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The Struggles of a Storyteller

12 February 2014 at 11:29 am
Staff Reporter
A Not for Profit preserving lost treasures of indigenous cultural significance is grappling with a new reality - it must be a social enterprise to survive. Nadia Boyce reports.

Staff Reporter | 12 February 2014 at 11:29 am


The Struggles of a Storyteller
12 February 2014 at 11:29 am

A Not for Profit preserving lost treasures of indigenous cultural significance is grappling with a new reality – it must be a social enterprise to survive. 

Storytelling is the focus of the the Ara Irititja project, operating since 1994, which connects a set of Australian indigenous communities to their heritage through a custom digital archive of historical materials.  

Ara Irititja means ‘stories from a long time ago’ in the language of Anangu, which includes the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people of Central Australia. Ara Irititja archives are in Anangu communities in South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

What began with a Filemaker Pro database in the pre-internet days has grown into a specialist digital museum, including 120,000 items covering the late 1800s to the present day.  

The first system was delivered in 2001 to Pukatja community in South Australia, with 10,000 digital items including photos, movies, documents, artworks and sounds.

Anangu are able navigate the archive, write in information, stories and reflections, and use passwords to restrict access to specific items. It is sophisticated, with multimedia capabilities and complex mapping software, run on a network protected by password.

Collecting Memories

For Anangu, the database is culturally invaluable.

Julia Burke, Project Officer at Ara Irititja, says there previously had not been an established tradition of Anangu communities documenting their lives.

“People didn’t have a camera…there’s no Kodak developing shop down the street. The way houses are set up didn’t encourage people to keep a lot of material.”

While some materials were previously filed away in the archives of public institutions in larger cities, others were ‘lost’ in family photo albums or packed away in old suitcases and boxes.  

“Indigenous communities realised there was a lot of information, photos and materials about them in cities in Australia and they wanted to repatriate them,” Burke says.  

The archive has proven a way to connect younger generations with the past.

“You’ll see an old man and his grandson – with the grandson using the mouse and the grandfather telling the stories,” Burke adds.  

She also speaks of its installation at an aged care home where the archive saw residents switching off indigenous TV station NITV and instead watching the archive over their porridge.

Ara Irititja certainly paints a poignant picture of the history of Australian indigenous communities. Those taken from their families at a young age are turning to the archive to trace their lineage.

I helped a woman find a photo; she was a baby in her mother’s arms,” Burke says. “It was a short time later that she was taken from her.

“It can be quite emotional.”  

Software for survival  

Now in a time of hardship, the purposely-developed Ara Irititja Knowledge Management System software could be the key to survival for the organisation.  

“We’re in a really, really bad situation,” Burke says.  

“We’re only just recently coming to terms with being a social enterprise…we have to be a social enterprise to survive. We’ve been selling the software for about ten years – it’s more a realisation now that we need to sell it.”

“It’s a source of income for us because we don’t get much funding from government. It’s a commercial strategy for us.”

“What we’re really struggling with is that we only get one salary paid.”

Burke says the unique nature of Ara Irititja means that they often fail to meet the requirements of grant funding schemes – limiting their opportunities.

“We don’t fit neatly into any funding area. We’re cultural heritage but don’t fit because you have to be an actual site,” she says.  

“Change of government has affected our ability to push down those streams where maybe we could have done a bit of tweaking to fit in.”

Remoteness is also proving a challenge for Burke. Her role requires liaising with Anangu, but her office in Alice Springs is hundreds of kilometres from some communities in which Ara Irititja is in place.

“When you have to drive eight hours to meet somebody, it’s hard,” she says.

Privacy challenges also arise as Anangu are careful to determine how their history and culture are presented to the world-wide audience.

Administrative demands arise from the need to respect indigenous cultural sensitivities, such as the tradition of not publishing photographs of the recently deceased. If a community member passes away, access to their photographs must be closed off – meaning the archive must be constantly updated.

Internet connectivity is an additional issue Burke expects will be ongoing.

“In central Australia seven NT communities we work with don’t have sufficient internet to be able to have the live network version.”

“We’ve had to remake the software for them…and money doesn’t grow on trees.

“Even with the NBN many NT communities are never going to have fast cable like you or I,” she says.  

Leveraging Cultural Capital

The cultural value of the archive to both Anangu and researchers makes new income streams and further growth a possibility, however distant.

“It’s knowledge keeping software. It can be for any family or organisation. We think it could be used in more indigenous communities but also across mainstream Australia.”

“We’ve had inquiries from New Zealand, Greenland, Canada and USA.”

Burke also flagged the inclusion of studies related to Australia’s indigenous communities as a potential opportunity.

If television programs like Compass need research on Anangu, the organisation could charge a fee for research services.

“We also have plans to create a subset of the archive available for purchase by the education department or researchers,” Burke says.  

Anangu are being trained in maintenance of the archive and Ara Irititja also hopes to eventually employ them.

“There’s a lot of volunteerism at community level,“ she says. It’s opportunistic for everyone.”  

Ara Irititja remains a social enterprise far-removed from the burgeoning networks in Melbourne and other metropolitan centres.

Burke says the growth of the movement, despite being far away, has provided inspiration and a direction to follow.

“We’re jumping onto that movement,” she says.  

“We wouldn’t be calling ourselves a social enterprise if it weren’t for them.” 

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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