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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).