A feeling of peace permeates the indigenous community of Yungngora, punctuated by shrieks from children playing chasey in the red dust, the sizzle of a barbecue and gentle chatter among families sitting underneath a pergola.
They have come together to celebrate.
Two years ago, this remote community of 500 people at Noonkanbah station in WA’s central Kimberley was fractured, and beset with alcohol and drug problems which often led to violence.
Now, locals describe their home as peaceful, and safe. This remarkable transformation is thanks to a group of local indigenous women — supported by police and a husband and wife team who oversee the running of Yungngora — who were fed up with locals ignoring the regulations of their dry community.
The seven member, all-female council — headed up by community leader Judy Mulligan — was elected 18 months ago and moved to enforce by-laws introduced by elders years earlier. Most significant of these was a three strikes policy which saw offenders evicted from the community for three months.
The statistics speak for themselves. Crime is down 60 per cent in 12 months. Domestic violence incidents have gone from as many as six in one week, to none in recent months. School attendance, at its lowest around 50 per cent, is now sitting at 90 per cent.
The impact can be seen all over the community. In the bright-eyed kids who are getting a good nights’ sleep and are engaged in learning at school.
At the local shop, which under new management has gone from years of losses to an 11 per cent profit this year, and which now employs 12 people. Cigarette and soft drink sales are down while fruit and vegetable sales are up.
Attempting to reverse deeply entrenched behaviour has been an enormous, challenging task and Ms Mulligan endured threats and abuse as she set about healing her home.
Casting her eye over this calm scene now, she says it was all worth it.
“It’s been really hard for me, and the council. Some people didn’t like the changes but now, they say ‘it’s a good thing what you’ve done here,’” she said.
“I am proud of what I’ve done. It has to be a safe community, especially for the young ones.”
Those young ones include Ms Mulligan’s 12 grandchildren.
Sen. Sgt Neville Ripp is the officer in charge of the Looma police facility, and is responsible for five remote communities including Yungngora.
He has worked in the Kimberley for 12 years, and what he witnessed in Yungngora he has seen only once before – in the work of renowned Aboriginal leader June Oscar in Fitzroy Crossing.
He said such change was only possible because it was driven by the community.
“When I first got here, we had a lot of issues,” A lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs and a lot of domestic violence,” Sen Sgt Ripp said.
“Judith is the one who has bitten the bullet, she was sick of what was going on. She had our backing. We told them, ‘this is your land, these are your people, you need to police this as best you can,’” he said.
Over time, behaviours changed.
“People saw (others getting moved on) and thought, we better stop doing this or we’ll be kicked out for three months,” he said.
“I haven’t known this to happen in any of the communities I’ve worked in. We need to empower these people to take ownership of their own communities and this is a classic example, and a lot of people should have a look at Judy’s work.”
“They wanted peace, and they’re a peaceful community now.”
Yungngora Association chief executive Chris Wilkin and his wife, office manager Christine Cattuzzo, arrived at the community in 2017.
“The community had gone through some very trying times – they were left without staff in key positions, the store had no secure management, alcohol and drugs were rife. The community wasn’t cohesive, it was very much fractured,” Mr Wilkin said.
Locals asked for help to get their community financial again and to address the alcohol and drugs crisis.
“We explained if you’re going to wait for someone to come in and fix your problems, you’re going to be waiting a long time. From then on, they’ve had regular community meetings to address drugs, alcohol, gambling and lawlessness,” Mr Wilkin said.
Mr Wilkin said the removal of offenders to other communities for three months initially caused angst.
“But the majority of the people who have been removed, when they’ve come back, they’ve said ‘we want to live here, we know we did the wrong thing, we won’t do the wrong thing anymore.’”
The medical clinic, now operating 24/7, hasn’t had any domestic violence cases present in the past few months and incomes are now being spent on family, rather than drugs or alcohol.
“We’ve got solid foundations and we can expand on them,” Mr Wilkin said.
Ms Mulligan, Mr Wilkin and Ms Cattuzzo were recognised at a ceremony held at the community last week. Ms Cattuzzo wiped away tears as Sen Sgt Ripp detailed the difference the trio had made to Yungngora.
“It’s been a 180 degree change,” she said. “It’s really satisfying to see community taking control of community. It’s safe, it’s peaceful, it’s quiet. It’s been a lot of work but we’re coming out the other side now.”
At the community’s Kulkarriya school, traditional lessons are complemented with Indigenous language classes and Auslan lessons, with an overall emphasis on instilling respect and pride in the almost 70 students.
Principal Huria Chapman said it had been incredible to watch some teenagers return to school after realising what they were missing.
“Quite a few years ago, the students struggled to read and write. That has really improved over the years,” she said.
”Learning has become more relevant and because we’re reinforcing being proud of who they are as indigenous people, that is really lifting their self-worth and their self-esteem. That is so important.”
More children are engaging with sport, too. Local woman and teacher Trichelle Laurel started up an after school basketball competition for kids and was overwhelmed with the response.
“The first afternoon there was a bunch of kids waiting for me at the courts. I loved seeing the kids having fun, and the parents being proud of their skills,” she said.
“I’m really proud of myself, I’ve started something that hasn’t been done here before. It’s great seeing the community come together.”
Ms Mulligan’s sister Caroline described what had taken place as a “healing process.”
“The drugs and the alcohol that came through the community, it was hard to deal with,” she said.
“The (transformation) has helped ease the hurt (people) have gone through over the years. I believe this will continue.”