Category Archives: Social Justice

Country for Yarralin

The ‘legendary bushman’ picked me up at Darwin airport and we sped down the Stuart Highway into savannah country. Turkey bushes were flowering, the termite mounds looked splendid in the late afternoon sun, and we were going to participate in a momentous event. The Traditional Owners of country around Yarralin were getting Aboriginal Freehold Title to land after decades of effort.

Campbell family with title (D. Lewis)
Campbell family with title (D. Lewis)

Aboriginal Freehold is an inalienable form of title that allows the Traditional Owners an exceptional amount of control over their land. It is achieved through the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976, and can only be gained in the Northern Territory. The handback was the moment to celebrate and formalise the transfer, and the Northern Land Council was commemorating the event with T-shirts and a buffet lunch. Light aircraft lined the normally deserted airstrip. Visitors included Labor Senator Warren Snowdon, a man of probity and heart who has represented people of the Territory for many years, and Nigel Scullian, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The Land Council top brass was there, and media people were busy.

Behind the handback was a story spread across 44 years. In 1972 the people who became known as the Yarralin mob walked off Victoria River Downs (VRD) Station, one of the massive cattle properties of North Australia. People from neighbouring Humbert River Station joined them and they went to the freedom camp at Daguragu where the walk-off had been initiated in 1966. Behind the walk-off was a story spread across eight decades of cruel hardship. Colonisation had started in the 1880s with violent massacres, rapes and dispossession. It continued with brutal everyday violence, on-going population loss, and excruciating working conditions. Aboriginal people were wards of the state, every aspect of their lives was controlled, and that situation continued with little change until the day when people said ‘no’ and walked off.  They over-turned decades of oppression, and gave fresh impetus to citizenship and land rights.

Children preparing to sing (D. Lewis)
Children preparing to sing (D. Lewis)

The Yarralin mob entered into negotiations with VRD for a block of land, and they returned to start up the community. The best agreement they could get was an excision of 149 amounting to less than 1% of the VRD property. Another 355 sq. km. block was excised and held by the NT government itself. People were clear that this was far less than the amount they needed if they were to fulfil their aim of achieving autonomy by running their own cattle. However, it became evident that this was all that would be offered, and so they settled for what they could get: two parcels, one held by the NT government and one handed back to Yarralin community in 1984. Neither had the security of Aboriginal Freehold.

1984 Handback, Hobbles Danaiyarri, Doug Campbell, Paul Everingham (D. Lewis)
1984 Handback, Hobbles Danaiyarri, Doug Campbell, Paul Everingham (D. Lewis)

Things soon got messy. A couple of carpetbaggers moved into Yarralin and in a short while managed to empty the savings accounts of all the old people, clear out the store, empty the community savings account, and take out a large loan using the title as collateral. Outback drifters are part of the social landscape of North Australia; like snakes, some are harmless and some are vicious. Wisdom has it that the eyes are windows to the soul. The two rip-off guys had eyes such as I had never seen before. They were flat, blank, murky, without sparkle or interest or concern. These guys lied as a way of life, and along with stealing from utterly decent people, including pensioners and children, they also organised the rotten exploitation of young women. They were never brought to trial. The crushing events became just another story, told everywhere and forgotten almost instantly. Seen from the outside, it was almost trite: a minor chapter in the great book of abuse known as colonisation.

Inside the disaster, Yarralin people were heart-broken. They lost the title, but continued to live on the land, their optimism badly damaged and their future uncertain. Many of the people who lost their savings, especially old people, lost deeply meaningful dreams. Their working lives had never been properly compensated. They had been planning for small things – a second-hand car, for example, so that they could get about the country in spite of the fact that they couldn’t walk far anymore. Heartless humans, so-called, wrecked those dreams.

Handback T-shirt, back.
Handback T-shirt, back.

Hobbles Danaiyarri was one of my most generous teachers, both eloquent and insightful. He called the blueprint for colonisation ‘Captain Cook’s book’. As he told the Saga, the book was brought first to south-east Australia, and then taken from region to region. It was refined and localised, so that everywhere colonisation had the same brutal objectives, and everywhere it was specific and targeted. Some of the injunctions went like this:

“All right, you just get people together in one mob. Get them together. But nother thing, no school house, nother thing, no hospital. They can work for free. No money come in. He can’t make any wages. He’s going to work for bread and beef. Make them prisoner. Make them work for you.”

Hobbles wanted Whitefellas to recognise that Australia had been settled and had become wealthy because of the work of people who were not free. At first Whitefella convicts provided labour, and later Aboriginal people replaced convicts as the un-free, un-paid workers. They were ‘prisoners in their own country.’ In short, the country was stolen and so was their labour. Others benefitted; they did not.

The people who walked off had industrial grievances, particularly the fact of unequal wages. And they had a wider and more powerful aspirations: to regain their land and change the conditions of race relations. They were walking away from both sides of violence – labour exploitation and dispossession from country. Communities like Yarralin were built on a strong sense of self-empowerment.  People had walked off in order to make new lives for themselves. When those two dead-eyed guys stole their title and their money, they also delivered a king hit to people’s confidence. The fact that there never was legal action further serve to crush people’s hopefulness about the kind of Australia that could emerge from citizenship and land rights.

Ruth, Brian Darby, Debbie Rose (D. Lewis)
Ruth Darby, Brian Darby, Debbie Rose (D. Lewis)

The story took another turn when, at around the same time that the title was picked up by sticky fingered plunderers, someone at the Northern Land Council noticed that there was a 31 sq. km. block of land, effectively a surveyor’s error, that legally was unalienated crown land and thus was open to being claimed under the Land Rights Act. I wrote a report for the land council in 1992, Darrell Lewis mapped the country, and there the matter rested. In the end, the claim was never heard. The NT government had decided to stop its opposition to land claims, and everyone agreed that the claim would be successful if it were to be heard. And so the actual hearing was by-passed. In a move that surprised me to the depths, three blocks of land (including the one with a missing title, and the surveyor’s error) were bundled together and handed back as Aboriginal Freehold Title.

Dancing to celebrate (D. Lewis)
Dancing to celebrate (D. Lewis)

And so the question becomes possible again after 44 years: what can Yarralin people achieve now that they control some of their land? To be sure, it is still a small amount of land by Territory standards: 503 sq. km. compared to VRD’s 8,900 sq. km. The walk-off generation had a clear and idealistic vision of a new Australia that could emerge with land rights and citizenship.

Rainbows over Sun Dreaming site at Yarralin
Rainbows over Sun Dreaming site at Yarralin

Land rights concerned country, what was at stake was the relationship between people and country, and it was circular. Country enlivened and empowered people, and people took care of country. Responsibility was the point of life – to raise new generations who could take care of the country, protect the Dreamings, and keep the generations going. Country was not only an aspiration. It was people’s most powerful source of strength. At the time of the walk-off Welfare Officers tried to get people to go back to work, saying they needed wages in order to survive, and ‘Lord Vestey’ (owner of Wave Hill Station) offered good working conditions as a way to regain control over Aboriginal people. Tommy Vincent Lingiari, the leader of the regional walk-off, replied: ‘You can keep your gold, we just want our land back’. That was the truth of the walk-off generation. That was how they broke away from the punitive control that ruled their lives.

The leaders of that generation were politically astute and at the same time they were idealistic. Many of them had a further aim when they walked off. Beyond equal wages, beyond parcels of land, they were committed to a wider transformation.

Through land rights, injustice could be overcome, and a new nation could emerge.

This would be a different Australia, made up of citizens who respected each other, who shared the wealth, who lived according to their own culture and knowledge, and who were committed to the idea that what was best for country would be best for Australia. Many of these old people truly desired an Australia in which Whitefellas and Aboriginals could work together, ‘be mates together’, and take care of country together.

Yarralin handback T-shirt, front.
Yarralin handback T-shirt, front.

The Yarralin handback T-shirt proclaims: ‘We never gave up the fight’ It’s a great story to celebrate, but there’s more to it. The fight isn’t over. The brutality of the past is being given new shape and power in the present, as I have discussed in a recent essay (‘Remembrance’). And so the fight for responsibility and justice must go on. That vision of transformation, the vision that empowered the walk-off generation, is by no means achieved.  At the core was country, and the eco-cultural call to work together to take care of country is still the greatest challenge facing the world today.


In the old days Aboriginal people in the Yarralin region wrapped the dead bodies of their loved ones, and placed them on platforms. They went away, and didn’t return until nothing but bones was left. The bones were bundled up and kept in caves that were Dreaming sites; they were understood to be sources of health and strength for country. The dead were never far from the living, and their beneficence flowed into the living generations. These days burial is the norm, and land rights has made it possible for people to bury their dead close to home and in a manner of their own choosing.

This trip gave me the opportunity to do some sorry business for my young granddaughter who took her life last year. The grieving family is not exactly part of the Yarralin mob, and they didn’t have much to celebrate at the Yarralin handback, but I went to their outstation, and together we visited the beautiful grave they had made. It is very close to the houses, just visible through the scrub if you know where to look. Most visible from a distance is the sign explaining restrictions and announcing $20,000 fines for damage.

Grave (D. Lewis)
Grave (D. Lewis)

The walk-off generation couldn’t have imagined a day when their descendants would be burying young people who died by their own hand, but they would have valued this outcome of land rights. Country is still the source of strength. Its people belong there in life and in death.


A number of the issues I discuss here, including fidelity to the dead, were discussed in a recent essay ‘Remembrance’. For more on the walk-off and Gurindji Freedom day, see my essay (here).

For more information on the history behind the handback, see two excellent articles by my mate Robert Gosford (download here and here). There is also a fine article by Helen Davidson in The Guardian about the handback itself (read here).

Hobbles Danaiyarri’s ‘Saga of Captain Cook’ has been published several times. I am particularly chuffed by the fact that it stands as the first chapter in the volume Australia’s Empire which is part of the Oxford History of the British Empire. I have made available a copy that is accompanied by a reflective essay, published in 2001 in a book edited by Bain Attwood and Fiona Magowan and published by Allen and Unwin. (Saga of Captain Cook)

The ‘legendary bushman’ Darrell Lewis can be heard in conversation with Richard Fidler (listen here).


Remembrance, in the wake of suicide

I couldn’t visit any Aboriginal families last year because I was so ill, but I kept in touch, and some of the news was very bad. In August, one of my young granddaughters killed herself. It was a double grief to have to stay home when I wanted to go and cry with the family; later I sent a message of comfort to be read aloud at the funeral as a small way to make up for not being there in person.

rock orchid

My grief and bewilderment flared up recently when I heard that a ten-year-old girl in the Kimberley had killed herself. This Kimberley death has brought into public view the horrifying statistics about youth and child suicide across North Australia. In the Northern Territory, Indigenous youth suicide was recently reported to be 30.1 per 100,000 people, compared with a figure of 2.6 nationally among non-Indigenous people. A recent report indicates a 500% increase in reports of child self-harm and suicide in NT over the past two decades. Gerry Georgatos, a specialist on Indigenous suicide, describes the problem as a ‘humanitarian crisis’.

Everyone is shocked, everyone wants to understand why, and everyone wants to do something. But what? No one knows exactly how to understand these deaths, and no one knows exactly what to do. I am an ‘everyone’. I too am shocked and want to do something. I too feel baffled and powerless. Even the work of writing becomes a field of impossibilities. To write publicly risks saying the wrong thing. To say nothing is to turn one’s back on suffering, and thus to refuse the ethical call inherent in suicide. The biggest fact, to my mind, is that everyone with a conscience feels implicated. We are called, perhaps more powerfully than ever, to ask what reconciliation might look like – not as a political outcome but as an ethical response.

These recent deaths shine a cruel spotlight on our connections as well as on our inequalities: we, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people, are part of the same nation, but in general we are leading radically different lives. Part of the difference concerns health, life expectancy and well-being. I turned to my friend John Boulton for more insight. He worked as a medical doctor in the Kimberley for ten years. His specialty is paediatrics, and his practice has forced him to think deeply about the suffering of children. As he struggled to understand the catastrophes he encountered he found it necessary to consider the intergenerational transmission of trauma. His eloquent words tell a story that is at once biological, social and ethical: for Aboriginal people in North Australia ‘History is inscribed on the body and branded in the mind’.

John was seeing the long-term impacts of two types of trauma: starvation and violence. Both types affect unborn babies as well as everyone else in their grip. Much of the evidence about intergenerational trauma comes out of World War II, and is perhaps best known amongst Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, and those offspring of women who survived the lesser-known Nazi atrocity, the Dutch Winter Famine of 1944-45. The effects of under-nutrition put children who experience it whilst in the womb at far higher than average risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and obesity in later life, with the risk and type of illness dependent on the timing of maternal starvation. In parallel, the trauma of enduring psychic violence leads to alterations in hormone receptors in the offspring’s brain and may lead to low capacity to withstand stress. This can happen throughout life, and typically leads to a tendency toward impetuous and violent behaviour in the face of a level of frustration or stress that could otherwise be managed. ‘Self-medication’ with alcohol or other substances is one of the ways in which people seek to manage repeated trauma. Alcohol regularly leads to more violence, bringing more trauma into more people’s lives. In the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, evidence indicates that suicide rates took off about 20-30 years after the time it became legal for Aboriginal people to purchase alcohol.

Youth and child suicide can thus be understood as part of a great wave of intergenerational trauma which manifests in poor health and shorter life expectancies, and far greater risk of exposure to violence compared with the national average. Self-harm is one of the most dramatic forms of violence.

These facts do not tell us the situation is hopeless; rather they serve to remind us that colonial and post-colonial social relations are key contributors to the contemporary social environment. Violence, trauma and starvation are well documented in the Victoria River region where my young granddaughter lived and died. I know the social history well, having learned about it from old people who had lived through most of it. I also know that across the generations there has been fierce determination: there has been a will to survive, to uphold the meanings of life, to take an ethical stand in spite of regulatory regimes of savage discipline. There is a will to remember; these are strong stories, and so at this time I want to think about three generations of individuals who lived from the 1880s until now. They brought my granddaughter into the world, and I am wondering what challenges they faced, and what sustained them. I called the girl ‘jaju’ in the kinship system, and I will use that term in writing about her.

First generation: Warriors

In the 1880s there was a group of adult clansmen whose country included some of the rough ranges and mesas of the Wickham River catchment. The men were clan brothers but had different mothers and fathers so their ages were widely disparate. I was privileged to meet the youngest of these men, Old Johnson Pitutu. In 1980 he was about eighty years old, and he died not long after I met him. His words have had a strong influence on my thinking; in his succinct eloquence he articulated an ethic of fidelity that is shared by most of the Aboriginal people I have ever met. The old man was living at the outstation, on land that was close to his ancestral country and near a place by the river where his uncle had been killed by Whitefellas. Old Pitutu told me that the ‘Wickham river is filled with blood of Blackfellas killed in those days. Their bones are all broken up along the bottom…. We are camping now on the blood of Aboriginal people killed in those days.’

To return to the 1880s, these Jangala clansmen were warriors; over the next three decades they fought invading Whitefellas and they fought other Aboriginal clans. They took revenge as necessary, killing other men outright, stealing women, and doing sorcery. They were incredibly courageous. They were fierce, prideful, unforgiving, and wildly defiant.  As their descendant Daly Pulkara explained, they decided to go ‘for win or lose’, knowing the Whitefellas had guns, but still determined to fight. They were Lawmen, as well, and they struggled to protect the sites and the country, to carry out the ceremonies and to raise a new generation even as they were seeing much of what they had known and valued in the world fall apart. The women in their lives, their sisters and wives, are not prominent in the stories, but the hints are that they were every bit as fierce as the men. It was a wholly unequal war, and along with warfare there were new and deadly diseases afflicting people. In the period 1880-1930 the loss of Aboriginal population was about 93%. This figure is consistent with estimates for nearby regions, and indeed for the whole of Australia, as assessed by Larissa Behrendt.

Conquest and dispossession started in earnest in this region in the 1880s. White people brought in cattle and set up Victoria River Downs station on top of Aboriginal people’s homelands. They had already decided that it was best in the first instance to shoot and terrify people. Clans and tribes whose country was out in the open plains were at a terrible disadvantage in those years. There are numerous massacre sites; the stories are well remembered although the names of individuals are lost. Once the Whitefellas had destroyed the initial resistance, they brought the survivors into the station as an unfree, unpaid (later underpaid) workforce.

The Jangala men were ‘bush blacks’; their country was in the rough ranges, and they carried on a guerrilla war against the Whitefellas for several decades. At the same time, they were defending their country against other local Aboriginal groups who also were seeking refuge. It was war in every direction. The most prominent of this group of clan brothers was a man whose Whitefella name was Gordon; the people who spoke with me about him invariably called him Old Gordon. He was born about 1870. Defiant to the last, he was one of Jaju’s great-grandfathers.

"Gordon J Shot", 18-10, the only memorial to an Aboriginal death in this period. D. Lewis
“Gordon J Shot, 1 8 10”, inscribed on a boab tree, the only memorial to an Aboriginal death in this period. D. Lewis

The story goes like this. One day in June, 1910, Gordon had gone out hunting, leaving his wives back at camp. While he was away, one of the Aboriginal men who was working for the Whitefellas, a guy named Murphy, found the camp and ended up killing the two women. We can only speculate about what might have happened. When Gordon got home he found his wives dead. He tracked Murphy back to the station, waited till the man was alone, and threw spears that injured but did not kill him. The station manager sent out a group of Aboriginal men led by a notoriously savage Whitefella. Among the group was Humbert Tommy, a man Old Gordon called ‘son’. One of the Aboriginal men shot him in both legs, crippling him, and afterwards shot him in the head. Between these shots, Humbert Tommy speared him. Finally, members of the group cut off his hands and took them back to the station, apparently as evidence that the job was done. Later, some of the Jangala men turned to sorcery to kill the man who had shot Old Gordon.

The action against Old Gordon seems excessive, but everyone was edgy at the time because earlier that year a white man had been killed. ‘Brigalow Bill’ Ward had taken up a license allowing him to muster cattle at the edge of VRD station. He was a rough and tumble duffer with a poor reputation among other Whitefellas, not only for stealing cattle but also for abusing the Aboriginal women he kept in his camp. The Jangala men tolerated him for a while, perhaps because he gave them tobacco, but in the end they decided they’d had enough of his threats and abuse. They may well have been stirred on by the women. One of them, Judy, hid Brigalow’s gun and alerted the Aboriginal men to come and kill him. A police report says that while Brigalow was dying Gordon cut his throat with a tommyhawk. Judy ripped out his beard, saying ‘good job him dead, mefellow no more like him’. This much is reported in the police files. Local knowledge adds more to this fierce story: as Judy stood over him in triumph, she pissed on his face.

One of the youngest of the Jangala clansmen was a man named Fishhook. He was born in about 1895 during a time of warfare and high nutritional stress. The description of him as a skinny kid with a large belly vividly conveys the effects of starvation. In spite of his tough start to life, he was the father of many of the men who continued the clan by having children of their own. (Judy did not have children who lived.) Fishhook argued against fighting, saying they needed to learn to get along with Whitefellas. Their transition into station life was eased by the fact that in 1919 a new station, Humbert River, was taken up in the area where Brigalow Bill had had his license, and which, cynically enough, had originally been set aside as an Aboriginal reserve. This station was located partly on country of the Jangala clansmen. It was run for decades by Charlie Schultz, described by his Aboriginal workers as a hard but decent man. Life was by no means easy at Humbert River station, but it was better than at many other places in the region.

Second generation: Workers

The people of this generation were the backbone of the cattle industry in North Australia. They became Law men and Law women in the bush, and were skilled at station work. They were extraordinarily secure and judicious in their own knowledge. While stockmen were the public face of the Aboriginal workforce, women point out that they, too, worked hard for Whitefellas. In the early days they were stockwomen, later they were domestics, and all the while they struggled to raise children under difficult circumstances. Mothers and fathers endured the heartbreak of one infant death after another, and across the region many parents lost children to authorities as part of the stolen generation.

Workers, 1926/27 (Wave Hill, Henry Collection
Workers, 1926/27 (Wave Hill, Henry Collection)

Humbert Tommy Nyuwinkarri bridged the gap between the warriors and the stockmen. Jaju would have called him ‘grandpa’. He was born in about 1894, a son of the Jangala generation. He had tried station life once and ended up ordered to attack his father, Old Gordon. Later, on Humber River station he became drover and a saddler, and was respected throughout the region. Daly Pulkara, Jaju’s maternal grandfather, told me that as a young man he spent time living in the bush with Humbert Tommy because he ‘wanted to learn to kill a man’. When the moment came, though, it was Humbert Tommy who held him back. It happened in 1938, when Daly was 14 years old. There were a lot of people camping in the bush, and a policeman came upon them and shot a lot of their dogs. Daly went wild, grabbed his spear and started to throw it, but Humbert Tommy took his arm and restrained him, telling him ‘don’t do it! Tensions were already high because just days before this incident Humbert Tommy had himself speared an Aboriginal police tracker, although the person he really wanted to attack was the white policeman who had killed his dogs, treated him condescendingly, and hit him in the head. As soon as he threw the spear he took off and hid out; later a more experienced policeman persuaded him to give himself up, and spoke for him in court to ensure that he would receive only a short jail sentence.

Mr Whitlam at Daguragu (Darrell Lewis)
Mr Whitlam at Daguragu (Darrell Lewis)

Until 1967 Aboriginal people were wards of the state, their rights were massively constricted. Under the regulatory regimes of the stations, their opportunities for redress were extremely minimal. This enclosed world changed abruptly with citizenship, the walk-offs and land rights. The men and women who had learned hard lessons of self-control were the leaders in the pastoral strikes. They turned the cattle station world upside down and brought in an era of land rights. At the same time, their own lives were also turned upside down. Citizenship meant equal wages, and cattle station owners and managers, angered over the disruption of their established way of life, decided to kick people off the stations and replace them with helicopters. Aboriginal groups went from full employment to almost zero employment. Having walked off the stations, they found there was almost nothing to return to.

For decades the Whitefellas in the cattle industry had made money out of Aboriginal labour; they had claimed to understand Aboriginals better than any welfare officer or other government official could do, and to have a genuine regard for Aboriginals. And yet, at the exact moment when they could have worked with Aboriginal people to form a post-colonial cattle culture built on co-existence and shared histories, they chose to opt out. Suddenly, the people they claimed to have cared about were expendable. Many Aboriginal people experienced this turning away as betrayal, as indeed it was. It was also, in many cases, mean-spirited, vindictive, and cruel. Worse yet, it was a foretaste of a much wider national turning away that gained ultimate expression in the ‘Intervention’ with its savage regulatory control over Aboriginal people, and the massive privileging of Whitefellas at their expense.

Third generation: Citizens

Jaju’s mother’s generation was the first to be born as free Australian citizens. I came into the story in 1980 when I arrived to live with people at Yarralin. I was amazed at the optimism people brought to lives that had been filled with so much hardship. They were clear about the injustices they had suffered, and aware of many on-going injustices. At the same time, they had walked off the stations in protest, and had returned home to found new communities, to make claims for the return of at least some of their traditional lands, and to raise a new generation that they expected would be educated in both Anglo-Australian ways and Indigenous ways. The house I was allocated looked out to the hills where Humbert Tommy had speared a police tracker. Soon I was spending time at Lingara, the new outstation on Humbert River station, where I hung out with the descendants of the Jangala clansmen and where I met Old Pitutu, the man who spoke so eloquently about fidelity.

My camp, wet season 1981, D. Lewis
My camp, wet season 1981, D. Lewis

I met the girl who would become Jaju’s mother in 1980. Liribin was about twelve then. She was lithe, beautiful, intelligent, funny, and, I came to understand, trapped. She had been promised in marriage at a young age, and when I met her she was for the first time being required to acknowledge her future husband. She hated having to cook for him when she wanted to be playing with the other kids, and when it was time for her to go away to boarding school for secondary education the family made the decision to keep her home. Everyone worried that she would meet boys and want her freedom. Of course, she already wanted her freedom; she didn’t need boarding school to teach her that. Moreover, she was exactly like her parents and grandparents, Daly, Fishhook and the rest of them – she was always going to be her own person. It took a few years, but she did extricate herself from the marriage and begin to organise her own life. Liribin is strong and forceful. She has immense pride; she can’t bear to be condescended to, and walks away in disgust if she is not treated respectfully. Her lack of education may limit the kinds of jobs she can aspire to, but she also refuses many local jobs, such as police aide, that would put her at odds with her own people. She understands her life in part through the global experience of Indigenous (tribal) people, and she named her youngest daughter, the girl who took her own life, after an African-American pop star. Liribin is a key person in her community, and yet from a bureaucratic perspective she is almost invisible.

The optimism I encountered in 1980 has been eroding. Over the years there has been an accelerating barrage of people telling Aboriginal people that nothing they did was good enough: the missionaries told them that everything they had believed and understood about creation and life on earth was wrong and, actually, the work of the devil; the education department dismantled the two-way education system they were so proud of; the health system trained Aboriginal health workers but kept hammering the message that people’s health was terrible, often undermining their confidence in their own bodies; at one point everybody had to work, and then the local white women were hired to run a day-care centre while Aboriginal mothers worked at watering lawns (which could have been done by sprinklers); later funds for local employment were cut; Whitefellas from time to time found ways to steal community funds. Every improvement seemed to require Whitefellas on high-paying jobs.

Under the Intervention

One day in June 2007 I was chatting with Jaju’s father about some of the changes he had been observing. As we talked, there came a sound of large vehicles, and then the army rolled in. The Intervention had started, and the optimistic community I had been welcomed into in 1980 became occupied territory. The accelerating process of disempowerment flipped into an all-out assault on people’s remaining freedom and autonomy. Over the years violence has become more harmful and more frequent. Whitefellas now live in upstairs houses surrounded by hurricane fences and barbed wire. The dry community rules are infringed so regularly that infringement no longer seems exceptional. There are few jobs, and the young men are in and out of jail, mostly on trivial offenses. Yarralin is massively over-policed and over-scrutinised. The country Jaju’s family had truly desired to regain possession of, the old Jangala strongholds, became a national park; the borders of the sacred and dangerous country they wanted to protect were whittled away, the ranger jobs didn’t materialise as had been promised, a number of Dreaming trees were chopped down. Many young people are cheekily optimistic, but not all: one boy killed himself, other kids were fighting and drinking and doing other bad stuff.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response, generally known as the Intervention, is a federally funded government program addressing dysfunction in Aboriginal communities through extreme management of people’s lives, finances, and communities. It includes a massive shifting of funds; Aboriginal ‘aid’ is a billion dollar industry, a large portion of which ends up in pay checks for Whitefellas. And while the rhetoric addresses improvement, the implications may be genocidal. Ron Merkel, QC, in an oration on Human Rights, quoted (then) Prime Minister John Howard and asserted that the aim of program is to assimilate Aboriginal people into the mainstream forever. With singular self-righteousness, the program has hammered away at Aboriginal people’s rights and freedoms; it is widely understood as an attack on people, their homelands and their land rights. One voice from the bush states: ‘This is our Holocaust’. The Intervention is set to continue until 2022. It is a regulatory regime of savage disempowerment inflicted on people already suffering extreme intergenerational trauma; it treats Aboriginal people as totally abject, and it has actually become one of the sources of contemporary trauma.

Water tank graffiti, traced by D. Lewis
Water tank graffiti, traced by D. Lewis

There is a monumental disconnect between public perceptions of Aboriginal neediness and the actual fierce pride that animates people. This chasm is visible in the case of the one and only suicide known in this region prior to the current wave. It took place on 28 February, 1965, and it came as a total shock to everyone. No one ever felt able to explain it fully, but the threat of powerlessness lay at the heart of it. That was the day Humbert Tommy shot himself in the head.

This was the son of warriors, a man who had speared his own father and later used sorcery to avenge the death. This was the man who had settled into station life and become respected by Whitefellas, including police, throughout the region. He had kept Jaju’s grandfather, Daly, from ruining his life by killing a policeman, and had helped many young men recover from the psychic and physical wounds of racial violence. Like his fathers, he was proud, intelligent, and wilful. In 1965 a number of things went wrong for him: the young Aboriginal men were not taking Law as seriously as he demanded; the station book keeper appeared to have embezzled his money. The final blow came when the doctor insisted he go to Darwin for medical treatment. In Humbert Tommy’s mind, as Daly explained, leprosy loomed large. Being found to have leprosy had meant that the person would be forcibly taken away and confined in a leper colony until they died. That kind of death, far from loved ones – country and family – was the ultimate form of disempowerment. It is not certain  that this was going to happen to Humbert Tommy, but this is what worried him. Like his warrior fathers he took a defiant last stand, choosing to die rather than be taken prisoner.

Humbert Tommy’s death tells us that lessons derived from war are every bit as important as lessons derived from medicine and psychology.

An outline of an ethics for reconciliation starts with remembrance. It embraces both warrior pride and fidelity. It requires non-Aboriginal people to draw insights from complex stories, and this includes honouring the determination never to give in to powerlessness, and honouring the determination to remain close to country and ancestors.

These are not arcane points. They become lost in seas of statistics, and buried under mounds of policy, but they are at the heart of how Aboriginal people will overcome the current state of disaster. They are the foundations of a yet-to-be-visualised post-war reconstruction. At the moment national policy relentlessly and remorselessly inflicts regulatory trauma. Surely it is possible to turn things around, to be supportive without being controlling, to make peace without producing abjection. The allies did this after World War II, responding well to the humanitarian crises of the time. Here at home, today, our efforts toward peace deserve at least that much thoughtful consideration.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Dr John Boulton shared with me his expertise on intergenerational trauma as I
was struggling to understand some of the context of Aboriginal youth suicide. It
was therefore a pleasure to attend the launch of his book Aboriginal
Children, History and Health in Sydney a few days ago. The book develops some
of the themes that Dr Boulton has been working on concerning intergenerational
trauma. According to the description: ‘The high rate and root causes of ill-health
amongst Aboriginal children are explored through a unique synthesis of
historical, anthropological, biological and medical analyses.’ I recommend the
book highly. Professor Ngaiare Brown launched the book and gave one of the
most impressive speeches I have heard in a very long time. Her main theme is
expressed on the website of her organisation ‘Ngaoara’: ‘There is no greater
privilege than a child. Our children may be our future but they are also our
present and our most sacred responsibility.’


Facts and figures on suicide and alcohol are available at a number of sites and documents. The link between suicide and alcohol is found in a report by Parker and Ben-Tovin titled ‘A study of factors affecting suicide in Aboriginal and ’other’ populations in the Top End of the Northern Territory through an audit of coronial and other records’ (here). Georgatos quote is found here. An extremely lucid, recent discussion of violence in Aboriginal communities was on Late Night Live, with Marcia Langton and others (listen here).

John Boulton’s analysis of intergenerational trauma draws on a range of technical literature. I have relied primarily on the excellent plain-English summary he wrote for Aboriginal leaders in the Kimberley who wanted to understand the medical-physiological side of intergenerational trauma (here).

The summaries of historical events I present here are discussed in greater detail in my book Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia. It was published by Aboriginal Studies Press in Canberra and won the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature. Unfortunately it is now out of print. Information on Old Gordon and Brigalow is in chapter 13 (here); the story of Humbert Tommy’s death is told in chapter 22  (here). The gender issues are explored more fully in my book Reports from a Wild Country (UNSW Press). Powerlessness and the question of genocide are explored in a special issue of the journal Aboriginal History dedicated to genocide. My article ‘Aboriginal Life and Death in Australian Nationhood’ is available here. More widely, there are many regional Aboriginal histories, especially from the Kimberley, many of them published by Magabala Books (visit here). Peter Read and Jay Arthur published an excellent set of oral histories collected across the region: Long Time Olden Time. There are two excellent histories by Darrell Lewis written to include Whitefella perspectives: Beyond the Big Run, Charlie Schultz’s story as told to Darrell Lewis, and A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier.  The best source for thinking about Aboriginal-Settler history in national perspective is the work of Henry Reynolds. See, for example, his excellent book This Whispering in Our Hearts. I have published a couple of other essays about land rights on this site, for example ‘Gurindji Freedom Day‘.

Figures for population loss can only ever be estimates because it is not known exactly how many Aboriginal people there were when the British first started to settle. Larissa Behrendt’s median figure of 90.% is published in her book Indigenous Australia for Dummies.

The most detailed and informative set of information on the Intervention can be found online (visit here). The quote ‘this is our holocaust’ is published here, and there are several excellent videos. Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM has made a very powerful statement against the intervention (read here). Ron Merkel’s Oration can be read here.

An excellent new resource on the Intervention is the Report issued by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. The figure of 500% is taken from this report (read here).

For a lively and positive ‘take’ on young people’s lives, YouTube has videos of the White Water Band, including their educational song about buckling up to survive. (view here).

The story I tell in this essay has many parallels with Richard Trudgen’s book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, published in 2000. His area of focus is Arnhem Land. There are also important resonances with Colin Tatz’s recent essay ‘We need to move beyond the medical model to address Indigenous suicide’, available online.



Mister Gough Whitlam

Today Australians celebrated the life of Gough Whitlam (11 July 1916 – 21 October 2014). This towering figure for justice was the 21st Prime Minister of the nation (Dec 1972-Nov 1975), and during his brief time in office he and his party transformed Australian social life.

Gough Whitlam by RubyGoes (CC)
Gough Whitlam by RubyGoes (CC)

I first learned about Whitlam in depth from Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District where he was affectionately and respectfully known as Mister Whitlam. Both their affection and their respect recognised his strong commitment to human rights.

The iconic moment in land rights in Australia took place when the deed to a portion of the Wave Hill cattle station was returned to traditional owners. The ceremony took place in country. Mr Whitlam poured a handful of soil into the hands of Mr Tommy Vincent Lingiari. His words became a high water mark for social justice and inter-cultural respect in Australia:

On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people – all those who honour and love this land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians.
Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.

Gough Whitlam, 16 August 1975

Mr Whitlam at Daguragu (Darrell Lewis)
Mr Whitlam and Mr Lingiari at Daguragu (Darrell Lewis)

It is probably well known that Mr Lingiari led the walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966. As I wrote in an earlier essay, Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory had lived for several generations under the authoritarian rule of cattle property owners and managers. Settler Australians had taken over the traditional Aboriginal homelands, and placed a grid of cattle properties across Indigenous country. Those Aboriginal people who survived the early years of conquest became an unfree, unpaid labour force that kept the industry alive. They were not citizens of Australia, but rather ‘wards of the state’. In fact, Hobbles Danaiyarri, one of the men who taught me about the history of the region, said that during the long era from conquest to walk-off people had been ‘prisoners in their own country’. As one example, he showed us fence posts that Aboriginal workers had had to carry because the whitefellas didn’t want to waste the lives of horses in this hard work.


Hobbles with fence post (Darrell Lewis, 1992)
Hobbles with fence post (Darrell Lewis, 1992)

The walk-off was meant to change all this, and its impacts were far-reaching. Over the next few years the original mob was joined by Aboriginal people from most of the other properties in the region. Locally, albeit briefly, their actions brought the cattle business to a halt. The people I lived with and continue to learn from were part of that walk-off. They left Victoria River Downs and Humbert River stations, sojourning at a distance from their own traditional countries in order, they hoped, to achieve a life of freedom for their future generations.

From the walk-off camp at Daguragu people waited out the longer-term negotiations that would enable them to achieve citizenship, and to return home with the prospect of decent wages if they still had jobs. Underlying it all was the promise of land rights. The land rights issue  was central to the meaning of freedom, as was citizenship in the Australian nation.

Gurindji Freedom Day poster
Gurindji Freedom Day poster

Mr Whitlam recognised all these justice issues when he returned part of Wave Hill station to the traditional owners. In respect and reciprocity, a group from Daguragu and Kalgaringi came to Sydney for the memorial event, bringing their participatory presence into the national ‘sorry business’.

Over the decades, the Australian nation has lost a lot of Mr Whitlam’s commitment to justice and freedom. The fact that many people are weeping today is testimony not only to their love for Mr Whitlam but also to the sad fate of his empowering vision of what Australia could be and could become.

The Aboriginal people with whom I have lived and learned told many long stories about Captain Cook, colonisation, injustice, and wrong turnings. In these stories Captain Cook is the figure of injustice; the stories are emblematic of the cruel history that has defaced Australia from the beginning of colonial encounters. I have published the main version of these stories a few times, and there’s no need to repeat it here.

Deb Rose, Gough Whitlam and Nugget Coombs (Darrell Lewis, 1994, Darwin)
Deb Rose, Gough Whitlam and Nugget Coombs (Darrell Lewis, 1994, Darwin)


The part of the story that comes to mind as I think today about Mr Whitlam’s legacy is the reflection that things can be different.

Old Jimmy Mangnayarri concluded the Captain Cook saga with the big question: why had it all been so hard? Why wasn’t mateship offered right from the start? That was what Jimmy Mangnayarri wanted to know: ‘Why Captain Cook never say: “Oh, come on mate, you and me live together. You and me living together, mates together. You and me can work for country all the same then.”’

Deb Rose and Old Jimmy
Old Jimmy and Deb Rose (Darrell Lewis)

I am revisiting his words today, and thinking about how Old Jimmy was shifting the dynamics from conflict and opposition to shared responsibilities. Further, he was transforming the dyad of coloniser vs. Indigenous into a triad that includes country. He put country at the heart of it all: we would be mates for a purpose, and that purpose was to take care of country.

This is the absolutely crucial issue of our time: how we may work together for country.

No one has stated our current challenge more succinctly and vigorously than Old Jimmy. And when he says that the whole purpose of living together is to work for country, we might think again about that great moment when Mr Whitlam and Mr Lingiari touched each other’s lives through an exchange of soil. For while it clearly was and will always be a moment of justice and reconciliation, it can still become something more. This exchange may yet become a moment in which country starts to take its rightful place as our focus of care and as the source and meaning of the lives of all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


On Kalkaringi mob in Sydney:

Hobbles Danaiyarri’s great Saga of Captain Cook is published under the title ‘The Saga of Captain Cook’, Hobbles Danaiyarri (as told to Deborah Bird Rose)’ in the prestigious volume Australia’s Empire, Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Deryck Schreuder & Stuart Ward, Oxford University Press (2008).

An article about Old Jimmy Mangnayarri is titled ‘Mates Together: Dancing with Difference’, and is published in a book edited by Vin D’Cruz, Bernie Neville, Devika Goonewardene and Phillip Darby: As Others see Us: The Values Debate in Australia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.

My 1991 book Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia follows the Saga of Captain Cook through the walk-off and on into the (then) contemporary land rights era. It works primarily with Aboriginal people’s own stories, and is published by Aboriginal Studies Press. I am proud to say that it won the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature.

Gurindji Freedom Day and Land Rights

Courtesy of Darrell Lewis
Courtesy of Darrell Lewis

Forty-seven years ago the Aboriginal people of Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory of Australia walked away from a situation that had oppressed them for over half a century. Settler Australians had taken over the traditional Aboriginal homelands and placed a grid of cattle properties across Indigenous country. Those Aboriginal people who survived the early years became an unfree, unpaid labour force that kept the industry alive. They were not citizens of Australia, but rather ‘wards of the state’. In fact, Hobbles Danaiyarri, one of the men who taught me about the history of the region, said that during the long era from conquest to walk-off people had been ‘prisoners in their own country’.

The walk-off was meant to change all this, and its impacts were far-reaching. Locally, it brought the cattle business to a halt, and over the next few years the original mob was joined by Aboriginal people from most of the other properties in the region. From their walk-off camp at Daguragu they waited out the long-term negotiations that would enable them to return home with the prospect of land rights, and with decent wages if they still had jobs to return to.

This momentous event is now celebrated as Gurindji Freedom Day. It remains important because it continues to re-affirm people’s desire for freedom. Equally, the celebrations ask us to pause and consider what freedom might mean in a society that seems determined to equate that term with a neo-liberal vision of individuated self-interest and competition.

Historians have expended huge amounts of thought, research, and publications in debating a set of questions that to me are false dichotomies. The research questions, in brief, go like this: did the ‘Gurindji’ go on strike or did they walk off? Were they dissatisfied with the poor (almost non-existent) wages they received, or did they aspire to larger issues of land rights? Were they seeking to become integrated into the labour market, or did they want to regain possession of their traditional homelands? Did they want to assimilate, or were they holding out for a separate but equal status?

I call these false dichotomies because they assume that in each either-or proposition, only one answer could be right. But life is rarely so simple, and I think all these propositions are correct to some degree. Of course people wanted equal wages. Of course they wanted their land back. Of course they wanted to maintain their own way of life in the midst of their on-going adaptation to the Australian nation. Of course they wanted to be citizens, to vote, to have a share in the society of which they had forcibly become a part. And of course they wanted to continue to be themselves.

The walk-off was a moment of refusal, and at the same time it worked toward new forms of accommodation. Aboriginal people have not only survived white conquest and colonisation, they continue to refuse total colonisation. This refusal lies at the heart of the walk-off, as I came to understand the story under the tutelage of some of the great leaders, including Tommy Vincent Lingiari (also known as Tommy, Vincent, and Lingiari in various combinations) and Hobbles Danaiyarri. Hobbles was a historian and story-teller. He had walked off from Wave Hill with the others, and he told his accounts with the conviction of a participant. His re-telling of an encounter between Tommy Vincent, the leader of the walk-off, and the Welfare agents and others who tried to persuade the Aboriginal people to return to work gives a vivid sense of the disparate views Settler and Indigenous people held about what was going on. Lingiari’s words stand today as one of the great expressions of Indigenous eloquence, made more powerful by the fact that the nation continues, day by day, and year by year, to treat Aboriginal people as a problem to be solved, and, perhaps in consequence, as yet another industry.

In Hobbles’s words:

Lotta welfare mob came up, trying to get strike mob back.
‘You can’t get your money’ (European speaker)
‘No. We don’t worry for money ’ (Tommy Vincent)
‘How you going to get a feed?’
‘Lotta feed in the bush’
‘Bring back the children for school’
‘We’ll find a school’
‘How about medicine?’
‘Don’t worry about medicine’
‘You might be hungry. You must gotta come back.’
‘No. My mind is to stay on strike. I can’t go back.’
‘Flour and sugar?’
‘We don’t worry.’
‘You must going to be hungry.’
‘I can’t go hungry here at the river – fish, turtle, goanna, that tucker grew me up. I’m not going back.’
‘But what about for money?’

This is where the story becomes most eloquent, as Tommy Vincent makes the final pronouncement, directed toward the wealth and power of the nation and of the property owners:

‘You can keep your gold. We just want our land back.’

As Hobbles tells this story, it is rich in irony. ‘Welfare’ is offering people goods and services that for decades been denied, or doled out in miserly fashion. The ‘Welfare’ position casts Aboriginal people as helpless and hopeless. Vincent Lingiari’s responses indicate that over the long decades when Aboriginal people had had to get along without adequate food, medicine, and wages, their knowledge of country, bush tucker and bush medicine kept them alive. And in the same decades, knowledge was added: how to ride horses and manage cattle, how to build fences and how to face up to white men.

A short documentary film made in 1966 is wonderfully instructive. In spite of language that is now dated, the story shows this same set of misunderstandings. White people talk about ‘giving’ land to Aboriginal people, as if the Aborigines were supplicants. Aboriginal people talk about remaining in country (or on land) that has always been theirs, clearly turning the ideas back around to show just who it was who had been taking other people’s country.

I have been privileged to work on Aboriginal claims to land across the Northern Territory over the course of many years. I have visited many sacred sites, heard many stories, and witnessed many people giving evidence about the matters that are dearest to their hearts. By now it is clear that getting the land back doesn’t solve all the problems of how to live well in the midst of enormous social and ecological pressures arising both externally and internally. But at the same time, Tommy Vincent Lingiari’s statement continues to articulate an enormous and enduring truth. If country, or land, is where the meaning of your life is located, then all the gold in the world is no substitute.

Gurindji Freedom Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect upon how and where we find and sustain meaning in our lives, not only as individuals but as participants in the entangled relationships of land and country.

Further reading:
Hokari, Minoru 2011 Gurindji journey : a Japanese historian in the outback, Sydney: UNSW Press.
Rose, Deborah 1991 Hidden Histories. Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. Winner of the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature.


Film clip: Gurindji Strike: The Wave Hill Walk-Off

Australian Geographic Blog