Tag Archives: Aboriginal walk-off

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 sq.km. 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).


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: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-04/whitlam-to-be-given-farewell-from-aboriginal-friends/5865826

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.