Even today there is still scant information on Arnhem Land. Access to visit the region has become easier and a steady stream of visitors, mainly recreational fishermen, have come to the Gove Peninsula. Research via the Internet and other publications only gave a glimpse but I found out that we needed two permits to access Arnhem Land. One Transit Permit from the Northern Land Council via the Central Arnhem Highway with some specific details of why you wished to go there and where you would be staying. This permit comes at no cost and I nominated a period of 10 days for our journey there and back. The second permit you get from the Dhimurru Aboriginal Lands Corporation in Nhulunbuy. The permit cost varies from $35 per person per week up to a higher scale for a longer stay. This General Permit gives you access to visitation and camping in certain areas. There is no additional cost. There are four areas on the Gove Peninsula which attract a Special Permit and a small fee and are subject to availability through a booking system administered by the Dhimurru Corporation. This permit is to control access numbers on a day to day basis. These areas are Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem), Gapuru(Memorial Park), Ganami (Wonga Creek) and Manangaymi (Scout Camp).
The top road into Arnhem Land via Gunbalanya(Oenpelli), Goomadeer and Raminigining is open to Local Traffic only and it has been mooted that some 22 permissions may be needed to anyone who may wish to travel that way.
The Central Arnhem Highway runs for 675km from the Stuart Highway turnoff to Nhulunbuy. Of that a distance about 70km is sealed and 605km is a gravel road, heavily corrugated in places with great lengths of fine bulldust and about 100km of potholed road surface!
Turning off the Stuart Highway a wide sealed road takes you to the Barunga Community, famous for its annual Cultural and Sports Festival. From there the road becomes strip bitumen to Wugularr(Beswick) Communty where you may find the excellent Ghunmarn Cultural Centre. The Centre holds contemporary local art and craft and has a special second where collected work of the late David Blanasi and other artists may be viewed.
After Wugularr it’s you and the road!
Almost straight away we were confronted by a humungous bulldust hole.
The road varied from bulldust patches and light to severe corrugations. We toodled along the road in the dust, at 70-80kmh and made steady progress. The flora is dry Tropical Woodland Savannah with areas that have had the dry season fires through a short while ago leaving blackened earth and scorched trees to the same situation further on but with new shoots of grass and leaves appearing after the cyclical fires. At Mainoru Store we called in for a nuked sausage roll each and a cold drink and had a chat with the young lady from Geelong who was helping out on the station for the winter months.
Mainoru Station runs the store and it serves as a campground and accommodation for hunters who come to shoot Buffalo and Sambah Deer. A short distance north after crossing the Mainoru River we came across some Buffalo wading a in a Lily Billabong.
The road enters Arnhem Land without any fanfare as there is no sign to state that you have now entered and your permit access begins. Mount Stretton lies virtually on the border with Mainoru Station and so this may serve as a southern demarcation of Arnhem Land. We called it to Gulin Gulin (Bulman) just to have a look. Outside of the township a sign stated that there was no fuel to be bought until Nhulunbuy which lies 420km away. By now we were starting to look for a place to camp for the night. The Transit Permit states that camping is not allowed at the Goyder River at the request of Traditional Owners of the area but it does not make mention of where it is permissible to camp. We asked a grader driver via radio just north of Gulin Gulin if there was a suitable campsite along the way and he suggested that there was a large gravel pit at the Ramingining Road intersection. We arrived at this spot at around 4pm after passing by the turn off to Barranpunta (Emu Springs) Outstation, and set up camp. This place is pretty remote but the night noises were something else. Through the night we counted no less than 10 road trains and 8 4×4’s. On top of that the feral donkeys brayed in the forest and the dingoes howled their mournful calls throughout the night.
The Goyder River is the only major river crossing which does not have a concrete base or bridge straddling it along the Central Arnhem Highway. There is a small crossing of the Goyder about half a kilometre from the main crossing. The shallowest point at the Goyder in August was around 500mm deep. The middle of the crossing is deeper as trucks have only one way through. Further along there are two more crossings; that of Rocky Bottom Creek and Little Goyder River but they are shallow crossings. The Goyder River has the sweetest water I have ever tasted and we replenished our water supply.
After the Goyder River the countryside takes on a greener mantle with many Zamia Palms and Sand Palms growing on the forest floor. The countryside is reasonably flat with only a few undulating hills as you approach Nhulunbuy. We stopped at the Little Goyder River for a spot of lunch and a billy and chatted to some travellers heading back from the peninsula.
Later we came across a vehicle recovery. An older couple had rolled their ancient Range Rover a couple of days before. Luckily they were not injured but the vehicle was a write off. We spoke to the bloke with the tilt tray recovery vehicle and after chit chat he said that The Walkabout Hotel was the only place to stay in Nhulunbuy and that they had recently installed 12 spaces for Camper Trailer travellers. I noticed the Walkabout Hotel insignia on his shirt. We said thanks and drove on. At the 150km (from Nhulunbuy) distance marker the road became worse with mainly potholes randomly arranged so that it was virtually impossible to miss one.
We had stopped a short distance past the Gapuwiyak Community turnoff to let the dust settle of a vehicle ahead of us. Getting out of our vehicle, to have a look at the rich array of flora in the dense forest, we spotted a very small frog on a palm leaf. No bigger than the nail on my little finger the frog was unperturbed by our presence. Research shows that he may be the Northern Dwarf Frog.
Relief from the unrelenting potholes, came, in the form of a wide sealed road, at the Nhulunbuy Airport, some 20 kilometres from the town. Nhulunbuy is a typical mining town, with the necessary infrastructure for a town, sports fields and open parklands and including a shopping precinct. The population is made up of young families and judging by the number of pregnant women seen, a population explosion is about to happen.
We purchased our 7 day visitors permit from the offices of the Dhimurra Corporation and also a Visitors Guide to Recreation Areas of North East Arnhem Land. The receptionist was very helpful but we were out of luck as far as visiting the places which required a Special Permit as they were booked out for the following month. We were happy to explore the other sites available and to have a good look around. Free Camping is permitted in certain General Permit areas and a pamphlet is provided detailing those places and what type of activity is allowed.
In our time in Nhulunbuy we visited all the local beaches and including significant sites. We camped at Buffalo Creek and Rainbow Cliff, Goanna Lagoon. At the coast the sand-flies and mosquitoes were very friendly but we managed to ward them off with necessary chemicals. Our visit coincided with The Gove Festival and places to camp unhindered were at a premium. At the beach we had the places to ourselves but we know why now. We were also able to catch up with distant relatives now working in at Gove and spent a pleasant time with them and a night in an air-conditioned house. That was a bonus as the humidity around the Gove Peninsula was quite high.
Now we made our way back along the potholed road to the 150km sign and then turned off south to Baniyala Community where we paid $50 for a two day camping permit at Dhuluwuy Beach on Grindall Bay. As it turned out we had the place to ourselves for the duration of our stay and one of the highlights of the trip happened there but the cost was a tad prohibitive although there is a new Enviro toilet provided as well as a 1000 litre water tank which was full!
Our first night there and Jeddah the dog wouldn’t eat her tucker. So I told her I’d give it to the Crocs and started singing a ditty and calling………”Crocodile, Crocodile, Crocodile’……..and no sooner had I begun when I spied a large log drifting about 100 metres off the shore. Grabbed the binoculars and there it was! Crocodylus Porosus…a 5 metre Saltwater Crocodile…he submerged and then resurfaced only about 50 metres from where we were camped. He took a good look at us…or so we thought…before submerging again into the depths of the bay. I managed a quick photo. We were thrilled with our sighting. The campsite had crows, seagulls, fish-eagles, kookaburras, night herons, tropic birds, and wallabies visiting us.
Slept in the following morning for a change. Jeddah and I went for a walk…then Jude to her again on her walk along the beach while I refuelled from my jerry cans. Even at $1.99 in Nhulunbuy for diesel this was cheap compared with $2.80 at Baniyala! Spent the day reading and computing. Jude cooked a nice tea of sweet and sour pork and then we sat around the fire all dressed in our longs to ward off the bloody mozzies. All in all a relaxing day……we had the place and including the whole bay to ourselves…..
Before we took to the road again the following morning we decided to let tent dry out and went for a walk on the beach. Saw fresh Buffalo poo right near our camp. Once on the road we saw the culprit and shortly afterwards his mate. Saw some Wallabies, Blue Wing Kookaburras and Tree creepers. Motored along to the Goyder River where we replenished our water containers once again with sweet Goyder water. A little while late we stopped for lunch off the road in the shade of a tree. Later we stopped at Gulin Gulin (Bulman) for some cool drinks. We drove in to have a look at Weemol Community and at 3.30pm pulled up in a quarry just west of Mt Stretton. Refuelled, had a wash (shower is busted) had tucker and relaxed. 371km for the day. Lotsa bulldust and corrugations.
Jeddah wanted out of her perch in the wagon in the evening and barked to get our attention. She came and lay against Judith’s bed outside the tent. Later she made it into the tent and lay on Judith’s feet. She was being protective! Then even later she came into the space between us and breathed in my face so I put her back in the wagon. At 1.10am I heard the sound of gravel crunching beneath steps and advancing towards our tent. I sat up and shone the Big 700,000 Candlepower Torch at the noise. A herd of young buffalo was approaching the camp. They scattered at the blinding sight of the light and took off snorting and bleating back to the forest where they complained for a while before moving off in another direction. Things quietened down again apart from the odd braying of Donkeys in the distance.
It was a misty morn along the road and the sun did not appear till late. We called in at Beswick Community and looked at their excellent Cultural Centre. They have a permanent collection of art by the late David Blasani which by far the best Aboriginal art we have seen. David also features in the book Heart of Arnhem Land by Francois Giner. Bought some snacks at the store, and, as we were leaving, we were ‘chased’ out of town by a least 20 Town Dogs trying to get closer to Jeddah who was hanging her head out of the window and barking. Next we had a look at the very neat and tidy community of Barunga which lay a short distance further.
We reached the Stuart Highway just after midday and made for Springvale Homestead in Katherine to retrieve our van which was in storage there and to set up camp for two more nights.
Our Arnhem Land experience was a very pleasing journey and interlude and we may head that way again in the near future to explore other areas of the region.
Before going to Arnhem Land and to get a better understanding of the peoples of Arnhem Land, I have read the following books and writing:
Journey in Time by George Chaloupka
George Jiří Chaloupka OAM, FAHA (6 September 1932 – 18 October 2011) was an expert on Indigenous
Australian rock art. He identified and documented thousands of rock art sites. As a result of Chaloupka’s work on the sites, a new “definitive chronological sequence to these paintings was developed” providing evidence that Indigenous people had occupied the land for much longer than what was previously accepted by the academic community.
Why Warroirs lie down and die by Richard Trudgen
Richard Trudgen, author of “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die”, was born in Central NSW and did his trade as a fitter and turner. In 1973 he went to Arnhem Land to do voluntary work for 12 months and has stayed for the past 37 years. There he trained as a community worker, learnt the people’s language, and became immersed in their culture and way of life. He is now based in Nhulunbuy (Gove).
He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for over 10 years, where he established Yolgnu Radio in 2003. He now has his own company, called Why Warriors Pty Ltd, with a vision to empower Indigenous Australians through private clan based business development. The company offers a range of workshops training Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in community development, cross cultural communication, successful education and business models, and traditional laws and politics. Richard also develops health, economic and legal literacy programs for Yolgnu people.
Trudgen is also well known for his insightful ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminar that have been educating mainstream Australians to understand and work with Aboriginal cultures since 2001. He is running another series of seminars across the country in coming months.
Heart of Arnhem Land by Francois Giner
In 1974, Francois Giner had his first taste of Northern Australia, not realising that it would be the start of a 36-year sojourn and adventure, far from his hometown of Lodeve, in southern France. As a teenager, Giner had set out to discover new horizons and people. Now he headed across Australia to discover its indigenous heart.
With the blessing of the local Aboriginal community, he established Bodeidei Camp, to receive visitors interested in experiencing something of indigenous culture and country, or others wanting to hunt buffalo. Heart of Arnhem Land shares Giner’s experiences of living and working in this remote region.
Heart of Arnhem Land is a personal journey of discovery and self-discovery, but above all it is a cry for a beloved community whose culture lies on the edge of extinction. Giner’s memoir aims to remind people that those swaying black shadows with haggard eyes crossing streets in Katherine, Alice Springs or Darwin, were once free men, who have been deprived of their bearings and their dreams.
En Terre Aborigene has sold over 15,000 copies in France alone, now this bestselling book is published in English for the first time.
Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow An essay by Galarrwuy Yunupingu
as published in The Monthly December 2008
I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.
My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.
My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu.
These are the 13 clans of the Gove Peninsula, in east Arnhem Land. Each is independent and proud; each is bound to the others through the moieties of Yirritja and Dua. I am Yirritja and my clan is balanced by the Dua clans, my mother groups, most importantly the Galpu, Rirritjingu and Marrakulu clans.
The clans of east Arnhem Land join me in acknowledging no king, no queen, no church and no state. Our allegiance is to each other, to our land and to the ceremonies that define us. It is through the ceremonies that our lives are created. These ceremonies record and pass on the laws that give us ownership of the land and of the seas, and the rules by which we live. Our ceremonial grounds are our universities, where we gain the knowledge that we need. The universities work to a moon cycle, with many different levels of learning and different ‘inside’ ceremonies for men and women: from the new moon to the full moon, we travel the song cycles that guide the life and the essence of the clan – keeping all in balance, giving our people their meaning. It is the only cycle of events that can ever give a Yolngu person – someone from north-east Arnhem Land – the full energy that he or she requires for life. Without this learning, Yolngu can achieve nothing; they are nobody.
As a clan we seek that moment in the ceremonial cycle where all is equal and in balance. Where older men have guided the younger ones and, in turn, taken knowledge from their elders; where no one is better than anyone else, everyone is equal, performing their role and taking their duties and responsibilities – then the ceremony is balanced and the clan moves in unison: there is no female, no male, no little ones and no big ones; we are all the same.
My inner life is that of the Yolngu song cycles, the ceremonies, the knowledge, the law and the land. This is yothu yindi. Balance. Wholeness. Completeness. A world designed in perfection, founded on the beautiful simplicity of a mother and her newborn child; as vibrant and as dynamic as the estuary where the saltwaters meet the freshwaters, able to give you everything you need.
I step back to the 1950s. I am a small boy, maybe eight years old, able to tell the difference between right and wrong. An event is to take place at Yirrkala and members of the 13 clans are called together. Every man, woman and child is given clean clothes and dresses for the occasion, and they come together with pretty flowers in their hands, dressed up cleanly. All are told to stand in a line, from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill, to greet the chairman of the board of the Australian Synod of the Methodist Church. And he arrives in a four-wheel-drive with other people who jump out of their cars and are received by the local people. I remember this occasion perfectly well. We just stood there for show, dressed prettily, holding pretty flowers, to give a so-called welcome to the Methodist Church. The vehicles came to rest, the dignitaries got out, they received their flowers, they smiled, then they left and that was that. The clan leaders stood there expecting something that would acknowledge them and respect them, an exchange or a gift in return – but they received nothing. We were badly caught up that day and a poor example was set.
Now it is the early 1960s and a man called Harry Giese, the so-called protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, stands on a 44-gallon drum at the Yirrkala airport. He has called some people together to give them news – I am one of those people; my father is there also; Roy and Mawalan Marika; the Djapu leaders, too. A mine will be built here at Yirrkala, he tells us. It will mine the dirt that we stand on – our soil. The mining companies are coming and they will mine the land. They will take all the land and the boundary of that land will run to the edge of Yirrkala, and Yirrkala will be badly affected. Giese talks for 20 minutes, then he gets in his car and drives away. This is the first mining agreement on the Gove Peninsula.
My father sent me to school, although he worried that I might lose my Gumatj identity. I had a good teacher, Mr Ron Crocksford, who kept pestering Mum and Dad to keep me at school and who worked overtime on my learning. As I received my education from my clan leaders and from the balanda teachers, I watched as the world changed. Inevitably the miners came and started their work.
As I grew up I was recognised and set apart by my father. He set out tasks for me and challenged me in everything. I went to Bible college in Brisbane for two years but I returned always to the ceremonies and the law – in the end, I turned my back on the church and their god. I dedicated myself, under the direction of my father and the older men, to a Yolngu future.
It is 1977. My father is still alive and I am on a boat with a new prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. He has defeated Gough Whitlam, who first met my family when he was a pilot in World War II. With me is Toby Gangale, the senior Gundjehmi leader, steering us to a place where barramundi swim. Fraser has asked us to fish with him, and we hope there are words we can say to him that will halt his changes to the land-rights laws and overturn the government’s decision to mine at Ranger. But Fraser only thinks about the fish. The fish bite and Fraser starts to pull them in. “Look at this one!” he yells. I bait his line again. Toby is silent. “And again – a bigger one.” He baits his own line now – getting the hang of it. “You beauty, a barramundi!” All the time I try and put words in his mind about the importance of land, about the importance of respect, about giving things back in a proper way, not a halfway thing. But he has his mind on other things – he’s not listening; he doesn’t have to. He just keeps catching barramundi, enjoying himself.
On his deathbed, as his spirit started its journey to Badu, the spirit land, my father handed me his clapsticks and his authority. My senior family members saw the passing and told of it throughout the clan nations – it was the news of the day in the Yolngu world. It was 1979 and I was 31 years old. The year before I had been awarded an honour by the Australian nation: I was their Australian of the Year. I was the chairman of a new land council, the Northern Land Council, soon to be the most powerful in the nation. I had negotiated with prime ministers and men of state. I was a singer and a songwriter, a dancer and a painter. I had my father’s clapsticks and with them I was sure that I could master the future.
I am with another new prime minister, Bob Hawke, at Barunga. Many clans, connected by distant but powerful songlines, have performed ceremony for this prime minister. It’s 1988 and I’ve known Bob Hawke for many years. He had come to the Northern Territory to visit me when he was the president of the ACTU and, over a beer in Anula, I had told him that he had the common touch and that one day he would be the prime minister. At Barunga he is emotional and I am emotional as we embrace on the ceremonial ground. This is how it should be, I think. And I hear his words that there will be a treaty. A treaty! My heart leaps.
A few years later I travel to Canberra to hang a painting that was dreamed on that day: the Barunga Statement. I think that I am in Canberra for a celebration but it is a funeral – it is Bob’s last day as prime minister and he sheds a tear as he hangs the painting. I am sure that his tears are for his own failure – we have no treaty; his promise was hollow and he has not delivered – but they are genuine tears from a genuine man who tried leadership and was caught out by politics.
It is 1994. Mabo has been and gone and is now a soft, useless law. At Eva Valley in 1993 I sat with many clan leaders from the North, and we talked about Mabo and set out our position. No one listened; there was too much talk going on in Canberra; I didn’t see any landowners there negotiating, only big talkers. Then I see on television the politicians in parliament crying and kissing each other. What is this? I think to myself.
I wonder about Paul Keating, a prime minister I never really met – if anyone could have done something, surely Keating could’ve, I think.
We’re celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Land Rights Act at the Old Parliament House. There is a new prime minister, John Howard, who has just been elected and he is looking to deliver something to the new Australian people. I am sitting at breakfast and I hear a radio tell me that the prime minister has taken millions of dollars of funding for housing and community programs. He is sending auditors and investigators to check us all out.
Later I sit at a long table, talking about ‘reconciliation’. Treaty has become reconciliation. There is all this talk about nothing. It is not connected to the real goings-on. Eventually I can’t stand it any longer. I get up and leave the talkers to their talking and go back to Arnhem Land. Later, I send in my letter of resignation.
I am seeing now that too much of the past is for nothing. I have walked the corridors of power; I have negotiated and cajoled and praised and begged prime ministers and ministers, travelled the world and been feted; I have opened the doors to men of power and prestige; I have had a place at the table of the best and the brightest in the Australian nation – and at times success has seemed so close, yet it always slips away. And behind me, in the world of my father, the Yolngu world is always under threat, being swallowed up by whitefellas.
This is a weight that is bearing down on me; it is a pressure that I feel now every moment of my life – it frustrates me and drives me crazy; at night it is like a splinter in my mind. The solutions to the future, simple though I thought they were, have become harder and harder to grasp. I have learnt from experience that nothing is ever what it seems.
It is 2007. I am at the Garma Festival, surrounded by Aboriginal leaders from around Australia. They have come to meet me at my request – a challenge has been laid down by the commonwealth government, called an intervention.
John Howard is leading a government that is taking this hard action. I have been told that my land rights will be taken away and for me that is the end – for weeks now I feel a sickness creeping into my body; I have hardly slept in the past week. The Labor Party is with Howard. I meet Jenny Macklin. It is clear to me that she has her instructions. I think about the old people in their clean clothes holding flowers and, under a bower shelter, I am hard on Jenny with words like fire, but she does not budge. I throw my all at her; my sisters speak to her in language, I interpret, as does my favourite niece, the late Ms Marika, but she will not budge – she cannot.
That night I carve message sticks with my daughter, asking for a meeting with John Howard and Kevin Rudd at Garma. I reason that this must be the next step – to bring them to Aboriginal land for the clan nations to address them. Not with flowers, but with spears if need be. The other leaders fight over who will carry the sticks: I want my friend Jack Thompson to take the sticks, but others want to take on this task. I make a mistake – I empower others to speak for me. A delegation goes to Canberra but they do not meet with Howard or his minister, Mal Brough. Rudd agrees to meet with us, but he is steered away from Garma and the clan nations. Later, I hear that Jenny had booked her ticket to Garma to meet again with us but the meeting was foiled.
The ALP caucus convenes and they vote to support Howard, with a bit of lip service for good measure. I wait until late into the night, still camped at Garma. When I receive the news about the caucus decision, I ask to see Noel Pearson.
I’m back at Gulkula, the Garma site. Noel Pearson has come and he tells me about his vision. He seeks a balance in the balanda world in its treatment of Aboriginal people. A synthesis, he calls it, between Left and Right. Only when we have this balance can we go upwards, he tells me. He speaks my language but I am not yet convinced. Messages come to me from other leaders from outside east Arnhem Land and they say: Wait – Kevin Rudd will win the election. But this time I decide I won’t play that game and be captured by one side of politics; I will stand in the middle if I can. I ask Noel to contact Mal Brough. I realise that my land rights have not been taken away, and I wonder about those who refused to meet with Brough and kept Rudd away from me. I want in on this discussion: I want to meet this man who has made such a noise and who says such incredible things, to see what he is really made of.
Mal Brough came and he drove out to meet me. I waited for him at the place of my fathers, Dhanaya. I waited for Mal on my father’s land, looking over my mother’s clan’s waters – surrounded by memory and feeling. This is a place where freshwater, stirred up by the sacred stingray, meets saltwater. It is a rich, vibrant place, full of life. And for a fleeting moment, on this land, overlooking Port Bradshaw, with my family around me, we talked as men should – about the future of children and of failures and frustrations, and how we could turn it all around with action. He was frustrated and I was frustrated, and as fathers and leaders we saw a way forward. He talked straight and I talked straight, and each of us would honour our end of the discussion. We negotiated a lease that left me in charge of my land at my birthplace of Gunyangara – more in charge than I had ever been – while giving Canberra everything it wanted in terms of security and certainty. I supported his bans on drugs and kava, and promised him my support for the harsher parts of his plan if he could balance these measures with proper action. And I asked for one more thing: I wanted constitutional recognition, to bring my people in from the cold, bring us into the nation. There was a promise that he would talk with his prime minister.
Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.
I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.
And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.
There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things? Who in the parliament? No one speaks an Aboriginal language, let alone has the ability to sit with a young man or woman and share that person’s experience and find out what is really in their heart. They have not raised these children in their arms, given them everything they have, cared for them, loved them, nurtured them. They have not had their land stolen, or their rights infringed, or their laws broken. They do not bury the dead as we bury our dead.
I am a Gumatj man; I am fire; and that fire must burn until there is nothing left. That is what I have left to give to my family.
The future is my responsibility. I have brought my family back around me, taking what we can from where we can, working with people who will help us practically and in an honest way.
I have started to rebuild Garrathiya, our cattle station near Dhanaya, which sat still for many years. New yards are being built, fences are being fixed, weeds are being sprayed and a dormitory has been constructed out of local timber. Fifteen of the clan’s young men are at Garrathiya or Dhanaya.
We are now harvesting our trees, carefully picking the trees; we have set up a mill and are cutting our own timber. With this timber, grown from our land, we are starting to build our own houses. No one in government has come to my aid, but that is OK – that is the way it should be. We will keep building these houses with our own timber, our own labour and with help from those who wish to help us. My family tells me that now they will build a market garden to grow food at Garrathiya, and my nieces have started their art again, asking me to help them buy materials for their efforts. My big sister, Gulumbu, has a healing centre and is teaching young girls while treating balanda women.
I am finally in formal negotiations with the mining company Rio Tinto, which inherited Harry Giese’s mining agreement and whose predecessors took so much from our land – billions of dollars – leaving us very little. I have worked with their senior people and committed to a new deal that will, hopefully, bring greater economic opportunity for east Arnhem Land.
I have purchased a fishing boat with our royalty money and hope this will be a pathway to a fishing industry. I am leasing my land and putting that money towards these enterprises. I plan a property development, a marina, a new town built by Yolngu on Yolngu land.
This is about building our own lives, our own communities. If I can’t give that opportunity to my clan, no one else can. What they achieve will be for them, out of their hard work, for their happiness and security – not for some outsider.
It’s July 2008 and I wait for the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd. An event is taking place at Yirrkala and I have called the leaders of the 13 clans together. No children or young people will participate, only leaders, men and women who have proved themselves: delak. By my side are Djinyini Gondarra and the leaders of the Elcho clans, Richard Ganduwuy and Dunga Dunga Gondarra, Butharripi Gurruwiwi. Wilson Ganambarr, Gali Gurruwiwi, Gekurr Guyula and Timmy Burrawanga are there. Laklak and Dhuwarrwarr Marika are there, too, along with the great old man from Gan Gan, Garrawan Gumana. My cousin Banambi Wunungmurra brings the prime minister down to us. We have a petition for him.
“Nhanaburru, wangkanmala bapurru dhimirrunguru, arnhemland, nganaburrungu ngurrngu delak mala, nganthun yukurra nhuna 26th Prime Minister Australia-wu. Nhukala ganydjarr’yu nhunhi nhe ngurrungu walalangu malangura nhuma walala rrambangi, Australian Parliament-ngura, ga ngurrungu Dharuk-mirri nhangu Garraywu Queen Elizabeth-gu, yurru nhandarryun-marama djinawa-lili Australian-dhu luku-wu rom-dhu yurru dharangan ga galmuma nganapurrungu dhangang ga bukmak nha-mala nhanapurrungu:
– Nhanapurrungu walnga-mirri dhukarry ngudhudal-yana.
– Nhanapurrungu, wanga, wanga-ngaraka ga nguy gapu, ngunhi dhimirrunguru, arnhemland.
– Dharrima gungnharra, warkthunara, lukunydja rrupiya-yu wanga-wuy-ga gapu-wuy ga dhangangnha-yana ga lukunydjana yana.
– Dharray walnga-wuy ga djaka yurru nhanapurrung-gala-nguwu djamarrkuli-wu yalalangu-wu.
Dhuwalanydja rom dhuwalana bilina.
Dhuwalanydja rom wawungu wanga-wuy ngandarryunmarama Australian-gala bapurrulili.
Nganapurru marrliliyama nhukula ngurru-warryun-narayngu, marr yurru Commonwealth Parliament ngurru warrwun ga dharangan dhuwala rom ga marryuwak gumana dhayutakumana lukunydja rom.
We, the united clans of East Arnhem land, through our most senior delak, do humbly petition you, the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, in your capacity as the first amongst equals in the Australian Parliament, and as the chief adviser to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, to secure within the Australian Constitution the recognition and protection of our full and complete right to:
– Our way of life in all its diversity;
– Our property, being the lands and waters of East Arnhem land;
– Economic independence, through the proper use of the riches of our land and waters in all their abundance and wealth;
– Control of our lives and responsibility for our children’s future.
These rights are self-evident.
These rights are fundamental to our place within the Australian nation.
We ask for your leadership to have the Commonwealth Parliament start the process of recognition of these rights through serious constitutional reform.”
The ceremonial ground is prepared by the Dua clan nations, ready for the Yirritja. The Gumatj clan nation performs for the prime minister a special ceremony: gurtha – fire. The men move in unison – all perfect, all equal, all united. There is thunder overhead, and rain, and we become one. My brother Manduwuy’s wife, Yalmay, of the Rirritjingu clan nation, reads the petition to the assembly in language. Her voice is strong and beautiful. The children of Yirrkala gather and take the petition to the prime minister and he welcomes it, holds it, and admires the design. He shakes my hand. The ceremony finishes and I leave Yirrkala.
Knowing these things might help readers to understand that the Northern Territory emergency intervention – any government intervention or program, while well intentioned and even when backed by money – will not fully solve anything. The intervention has simply started a process that, if the history I know is any guide, will end up failing. Not because of the reasons given by those well-meaning people in the cities, or those that have made a life out of being in the Aboriginal industry, or those who study, analyse and explore our lives. The intervention is good for these people – black and white – because it gives them oxygen, so they can show their importance and expertise. You must not listen to these people; they have let their ignorance get in the way of their thinking. The truth is, the intervention is about the welfare economy and the relationship between governments and Aboriginal people, and any good is fading as the old ways of doing business are reasserting their dominance. Soon even the talk will stop – there will be no more interest – and it will just be red tape again, business as usual.
I have a letter from Jenny Macklin about the lease that I negotiated with Mal Brough and Dr Peter Shergold, but there is no urgency there anymore. When I read it, I felt like dropping it to the floor. I want certainty and a solid foundation but I sense that the public servants, so-called, do not like my lease, never did. They want me to talk to them – to give them their power back. They hated that I talked with a minister or a prime minister, or that the new minister thinks I might have some important things to say. These red-tape men don’t like my lease, because it leaves the power with Yolngu and they only know power from Canberra, or Darwin. They have us tied up in red tape at every level, and the minister too, I think.
Today, nearly all my people live in shambling, broken-down places with poor houses, poor roads, bad schools, little or no health care, with whitefellas in a welfare industry who service us when they can, if they want. We are captives of welfare, which means we are wards of the state relying on handouts from public servants to get by, and therefore our lives are controlled by governments and public servants who can do what they want, when they feel like it. And people suffer from their neglect – just look at our communities and the lives too many of our people are forced to endure. Although the wealth of the Australian nation has been taken from our soil, our communities and homelands bear no resemblance to the great towns and metropolises of the modern Australian nation. The intervention and what it promises is important. I do not set it aside completely. But I tell my family now: no government, no politician, no journalist or TV man, no priest, no greenie, no well-meaning dreamer from the city is going to put your life right for you. I have committed my clan to the future and my family supports me, even as it struggles with everyday life. And I will continue this commitment.
I will continue my work on my land, building a future. It is the only thing that is certain to me now and I want to advance while I can. I am trying to light the fire in our young men and women. We are setting fires to our own lives as we really should, and the flame will burn and intensify – an immense smoke, cloud-like and black, will arise, which will send off a signal and remind people that we, the Gumatj people, are the people of the fire. This will draw the other clan nations, all of which are related to the fire: the Blue Mud Bay people, all the way through to the people as far off as Maningrida. There are people of the fire around Alice Springs – and I reach out to them, too. We can then burn united, together.