Three Things I Learned in Yolngu Country in North East Arnhem Land By Sarah Loh, Petroleum Engineer, Woodside, SPE WA Section, 9 Jul 2017

How much do you really know about Indigenous Australia? My answer? Not much. That’s why when my employer, Woodside1, offered me a six-week secondment, to work with an Aboriginal corporation, it was an opportunity I had to take.

My placement took me to North East Arnhem Land, where I lived in the Gunyangara community outside of Nhulunbuy, a beautiful piece of Australia. Three weeks after returning to Perth, I’m still processing the experience. I’ve learned more than I can articulate at this point, but here are my three key takeaways in celebration of NAIDOC Week2.

1. Reach out to learn, your teachers are ready, and they are many.

My placement was with a group of rangers who looked after land and sea country, so it’s fair to say that most of my technical expertise as a petroleum engineer was not particularly useful. My enthusiasm, however, bordered on undignified, and I don’t doubt that it showed. Everyone became my teacher.

The shyest, quietest of Yolngu rangers taught me about music and the balance of Dhuwa and Yirritja. The Managing Director and Senior Rangers became my language tutors – teaching and testing at every opportunity. Each ranger coached me in the performance of key tasks, patiently showing me that I could broaden my thinking if I assumed less, which was how I was able to deliver results in the work I was asked to do.

Reflecting on these experiences, I feel grateful, and I realise that human nature rarely holds back when someone reaches out. In our desire to understand more about Indigenous Australia, it’s a point worth remembering – if you want to learn, reach out, and your many teachers will be there.

2. Look and listen. The world is speaking.

A couple of weeks into my secondment, I went out to the field with a few rangers to perform routine maintenance. During a break, I started to ask about the significance of the site and its name. Hearing my interest, a ranger led me by the hand and started pointing out native weeds, bushes, leaves, digging for the odd root, and describing what each of these was – markers for the start of mud mussel season, hunting season, red dye, round yams, and more.

For a tiny moment in time, my eyes were able to see, and the green-brown scrub spoke to me. I think of that moment often, and it’s a powerful reminder in a highly focused, goal-oriented life, to pause occasionally and really look and listen, so I can see where I really am, and appreciate it fully.

3. I still don’t know very much about Indigenous Australia.

My six weeks as a guest of the Yolngu granted me some privileged glimpses into Yolngu culture, ceremony, symbolism, challenges and way of life. I learned to speak some Yolngu Matha, a common language spoken in the region, and I connected with many people I hope to see again.

The Yolngu nation is one of over 500 nations across Australia, with distinct cultures, languages and beliefs. Through the Yolngu, I now know more about Indigenous Australia than ever before, and I also acknowledge that the incredible depth and complexity of each of those cultures will likely always remain unfathomable to me.

Understanding that there are almost limitless stories to study, I ask a different question now – what will you learn this NAIDOC Week?

1Woodside Energy Ltd. partners with the Jawun Program, providing its staff the opportunity to undertake secondments such as the one described in this post as part of its Reconciliation Action Plan commitment to cultivate a greater workforce and stakeholder appreciation of Indigenous cultures.

2NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities but by Australians from all walks of life. The week is a great opportunity to participate in a range of activities and to support your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.