Dancing with the scars - SMH 14th March 2009


Dancing with the scars

Sydney Morning Herald - 14th March 2009


A quiet life now ... Nicholas Bugmy set himself some hard goals on his return to Broken Hill from juvenile detention. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Education gave Cyril Johnson a leg up but not all his dance mates fared as well, writes Joel Gibson.

Who could have foretold what was around the corner for the boys from Paakintji country welcoming the Olympic flame by dancing atop a desert hill in 2000? Their lives took radically different directions - from petrol sniffing to fatherhood, from jail to sporting glory and artistic achievement. Each of them is unique, each of them an exemplar of being young and black today.

We have previously reported on Cyril Johnson, a waif from Wilcannia and Broken Hill who became a swimming champion, a protege of Ian Thorpe and a scholarship Year 12 student at the prestigious St Ignatius College, Riverview. We travelled to Broken Hill to meet his fellow members of the Thankakali Spirit Catchers dance group.

Nicholas Bugmy, 20, spent four years in juvenile jails. In the same sculpture park where they danced nine years ago, he told of petrol sniffing leading to marijuana, alcohol and street fighting. One awful night, he severely injured another man. "Old mate didn't pull through," he whispered, eyes to the ground.

Surrounded in jail by kooris from home, Bugmy became a leader, completed several certificates and returned, physically fit, to Broken Hill, with goals harder to achieve than they sound. "I just want to get my licence, get my car back and a good job and a flat or something for myself - just get away from everyone and do my own thing."

His brother Ben is 16 and a promising rugby league player. In the past few years, he has not been out of jail for more than a month. More stealing charges are pending.

Andrew Bugmy, a cousin and also 20, is a new father. At the art centre where he paints two days a week for about $200 plus commissions, his eyes lit up as he told the Herald of his love for Andrew jnr, nearly two.

He wants two more boys and a girl "so the girl is always safe", he said, and hopes a new Federal Government-backed scholarship scheme will one day find them a boarding school place.

"I'd send them in the blink of an eye," he said. Meanwhile, he mentors boys, taking them bush to teach them their culture. "There's a lot of temptation, like to steal - for something to do, for things they don't have, for things they can't afford. Sometimes they even do it for fun. I've tried to avoid trouble by keeping myself occupied and keeping the boys occupied as well."

Of the rest of the troupe, little is known on Broken Hill's bush telegraph. Dallas is in Sydney with an aunt. Buddy, one of the Wilcannia Mob group whose hit single, Down River, made the charts in 2003, is in Adelaide.

Derek, Buddy, Ronald, Graham, Wally and Mervyn have moved to places unknown - Dubbo, some suggested, or Queensland - with mixed success. "Most of the other boys in that picture have been addicted to drugs and alcohol," Andrew said. "Most of them have been in and out of jail."

Cyril this week described as "just unreal" the gulf between Broken Hill and Riverview. Riverview boys, he said, "wouldn't grasp that young people do stupid things and go to jail so easily".

According to Cyril's adoptive father, Uncle Bucky Meadows, a butcher-turned-youth worker, the key is opportunity. "We believe in these kids, that if they are given a chance they can do lots of things, from sporting ability to education. Cyril has proven me right in many different ways."

With his wife Sue, Bucky was the dance group's driver. Until funding dried up, he ran boxing and go-karting programs. Some boys didn't know right from left and did not have birth certificates, he said. "The schools up here just don't have the resources," Meadows said. "If the kids are going to school they won't be missing out. They get a breakfast program and they are getting social skills."

Cyril agrees. "School is the key to everything that can get them pretty much everything in life. Because I had the opportunity I guess it's kind of worked out for me."

Joel Gibson is the Herald's indigenous affairs reporter.

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