Aaron Stuart is a 43-year-old Aboriginal man from the Ngarabunna tribe (renamed the Arabunna tribe for white lips) in South Australia. He is also an author and filmmaker, a former policeman, the chairman of the Arabunna Native Title and a member of the South Australian Aboriginal Advisory Council and South Australian Congress of Indigenous Nations. He now spends his days counselling and saving — and sometimes failing to save — the lives of suicidal Aboriginal people.
Stuart is often called to cut down people after they have hanged themselves. “I always administer CPR no matter how long they have been hanging,” he says. “I cut down this tribal man in the back shed of a party. The people kept partying and this guy was dead. The police and ambulance took half an hour to arrive. But in fairness they get called a lot for suicide attempts.
“We gave CPR to this guy even though we knew he was dead and we got his pulse back three or four times. He lived for three hours in casualty — they brought him back but he finally died.”
Stuart, who has lost family members to suicide, takes it to heart every time there is a suicide. “I feel guilty every time somebody in Port Augusta commits suicide, even if I’ve never met them. Even if they are white,” he says, looking downwards at his feet with shame and sadness at the thought a person could still be alive today had he only known.
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Stuart stands at 182 centimetres tall and weighs 130 kilograms. He wears a cowboy hat on his balding head; a thin black strip of hair lines his top lip, joining his nose to the crown of his lip. His physicality offers a warning, yet his voice is gentle and melodic, sometimes so quiet it is inaudible. He looks directly into your eyes with a dreamy gaze. His yarns and speech are poetic and hypnotic.
Earlier this year, Centacare Catholic Family Services in Port Augusta, where he works, published a children’s book Stuart wrote called The Story of Yudum. Drawing on the spoken dreamtime stories his elders told him as a young boy, his book employs the traditional Aboriginal dreamtime mode to encourage distressed young Aborigines to talk about their pain to adults. The book also subtly seeks to arouse interest in young Aborigines about their culture.
His movie Yudum, also produced by Centacare Catholic Family Services, touches on universal issues, particularly to Aboriginal males. “It’s about the search for who we are, about finding an identity,” he says. The movie reflects common problems facing Aboriginal communities: suicide, grief, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence, as the main character Yudum searches for his place in the world.
His history in the police force and bigger-than-life presence is a clear advantage in his current job at the Centacare Catholic Family Services, where he works mostly with men and teenage boys trying to alleviate — as Crikey has investigated this week — a suicide endemic throughout Australia.
“Males have all these expectations forced upon them by society,” says Stuart. “I teach them you can only be what you are capable of — that males are allowed to cry and talk about their feelings; it doesn’t make you less of a man. In traditional society men were allowed to cry and they were allowed to be children with their aunties and uncles until that certain stage. There was an equality between males and females.”
When Stuart became project manager at Centacare, he decided the only way to prevent suicide among Aboriginal males was to do it the “Blackfella way”: “I said I would like to have a go at educating our Aboriginal people about suicide prevention and they said, how you going to do that? I said, well how did we do that before colonisation? We did it through artwork, story, song, dance and culture.”
He now runs healing camps where he takes men and teenage boys back to the bush. “We take them back to land,” he explains. “We actually tell them this is who you are and this is why you find it hard to concentrate in school –your cognitive process isn’t dumber but our cognitive process is used to this way of teaching. We give them their identities back.”
Aboriginal suicide is multiplying at an increasing rate. It is roughly four times greater than non-indigenous Australia. The victims on average are far younger — Aboriginal children as young as eight now hang themselves.
“Aboriginal people see death so many times. We go to a funeral every second week, here especially in communities; they see it so many times. The old are burying the young,” Stuart explains. “You just lose track of who’s died some times. Sometimes you get sick of crying.”
Suicide and deaths by “unnatural causes” are so common that Aboriginal communities no longer differentiate between suicide, natural death and accidental death. Stuart claims they are all simply labelled “death”.
“We see past whether it is a suicide or a terminal illness or a motor vehicle accident — we just see it as death,” he says. “With the amount of deaths and how they die, Aboriginal people are just starting to think ‘death’.
“When I get a call from a mother or an aunt that their kid is sad or lonely, they see that mental illness, or whatever, as a terminal illness — the thing before suicide, that loneliness or depression, as a terminal illness. When I get called in, it’s like I have to stop a terminal illness.”
Stuart speaks with the indifference of someone habitualised to death and suicide. He draws a red dot on the whiteboard representing the Aboriginal individual, pre-colonisation. He then draws circles that enclose the dot, and then each other, extending outwards. The circles represent knowledge the Aboriginal person once learnt in traditional times.“These circles,” Stuart points to the first few circles surrounding the dot like a schoolteacher teaching a class of small children, “this could just be knowledge on bush tucker, or how to figure out north, south, east and west, on lizards, the basic stuff.” He draws a cross on one of the circles closer to the periphery: “This is where the elders would be.
“Unlike Western people that go to high school and then university and then maybe postgraduate study, our education, our ‘infrastructure’ was continuous. It never ended — you just kept going back and learning and learning –the circles never stop. You would learn the basics through song, dance, story, art and culture.” He counts the five pillars of Aboriginal teachings with his fingers.
He draws bent lines across the map of Australia on the whiteboard, showing the way the infrastructure created a connected, functioning country and people, despite the multiplicity of tribes. He then wipes out the arrows with one quick movement of his hand showing where Aboriginal Australia is today.
One quick movement erases 50,000 years of infrastructure that dictated to the Aboriginal people how to live, their morality and ethics. It created ordered family life and communities, and how to deal with sadness or grief when someone died, known as “sorry business”.
“My people were not just rich in culture; my people were scientists. And what I mean by that is we had mechanisms and infrastructure in place where we did our law and our custom. Everything about how we learn our education was through stories, song, culture, dance and art — it was all there,” Stuart says. “When the white fella come and wants to do things a bit differently and takes our culture and takes our land and we lose our identity, our way of life and how to survive. Then when you get the dispossession, segregation and assimilation and lose that way of life.
“Sure, people say that happened way back, then get over it. Take away the infrastructure and you’re left with the melting pot. The ingredients from the past have made Australia what it is today. “That happened back then but we are at the point where that melting pot is actually boiling and that’s all cooked up and we are dealing with it — that’s why I believe suicide is here and it’s so high at this moment.”
Stuart believes his ability to cope with the responsibility of his community stems from his upbringing, still strongly linked to his ancestral ties. He and his sisters were the first generation of his family born in a hospital, meaning his father and two grandfathers could take him back to the bush and teach him all about his culture. The evaporation of culture and infrastructure has left a generation in limbo with no coherent identity of its own and in a country where they feel they no longer belong.
Stuart describes his people: “They are actually hurting ’cause they can see they don’t fit in. Or they can see and feel that emptiness that’s a part of them from the beginning of when this country was taken. They can’t put it into continuity, into those little square boxes, but they can feel it.
“Then it can be a simple domestic with their wife or with their loved ones that will tip them over the edge to make them commit suicide because they can see that there is nothing past this, whatever small thing, the domestic or this issue or what their dealing with now. They feel this emptiness …”
Stuart’s job at Centacare is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. It is his life. The many people he feels responsibility for include his distant relative Noonie — on suicide watch for the last eight years, since his 18-year-old son Aldren suicided by electrocuting himself at the town’s power source. The once extroverted Noonie has become reclusive, depressed and smokes marijuana.
Aldren’s 16-year-old cousin Paulie is now speaking of boredom, of wishing to be dead, of taking his own life. Paulie is in and out of the courts but according to Aaron Stuart: “He is a good boy. There are plenty of Paulies in this town.”
Aaron Stuart, surprisingly, doesn’t feel he carries the world on his shoulder. He goes back to country when things get too much, either by himself or he will take another healing camp with him. He understands he must always focus on the positive and the certain, not the negative and the unknown, to maintain his own sense of emotional wellbeing, so he can then keep helping others.
“You’ve just got to, you have no other choice. I know the sun will rise in the east and will set in the west,” Stuart says, pointing firstly to the front of himself, then behind himself. “Something could happen during the day or night, and our lives will pass. But one sure thing is that the sun will rise in the morning.”
*This is the final report in a four-part series on Aboriginal suicide rates. Kate Horowitz presented this work as part of masters assessment.