At Moochalabra, we have clambered up a rocky hillside to lie on our backs on the dusty rock ledge to gaze at the ancient sacred artworks painted on rocks. In my kartiya (non-Aboriginal) ignorance I find an encounter like this difficult to articulate. These paintings remind us of our humanity, our shared human history, and being in the presence of the Gwion and the Wandjinas also feels like a breathtaking encounter with the real of Australia.
Nearby, the Wyndham Community Museum is housed in a small wooden building that was previously a police station. Like many volunteer run museums, the displays are a mixture of old farming implements, historical household items, newspaper articles, and local histories. My partner Suzanne and I wander about, examining ancient fossils of crabs and prawns, and a photographic display of rock paintings at nearby Moochalabra, which depict the lives and stories of the Balanggara people. This style of art, known as Gwion, Kiro Kiro or Kujon, was painted by the ancestors of today’s traditional owners around 12,000 years ago (Kimberley Foundation, 2020).
In another small room at the museum I read how late 19th and early 20th century Wyndham police constables supplemented their wages. Travelling out from the town on horseback, armed with rifles, they would take a supply of iron neck collars, hand cuffs and chains, enough for 20 – 30 prisoners. They would round up Aboriginal men, women and young people and chain them together by fixing the steel collars around their necks. The usual charge was killing cattle, but because each constable was given extra wages to feed the prisoners, a 1905 Royal Commission into treatment of Aboriginal prisoners revealed, the constables were arresting as many people as they could regardless of whether they had committed a crime. The commission found that prisoners were kept on starvation rations while the constables used the food ration money to double their yearly income. Women prisoners were often raped by their captors during the long walk into Wyndham.
We have been travelling along the Gibb River Road, bumping along rocky tracks to visit some of the extraordinary river gorges of the east Kimberley. These enormous ravines, worn through mountain stone by time, wind and water, offer cool fresh sanctuary, and are often surprising, stumbled upon after a hot trek across a dry stony spinifex plain. At Wunnamurra, the country of the Ngarinyin people, we tramp through tall yellow knockdown grass and sandstone outcrops, to encounter a chain of fresh water ponds that culminate in a steep ragged cliff edge and roaring waterfall. We clamber down the rock-strewn cliff, precariously balancing on water sculpted stones, to the edge of an expansive water body, shimmering and clear. As we have been taught to do by our Nyoongar friends, we pick up a handful of sand and introduce ourselves to the original owners and their ancestors and thank them for having us on the country.
After five nights rough camping we decide to stay in a campground/tourist accommodation place and treat ourselves to a shower and dinner at their restaurant. Hearing we live in Fitzroy Crossing, our host approaches us after dinner in the restaurant to ask us what we think about Twiggy Forrest buying up two large cattle stations in the Fitzroy Valley. Jubilee Downs and Quanbun stations were recently purchased by Mr Forrest, who outbid the local traditional owners, paying more than $30 million for the properties. The Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara people won native title over the area in 2018, and hold non-exclusive or ‘shared’ rights over the stations. In an interview with the ABC, Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation CEO Peter Murray said Traditional Owners wanted to buy the property to protect sacred sites on Country and turn the stations into conservation management (Jenkins, 2020).
We reply that we feel that the Traditional Owners should been able to buy the leases. Our host appears to be outraged by this opinion. “WHY”! he exclaims. His face reddens as he shakes his finger in our faces. He growls that if the Traditional Owners got hold of the properties they would just “lock them up so no one could do anything on them”. I answer that I think the TO’s wanted to buy the properties to provide opportunities for their communities, as well as protect the Fitzroy River which is one of the world’s last wild rivers that still flows freely along its natural course. Known as Mardoowarra and Bandaralngarri, the river is central to the lives of the Bunuba, Nyikina, Wankatjanka, Walmajarri and Gooniyandi people who share the lands and waters of the Fitzroy Valley. In 2011, the Fitzroy River system was given a National Heritage listing for its outstanding cultural and natural values. (Environs Kimberley, 2020)
We return to sit around our little campfire under a voluminous spray of stars and the deep blackness of the dark emu, angry and distressed that the host of a tourist operation on the traditional lands of the Miriwoong and Gajirrawoong people could hold such oppositional attitudes towards the Traditional Owners. I think of the images I had seen earlier in the day at the Wyndham museum, of Aboriginal people chained by the neck working in road gangs, imprisoned for nothing more than greed. Perhaps the attitude of the campground host is driven by fear of losing his position of privilege. Perhaps the outbidding of the Traditional Owners by a member of Western Australia’s wealthy colonising families is driven by the same motivation. Suzanne and I also sit in our own privileged position as kartiyas, with the wealth and freedom to travel through Aboriginal country. We need to acknowledge that our lives have benefited from policies and practices that have harmed and disadvantaged Aboriginal Australians. The attitudes of the tourist park operator painfully and graphically illustrate the need for a Makarrata, for honest truth telling, and deep listening to the experiences of Aboriginal Australians.
Makarrata is a Yolgnu word that translates as a route to conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice. Gumatj woman Merrikiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs describes a Makarrata as ‘a negotiation of peace… the first one, and the main one, is peace after a dispute’ (Pearson, 2017). The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice to parliament, along with a Makarrata Commission “to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history” (Uluru Statement, 2017).
I think about my wonderful Aboriginal colleagues in Fitzroy Crossing who are working hard to counter the effects on their community of 190 years of racist policy and treatment. I think about the Bunuba Elder who tells us over lunch in the Ngiyali Roadhouse that us kartiya have a responsibility to speak up against racism, to help, to do whatever we can to move Australia towards a Makaratta and constitutional recognition of the original custodians of our home – Australia.
We pack up early the next morning and drive out of the campground. The sun is yet to push over the eastern range and the air is filled with birdsong. Back at work in Fitzroy Crossing a colleague, a young local woman, asks me if I have ever met a racist. ‘I don’t understand it’ she says shrugging her shoulders, ‘at the end of the day we’re all just people’.
Environs Kimberley, 2020, KEEPING THE FITZROY RIVER RUNNING WILD, https://www.environskimberley.org.au/saving_the_fitzroy_river
Jenkins, K, (10/07/2020), NITV News, ‘Swept from under us’: Traditional Owners concerned over $30M sale of iconic cattle stations,
Kimberley Foundation (2020), Kimberley Rock Art, www.kimberleyfoundation.org.au.
Liveris, J and Warriner, J, (9/07/2020), Andrew Forrest buys Kimberley’s Jubilee Downs and Quanbun Downs for more than $30 million. https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2020-07-09/andrew-forrest-buys-jubilee-downs-quanbun-downs-for-30-million/12437842
Pearson, Luke, 2017, What is a Makarrata? The Yolngu word is more than a synonym for treaty. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-10/makarrata-explainer-yolngu-word-more-than-synonym-for-treaty/8790452
Uluru Statement from the Heart, 2017, http://ulurustatement.org.
Nandi Chinna works as a Research Consultant and Community Arts Facilitator. She currently lives and works on Bunuba lands in the Kimberley region of WA. Nandi’s poetry publications include: Our Only Guide is Our Homesickness (Five Islands Press, 2007); How to Measure Land (Picaro Press, Byron Bay Writers Festival Poetry Prize winner, 2010); Swamp; walking the wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain (Fremantle Press, 2014); and The Future Keepers (Fremantle Press 2019).