The Mt Theo Story
The following is taken from ‘The Mt Theo Story’ by Andrew Stojanovski (1999). The full version is available for download at the bottom of this page.
The Mount Theo Petrol Sniffer Program has been operating since February 1994 and is Yuendumu’s most successful current strategy for dealing with the problem of petrol sniffing. The program is the grass roots initiative of tribal elders with the support of the local school, Tanami Network and the local Community Government Council.
The Mount Theo Petrol Sniffer Program aims to remove young people who are at risk (such as chronic petrol sniffers and young offenders) from Yuendumu to a safe environment out bush where they are looked after by tribal elders. When they are ready these young people then move back to rejoin the Yuendumu Community. This program has been operating successfully over the last five years and has been working closely with the local Yuendumu Police and the Northern Territory Correctional Services Office in Alice Springs. Over the last three years we have had a number of young offenders who have been bonded by the courts to live at Mount Theo outstation and to take part in the rehabilitation program that is operating there.
While the young people are living at the outstation their bodies are given the chance to detoxify and recover from petrol sniffing. The young people are also involved in gardening projects, C.D.E.P. and traditional activities such as artifact making and hunting. On occasions when funding is available Yuendumu Skillshare and the Local School have run courses based at Mount Theo that teach the young people new skills. When tribal elders have assessed that a young person has recovered from petrol sniffing and is unlikely to sniff petrol or cause trouble in Yuendumu, they then re-introduce that young person into the community.
The program has brought enormous benefits to the Yuendumu Community in terms of both the prevention of petrol sniffing and the rehabilitation of petrol sniffers. Before the program began operating in early 1994 Yuendumu Community was plagued with problems associated with petrol sniffing. There were gangs of petrol sniffers roaming the streets every night. They would often commit crimes and cause disturbances. School attendance was low as petrol sniffers would actively recruit students from the school to join them in sniffing petrol. The community tried many strategies to deal with these problems including banishment and public floggings of sniffers, night patrols and the introduction of Av.Gas as an alternative fuel to petrol. The most successful strategy proved to be having a petrol sniffer program running at Mount Theo and a pro active youth and recreation program running in Yuendumu. When the Mount Theo program has been operating the number of young people sniffing petrol has reduced dramatically. In 1994 we managed to reduce the numbers from seventy young people who were sniffing in February to six young people who were sniffing in April. By taking the young people who sniff petrol away from Yuendumu to Mount Theo we not only allow their bodies to detoxify and recover from petrol inhalation, but we also prevent them from getting into trouble in Yuendumu and recruiting more young people to sniff with them. This is a very important aspect of the program which works to prevent a culture of petrol sniffing from becoming entrenched amongst the young people of Yuendumu.
Mt Theo Petrol Sniffer Program began in 1994 as a community response to the crisis of petrol sniffing that was threatening the Yuendumu Community. At that time Yuendumu Community was plagued with problems associated with petrol sniffing. There were gangs of petrol sniffers roaming the streets every night. There were over seventy young people sniffing petrol in Yuendumu at that time.
None of the strategies such as banishment and public floggings of sniffers, night patrols and the introduction of Av. Gas, as mentioned above seemed to have any long term effect at reducing petrol sniffing in the community. At many community meetings the idea of sending petrol sniffers to an outstation was suggested over and over again by Aboriginal people. In February 1994 we had a meeting to begin such a program. The minutes of that meeting are worth quoting here:
Petrol sniffing…This time it is different…we’ve tried to stop it…it hasn’t worked. So Yuendumu is facing a future where it’s young people will be crazy, sick and poisoned…many will be dead before they are 30.
It’s not a problem someone else will fix for us. Government people will not come and sit down here and help day after day.
It’s not going to be fixed either if Yapa (Aborigines) look to Kardiya (non-Aboriginal People) to fix it, or if Kardiya just say it is family business for the Yapa.
We will only fix it if the community decides it is now our problem and that we must all work together to fix it now!
A possible solution is to set up a program at one of the Yuendumu outstations. Young people could be kept there away from petrol and looked after by senior people and members of their families. They are still in Walpiri country and the program can be supported from Yuendumu…
The working party will work every day to help until the problem is solved.
Such was the resolve of that meeting that five years later we are still working every day.
Peggy and her husband (now deceased) were at that meeting. They had some young people in their family who were chronic petrol sniffers who they were keen to take out bush to get them off petrol. Peggy said that if she got support to live at Mt Theo she would look after any petrol sniffers from Yuendumu.
Mt Theo is in an ideal location to run a program like ours because it is geographically isolated being 50 kilometres from the nearest main road which means the kids do not run away. It also has a telephone which is essential for safety.
We started with no outside resources. The school put up $5,000 for food for the project, and we borrowed vehicles from around the community to transport food and people from Yuendumu to Mt Theo. We operated like this up until 1997 when the Commonwealth and Territory Governments began to give us funding support. All the work was voluntary and when the food money ran out we would book up food at the community store and then run fund raising barbecues to pay off the debt. The Aboriginal people living at Mt Theo would use their own private cars and pension money to run activities for the kids and to buy extra food and clothing.
This is how we started, and starting with nothing has made us strong. We all do this work because we believe in it in our hearts. Johnny Miller, the senior traditional owner for Mt Theo has worked for five years and is a cornerstone of our whole operation.
Andrew Stojanovski and Johnny Japangardi Miller tell the Mt Theo Story to Elders of the Mutitjulu community with Uluru in the background.
Click here for the full version in PDF
The Mt Theo Story (1999) by Andrew Stojanovski