The Start of International Outreach


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This Paper details smaller gatherings that were some of the precursors to ConFest.


Gatherings held in North East NSW during the years 1971-1973 were arranged in 1970 by Dr. Ned Iceton, a former Doctor with the Royal Australian Flying Doctor Service and a lecturer at the University of New England Extension Service. Iceton held the first gathering in 1970 with only Aboriginal males attending, as in Iceton’s view, the colonial experience had been more destructive to the Aboriginal men).


Dr Neville Yeomans attended the 1971, 1972, and 1973 Gatherings playing a pivotal behind-the-scenes role. Consistent with Neville’s earlier action research at Fraser House and Cultural Keyline, the 1971-1973 Gatherings were theme based – using the theme: ‘Surviving Well in the Dominant World’. In keeping with Neville’s interest in gender balance, both males and females attended.


Consistent with Dr Yeomans’ Fraser House being a ‘balanced community’, these gatherings were attended by equal numbers of:


·         Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people

·         Males and females

·         Under controlled and over-controlled people



During an interview I had with Dr Iceton in Armidale[1] he described local young Aboriginal man Terry Widders’ 1970-1973 role at the Armidale Gatherings as being quite crucial in these Gatherings. Widders knew the cultural nuances supporting the Aborigines’ opening up during the first of these Human Relations Gatherings - a milieu that was strange and potentially very threatening for Aboriginal and Islander attendees at the outset. Terry started talking about the difficulties he had faced in surviving well and about his plans for his future. On hearing one of their own speaking in this forum, other Aboriginal people followed. Neville knew that while the social topography was diverse, this theme about ‘surviving well’ was a Keypoint touching the lives of all attendees – Aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike. It was a theme conducive to coherence. Soon attendees were following Keylines of discussion. Neville, Widders and Iceton all confirmed Neville’s pivotal behind the scene enabling role.


Sociologist Margaret-Ann Franklin[2] makes particular reference to Terry Widders’ contributions to these Gatherings and their consequent ripple-through effects in the local Armidale NSW Aboriginal community. She quotes Terry commenting on the Human Relations Gatherings:


They were good for different people in different ways. It intensifies communication, that’s what it does. It focuses you. You get down to the specifics of social and cultural communication rather than just, ‘how’s the weather?’


Terry’s comments aptly describe Big Group at Fraser House – relational exchange[3] is both social and intercultural. Additionally, all involved are personally affected in differing ways.


Franklin quotes Iceton’s summary of outcomes:


……purposeful local group activity, and in which an evolving underpinning is to be provided by an updated and appropriate set of commonly accepted ideas (worked out together) about what are the right ideas and right kinds of behaviour towards each other and the world outside, and the right way to help each other stick to them after they are worked out.


This quote is resonant with Fraser House way and Aboriginal traditional sociomedicine for social cohesion.[4]


Resonant with Fraser House, at times, the Armidale Human Relations Gatherings operated at very intense, though ecologically tight levels. As in Fraser House, Neville ensured that the context-specific functional aspects of behaviour were supported and that the context-specific non-functional bits were not supported. Both Neville[5] and Iceton[6] confirmed this. In sorting through big issues and the minutia like the Big Groups did at Fraser House, each Human Relations Gathering at end was deemed to be a great success.


A young Aboriginal woman sent Ned a copy of the diary she kept during the second Armidale Workshop. This diary was published with her permission in the next issue of the Human Relations Magazine.


Excerpts from her diary:


I feel very mixed up, uneasy, frightened and I try to get myself out of this by staying in my room while the meeting is on, but I feel that it will only work in two ways, either (1) I will close up altogether, and go back to my old ways of joking my way through, or, (2) go and sit in and listen to the discussion and see how I feel when I have finished there. I decide to go back and sit down and listen to the rest speak.


The final comment in her diary:


It was a good week for everyone I talked to, and the next one will be even better.


Her diary is resonant with the diary of the Fraser House resident included in the back of the Clark and Yeomans’ book on Fraser House.[7] There is the same emotional turmoil and confusion. She could make little sense of what was happening within her during that Gathering, though there is a strong sense as the diary proceeds that she is integrating many aspects of her being - corrective emotional experience rather than insight.


The Self Organising Rollout for Bourke


Three people from the Aboriginal communities around Bourke attended the Human Relations gatherings in Armidale in 1971 with Professor Max Kamien, a psychiatrist. In Kamien’s book, ‘The Dark People of Bourke - A study of Planned Social Change’,[8] he refers to these Armidale and Grafton gatherings as ‘a milestone’ in renewal among the Aboriginal people from around Bourke, a remote town in New South Wales’.[9]


I spoke to Professor Kamien about his experience of attending the 1971 Armidale gathering and he had vivid experiences of the exchanges in the circle. I asked him if he knew Dr Neville Yeomans and he said that he had heard good things about Neville’s work at Fraser House and that he would have been very interested to meet him. It turned out that Professor Kamien had no knowledge that Neville was not only at that gathering in Armidale, that he was also the behind the scenes enabler of process. While I was surprised to hear the Professors comment, at another level it fits with the subtle role that Neville played. Neville would engage Aboriginal Terry Widders as the group leader and Neville’s subtle, not so subtle, highly provocative, evocative, invocative, and timely speech acts would have been hidden in plain view unless you had past experience of Fraser House community way. For Kamien, Neville would have been just one of a number of non-aboriginal males in the circle. Neville would have been totally immersed in observing and interacting with everything happening in the interactions among the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people present in circle and especially during  the breaks (where lots of significant minutia happen to ever have either a professional or non professional chat with another Psychiatrist in attendance. All of this is Neville’s way. Neville was very mindful of how he used his time.


While returning to Bourke, one of the three Aboriginals who had attended the Armidale gathering had extensive conversations with members of different Aboriginal communities visited on the way. Upon returning to their own remote community out in Bourke, and on their own initiative, the three commenced in their own community similar human relations gatherings to what they had experienced in Armidale. The Aboriginal person who had carried out the conversations in the communities on the way back to Bourke was the key enabler for the local Bourke action.[10] This is one example of the presence of nurturers in oppressed communities. It was also in part, an indicator of Neville’s ability to pass on community healing ways such that others who have been traumatized may be ready, willing and able to enable gatherings and have the follow-through to organize and actually hold gatherings with local members of their community on an ongoing basis.


Local non-aboriginal teachers in Bourke had their first contact with adult Aboriginals (the parents of their students) when they attended these Bourke human relations groups.[11]


Further Rollout for Armidale


As a follow-on gathering, Terry Widders enabled two human relations workshops for Aboriginal youth in Armidale on the weekends 26-27 June 1970 and 10-11 July, 1971 – another example of a local nurturer self starting action. He reported on these in Issue No.1, July 1971 of the Aboriginal Human Relations Newsletter.[12] An almost complete set of the Newsletter is held at the National Library in Canberra.[13] This newsletter contained reports of the Human Relations Gatherings as well as wellbeing related contributions from Indigenous and resonant people from all over Australia. The University of New England cut funding for the Aboriginal Human Relations Newsletter. This was when Connexion, a self-help Functional Matrix Network evolved by Neville and others around Sydney took over the editorial, printing and distributing role with Rick Johnstone playing a lead role (he was a mover in getting the Maralinga Atomic Test Royal Commission started which resulted in a major clean-up of Aboriginal traditional lands in South Australia). Neville took me to meet Rick in Sydney in the late 1980s as part of Neville’s linking me into his networks.


During 14 - 22 May 1972 a third Human Relations Gathering was held in Armidale NSW. A group of thirty-four Aborigines from around Bourke journeyed to Armidale and twenty-one actively participated in that Gathering. The three from Bourke who attended the first gathering came to the second gathering.  Neville, Widders and Iceton again enabled these gatherings.


Emergence of Wider Networks


After the Grafton workshop in 1973, Neville and Terry enabled human relations gatherings of aborigines in Alice Springs and Katherine in the northern territory. Neville said[14] that the indigenous networks that were evolving through the Armidale, Grafton, Alice Springs and Katherine human relations gatherings and the associated aboriginal human relations newsletter were seminal in the evolving of the Laceweb. These networks continue to evolve.


Neville reported that in Alice Springs Aboriginal people were coming a few at a time and leaving and bringing others back with them. The numbers remained small with a constant roll-over of people. Then during the mid afternoon Terry began storytelling in a very enchanting kind of way that created in Neville a very lucid and highly evocative dream state and Neville re-oriented at one stage to find the room jammed full of Aboriginal people all deeply into this dream state as well.


Neville and Terry Widders[15] confirmed that networks formed through these four gatherings continue to this day. Many aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people who attended the human relations workshops are now playing key enabler roles within aboriginal and islander communities and have gone on to become key people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.


Eddie Mabo’s attendance at the 1973 Grafton gathering is noted in Ned Iceton’s file notes in his archives, and in the human relations newsletters. Eddie Mabo was the Torres Strait islander who energized the legal challenges relating to the invalidity of the notion Terra Nullis that led to the Mabo decision granting indigenous land rights in Australia. Eddie Mabo wrote a letter dated 2 march 1974 published in the march 1974 human relations newsletter about his attempts to get funding for an aboriginal run school in Townsville before current funding ran out.


As one example of follow-on from the human relations gatherings, Terry Widders networked through the UN indigenous working group.  Neville said[16] that Terry Widders and himself were two of a very few people who had been granted observer status at meetings of the Unrepresented Nations and People Organization (UNPO) based in the Hague.


Neville himself had returned to full time study at the University of NSW from 1975 working on his law degree, and when this was completed he shifted north. Terry went on a study tour of China in the 1970’s and later obtained a masters degree on Chinese and Japanese minorities and had teaching fellowships in both countries. In the late 1980’s Terry and Neville went to china and had a meeting with three members of the Chinese Central Government on Chinese minorities.


From these 1971-1973 gatherings and their outreach, networks of indigenous healers and resonant others have been spreading through the Asia Pacific Australasia Region with links to other indigenous networks around the world.


In this timeline, the Spirit of ConFest had already spread internationally five years before ConFest started.


By 2002, write-ups of these Armidale Gatherings were on the Laceweb Site and a person from UN-INMA, one of the self-help groups evolved by Neville, was travelling to five countries through South East Asia Oceania and finding and linking up with 49 networks and meeting 140 healers. This engaging was widened to 11 countries and 49 healers from these countries participated in a sharing gathering in the Philippines country side facilitated by the person from UN-INMA, a professor from the University of the Philippines and a principle of a Philippine institute. Four heads of country and a regional head of a UN agency also attended.


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[1] July, 1999.

[2] Refer (Franklin 1995, p. 59).

[3] Refer (Franklin 1995, p. 59).

[4] Refer (Cawte 1974; Cawte 2001).

[5] July, 1999.

[6] July, 1999.

[7] Refer (Clark & Yeomans’ 1969).

[8] Refer (Kamien 1978, p. 48, 49, 55, 57, 69-70, 77-78, 297, 324).

[9] Refer (Kamien and Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies 1978, p. 48, 49).

[10] Refer (Kamien and Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies 1978, p. 48, 49).

[11] Refer (Kamien and Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies 1978, p. 48, 49).

[12] Refer (Aboriginal Human Relations Newsletter Working Group 1971a).

[13] Refer (Aboriginal Human Relations Newsletter Working Group 1971b).

[14] Dec 1993, Dec 1994, July 1998.

[15] Aug 1999.

[16] Dec, 1993.