Chasing dreams with the Yolngu
All images used with permission.
Shon Dunn was at a crossroads of sorts. In the months after completing his teaching degree, the musician and university graduate had left his hometown of Ballarat and moved to Canberra while he considered his career options.
There were two things he knew for sure: he wanted to try living elsewhere, and he wanted to challenge himself.
“I had this strong drive to pull myself out of my comfort zone,” says Shon, who graduated with a Bachelor of Education (Primary) from ACU in 2020. “I wanted to face my fears and test myself.”
Midway through his degree, while visiting Tasmania, Shon had met a busker playing the didgeridoo. When they got talking about music and their respective instruments, the busker mentioned the time he’d spent in Arnhem Land, the original home of the didgeridoo (known in Yolngu Matha as the ‘yidaki’).
“We talked for a while and this yidaki player said to me, ‘You’ve got to get up to Arnhem Land and check it out – I’m telling you, you’ll love it,” says Shon, who at the time had very little knowledge of Aboriginal people and culture.
“I’d been studying the Indigenous unit as part of my course at ACU and that really piqued my interest, and then the week that I returned from Tasmania, my lecturer was talking about Arnhem Land and the magic that resides there. So there were all these little hints being dropped that were pointing me in the right direction.”
As he pondered his future, Shon came upon a moment of clarity.
“I had this thought that if I really wanted to, I could get a job in seven days in a remote part of the Northern Territory, where they’re really in need of teachers,” he recalls. “I went home and I wrote down that goal. Seven days later, I was on the phone to a school principal in Arnhem Land.”
After signing his employment contract, Shon flew to the Northern Territory and spent two weeks in mandatory quarantine. The next day, he was teaching.
The balanda from Ballarat
Shon’s first-ever paid gig as a teacher was at a bilingual school named Shepherdson College, some 3000 kilometres away from home and anyone he knew, in a remote community on Elcho Island (known to its traditional owners as ‘Galiwin'ku’).
Apart from the dramatic change in weather, Shon quickly discovered that teaching at the school would be a steep learning curve. More than half of the students in his class, who were aged between eight and 11, spoke little or no English.
Shon with Matthew Gurruwiwi.
“Trying to communicate and get to know these children and learn about them was challenging, and the whole thing was just a mind-blowing experience,” says Shon, who admits that at first, he wondered what he’d signed himself up for.
He has since learned to communicate and teach in Djambarrpuyngu, one of at least 16 Yolngu Matha dialects in use on Elcho Island. Recently, Shon has had times in the classroom where no English was spoken by both himself or his students for up to 30 minutes.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” he says. “To think that there are times that we, as a whole class, speak in Yolngu Matha. It feels special to be part of that.”
One of the first things you notice about Shon is how clearly he speaks – a product of being a teacher of children for whom English is a second, third or even fourth language.
This deliberately slow and careful way of talking is also reflected in Shon’s overall demeanour – a sign, perhaps, that after more than a year of living on Elcho Island, the serenity of the place has got under his skin.
When asked what it’s like to reside there, he chuckles slightly and responds: “You could write a whole book trying to answer that question. It’s hard for anyone to relate unless they’ve been here.”
In Arnhem Land, being a teacher and a ‘balanda’ (the Yolngu word for a non-Aboriginal person) is a unique experience that is wildly foreign, and yet grounded in the spirit of family and togetherness.
“Your students are your neighbours – you see them at the shops, you see them at the football, you experience the lives of your students and their families,” says Shon, who was adopted by a Yolngu family, inheriting the crocodile as his totem animal.
“It’s a grounding experience, where you really get to know the lives of the people as individuals – you know their story and they know yours, and you’re both part of the same family.”
A rich heritage
Shon remembers with clarity the day he flew to the Top End. Filled with nervous anticipation, he busied himself with last-minute preparations.
“I was tense with excitement, and to be honest, there was also a bit of fear of living in a place where there’s crocodiles,” he recalls. “I went to the grocery store and, call it a coincidence, but Yothu Yindi was playing over the radio. I took it as a sign that Arnhem Land was calling me.”
While teaching is Shon’s profession, music is his passion.
It’s a passion he shares with many Elcho Islanders: music and dance have been vital to the culture of the Yolngu for thousands of years.
The island is home to arguably the best-known Aboriginal musician of all, the late Gurrumul Yunupingu, who was himself a member of Yothu Yindi before he forged a hugely successful solo career.
In spite of Elcho Island’s rich musical vein, Shon arrived thinking he would have to hit the pause button on his performing and songwriting career.
“I honestly thought there would be no music scene for me to contribute to,” he says, “but it’s been quite the opposite.”
Christmas dinner with Nelson Yunupingu and the family.
In his time living in Arnhem Land, Shon has immersed himself in the music and dance of the Yolngu. With the help of his adopted brother, he made his own yidaki using traditional methods, and he’s been an active participant in Yolngu dances and ceremonies.
“Playing the music, learning the lyrics and the dances and trying to play the yidaki, it’s earned me so much more respect and acceptance here, and I’m always willing to put myself out there.”
In July, Shon performed with a local band called My Boys Are Good Boys on the main stage at the Garma Festival, Australia’s leading Indigenous cultural exchange event.
“You can’t put it into words the feeling to have my dad phone me at 7am to say he saw me on television, and I’m thousands of kilometres away,” he says.
Music has also played a role in his classroom as a teaching tool. Along with his students, Shon has written songs in Yolngu Matha and English on diverse topics, including focus, fire and bush medicine.
He says he’s been blessed with a classroom full of the most amazing dancers he’s ever seen, and many of his students are also skilled yidaki players.
“Sometimes I’m in the classroom, and I look around while I’m playing guitar and every student has stopped what they’re doing and is singing along,” he says. “It’s like this intrinsic rhythm is built into these kids, and as both a musician and a teacher, that’s quite an inspiration.”
Shon Dunn was originally attracted to teaching because he knew he wanted to work with children.
“There was something amusing and innocent about children and their honesty that drew me to working with them and seeking out a Bachelor of Education at ACU,” he says.
His year-long journey alongside the children of Elcho Island has been a period of intense learning and growth. While he would love to stay, he is driven to set an example to his students by pursuing his dream of being a professional musician.
“I can’t tell them to follow their dreams and then not have a crack at following my own,” he says. “Coming to Arnhem Land was my first step in facing my fears, and pursuing music is the next step. If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt from being here, it’s that I have to go and overcome that fear.”
As Shon looks back on his time on Elcho Island, he’s thankful for the moments that steered him there: the lessons he learned about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture while studying at ACU; his chance meeting with the didgeridoo player in Tasmania.
As it happens, Shon met that busker again in Arnhem Land, where they discovered that through Yolngu adoption, they were now cousins.
“I thanked him for sending that spark of inspiration my way,” he says. “I’m not sure I would be here if it wasn’t for those moments, those chance interactions that emphasised the allure of Arnhem Land. It’s a magical place, it really is.”
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