OUTBACK EDUCATION IN THE ‘NOT TOO DISTANT’ PAST Warburton Ranges (WA) in 1970 (14)

Negative influences of European/Caucasian culture had a habit of impacting on Indigenous communities and Warburton Mission was not immune to these temptations. One of the most deleterious and humanity weakening habits to creep into remote missions and communities was that of petrol sniffing.

Sadly, the scourge of sniffing is decades old and the outcomes are still the same as was the case in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Research undertaken by the Menzies School of Health in Darwin illustrates some aspects of this chronically psychologically addictive habit.

“Petrol sniffing has been a major source of illness, death and social dysfunction in Indigenous communities over the past few decades. Sniffers start to experience feelings of euphoria, relaxation, numbness and weightlessness, but often end up with serious and irreversible brain and organ damage. The part of the brain that controls movement and balance is damaged and, eventually, users cannot walk or talk properly. Many sniffers end up in a wheelchair with severe, long term brain damage.

Sniffing also leads to behavioural and social problems and sniffers often get into trouble with the law for vandalism, violence, robbery and sexual assault. They find it difficult to stay at school and hold down jobs.

Poverty, boredom, unemployment, feelings of hopelessness and despair have contributed to the problem, aided by the low cost and ready availability of petrol. However, with the introduction of the federal Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program, including the roll out of Opal Fuel, and the NT Volatile Solvent Abuse Prevention Legislation, significant reductions in petrol sniffing in remote communities have been observed.” Source: Menzies School of Health Online Site 2021

While written decades beyond our time at Warburton, the Menzies text explains key elements of this chronic affliction.

In 1970, petrol sniffing was new to Warburton. It’s ‘novelty’ impact on the behaviour of children who tried sniffing, causing them to laugh, stagger and act drunk, caused parents and adults to laugh at displayed behaviour. Concerned community members tried to dissuade the core of users from stealing and sniffing petrol fumes from the small tins into which it was siphoned, but with limited success.

When we left Warburton the end of 1970, the problem was not community wide, with the user group being relatively small. But the habit and the number of users was to grow, as we discovered when returning to Warburton in 1974.

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