“When I was at school this kid came back after the holidays with a chemical sniffing way of getting us all high. This playground practice existed for 2 days before it was picked up by the teachers. We were called in to an assembly and the teachers explained to us clearly and intellectually what this practice we were doing was, and what oxygen starvation was doing to our brains. They were able to frighten us enough in our first language so it was closed down right then and there.” (Richard Trudgen)
To want to sniff petrol means you have hit rock bottom. Australian and American RAF soldiers serving in Milingimbi, in central Arnhem Land, during the Second World War hit rock bottom. Milingimbi is the sand fly paradise of the world. So they had sand flies, remote heat of the tropics, terrible living conditions, and they started sniffing petrol – to relieve themselves from reality for a while. This is where Aboriginal people learned petrol sniffing from.
Richard still works with many Yolngu people who claim “I wanna get the high so I can forget who I am.” What they need is community workers working closely with them and their parents to explain what oxygen starvation is, and the dangers of sniffing in language they can understand. Most have no in-depth knowledge of these translated concepts so members of the community are left uneducated “walking around like trees” – with no brain function.