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Old and new meet in remote community

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Home to the Western Desert art movement and name-checked by Midnight Oil*, the remote Northern Territory community of Kintore is simultaneously among the oldest and newest Aboriginal communities in the land.

Kintore, 350km west of Alice Springs and 30km from the Western Australian border, was first discovered by westerners in 1963. Until then, the Pintupi people were living an undisturbed traditional life on country they knew as Walungurru.

They were forcibly resettled to Papunya for assimilation. It didn’t work.

“We had a lot of problems. Pintupi people went from here, and they all went to Papunya, and started falling into bad ways – alcohol, everything,” Monica Robinson, the chair of the Pintupi Homelands Health Service Aboriginal Corporation board, said.

“They walked into Papunya healthy and strong, with no problems at all. As soon as they went to Papunya, they started getting sickness, drinking, causing a lot of fights and all that, kids not learning, and that’s why people realised that it was not right.

“The older people said that we need to go back to our own country, take the young ones so that we can go back and live in our own country.”

The Pintupi did that in 1981, founding the community of Walungurru/Kintore. Today, it is home to approximately 450 residents, predominantly Pintupi speakers, with small populations of Luritja and Warlpiri people.

“We were called nomads, we used to move around a lot until the 1960s and 70s,” Ms Robinson said.

“But this is our settle-down country. When we came back to Kintore in the 1980s, there was just humpies and spinifex here, no houses, no anything.”

Today, Kintore has an airstrip, a health clinic, a dialysis unit, a school, a police station, a swimming pool, and an art gallery.

At first, the clinic operated out of a caravan, and relied on a two-way radio to contact Papunya for help or supplies. The telephone was installed in 1994.

The clinic has four doctors, nurses, and visiting endocrinologists, cardiologists, podiatrists, obstetrician/gynaecologists, dieticians and dentists.

“This clinic belongs to all the people around Kintore. They own it. This is an independent clinic,” Ms Robinson said.

“Kintore is a small place but it grows. We plant the seed, we water the seed, and it grows.”

In the 1990s, the people of Kintore and the nearby Western Desert communities of Kiwirrkurra and Mt Liebig became concerned about family members being forced to move away from community to receive treatment for end stage renal failure.

Realising the need for a local dialysis treatment centre, local artists created four collaborative paintings, which were sold at auction for more than $1 million in 2004 to set up the service.

Kintore, a town with only 52 houses, currently has more than 80 residents with various stages of kidney disease, and 14 residents on dialysis. The dialysis unit, run by Purple House, has three dialysis chairs.

About 110 people have diabetes. Eight children are in the process of being diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said the AMA is interested in what it can do to help doctors do the work needed in remote clinics and communities, and in preventing people becoming sick in the first place.

“It’s great that we’ve got dialysis chairs out here on country where you live, but what we’d love to see is less people getting kidney disease, so that means less diabetes, less high blood pressure, less rheumatic fever – having less of the things that make people’s kidneys get sick,” he told the board.

“We spend a lot of time as doctors thinking about, not just in places like Kintore, but in the big cities like Sydney and Melbourne and Darwin, ways to stop people getting sick in the first place.

“We like to think about good healthy food, good tucker, lots of water, healthy pregnancies and looking after kids when they’re young, making sure they’re healthy, and they’re the things that we spend a lot of time talking about.”

Dr Gannon visited Kintore on April 16, with the Member for Lingiari and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Health, the Hon Warren Snowdon MP.

*Midnight Oil song sang about Kintore in the 1987 song Beds Are Burning: “Four wheels scare the cockatoos/From Kintore east to Yuendumu”.