Regional Startups 4 MIN READ

The Federal Government in 2007 launched the Closing the Gap campaign, with the Council of Australian Governments a year later setting targets across the areas of health, education, and employment to measure improvements in the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A report card released earlier this year found we are not on track on six of seven key measures, including life expectancy, with the mortality rate for Indigenous Australians 1.7 times that of the non-Indigenous population. As well as poor health, suicide is a problem.

According to the inaugural Australian Youth Development Index released last year, the suicide rate for Indigenous males aged 25 to 29 is 90 per 100,000, the highest figure reported globally.

Hoping to combat this crisis through a combination of storytelling and technology is the Kurdiji 1.0 Project, an app that aims to connect youth to their communities and Indigenous identity in order to reduce feelings of isolation and foster a sense of belonging.

The app is the next evolution of work done by Warlpiri elders in the remote Northern Territory community of Lajamanu. After the suicide of a young man in the community in 2005, the elders decided to take matters into their own hands and established the Milpirri Festival to spread the ideas of Kurdiji among their young people, their aim to foster a sense of belonging.

Now, over a decade later, the Warlpiri elders are looking to translate this into an app to reach Indigenous Australians across the country, teaming up with researchers and techies to bring it to life.

Dr Judith Crispin, a cultural historian, photographer, and poet who has been working with the Warlpiri for five years, explained the traditional ideas of Kurdiji, which means ‘shield’, were normally transmitted as part of an initiation ceremony of the same name.

“They propose that a person, or country, or homeland, is made strong when surrounded by the four pillars of language, law, skin name, and ceremony,” she explained.

“This is a system used by a large number of Aboriginal groups, to show the way people relate to one another, and also how they relate to other living things and the country itself. So Kurdiji is a way of creating a sense of belonging.”

The biennial Milpirri Festival was established to convey these ideas, the Warlpiri empowering their own young people to present these ideas about Kurdiji to an audience of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

The idea to translate this concept and experience into an app came from the elders in Lajamanu following a suicide in a nearby community a few months ago.

“The person who died had a lot of close friends and family in Lajamanu, and the community was devastated. They explained to me that their biggest problem was reach; they could talk about Kurdiji with anyone who could physically get to Lajamanu, but that community is about 900 kilometres from Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert,” Crispin explained.

As creative director of the project, Crispin will work on the app’s front end. She is joined on the team by Drew Baker, an expert in applied 3D visualisation working in the areas of cultural heritage and archaeology, working on the back end; Wanta Jampijimpa, a Warlpiri elder and artistic director of the Milpirri Festival, who will liaise with the community to ensure every piece of cultural material included is agreed upon by the elders; marketing professional Saadi Allan; and Dr Fiona Shand of the Black Dog Institute.

A researcher and clinical psychologist, Shand has experience in this space: she has worked in the past with Kimberley communities to develop iBobbly, an app aimed at reducing suicide risk for young Indigenous Australians, and also co-designed an SMS-based intervention system to support young people following a suicide attempt; the system is being piloted in two public hospitals.

The team will work alongside the local community to develop the app’s content, from 3D motion capture of dance and traditional hand signals to audio recordings of language, and representations of songlines and story.

“The process so far has been very encouraging; we get messages of support every day from across Aboriginal Australia. And we’ve been sent messages by elders that are intended for young Indigenous people too, messages we will incorporate into the app,” Crispin said.

A message sent in from Aunty Jenny Munro read: “Tell them we need them to live, be strong and sure in who they are. We need them to be here after we are gone to Biaime. Tell them to look for a friend to talk to when they feel disheartened, it does help. Tell them they are not alone, our old people all around them all the time.”

Crispin said, “This is the life and blood of the Kurdiji project. It’s why we’ve started this journey and why we’ll stop at nothing to finish it.”

The team has taken to GoFundMe to raise funding for the app’s development, looking to raise $280,000; it has so far raised over $31,000.

“A community-led project, especially one on such a serious topic, is unlikely to be invested in by government,” Crispin said.

“We’ve had some early support from The Kirby Foundation, but we really need to complete a pilot to show that the idea works before we’re likely to attract stable funding. But we knew how much community support this project would attract; the Australian public are basically good people with good hearts and we knew we’d have a better chance of getting support from real people.”

Once ready for use, the app will be available for download from the Kurdiji Project website, while the team will also look to roll it out into community adult learning centres, arts centres, and schools. They will then apply for government support to create the next version of the app, to be made available in as many Indigenous languages as possible.

Image source: Kurdiji Project.

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