• Ella Togo takes photos on Country in the Pilbara (Supplied: Big hART - Claire Leach)Source: Supplied: Big hART - Claire Leach
Tired of negative stereotypes, a small community in the remote Western Australian outback has taken back control of its narrative in the most remarkable way.
Karen Michelmore

The Point
9 Sep 2021 - 7:48 AM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2021 - 12:36 PM

The kids from Western Australia's remote Pilbara region have amassed quite a body of work.

For the past 10 years they've been working hard, spending hundreds of hours in a digital lab in Roebourne, or Ieramugadu.

They've been making music, films, podcasts, and even an award-winning interactive digital comic.

Now they've created a learning platform, to share their stories with primary school students and teachers around Australia

Yindjibarndi Elder Michelle Adams says it's all part of reimagining the community's story, to build a brighter future.

"There's a renewal of sense of pride, that to be black, or be Aboriginal is not bad - it's magnificent to be Aboriginal," Michelle Adams says .

Changing the narrative

It wasn't always that way.

The community for decades has been linked to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, after the tragic death of teenager John Pat in 1983.

But 10 years ago, senior women decided they were sick and tired of negative stories about their community.

So they decided to change the narrative.

They invited arts not for profit organisation Big hART into the community to help build strong kids.

"(We) recognised that we needed support because too many young people were going to jail," Ms Adams says.

"People were still dying in jails, Roebourne was still the focus of deaths in custody.

"How do you shift from one narrative that says Roebourne is only good for that, we will only remember Roebourne for that?"

Comic hits international heights

The Elders realised the value of controlling, and reshaping, the narrative.

"What governments tell us is that Indigenous young people are marginalised if they're only consuming digital media and not participating or controlling it from a perspective where you get to tell your story," Ms Adams says.

"We are real people, these are actually real places. These are real stories."

 "We've taken some futuristic technology and we've married it with the world's oldest living culture."

The children's digital comic NEOMAD went on to tour internationally including South Korea in 2012, and won a Gold Ledger Award recognising excellence in Australian comics story-telling.

"It's a first that has come out of Roebourne," Ms Adams says.

"It's living heritage, its living history.

"But we've taken some futuristic technology and we've married it with the world's oldest living culture, and its just been absolutely beautiful to see it unfold that way.

"Community has all this beautiful, rich cultural history and heritage, over thousands of years old.

"How do you take that positive strength and use it as a vehicle to change perceptions, stereotypes, increase understanding and awareness."

Mentors through the ranks

The kids involved in NEOMAD almost 10 years ago are now adults. And some have become mentors on the project.

"I know some of the younger people who are 19, 20 now - (they) have never come into contact with the criminal justice system," Ms Adams says.

"That's the other complex element at work.

"If you can keep a young person away from contact with police and then on a life trajectory to an adult prison, (then) we are safe... we can say we've got strong people in our community.

"That's the big picture."

NEO-Learning is here

Now the community has embarked on perhaps its most ambitious project.

They've launched a new education platform, called NEO-Learning.

They're sharing the stories they've created with primary school students and teachers, teaching them about their town and culture.

All the intellectual property and benefits will be retained by the community, Ms Adams says.

"If a school wants to purchase this package, (they can) then use it as a resource where they can reconnect with their local First Nations people wherever they are in Australia," she says.

"But the benefits come back to the community, and the young people who helped create or design this product."

The learning platform has been trialled on a thousand students at sites around Australia, and was recently launched online with support from the Telstra Foundation.

"We want teachers and students around Australia to learn and understand that Roebourne people, and what comes out of Roebourne, is just simply the best," she says.

"My heart just smiles when I think about this stuff because I've seen it.

"I lose words to really describe it, what it's been able to achieve."

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