The Crowded Desert


The Barkly Shire, in Australia’s Northern Territory, is the size of the United Kingdom.

It is home to just 8,000 people. That’s one human being for every 40 square kilometres.

And yet the town at its centre, Tennant Creek, is in the grip of a crippling crisis of overcrowded housing.

In the drought-dry heart of Australia, Cheyanne Kunoth – age 15 “and-a-half” – sits beside the bleached greens of her town’s bowling club punching her mobile-phone keypad, desperately trying to muster girls by phone, Facebook or text message.

She’s the feisty captain of the Tennant Creek Eagles junior girls’ Aussie Rules football team. It’s already blazing hot this Saturday morning, and in only a couple of hours her Eagles are due to face off against the Roos, the team from Ali Curung bush community – Tennant Creek’s nearest neighbours, 150 kms to the south. Cheyanne is anxious.

This is the biggest day of the football season in the Barkly shire. Tennant Creek, the regional capital, has an official population of just over 3,000, but right now it is brimming with visitors who have travelled along dirt and tar from outback settlements to watch the Australian Football League grand final – the senior male Eagles against the Roos. The girls will play the curtain-raiser.

But Cheyanne is worried that she won’t be able to field a team, that her players might not all turn up.

Cheyanne’s young Eagles have no shortage of distractions, living in already crowded homes now overflowing with visiting Aboriginal families. Two- and three-bedroom bungalows accommodate 20 or 25 relatives. Swags have been thrown down on floors, porches and in dusty backyards. Parties have popped up everywhere. Last night’s sleep may have come late or not at all.

The girls are not answering Cheyanne’s messages.

The few thousand Aborigines who once owned the entire Barkly shire – which reaches across more land than the whole of the United Kingdom – are caught up in the crush of reunion.

“The word ‘privacy’ is very rare in most of these young girls’ lives,” says Melanie Baldwin, a Tennant Creek High School teacher who started the Stronger Sisters program, from which the football team sprang.

A recent University of Queensland study led by Professor Paul Memmott conservatively estimated that the average indigenous household harbours 10 people. Cheyanne understands what crowding means. Just weeks before, when an aunt and uncle stayed at her home, Cheyanne and her cousin Royella had nowhere to lie down. They filled the night hours with tea and talk.

“It was a bit hard because I didn’t have a mattress to sleep on,” she says. “I kept staying up awake, thinking how I’m gonna sleep. And trying to get my resting for the next day … We had to stay up all night and go to school in the morning.”

Linda Turner, who chairs Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation laments: “It’s a housing crisis in Tennant Creek.”

This is how it is to live far from the moneyed metropolis, the decision-making and power centres, out in the 85 per cent of Australia’s landmass which is classified as remote. With eight in 10 Australians choosing to live near the coast, this inner country is little known to most of the population.

The globalised citizens of the coast, now in the grip of a real-estate boom, tend to look outward to the world, but Australia continues to fumble with the remote. Nearly 226 years since British colonisation, there are still neglected frontiers in this nation that romantically calls itself “the wide brown land”.

One of those frontiers is Tennant Creek, where bitumen meets desert. One thousand kilometres south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway which bisects Australia, no-one – not the aching-eyed road-train truckies, not the grey nomads drifting in motorhomes, not the backpackers nursing beat-up vans – has much inkling of what lies beyond Tennant’s main drag.

In the “good” part of town, comprising a few blocks of streets parallel to the highway, rundown rental houses make strange neighbours to irrigated gardens surrounding elegant residences and the occasional apartment block.

On the edges of this small grid of streets, eight “town camps” are where half of Tennant Creek’s indigenous population lives in tin, wood and concrete structures with porches, well spaced apart, but far from private. Those used to an outdoor life are compelled by overcrowding and claustrophobia to sleep outside.

Homes here were, at best, built for nuclear families, but many are little more than tin sheds, bursting under the stress of too many people with too little in the way of material resources. Depending on the ability of the head of the household to control a crowd, the wear and tear is apparent in smashed windows, torn flyscreens and windblown rubbish. Such inadequate houses, already groaning under the load of humanity, simply break under the added weight of frequent visitors. The environment is invasive, too. Even the most houseproud residents, who have managed to grow a garden buffer, still fail to hold back mud and dust from the land which surrounds the houses.

The town’s numbers, most markedly its indigenous population, are growing. In the 2011 census the town’s black population officially became its majority; the Australian Bureau of Statistics counted 120 more indigenous people than other Australians in town, in a population of 3,062. It was a small, but significant surge, up from 2006, when the Bureau recorded that Aborigines comprised just 48.8 per cent of Tennant Creek’s population. But many Aborigines, wary of authorities, do not participate in the the census.

Aboriginal leaders in Tennant Creek say that while indigenous community numbers have grown, no new public housing to cater to the population growth has been built in more than a decade. A sign at the local mining museum reads, ‘Freedom Fortitude and Flies: Daily Life on Tennant Creek’s Goldfields’. It advertises an exhibit about the 1930s, but flies and the need for fortitude endure to this day.

It was meant to be better than this for the Aborigines of Tennant Creek.

Six years ago, there was a $30 million agreement, between the Federal and Northern Territory Governments and the local Julalikari indigenous housing organisation, to ensure town-camp homes were “constructed and upgraded”.

“The town camps will become like other suburbs,” the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister at the time, Liberal Mal Brough, declared. “The children in these town camps will have a much better future as a result.” He did not say by when.

In 2008, no building work had begun; the new Labor government’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin added $6.5 million funding “for new indigenous housing in Tennant Creek to tackle serious overcrowding in the community”.

This new housing has still not been built, and the chronic overcrowding continues unalleviated; in fact it has been exacerbated by the impact of the federal “Intervention” in the Northern Territory, which has had the effect of drawing more people into Tennant Creek, as work-for-welfare programs were scrapped in more remote communities. Existing housing is still sub-standard, despite renovations having been completed, because so much more needed to be done, locals say.

People who moved out for months when their homes were being refurbished with the government millions were flummoxed at finding how little had changed – “maybe a couple of stainless steel cupboards and a little wall”, says Turner.

This is because the housing in the town camps was already so far “behind the eight-ball”, she explains; for instance, plumbing and sewerage in the old homes was so poor that a lot of the hard-won funding had to be spent just fixing these essentials, she says.

Only two new houses have been “earmarked” to be built for a Tennant Creek town camp, Territory Housing has confirmed to The Global Mail. But the department says the site for the houses has yet to be decided.

While hundreds of new houses have been built in other Aboriginal communities, in this town, the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing program (NPARIH) focussed on “improving the condition and amenity of existing dwellings”; Territory Housing reports that 78 homes have been significantly upgraded.

Barkly Shire president Barb Shaw, who runs the world’s second biggest shire, home to just over 8,000 souls, disagrees. Shaw says the refurbished houses have not been brought up to an acceptable standard.

“People in [the wealthy Melbourne suburb of] Toorak wouldn’t live in something like that,” she says.

If successive Crown Ministers thought they were fixing the parlous state of indigenous housing in Australia’s north with the NPARIH, their $5.5 billion national partnership, of which $36.5 million was allocated to Tennant Creek, a government review at the project’s halfway point in late 2012 dashed that notion:

“The magnitude of the task in many Northern Territory communities was far greater than had been anticipated,” the review report said. So much housing had so badly deteriorated, that more houses than expected had to be rebuilt or replaced; providing extra dwellings quickly would be difficult, it concluded.

The consequences are many and dire. Linda Turner links Barkly’s sky-high rates of renal disease, scabies and childhood anaemia to the overcrowded living conditions of its citizens. She says that the housing also “compounds those problems that Aboriginal people have anyway, like the violence and the alcohol and the poverty – no money week to week.”

Gross indigenous overcrowding “is linked to poor early childhood development and educational outcomes, domestic violence, child neglect and failure to thrive, ear disease and hearing damage, and trachoma”, Aboriginal leader Olga Havnen wrote in a 2012 report to the Northern Territory government.

Shaw asks how the nation can successfully “close the gap” – that political slogan used for the yawning divide which relegates Aborigines to lower life expectancy and poorer education than other Australians – until the most basic foundation, a decent home, is built. How, she asks, can a child do well at school, if she is endlessly weary?

Cheyanne wants to finish Year 12 at a Melbourne boarding school, and become a hairdresser, teacher, or community leader. She is an enthusiastic participant in the Stronger Sisters, who fund their own sporting trips away by holding pop-up cafes, discos, movie nights and carwashes. She knows achieving her goals will be tough for an indigenous kid from Tennant, where only about one in 10 Aboriginal boys and fewer than two in 10 Aboriginal girls complete Year 12. So many things can get in the way.

“I’m looking forward towards finishing year 12, but I just hope nobody doesn’t push my luck you know?”

Tennant Creek Eagles girls’ footy team captain, Cheyanne Kunoth.

Baldwin, the teacher, has taught traumatised kids in Africa and Melbourne. She says Tennant Creek, where she has come to live with her Aboriginal husband Bernie Small, is unlike anywhere else she has ever been. She describes the living conditions of many of the children simply as “atrocious”.

To encourage the Stronger Sisters to attend school, she has turned to unorthodox means. For example, she provides them with small extras such as baby wipes, which they can use to help them stay clean, even when they can’t access the shower in an overcrowded house.

On away-game trips, she says the girls love receiving “hygiene packs”, which contain basics such as soap.

“I am trying to get girls to school and one of the common reasons is ‘I don’t have no clothes’.”

Teacher at Tennant Creek High and coordinator of the ‘Stronger Sisters’ girls’ support program, Melanie Baldwin.

Back in their homes, Baldwin says, the girls’ possessions are just common property.“Everything goes. Everything,” she says, including clothes, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

“A lot of girls … haven’t even got washing powder to wash their clothes. They know their personal hygiene is not normal ...They are aware they get ostracised at school … So they stay away [from school]. And this is where the cycle begins. They drop out, often to hang around town with other girls.”

Having sex at a tender age is common and 12- and 13-year-olds like to declare they are “married up”, Baldwin says.

“Because of the lack of privacy, I suppose, they’ve learned pretty early about the facts of life – not through being told, but through witnessing.”

A stormwater drain is the local lovers’ lane.

“Good old Camel Toe Creek. A few babies have been made there,” Baldwin says. “We’re talking proud daddies at 14 or 15.”

But some kids harbour big hopes.

Stronger Sister member Tarazita Johnston, 17, has her first job interview with the Navy in November and plans to complete Year 12 – a comparatively rare achievement among her Aboriginal peers.

Linda Turner’s grandson, Zane Foster, 16, has been picked for the men’s footy grand-final squad. He’s been allocated the No 27 guernsey, the same number his dad once wore as an Eagles player, so he’s desperate to be in the finals team and has persuaded his father, Peter, to make sacrifices to buy the $90 boots.

Cheyanne dreams of having a flat of her own, which she could keep “spotless”, with photos on the wall and a tidy bed.

But on this Saturday, as the wind sucks tall willy-willies of dust from the dry paddocks of this divided, half-forgotten frontier town, she just wants her team to beat the Ali Roos.

Often they come for dialysis or a footy final; kidney disease and sports madness are endemic here. Others flow in for family reunions, schooling, training, work, partying or – all too often “sorry business” – the ritual mourning of a relative who has died. Once in town, many stay. Some stay by choice; others, without wheels, find themselves stranded.

These new and not-so-new arrivals are in transition in a way other Australians would strain to understand (although a city or town dweller could get some inkling by trying to imagine moving into the desert to take up the life of a hunter gatherer).

Georgina Bracken, who manages the Tennant Creek’s Women’s Refuge, compares the transition to adapting from life in a developing country, speaking another language. She says she has seen in one home housing 20 people, with no furniture other than mattresses and blankets.

“If English is not your first language, if your parents haven’t been educated, it’s just like someone coming from some other Third World country, coming to live in our society and having to adapt”

Tennant Creek’s Women’s Refuge manager, Georgina Bracken.

Shirley Lewis, as community liaison officer for Anyinginyi, teaches basic homemaking skills to people fresh from the bush. She points out that, “Not many step into our [Aboriginal] world. We have got to step into yours.”

Lewis didn’t learn how to use a knife and fork until she was 15. She taught herself, by watching other people eat with cutlery and later copying them, practising in secret. For many other Aboriginal adults, moving to town means learning how to use door keys and stoves and vacuum cleaners, she says.

The old ways survive. Initiation rituals are still held on the edges of town. Tennant Creek children live in two cultures. Related by intricate indigenous kinship networks to people across northern Australia, they swing between various towns, settlements, and ancient and modern mores. They may be wearing school uniform one day; ceremonial paint the next.

“All these girls go hunt for goanna and echidna and bullock,” Baldwin says. “They will eat a lot of bush tucker on a weekend, but also have all those Western ways – [mimicking] Beyoncé, Jessica Mauboy, Tupac, Pink … ”

At Karguru town camp, one of Lewis’s clients, Olive Western, shows us the bedroom occupied by her son, aged 17, and his cousin, who’s 18. It’s a three-metre-by-four-metre sleepout, tacked onto a too-small house. To create this area, the family enclosed the end of a verandah, using mesh, wire and tin. There is no door. The boys store their possessions in a tin box under a rusty bed. On frigid winter nights, they burn wood in a tin drum to keep warm.

The cousin has come from remote Canning Creek in Queensland, like many before him, he’s hoping for a better life in town. Over the past decade there has been a kind of reverse colonisation, in which the town’s Aboriginal population has grown to outnumber that of other Australians.

Gold and cattle ‘made’ Tennant Creek, which was officially declared a town just 79 years ago. A “Heart of Gold” sign welcomes visitors at the outskirts. To the south, the bodies of drought-depleted cattle that have become roadkill lean into the highway’s dirt shoulder at intervals. The grazing industry is in distress.

But the influx of outback indigenous residents has made Tennant Creek less a pastoral or gold- and copper-mining centre, more an Aboriginal capital.

Recent arrivals are often “Intervention refugees”, as Aboriginal leader Olga Havnen puts it. The Intervention is the federal government’s six-year-long “emergency” response to a report on child sex abuse in Northern Territory indigenous communities, in which Canberra has further exerted its power over many areas of Aboriginal life.

The Intervention was accompanied by cuts to outback work-for-the-dole programs, which drove job-seekers to the towns; another Intervention measure, “income management”, which quarantines a percentage of welfare money for buying groceries, made it harder to stretch the dollar in the high-priced bush stores, Havnen says. Bans on drinking and selling alcohol in remote communities have also brought drinkers to town and reduced their willingness to return home.

Tennant Creek is Havnen’s hometown. Last year, as the Territory’s Co-ordinator-General for Remote Services, she warned her government of the critical shortage of housing and the severe overcrowding evident in most Aboriginal towns, town camps and rental accommodation.

Aborigines live in multiple-family households, at over 11 times the rate of the rest of the Territory population, she wrote.

The Territory Government did not find her report to its taste. She was sacked.

Aged care worker Olive Western, back at Karguru camp, puts a face to Havnen’s warning. Western’s over-riding wish is for a three-bedroom house. For nine years, she has squeezed her family of four, plus family members staying for extended periods, into two bedrooms. Not only do her teenaged son and nephew have to sleep in a corner of the verandah, but her uncle, aged 61, often has to sleep outside.

As Barb Shaw explains: “Family rely on family for putting a roof over their heads.”

Culture does not die. Western has never become comfortable using cutlery, but she makes damper, as her mother taught her out bush as a child, and still joins family on weekend trips away to hunt for goanna, witchetty grubs, bush turkey and kangaroo. When the power goes off at her house, often during rain, her family cooks over fire on the back verandah.

When Olive Western’s extended family come to stay they sleep on the beds in the yard. Olive built the bed on the left from four jerry-cans, wooden boards, and second-hand mattresses and blankets.

Olive and her eight-year-old nephew Darren sit on the verandah, where cooking is done when the electricity goes out.

Olive’s son, 17, and nephew, 18, live in this makeshift bedroom which is tacked onto the side of the house.

During our visit, Western is delighted that government-contracted workers are at last building a long-awaited fence, which will stop dogs, kids and cars from free-ranging over her backyard. She thinks it will save the mulberry sapling she has planted and watered during drought. The tree seems small and sad, but a thing of hope as it struggles in the dust – like the subject of a Leunig cartoon. Soon, Western says, she will plant a garden.

“The biggest killer of Aboriginal people, it’s not diabetes – it’s policies.”

Central Land Council chairman, Maurie Ryan.

Many Australians – including policy makers – wrongly believe that Aborigines like to live in overcrowded conditions because that is part of their culture, says Pat Brahim, who heads Tennant Creek’s indigenous housing organisation, Julalikari.

“The policy and lack of housing has actually created that [overcrowding]. Aboriginal people have just adapted and lived in that environment, because there’s nothing else,” she says.

Brahim has told policy forums: “If you’ve got 15 people in a family come to your house and you’ve got one toilet, one shower, you’ve got 15 bums to sit on your toilet seat, how would you like that for three to four weeks?

”That’s the sort of thing our mob have to put up with on a regular basis because of your thinking and the way you put policies in place.”

The flaws in non-Aboriginal decision-makers’ thinking extend beyond attitudes. Policies made for Tennant Creek in faraway Canberra and Darwin are also based on figures that academic researchers and locals say are way out of whack.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Paul Memmott and colleagues found that the mean size of Tennant Creek Aboriginal households is 9.9 people. Memmott’s survey was held in November 2012, when traditionally there are not many visitors in town, so his researchers say they could have undercounted.

Yet Territory Housing told The Global Mail that “there is not a high level of permanent overcrowding in Tennant Creek” and that its data show an average of 4.81 people per dwelling in town-camp households on October 1 this year.

The 2011 national census comes up with a different figure again; it counted an average 2.9 occupants per Tennant Creek household.

Linda Turner responds: “There’s 20 or 15 people per house – so get that information right for a start.”

She and her fellow indigenous activists were horrified when the census reported that the average indigenous household size across the Territory had fallen from 4.5 to 4.2 over the five years up to 2011. Memmott’s team cites the ABS practice of not counting visitors as one reason for these unreliable stats.

Sometimes, governments rely on the ABS figures. Other times they don’t. The plethora of conflicting figures, must confuse those trying to make decisions, Solomon-like, on how to divide the national pot of money available for indigenous housing.

The grand aim of the National Partnership on Remote Indigenous Housing is to achieve a Northern Territory average of 9.3 Aboriginal occupants per dwelling. Unfortunately, the federal auditor found that even this was unlikely to be achieved.

But the target stands at 9.3, Territory Housing tells us.

One parliamentary committee heard that the shortfall in houses in Tennant Creek is around 400.

Yet the Northern Territory Government passed Tennant Creek by, Pat Brahim says, when in 2009 it nominated 20 “growth towns,” as part of a plan to lure people from bush communities to service-delivery centres.

Separately, the federal government also left the town out when it named 18 service-delivery sites that it deemed to be worthy of more funding under the Intervention. It declared the numbers of houses needed for other communities – Wadeye, Alice Springs and the Tiwi islands – but it has never calculated the shortfall in Tennant Creek, says Brahim.

“Tennant Creek wasn’t in that picture …We were sitting in no-man’s land and we’re still sitting in no-man’s land,” she says.

Many Tennant Creek Aborigines are rendered homeless by government employees and contractors hired to ease the disadvantage of the dispossessed; paradoxically, the town’s private rentals are often snapped up for these workers. Havnen says the Territory’s homelessness rates are 17 times those of the rest of the nation.

The waiting period for public housing is also in dispute. Professor Memmott’s researchers were told it is between three and seven years; Territory Housing says it is 59 to 95 months. But Brahim says that many Aborigines who are already crammed in with a relative, and therefore technically already publicly housed, won’t go on the waiting list, for fear of eviction. That is because the department deems extra residents to be illegals, and may turf them out, along with the head tenant, she says.

Jane O’Keefe has waited her children’s entire lives for Territory Housing to give her a house in Tennant Creek. She sent doctors’ letters about their lungs. Both Jason, 15 months and Michael, 4, were born premature. They are also anaemic.

When she could no longer stay with her mother in Wuppa town camp, O’Keefe and her partner Derek Clarke’s only alternative in Tennant Creek was to choose another form of overcrowding; to cram with their two children into a single room with bathroom in the El Dorado Motel.

The El Dorado Motel

Just up the highway from the El Dorado, in a deserted fringe camp, we find the wind swinging a hammock bed made of sacking near a small tent, a caravan, two dumped cars and a worn sofa.

Locals tell us that an old man nicknamed Corned Beef lived with others here in the two car bodies. Life had become harder since the days out bush when he performed with his band, The Tinned Foodstuffs, with two mates called Spaghetti and Baked Beans.

Corned Beef has seen some improvement in his lot. He has swapped camping in the shell of a car for a house in town now, we are told.

A NEW $3.7 MILLION TENNANT CREEK POLICE STATION opened in January 2013. It looks very schmick and is no doubt a cool haven for the 40 or so officers who have been sent to this outback outpost to crack down on errant teenagers and to police the footy crowds, among other duties.

It is harder to see where the more than $35 million in Intervention money has gone – that’s what the federal and Northern Territory governments say they have spent on indigenous housing in this town over the past five years.

The question of where the money has gone has left the town’s indigenous leadership divided and Julalikari, which is constitutionally obliged to act to alleviate poverty and improve Aboriginal well being in Tennant Creek and the Barkly, subject to criticism.

“There was millions and millions poured into housing, but at the end of it, we didn’t get any new housing. People … at the grass roots level were thinking: ‘All of this money came through but where’s our new houses?’ Nothing’s changed for us,” says Turner.

Pat Brahim, of Julalikari, which negotiated the multi-million dollar housing deal with the two governments, says that her board had wanted new houses, but decided that those existing were of such a poor standard that they should be refurbished first. She and Julalikari board member Geoffrey Shannon deny the claims that the house rebuilds were minimal.

“The kitchens were rebuilt,” says Shannon, who himself returned to a refurbished house. “It was painted, it was plastered, it had tiles on the floor, windows, louvres were done, the flywire – all of that. The fan, wiring, air conditioning ...They rebuilt the house,” he says.

As Brahim tells it, housing conditions were so bad that Julalikari thought it best to begin afresh, as if it were a developer, planning new suburbs. So it urged the governments to spend money on providing roads, kerbing, lighting and sewer systems, she says.

Besides, Brahim adds: “Julalikari never held any of the money. That all sits with the NT Government.” The government also hired other contractors to do works, besides Julalikari, she says, and although she agrees that there have been delays to all the works, Brahim says that was not Julalikari’s fault.

Money allocated in Canberra or Darwin to address the problems faced by Aborigines simply does not hit the ground in remote areas, Maurie Ryan says. So much is creamed off along the way, that he estimates about 10 per cent of funds filters through.

Havnen’s report says actual monies spent are difficult to quantify: “Determining to what extent indigenous communities are benefiting from the increased expenditure of public funds is problematic, when so much of the expenditure appears to be taken up by the bureaucracy.”

Touring around Tennant Creek’s town camps, it is difficult to see how conditions have been brought up to normal suburban standards, as was promised by Mal Brough as federal minister back in 2007.

Christine Morton sits on her porch at Tingkarli town camp and begins her wishlist: “Trees, grass, fence.”

Morton’s house is Tingkarli’s newest; it was built 13 years ago. She says at least four more are needed. The camp has gone downhill in recent years, she believes. Once, there were communal centres where people could do their washing and use the kitchen to get children ready for school.

On a vacant dirt lot opposite her house, Morton envisages a green, shady park, with a children’s playground and fences to protect them from the danger of chasing balls onto the road.

As the dust rises in the thrumming heat and the cries of small children playing in two trashed buildings spill across the landscape, these seem vain hopes.

When some indigenous leaders began asking how public money had been spent, including the $36.5 million to address the housing crisis, the community was split by accusation and indignation.

Some traditional owners, like Dianne Stokes, find the overcrowded living in town too stressful and flee to the fringes.

She was forced into Tennant Creek in the first place because her house in the remote Karlumpurlpa community to the north was crumbling, being eaten by white ants, and she had no means to fix it.

She now lives on the northern outskirts of Tennant Creek in her humpy — a makeshift home of bare posts, one wall and a few sheets of tin roofing — and dreams of growing vegetables in the spinifex‑covered ground.

If only she had water.

In the five years since she moved with her family of four adults and three Chihuahuas onto a small patch of her father’s vast traditional lands in Australia’s Northern Territory, Stokes has had no way of ensuring their water supply.

“I’ve been asking around for a tank, but no-one’s got back to me yet,” she says. Julalikari and the shire council have not assisted. Nor does Stokes have a decent generator for power. Without the means to build a pit toilet, she and her family and guests must dig holes the old bush way. There’s no stove. No tin shed in which to store her stuff. No tap.

Being able to capture rainwater would mean she would no longer have to bring water in bottles from relatives’ houses in town, two kilometres to the south. For now, she bathes in a gravel pit. Before the family acquired a car, they walked water supplies from town in a wheelbarrow.

Stokes’s humpy is almost visible from the Stuart Highway, named after a Scottish-born explorer whose 1861 journey marked the start of her family being dispossessed of its lands.

When indigenous people complain about the poor provision of public housing, a common response from other Australians living far removed, is that they need to wean themselves from welfare dependency. Though land loss has made a complete return to a hunter-gatherer life untenable for Stokes and her people, she has taken the initiative and created a little settlement of her own to suit the way she and her family want to live.

“I never ever grew up being in a crowded house. I grew up in a humpy like this,” she says.

Without official support, Stokes, 51, who has six adult children and around 30 grandchildren, calls on family for assistance in carving out a life here.

“I can get my boys to help me out to do the roof properly, tie it down and make a wire and cross to make a stand on both sides to hold the iron sheets down,” she says.

She stows swags in an old caravan, strings up fairy lights for her grandchildren’s delight and cooks bush treats of pigs’ heads and roo tails in her earth oven.

The grandchildren help collect firewood in the hills and spot roos when the family goes hunting. They know where the snake holes are. When it gets searingly hot, Stokes can’t resist using all her water to give the kids “a bogey” – a bath. Sometimes they dance to music blaring from her stereo speakers.

As sunset burnishes the spinifex and four of her grandchildren draw snake and roo tracks in the reddening sand, Stokes recalls the wild September wind that stripped part of the roof from her humpy.

“Me, I’m running up and down. I thought I had a little twister or cyclone, or something,” she says.

Raised on a remote Northern Territory cattle station, strong in the beliefs of her Warumungu and Warlmanpa people, Stokes felt that the storm carried a message.

“That was just a sign that tells me that I lost my family member,” she says. A man she calls her brother, Winijjipurttu Jampin Jones, had died suddenly of a heart attack in his mid-40s. Though life expectancy among Northern Territory males is only slightly higher, Jones' death shocked the Aboriginal community of Tennant Creek.

Jones was related to half the town and he was a founding member and mentor of the Eagles’ football club, which, after his death, published an ad in the local newspaper, declaring: “Our grand final this year will be played for you, with heavy hearts but with passion.”

Age does not weary many indigenous people out here, as health statistics attest.

The median age of death for Northern Territory indigenous females is 55 years, compared to 84.6 for their non-indigenous sisters across the nation. The figures are even sadder for indigenous blokes, who in the Territory have an average lifespan of 51.8 years, also well below the 78.5 years for non-indigenous males nationwide, according to 2011 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In the same month that Jones died, a 19-year-old youth suicided, another aged 20 died after suffering a fit and two elders also went to their graves, Turner laments.

Of all Australian regions, Tennant Creek had the highest rates of people diagnosed with end-stage renal disease over the eight years to the turn of the millennium, figures gathered by Turner’s Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation show.

Tennant Creek’s alcohol consumption, at a yearly average of 21.6 litres per person, soars way above that of the Northern Territory as a whole, and not to mention above that of Australia and the world, Anyinginyi’s own research has also found.

“When you got no income, when you got no money coming in, you got a family and you got overcrowding, what do you turn to? … You turn to some form of drugs. Then you might waste yourself with alcohol and these other drugs that are introduced. But then you come back to reality,” says Maurie Ryan.

Indigenous drinking is no secret. The Aborigines who queue for booze in the Tennant Creek main street are disturbed when The Global Mail’s photographer lifts her lens. The line dissipates. Those remaining turn their backs to her. An old Aboriginal woman tells us that it’s a “shame job” for drinkers to be caught in the act of buying.

“[It’s] prevalent in any society, but it stands out more because the percentage of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are greater than anywhere else,” Ryan says.

On grand final day, in anticipation of the big game this unseasonally hot September, a thirsty midday queue seeking takeaway alcohol forms outside the Tennant Creek Hotel.

The town is thick with police. They stand outside liquor outlets and enforce drink-can limits. Drivers of red and blue sedans coated in the orange powder of dirt roads are breathalysed.

Brahim estimates that local enterprises do about $100,000 in business over a football weekend, while the town camp houses are hit with costly damages.

Later, the police will say that over the weekend, they made 14 arrests, took 186 people into “protective custody” and seized or tipped out 188 litres of alcohol.

While some officers grin and enjoy footy supporters’ jubilation, we witness a disturbing scene. A knot of older Aboriginal men stands on the corner next to the main-street Food Barn. They are neither drunk nor disorderly. They are harassing no-one. And yet, a pair of young police officers – a male and a female – target them. The woman says: “The supermarket’s closed now. Move on. You’re blocking the footpath.” And they do.

As the day’s temperature rises, the town’s one taxi is kept busy. Tennant Creek has virtually no public transport. There are no buses, and the train station is five kilometres south of town.

At the football oval, weeks of watering have coaxed a veneer of bright green grass from the red soil. The crowd is a mass of painted faces, cowboy hats, dogs daubed in team colours and babies gurgling in football jerseys. Galahs fly from a tree when a football arcs into its branches.

“Pluck Them Feathers and Make Them Squawk. Go the Roos,” says an Ali Curung banner.

“Eagles today we are going to fly high up towards the sky,” declares a sign painted in English and Warumungu on a car window.

Baldwin has handed Cheyanne and her team their purple shirts emblazoned with a black, red, white and yellow snake logo that the elders have given them permission to use. The shirts are clearly special to some of the girls, who have few clothes.

The national anthem: “Australians all, let us rejoice, for we are young and free …” winds out of the loudspeakers, but few people stand, perhaps they find its relevance dubious. Some older people, not well versed in English anyway, may not even recognise the song; after all, it was only officially declared the national anthem in 1984, an event many in the bush are likely to have missed.

Aboriginal leaders and academics have, of course, pondered what it is to be indigenous and Australian.

Central Land Council chairman Maurie Ryan told us that decision makers based in southern Australia “have got no idea of how we live” – and the misunderstanding is mutual.

Take the campaign to end the 17-year gap in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians.

During one of our interviews, standing atop Anzac Hill in Alice Springs, Ryan points to Heavitree Gap, a break between two rocky spurs, and explains: “When they said ‘closing the gap’ my mob thought it meant they were going to close that gap.”

The wrenching start that Ryan got in life has shaped his jaundiced perspective on Canberra. A member of the stolen generations, he was born under a tree on Wave Hill station and removed from his mother as a baby.

He says Northern Territory towns float on the “black dollar; you take the black money out of these towns, there’s nothing there … Aborigines is a business. Australia, the land that belongs to the Aborigines, is a business. We don’t share in the business. We get the scraps off the table.”

And while the anthem is still playing, it is worth considering University of Western Sydney historian Professor Tim Rowse’s questioning of how successful the south of Australia has been in truly colonising the north. An academic who has also worked for Northern Territory Aboriginal organisations, he has also been Harvard University’s Visiting Professor in Australian Studies and his thoughts may provide insight into the deeper reasons for the housing policy failures evident in Tennant Creek.

“How to intervene in the indigenous estate and into the lives of its small but morally significant indigenous population is the big unanswered question of Australia’s formation as a continental nation: how could we possibly generalise, across all the regions and peoples of this continent, the institutions that we have evolved in the southern urban and agricultural regions?” he asked last year in a presentation on the federal Intervention.

The games begin at the oval, and the Ali Roos’ supporters are exuberant, waving royal-blue and white streamers. But the Tennant Eagles’ crowd is a little subdued, as it mourns Winijjipurttu Jampin Jones.

Cheyanne gathers her team together.

Even though the game is close and they lose by just one point, afterwards she is dejected. They didn’t practise enough, she says.

Another teenager is also disappointed on this day: Zane Foster hasn’t been picked to play in the final men’s Eagles team, which will take on the Roos this afternoon.

There is one big break that the youth of Tennant Creek, kids like Cheyanne and Zane, need. Tennant Creek is, overwhelmingly, a town of young people whose families need their own housing.

“The 10-year-olds back in 2007 [when the Intervention began], they’re going into 15-16-year olds now. Some of them are becoming parents. There’s absolutely nothing in place to build the individual’s capabilities of surviving or moving into a house, because there’s nothing there,” says Brahim.

And, adds Jason Newman, owner of the El Dorado motel, “It’s going to be more complicated in the next 20 years or so because more people are going to come into town.”

“If you go down the street, the kids will have an earphone in their ears, they’ll have a phone in their pocket. They’ll have Facebook. They want technology. It’s not freely available out in the [bush] community. And if they want jobs, they have to move [into town],” he says.

Turner’s Anginyinyi health corporation plans to seize the initiative to tackle one small part of the housing crisis by using income generated through rents and medical services to provide housing for its health workers.

“We expect them to come to work every day and perform, give their best, but they've come from an overcrowded house, where they hadn't had a good sleep,” Turner explains.

She knows her efforts will fall far short of the needs of Aborigines in this town, who she describes as “just humble people, living in poverty”.

The men’s senior Eagles team, wearing black armbands in honour of their late mentor, run onto the field. They beat the Roos by 20 points. A ring of faces beams with smiles, above the fences decked in blue and gold bunting.

For days after the match, Tennant Creek vibrates with the Eagles’ club anthem, Simply the Best.

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