Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Meeting the Tjuntjuntjara community

Shirley Deane/Midyett and Elder Mr. Ned Grant
(photo by Graham Townley)
In honor of the Spinifex People

By Vic Midyett, in consultation with Shirley Deane/Midyett

[Author’s Note: Shirley has now done the work at the remote Spinifex Health Service center that we announced here on March 11, in “White butterfly...Aboriginal Australian symbolism.”
    In all Australian aboriginal cultures there are strict and definitive rules around what is “men’s business” and “women’s business.” I have written this article in the hope that we have been appropriately sensitive to all. We wish to acknowledge and honor the Spinifex People as the owners and custodians of their land.

It all started benignly with me driving Shirley to the Perth airport in the afternoon three Saturdays ago for her flight to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Australia’s largest “outback” city of over 31,000, in Western Australia. Her itinerary had her staying the night there and being collected at 5:45 the next morning by two ladies who were taking a four-wheel drive with supplies out to the Tjuntjuntjara community, a remote aboriginal community in the southeast of Western Australia.
Shirley was to bring water and something to eat, because they would pass nothing along the way. The contracted light aircraft (10 seats) did the trip only twice one week and three times the next, in rotation. Sunday was not one of the days.
    So off they went, running out of paved road within a mile out of town. The rest of the trip was over dirt. Within 40 km of town a roo [kangaroo] hopping in the same direction they were, veered into the side of their vehicle but only scared itself and them, with no damage to either.
    The dirt track started out wide enough for two vehicles to pass easily, but it narrowed to a single track. This didn’t matter –during the nine-hour drive, they met only one vehicle coming from the opposite direction. It had rained the day before and the only other vehicle they passed going in their direction had gotten stuck in the mud, and no one belonging to it could be seen anywhere.
    Besides roos, Shirley reports seeing wild dingos and camels during the 680 km [422.5 mile] trip to what she found out later is considered the most remote aboriginal community in the entire country. Driving instructions for getting there included the statement, “At trip odometer reading 527 km, veer left at the red drum,” and there, finally, it was, at that reading: a red 55-gallon drum at the Y in the track. And two hours later their welcoming sign:

    The Spinifex Health Service is staffed by registered aboriginal health practitioners, nurses, and, for one week a month, by a general practitioner medical doctor, who is flown in.
    Patients needing a CT scan or the like are flown to Kalgoorlie. Australia has a Royal Flying Doctor Service, which is partly government-funded, but it also accepts donations. It is there for emergencies mostly.
    Another service in Australia is Angel Flight, “a charity which coordinates non-emergency flights to assist country people to access specialist medical treatment that would otherwise be unavailable to them because of vast distance and high travel costs.” It was started in 2003 by a successful businessman who involved other successful businessmen who flew, as their way of giving back. They accept donations from anywhere, but the service continues primarily because of them. I love the video advertisement on their website:

    Shirley’s accommodation was a quite well-appointed steel shipping container with a good, ensuite shower. The view from her window:

    Growing near her suite was a Sturt [or Sturt’s] Desert Pea, one of Australia’s best known wildflowers, native to the arid regions of central and northwestern Australia:
    The community has a well for its water, but it doesn’t taste good so most do not drink it, instead buying bottled water from their small general story. Electricity is supplied by diesel generators, and with no mobile phones the only communications with the outside world at present are over landlines, satellite phones, radio, and the Internet. They do, however, have lots of satellite dishes for TV and Internet and for developing web sites. You can read more about the community on the Paupiyala Tjarutja Aboriginal Corporation’s website.

The opportunity for Shirley to go on this outing had come through a highly respected associate and friend of hers, Louise Rabbone, who is well known throughout Australia and in New Zealand as a corporate psychologist. Louise & Shirley are two peas in a pod, professionally and personally, and they both have the honest wisdom to know their own strengths and weaknesses. Louise had been waiting for a chance to get Shirley more involved, so when the Paupiyala Tjarutja Aboriginal Corporation approached her for a workshop for all corporate staff members in the Community Development Programme’s training room in Tjuntjuntjara, she immediately thought of Shirley and her Cherokee heritage, which Louise thought would better facilitate Shirley’s acceptance in the community.
    Shirley’s mandate was to conduct a two-day effective communication and team-building workshop. The health center wanted to achieve a more positive and cohesive working environment involving everyone, no matter what their role.
    Aboriginal elders ordinarily get their message across nonverbally, using words only when they have to. On the second day, Elder Mr. Ned Grant came in and sat down at the front of the room where Shirley was, and proceeded to listen for over an hour. When he apparently thought it appropriate, he let the group of 23 know, simply with some hand gestures, that Shirley was a smart person to be listened to – the highest of honors!
    Mr. Grant, who is also an artist, then looked at Graham Townley, the project manager and the community’s anthropologist, and motioned for him to translate any unfamiliar words for Shirley. Shirley says that Graham speaks this aboriginal group’s dialect beautifully and fluently. (Graham doesn’t live in the community, but goes there often for extended stays to record the Spinifex People’s history.)

Through research before conducting the workshop, Shirley had discovered that the people in the Tjuntjuntjara community are known internationally throughout the art world as exceptional. Shirley intuitively thought it might be appropriate to do a painting of her own to present to them, so she painted “White Butterfly,” which in our Cherokee heritage is a symbol of hope. I took a photo of the painting and printed 25 paper copies, which we inserted into individual envelopes for a gift to each participant in the workshop.
   After explaining the painting’s symbolism and handing each participant a copy, Shirley held up the framed original and asked the group to which elder it should be given. They all immediately agreed that this decision needed to be made by a young lady who throughout the workshop had been the most interactive and available. She was involved in the age-care arm of the facility and would be the best one to decide. “White Butterfly” was emotionally and gratefully accepted.

Shirley left the community the following Wednesday, in a light plane that had originated behind schedule from Kalgoorlie, where a thunder storm was in progress.
    For a short while there had been some doubt whether it could leave Kalgoorlie at all. When it did take off, the pilot radioed ahead to the community saying that all the passengers needed to be waiting on the runway, because he would not wait, but would load everyone immediately for the return flight before the runway got too wet and turned to mud. Anyone not there would not be going. All eight happily complied, including Shirley.
    She told me that during take-off, the pilot was biting his finger nails and bouncing his leg nervously. But she made her connection back to Perth, where I was 20 minutes late picking her up! (This resulted in a hospital visit, just for observation – I’m kidding.)

One of the first things Shirley said to me upon arriving home was that her work in the Tjuntjuntjara community was the most professionally and environmentally challenging experience of her 47-year working career. But in the end, it was also the most personally and professionally rewarding. The outcome of Shirley’s workshop was indeed positive and the tone of the feedback progressive and excellent. With hope.

Copyright © 2016 by Vic Midyett & Shirley Deane/Midyett


  1. Vic & Shirley, thank you both for telling and illustrating this story, and for the many go-arounds you no doubt had to go around to have it vetted and approved by everyone involved. This shows great dedication and willingness to work hard.
        Could you perhaps give us an overview of what a workshop in communication & team building involves? For example, what sorts of activities does Shirley have the members of a team participate in? Does she have to prepare special activities depending on who the people are, or can she "re-use" some basic activities with almost any group of people? Thanks!

  2. Thank for telling us and thank Shirley for her wonderful work!

  3. I need to add for the purpose of specific clarification that the participants involved in this workshop were from separate arms and all PTAC staff in a CDP training room.

    1. Vic, I subsequently revised a paragraph in the article to clarify this point. Thanks for conveying this late-breaking review comment from the corporate office.

  4. Morris, to try and answer very briefly, a small teeny skeleton of her outline.
    Firstly, in the clients brief, is identified objectives and outcomes that is agreed on during the proposal process.
    Exercises can include (in communication for instance) - individuals identifying their specific 'retention vehicle', whether instructions is being told to them or in written form - auditory or visual. Also, distance in space and proximity of individuals in discussion - non verbal cues.
    Too hard to answer with clearer understanding, Morris. The main thing, Shirley believes is being able to identify when her content needs to go a different direction. She does that through intuition and over 47 years of experience. She does no 'cookie cutter' presentations, but is constantly flexible to each groups needs.
    She always makes a content workbook to what she believes ahead of time is specific to each groups needs. However, as the workshop progresses, what she covers from it can change. Participants KEEP their workbooks for revision and reference. This one was 26 pages.
    What I tried to cover to your question is only microscopic drop of explanation. This forum is not adequate. But your question was a good one. Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Vic. I appreciate knowing about the written proposal, the workbook based upon it, and Shirley's employing intuition to read the situation and make mid-course adjustments to address real perceived needs. Excellent!

  5. What an interesting story, Morris. Please tell Vic for me how much I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Patsy, comments here are public, so there's no need for me to relay your comment, and I hope Vic will respond here to confirm that for you.

  6. Yes Patsy, I just saw it, so thank you very much for your kind words.

  7. Has anyone watched the "Angel Flight" TV ad link in the article? With your sound on?