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Some history behind Arnhem Weavers

Two streams met leading to a collaboration of efforts and the first workshop.

Stream One: For many years prior to the first workshop Marathuwarr, Bambalarra and their daughter Roslyn had put enormous effort and personal expense weaving baskets, spinning string, and travelling to teach people all over Australia. Unfortunately, these efforts did not translate into income or wider recognition of their skill.

Stream Two: In 2002 fifteen enthusiastic, proud young men who, for a variety of understandable reasons had been reluctant to attend the school on Elcho Island expressed interest in a Vocational Education Training (VET) course under Training Remote Youth (TRY) funding. It seemed that there might be hope at last for a change from the endless cycle of training that rarely resulted in employment for trainees.

TRY was to be different. TRY was aimed at youth who were not attending school. because with TRY funding a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was required between the school and the local council. Well, the fifteen young men attended virtually every day, their attendance was very high and they applied themselves to the task, which involved building maintenance. Measuring, sawing, nailing, drilling, welding, painting, many of the skills that would lead them to be . At the end of the program, no jobs were offered to these young men despite there being major capital works being undertaken by a number of government organisations. white contractors continued to build houses, extensions to schools, and other government infrastructure. Even the qualified Yolŋu builders and painter couldn't get a job with any of these contractors. Worst of all the young men who had successfully completed their TRY program felt rejected, like they'd been given another kick in the guts. How could this training help them grow up with dignity and pride? Deep down they knew, they would never get a job, and would continue to be trained' by whites. They could never be good enough.

The final straw came when an RTO who had organised a training on the Tiwi islands, sought access to our secondary students. The Tiwi islanders said no they didn't want the program, so the RTO went to Maningrida and all was ok until Maningrida said no we don't want your program. By this time the RTO was desperate to acquit their funds. Well the school at Elcho agreed. The next week the RTO arrived, students were pulled out of classrooms to attend financial management training. A good result for all but the students. The RTO acquitted their funds, the trainer was highly paid, and the school had delivered another training package which would be added to its CV. The program was not only irrelevant and extremely disruptive to the students school program, but harmful to their dignity. They knew they were being used.

This must never be repeated, but where to from here? Thinking though the process it was obvious that Yolŋu dignity and self-esteem could be returned. Let Yolŋu train Balanda. Such a program could only occur on a home-land where land owners have authority to make decisions. The Mäpuru women! The elderly women at Mäpuru never stop weaving, spinning and hunting. They had remained faithful to their ancestral lands, and they had recently opened a co-op so that they would no longer have to charter planes to Elcho Island.

The older sisters Marathuwarr and Bambalarra were very pleased with the suggestion and keen to participate. Every tertiary institution with a textile school in Australia was contacted with the proposal that they employ these women as short term 'artists in residence', there were no takers. Then out of the blue Ann, a senior tapestry weaver rang from Melbourne, she was interested to visit the women at Mäpuru. Marathuwarr was keen, but there needed to be more participants. Soon there were three, and what a success it was. Since then (2003) there have annual workshops.


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