Each month Cocktail Revolution celebrates the achievements of one young Aussie who is starting to make their mark on the world. Here is Dwesmond Wiggin-Dann’s story.
He loves Robin Williams’ movies, whales and dolphins and having a good laugh with his family and friends. His favourite thing is a day at the beach cooking freshly caught fish over an open fire. Sounds like any other typical 26 year old, who has enjoyed a successful career in tourism as he has, until you realize the importance of the work Dwesmond Wiggin-Dann now does for a living. He works to trace and reunite members of the Stolen Generations with their family groups.
Unless they’ve experienced it, few people can imagine the depth of sorrow and heartache brought on by wrenching families apart through the forced removal of aboriginal children – the Stolen Generations -from their families in Australia. Yet, twenty six year old “Dwes” as he is known, a proud young Bardi man from One Arm Point, around 220kms northwest of Broome, Western Australia, deals with it everyday. As a senior caseworker for the Kimberly Stolen Generations Link-up Service helping trace and reunite people separated from their families through the Stolen Generations policies of past governments, Dwesmond is mindful that he cant change the world. But he does think that if his work gives hope to one person’s life to do better for themselves, “then you have done the best you could do.”
The second eldest of a family of eight, he was raised by his aunty and grandparents after his parents separated. He acknowledges with gratitude the significant role of his grandparents in his upbringing and in instilling the values he holds dear. Says Dwes “they taught me a lot. They gave me all the cultural knowledge of the land and the sea and also family history and kinship knowledge of our tribe. I am forever grateful for this. They also taught me to become independent at a very young age and the importance of being a role model for my younger siblings, to teach them the Bardi way of life as well as the mainstream way of Australian living”. He goes on: “Words can’t explain how much I adored them, as they are the reason I’m the person I am today. They have instilled so much of their values and up bringing in me, and taught me to always better myself, and take every opportunity and experience as it presents itself and always learn from it.”
Leaving school at 17 Dwesmond got himself a job with the Koojaman Resort on the Dampier Peninsula. Living onsite gave him the opportunity to meet and mix with people from outside his community for the first time, interacting as he was with visitors from around Australia and around the world. The knowledge of his own culture that was taught to him by his grandparents also helped serve as a bridge when he was approached by the resort management to conduct Bush Walk Tours around the resort. Dwesmond enjoyed educating visitors about “the native flora and fauna and their significance to my tribe…This helped me to build my confidence in public speaking and allowed me to mix with people from all walks of life. Most importantly it allowed me to share with visitors to my Country the important connection we have with our land and our environment”.
His experiences in tourism were many and varied and ranged from attending Tourism conferences to leading Bush Walking Tours explaining the local flora and fauna and their cultural significance to his tribe; selling Indigenous products to travel agents; travelling to every capital city in Australia, and ultimately participating in the first Aboriginal Youth Leadership Course facilitated by the Department of Families Housing Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in Canberra.
“This program ran for a year and gave me the opportunity to meet young indigenous youth from around the country who were like minded and wanted to improve the lives of our people back home. We travelled throughout Australia participating in workshops and developing our leadership skills. I’m still close to some of the participants and visit when I’m in their towns or cities. It’s good to see how far we’ve all come in our lives as young leaders in our communities.”
Public speaking engagements arose and a year later “I was giving a speech on Indigenous Youth in Tourism at a conference in Broome when I was approached by the Artistic Director of the Dreaming Festival, Rhoda Roberts. Rhoda invited me to be a guest speaker at the Dreaming Festival in Woodford, Queensland. I did. I spoke on the advantages and employment opportunities tourism can offer young indigenous men and woman, and my personal journey in the industry”.
After three years of very rewarding work and experiences in tourism, Dwes joined the Kimberley Stolen Generation Office in Broome. “Being a descendent of one of the Stolen Generation, I am passionate about helping other families reunite with families they’ve been separated from due to past government policies. I did this work for three years”, before participating in the Oxfam Change Course in Melbourne. This course provided young people with the tools to become positive role models within their communities. “Again,” says Dwes, “I met people from all over Australia and saw the broader issues our people are faced with”.
An eighteen month stint, again as a caseworker with another stolen generations link up service in Perth (Yorgum) led to active involvement with the Bring them Home Committee, Naidoc events and Social Emotional Activities. Ultimately, Dwesmond became an Aboriginal Support Worker for the Department of Corrective Services in the Pilbara region to help divert young indigenous people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Dwesmond says he was “really amazed at how many of our young people are already either within the system or at risk. I saw for myself how low are numeracy and literacy rates because of disengagement from education. I worked really hard to help develop programs assisting young people to develop basic numeracy and literacy as well as life skills such as cooking healthy meals, and dealing with peer pressure”.
Dwes recently relocated back to Broome to reconnect with his family and friends, “the most important thing in my life”. He goes on: “during my life whether it be good or bad I’ve always had the support of my family and friends to get me through. Without their strong support I believe I wouldn’t be the strong young man I am today… I am now back working for the Kimberley Stolen Generation (Link-Up Service) as the Senior Caseworker and I’m enjoying every challenge that is thrown my way.” After seven years work as a Link-Up Worker, helping people who have been affected by the government’s removal policies, he is still at it!
His strongly held values of respect, culture and trust, taught to him by his beloved grandparents go some way to explaining why he was so successful in his rewarding tourism career and also why he has chosen to work in what many would describe as more meaningful work for Link-up. In his own words: “Respect: I was taught to respect everyone for who they are, and treat people the way I want to be treated in Life.”
I was brought up by very strong cultural and respected grandparents and extended family members who taught me the traditional ways of my tribe, the Bardi / Jawi people of North West Australia. I was taught to speak my language at a very young age. I learnt how to respect people through our traditional kinship system and where my place was within this system. I learnt the significance of our strong connection to our land and how we must look after Country and in turn our Country will look after us.
“Trust is one of the key values I was brought up with. I believe you can’t build a relationship without trust as it is the foundation for all relationships.”
LESSONS We asked Dwesmond what he thought non-Aboriginal people could learn from Aboriginal people. Here’s his reply:
“Non-Aboriginal people could learn how diverse and adapting Aboriginal Culture is in the 21th Century and also how we still maintain our traditional cultural connections to our past. People often look at Aboriginal culture as one entity, but we are not. Aboriginal people and their cultures are very diverse and different from region to region spreading throughout this great country of ours. We as Aboriginal people have had to endure so much hardship and struggles since colonisation in Australia.”
His advice for Aboriginal youth is: “Even though we’ve been through so much, you should be proud to be able to say that you are a young indigenous man or woman of this country and we have a bright future ahead of us!”
More generally, Dwes says: “Too often we don’t realise what we have until it’s gone. Too often we are too stubborn to say “I’m sorry I was wrong”. Too often it seems we hurt the ones closest to us by letting insignificant issues tear us apart. Appreciate what you have, who loves you and who cares for you… You’ll never know how much they mean to you until the day they are no longer beside you. Don’t change so people will like you, just be yourself and the right people will love the real you! Accept that not everyone will approve of your choices, so have faith in your judgement and take pride in your accomplishments, for they are stepping stones to your dreams. Don’t let your mistakes discourage you!!”
Perhaps a tougher question, we asked him “what advice would you give to non-indigenous Australians who want to be of assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth”. His answer is instructive: “Non-Aboriginal people should be more embracing of Aboriginal culture in Australia as it is the oldest living continuous culture in the world, and there is so much non-indigenous people can learn from us, especially how to care for and value this Beautiful Country we all call home. Visitors to Aboriginal communities should not come in with sympathy, but with empathy. Understand the situation of those communities and bring ideas of hope and change, learn from those you are involved with within the Community, and support the decisions of communities as they are the ones who are in control of their own lives. Remember that you can’t change the world, but if your actions give hope to one person’s life to do better for themselves, then you have done the best you could do.” Well balanced advice from a young man planning to further his chosen career with future study in social work!
This year Dwesmond was nominated as the Shinju Festival of the Pearl Youth Ambassador 2014. In this role Dwesmond is responsible for promoting the positive and historical messages of the Festival to actively engage youth to become more involved and celebrate Broome’s rich multicultural history and heritage. He has every attribute to make this work, not least of which are those values he holds dear, instilled by his grandparents: respect, culture and trust.
Clearly, he is an Ambassador in every sense of the word.