First Contact's Bo-dene: 'I can't believe I was so naive and ignorant'

Bo-dene Stieler during First Contact (SBS)

When Bo-dene Stieler returned from her journey on SBS's First Contact, her life was turned upside down. But, as she writes in her own words, her experiences on First Contact helped her get back on her feet.

After experiencing firsthand for a month the harsh realities that Aboriginal people face, I couldn’t wait to return back home to Melbourne. I was exhausted and emotionally troubled at the realisations I had made over the past few weeks and couldn’t wait to be supported and be able to share my journey with my husband.

It was the furthest thought from my mind to find out that my house was half empty when I got back, and that he had left me while I was away. My world fell around my feet and I just stood there looking at my now lifeless house that I had fantasised about returning to during the most challenging parts of the previous weeks. My outlook on life had changed, and it seemed too that my life had changed without me even having a say in it.

I never imagined that after only three years of being married, my husband would leave the moment I was away. I couldn’t comprehend the humiliation I would feel when everyone found out, and I questioned if I even had the strength to start a new life. If I hadn’t done the trip, I know that I would not have been able to handle the prospects of being alone.

'I can’t believe the ignorance I showed and the disrespect I showed'

The trip showed me that I do have the strength to stand on my own two feet, as I met so many people who seemed to defy the odds in their situations and succeed. I felt connected to people all over Australia that I had met along the way and I felt part of something larger than myself.

If I was able to connect with so many inspirational people, surely I could handle this. There was such a big world out there and so many people in worse situations than I had found myself in. I had to be brave and draw inspiration from the amazing women I had met, especially June Oscar in Fitzroy Crossing, to not surrender to adversity.

Fitzroy Crossing made me question everything that I thought. I can’t believe I was so naive to think that everybody had the opportunity to escape those cycles, when in the Aboriginal community there is so much trans-generational trauma, displacement and employment shortages still happening, everything that I had thought. I have always been a strong advocate for personal choice, and had constantly challenged every community we stayed in during the trip as to why they had never made the choice to change their situations and get out of the vicious cycles of alcoholism, violence, unemployment and housing problems.

I have experienced firsthand the effects that alcoholism can have on your family and the sheer terror of being homeless. I thought that if my family could get out of it, then surely everyone else could. My time in Fitzroy Crossing showed me that many Aboriginal children are born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and that they can lack the ability to make sound choices a result. I always thought myself to be smart, but to have never considered such a vital link in the cycle that is impacting Indigenous societies, I was ashamed of myself.

'I met so many people who seemed to defy the odds in their situations and succeed'

Before the journey, I would never have thought that my biggest life inspiration would come from Aboriginal people. Looking back, I can’t believe the ignorance I showed and the disrespect I showed by not even taking the pro-active approach to find out more and just believing everything that I had been told.

To have access to knowledge and education, I should have tried to find the truth. I always thought negatively about Indigenous Australians, blatantly disregarding their heritage and honestly having no real facts to fuel my claims. It is not okay to regard the First Australians as being ‘wasters’ and I am ashamed of myself for proclaiming that. If I could go back to the beginning of my trip, having learnt what I had by the end, I know that I would have approached the people and communities very differently. I now realise that I had approached the journey with a set mindset, despite having thought I was being open-minded.

It wasn’t until I met Lucas at Roebourne Regional Prison that my bigotry started to slowly chip away. I did not care to listen to what any of the inmates had to say as I had already made my mind up that I didn’t care for their personal stories. I had painted Lucas to be just a crim, and felt somewhat shocked that his intentions for leaving school were to help his parents through a separation. I felt a connection with him, and I couldn’t believe that an Aboriginal inmate of a jail in the Pilbara shared a common story with me.

I felt the pressures of family breakdown since I was about 13 and I know how hard it is to try and keep your family together. It is devastating to watch the support and love of your family disintegrate before your eyes, and I am only lucky that I had my older brother Jared to look after me. Unlike Lucas, who had no one to keep him on the right path and no role models to look up to, I had my brother. I never realised that I would share so many connections with Aboriginal people. I always thought that there was some huge divide that could never be crossed. But I was wrong.

The journey showed me that instead of many non-Indigenous Australians showing prejudice towards Aboriginal people, we can draw strength from their resilience and determination. I would not have been able to face the next phase of my life without having met such incredible people and being welcomed into their homes. Meeting these amazing people has changed my life in ways that I could never have expected.

Bo-dene appears on tonight’s final episode of First Contact at 8.30pm on SBS ONE. She will be reunited with her fellow participants on a special live episode of Insight at 9.30pm.

Watch the first two episodes of First Contact on SBS On Demand and follow the conversation on Twitter.

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