The Long Walk from Adelaide to Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island) was a special event. The last issue of NvT carried a short article outlining the Walk's mixture of protest (against the building of the Hindmarsh Island bridge), solidarity and sharing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and its message of peace. This article tells the story of what happened on the walk, how it all came together and what made it special.
The Long Walk began as the idea of some of the Ngarrindjeri women, and it seems clear that it caught the imaginations of people well beyond the Kumarangk campaign group. It was a big idea, and a different one: not the average rally and march. It required commitment and effort. It also came at a politically important time with the Hindmarsh Island Bill before parliament and the so called 'race debate' heating up. Many people were keen to make a visible statement against racism. Many also began to see Kumarangk as a crucial moment in history, with the potential to either turn away from the tentative steps toward reconciliation taken so far, or to model a vision of indigenous and non indigenous people living together with respect.
It is one thing to have an inspirational idea, quite another to make it happen. We had just three months to organise the Walk (compared for instance to twelve months for peace camps like Nurrungar '93). While there were people in the organising group who had been in the Kumarangk campaign for a long period, its eventual membership of about twenty-five people included many people who had never worked together. Yet with little time for training and group building, the group functioned superbly. It is worth reflecting on what made it work so well.
Firstly there were the people themselves who generally had good skills and were connected to many networks. But as many of us know from experience, that is no guarantee of a successful group, and relatively new activists also fitted in and played important roles. Among the reason for the group's success were the following:
Statement of Purpose
At the beginning there was a discussion of the purpose of the Walk. A couple of people took away notes from that discussion and came up with a Statement of Purpose (printed in the last NvT) which captured a common agenda, balancing the protest aspect and the reconciliation/sharing aspects. Having a clear, inclusive statement of purpose gave clarity to the Walk, and meant that different perspectives were recognised as legitimate, thus avoiding much politicking later on.
A pattern was established early for the way the group would work. It was set by example rather than a discussion of group norms. The initial meeting divided tasks into broad areas (publicity, transport, etc.) and individuals or groups agreed to come back to the next meeting with a list of tasks under those headings. This established a norm of people taking responsibility for particular jobs and reporting back to meetings - sometimes (when needed) in writing. Too many times we have seen other groups' plans stagnate for months because the person who was "gunna do it" didn't turn up and nobody knew what was happening.
Two experienced facilitators shared the meeting facilitation week about in the lead up to the Walk. Group norms were rarely directly discussed. Meetings worked, partly because of the facilitators' skill, but also because people saw the meetings being productive and open. (Since the Walk, facilitation has been shared among other members).
A list of everyone's phone number and the tasks people had agreed to take on was updated and distributed each week. Everyone then knew who was responsible for what and how to get into contact with them. This created an expectation that people would do what they said they would do. It also provided easy contact points for new people or people wanting advice if they were having trouble with their task.
These processes gave the group co-ordination without hierarchic leadership. A feeling of trust developed. People's effort and commitment were respected. Their advice on their areas was readily accepted and others could get on with their own tasks. Again, this is something which has not happened in many organising groups we've seen.
During planning, challenging issues were raised about security of the Walk. The Kumarangk dispute has aroused great passions here. Activists had already been verbally threatened with physical violence. There was a real chance of the Walk being disrupted or blocked by those who felt threatened by it. We tried to consider different scenarios from non-political abuse from passersby to planned attempts to block the Walk itself or disruption of the camp sites. One thing was easily agreed: group unity would be a key to both personal safety and to a continuing focus on the Walk's purpose. Contingency plans were made to bus people around any blockages and to keep watch at night. "Listening posts" were suggested to channel any opposition to experienced people who would remain cool and listen to the antagonists' point of view. As it turned out the numbers of people on the Walk and at camp provided a measure of safety and there were few problems.
Walking & Sharing
The end result was a Walk in which about 400 registered, averaging sixty people walking each day and about 100 in the camps each night. Walkers were provided with water and vehicle and first aid support, mobile toilets, communal food on most nights, and transport to public trains and buses. Each walker was issued with route maps, information kits and ribbons to identify them as part of the Walk, and T-shirts were available for sale. The Walk was covered by public liability insurance and we issued daily media releases. Such good organisation contributed greatly to people's positive experiences of the Walk, so they came away empowered - something important in any political action.
The Walk itself was a refreshingly different experience of activism. It was significant to be in a Walk being led by indigenous people. Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri-Kokatha-Pitjantjatjara woman led the way in her own right and on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri elders whose health did not allow them to walk the whole distance. They travelled by bus from camp to camp waving as they passed. The Walk was long and slow, yet constantly changing and providing challenges. There was time for many conversations and plenty of walking along humming, appreciating the landscape, sharing a drink in the heat or exchanging strategies for the avoidance of further blisters!
All of these things were important, but for many of us, the most profound was the opportunity it presented to share information and to learn along our route. We began on Kaurna land, right in the centre of what is now Adelaide, walking to Warraparinga (now Laffers Triangle), the site of a planned expressway. There was excitement and a sense of community that first night as everyone gathered to say why they had come.
Next morning we were given a tour of Warraparinga by one of the Kaurna custodians. Hearing about the significance of this piece of land which is now wedged between main roads and garish fast food outlets, and seeing the physical evidence of Kaurna occupation was a profound experience. There is little non indigenous recognition that the cities and ports we now know have often been built on significant features in the landscape which were and remain important to their indigenous owners. Neither suburbia nor McDonalds can erase the history of this closely travelled land, which is as known and sacred as many isolated sites. Warraparinga made it clear that, despite the logic of Mabo, those indigenous people whose lands have been longest colonised and most built upon, continue to have a strong attachment to that land.
The next day we walked to Clarendon, camping by the river and hearing from Ngarrindjeri elders about the stories that relate to the area and which run up into the desert and down to Kumarangk where the river meets the sea. We heard about people's lives and experiences of racism and about how the media and government attacks on Ngarrindjeri women's business have affected their community.
We walked on through Ramindjeri land around Meadows to Cox's Scrub, Ngarrindjeri land. An anthropologist involved in having the ban placed on the bridge's construction spoke about the trading routes we were travelling beside, along which different Aboriginal nations used to trade the flint and tinder needed to make fire. The fact that in the relatively short distance between Adelaide and Goolwa we passed through the lands of three indigenous nations gained a deepened significance through the experience of walking.
Apart from just information, we non indigenous people gained an opportunity to see things in different ways from the ones we have grown up with. For many of us it was a profound experience. It certainly also seemed to be a profound experience for the Ngarrindjeri women to have so many people, indigenous and not, to listen, learn and demonstrate their support.
Our last camp was at Currency Creek. Over 400 people walked from there to Goolwa, where Kumarangk is visible just across the water. The feeling as we walked that last six kilometres, led by the Ngarrindjeris, was intense. We regathered outside the police station in Goolwa, where arrests had been made at an earlier stage of the campaign to stop the bridge. From there to our final destination we sang a song which had been developed by a few walk participants, taught around the gas lights at nights and in our morning gatherings, and practised along the way.
There was a welcome rally in Goolwa with a number of inspiring speeches and a good deal of music, some it songs written especially for the occasion.
The media coverage of the Walk was a bit disappointing. ABC & SBS TV and radio gave good coverage in South Australia. With the exception of a few radio interviews, the commercial media missed out. However the Walk was an important event of itself - for the participants and most importantly for the Ngarrindjeri women. When the Walk was over there was enormous positive feedback from many of those involved - including the organisers who, though exhausted, were justifiably proud.
But two things show how special and important the Walk was. The first was the support of a group of indigenous American women who had met the Ngarrindjeri women at a conference the week before. Some farewelled us in Adelaide and others organised a march to the Australian consulate in California in solidarity with our Walk. The other thing happened at a 2,000 strong anti-racist rally the next week in Adelaide. Many people in Walk T-shirts gathered around the Walk banner, including people we didn't recognise - perhaps just because they'd showered! When the Walkers were called on to stage to sing the Walk Song they overflowed the stage and lined up in front and at the side. Many people were obviously proud/keen to say they had been on the Walk. Again, that sort of empowerment is vital in any campaign, and this campaign will continue - against the Bridge and for reconciliation and peace.
More information about the issues and the campaign is available from: The Kumarangk Coalition, 120 Wakefield St Adelaide SA 5000. http://www.foe.on.net/Kumarangk/index.html
Mary Heath & Greg Ogle
Post modernists only deconstruct the world, the point is to (re)construct a better one. (with apologies to Karl)