultural maintenance, then we will have to keep looking elsewhere but time is running out and we are being pressured – we need to ensure Dumbartung continues as tangible, as accessible, as the asset that it is for our peoples.”
“It is a demonstration of the ignorance and shame of our State and Federal Governments that they have not seen the light of day to support this organisation, its social reach work and its maintenance of our cultural integrity and historical identity.”
The Eggingtons have spent a lifetime in getting records set straight for their people – through the tangible that is within the walls of Dumbartung and Kyana but also outside these walls by chasing down those who steal and misappropriate belongings of their people. Those who misappropriate also misunderstand what they have in their possession and consequently interpretations of the past are wrong.
More than two decades ago, Mr Eggington chased down American author Marlo Morgan over her controversial book – Mutant Message Down Under. He said Ms Morgan misrepresented his peoples. Ms Morgan claimed to have wandered with “a lost tribe of Aborigines” and made a number of outlandish claims. Ms Morgan had intended her book as biographical however Harper-Collins suggested it should be categorised as fiction and hence Ms Morgan secured $1.7 million. Mr Eggington could not stomach the false depictions of the First Peoples and journeyed to the United States.
Actor Steven Segal, who campaigns for the rights of Native Americans, heard of Mr Eggington’s visit and met with him in Los Angeles while he was on location for a film shoot. He organised a phone call between Ms Morgan and Mr Eggington. Mr Eggington said Ms Morgan apologised to the First Peoples of Australia however she would go on to state publicly she had only said to him that she had not meant to offend anyone. Mr Eggington stands by his version of the phone conversation.
Mr Eggington led an Aboriginal delegation from Australia to stop United Artists from making a film based on Ms Morgan’s book. A public controversy ensued. In an interview with SBS, Ms Morgan said, “It has been good for my book sales which have jumped up again.”
As far as Mr Eggington is concerned, the campaign was a success because he had ensured significant public exposure of the misrepresentations of First Peoples by Ms Morgan.
Steven Segal held a press conference, stating, “I am very proud to stand behind the Aborigines and try to put every effort to settle this situation with a truce.
Despite reaching thousands of children and adults through the many varied programs the organisation coordinates, Mr Eggington said one of the most important programs of the organisation is the one coordinated by his wife and partner, Selina; the healing of the grief and loss experienced by Aboriginal women.
They both work with Noongar youth – substance abuse, issues around identity and with suicide prevention. They mitigate, reduce and remove the stressors that can culminate in suicide. They are deeply troubled by the reality that Australia’s Aboriginal youth have among the world’s highest suicide rates.
Everything the Eggingtons do is not-for-profit – Dumbartung and Kyana are non-commercial enterprises. If the Eggingtons were to sell the contents of Kyana Gallery – thousands of Noongar artefacts and paintings, craft and history, they would become instantaneously wealthy. But nothing is for sale.
“Some of the artefacts we preserve in the Gallery’s non-public keeping room are thousands of years old,” said Mr Eggington.
“Some of these artefacts were used for ceremonies by our ancestors, in ceremonies so ancient that they are near incomprehensible.”
Dumbartung needs to be supported in order to survive long into the future. It needs to be relieved of being cast into a constant state of a key ongoing concern. It should not be subjected to business models but supported by the State Government and by organisations, whether they are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal organisations. Noongars regale in the high cultural content preserved by Dumbartung and Kyana.
Dumbartung needs to survive as an authentic historical archive for Noongars but also for all First Peoples and for all Australians. Despite the kerfuffle over Dumbartung’s immediate future, it was only a few years ago that the National Library of Australia and the National Archives acknowledged everything within the walls of Dumbartung and Kyana as “nationally significant.
In a 2011 report by museum consultants, Dr Brian Shepherd and Paul Bridges, they stated, “It is clear that this (the collections are) one of considerable local State, national and international significance when understood within its institutional context.”
Dr Shepherd and Mr Bridges recommended support for Dumbartung and Kyana for the sake of future generations. They recommended that Government, non-Government and Noongar bodies should come together and support Dumbartung.
2003 Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley said similarly of Dumbartung and Kyana what renowned journalist and documentary maker John Pilger said.
The Dalai Lama was won over by Dumbartung and Kyana.
So too was Johnny Cash and June Carter.
And Bob Dylan.
And many others.
“We must be able to tell our story our way. If we cannot tell our story our way then it is not our story. We are the oldest living culture on the most ancient land mass on the face of this Earth,” said Mr Eggington.
“Kyana is a place of Aboriginal story-tellers and it is time to accept that for far too long our stories have been told by non-Aboriginals, by professionals such as anthropologists, historians and social workers.”
But Mr Eggington is disappointed in the nation’s parliamentarians – former and current. Many have visited Dumbartung but they have all failed to assist. Former federal minister, Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil fame visited and did nothing to help out Dumbartung. Treasurer Joe Hockey, while in Opposition, visited but has never assisted. State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Collier has visited and zilch from him too.
“They visited Dumbartung. They acknowledged its value. They all said Dumbartung shall continue. They have never assisted,” said Mr Eggington.
The Eggingtons strive to empower and to heal “our people, our communities” through cultural initiatives that strengthen the spiritual identity and ones sense of belonging. It is within this belief that amassed in the power of the Kyana Gatherings on the foreshore of the Derbarl Yerrigan during 1991-93.
Dumbartung was brought about in 1987 as a Noongar advisory body for Noongar artists. Mr Eggington is an accomplished artist. But Dumbartung could not avoid the coalface of all the grief and misery that is self-evident in far too many First People families. Robert and Selina heard their calling and they stepped up. They have been listening to the people for nearly three decades, and they have given back to many what they needed; healing.
Dumbartung means “We of the people.”
“May our campfires burn forever,” said Mr Eggington.