We were not here first

Journal: 012

Nifty Road Sept '13 (1)

We were not here first. It seems self-evident now and was in fact acknowledged by writers from Watkin Tench onwards. Unfortunately though, our behaviour and in particular our legal system, was based on the conflicting ideas that there was no one here in 1788; or that there was but their perceived failure to build houses, engage in intensive agriculture meant that their presence didn’t count; or that there wasn’t a war but they lost anyway and Australia was ours by right of conquest.

That was all swept away, theoretically at least, by a combination of the (Commonwealth) Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Mabo Case (1982-90) in which the High Court ruled (1) that states – in this case Queensland – could not pass laws which conflicted with the Racial Discrimination Act; and (2) that wherever the rules and customs of the indigenous inhabitants – in this case the Mer people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait north of Queensland – have continued without explicit extinguishment by state law, then the land remains theirs.

The Native Title Act of 1993 which was meant to give effect to the Mabo decision in fact interpreted it as narrowly as possible, in order of course to give the greatest possible advantage to grazing and mining interests, with near impossible definitions of continuing occupation for example, when so many indigenous people were forced onto reservations or had drifted in to provincial centres. My own opinion is that all crown land, including leasehold – which is to say, most of outback Australia – should be acknowledged as belonging to the original inhabitants and that we should only then negotiate a treaty for its ongoing use by all Australians. That is, that the Aboriginal Land Councils instead of being supplicants should be able to negotiate from a position of relative strength.

As part of my own, belated education about what it means to live in a shared country I have been increasingly careful to identify whose land it is that I am talking about/driving on in my reviews and journals. But in my last post ‘The Heaviest, Longest Run in the World‘, in concentrating on the driving experience (and the word count!) I said nothing about whose land it was and I want to rectify that here.

In general, because this is where I live, I am best informed about the indigenous nations of Western Australia – though I still have a long way to go! – but as I go on I will do my best to learn and write about everyone whose land I cross.

As I’ve written previously, Perth, the south-west and the wheatbelt (except around Geraldton) are Noongar country. Going north from Perth on the Great Northern Highway we cross the Moore River at New Norcia. The infamous Mogumber Moore River Settlement is just a few kilometres west. I have written about it a few times, in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence of course, but also in relation to Kim Scott and Jack Davis. Molly, Daisy and Gracie, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls headed north from Mogumber before striking east and would have crossed the Highway (if it existed back in 1931) a bit south of Wubin. You don’t see many Aboriginals in these little wheatbelt towns and I imagine they have mostly drifted in to Perth or to provincial centres like Northam and Moora.

Since reading Scott I have also become conscious of the different language groups within the Noongars. The AIATSIS map says the language spoken in the area up to Wubin is Balardung.

Separating Wubin and the Murchison goldfield towns of Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra is 300 km of scrub and desert. About 100 km up, the Irwin River rises near Mt Gibson and flows down to the coast at Dongara south of Geraldton. I wouldn’t be surprised if this marks the border between Noongar and Yamaji country. The various language groups within the Yamaji nation occupy the land from south of Geraldton to north of Carnarvon, on the coast, and inland to the headwaters of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers (as best as I can ascertain, which applies to everything I write here).

I wrote about the Yamaji for the first time in my review of Papertalk Green and Kinsella’s False Claims of Colonial Thieves. The Yamaji are bordered to the east by Western Desert people. Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra aren’t big towns and they all have active gold mines, but they also have substantial Aboriginal populations, which are probably these days a mixture of Martu from the north, Yamaji, and Ngaatjatjarra from out towards the NT and SA border. There used to be reports of ‘trouble’ in the towns but I haven’t heard any in the last decade. Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, a Ngaatjatjarra woman, writes of her family’s move, in the 1960s, in from Docker River on the NT border to Wiluna, east of Meekatharra, from where she was sent to school at the mission at Karalundi, on the highway 50 km north of Meeka.

The rest of the trip, except that we detour via Port Hedland (map) to avoid the atrocious Nullagine Road from Newman to Marble Bar, is Martu country. The Martu are the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples. Daisy Bates who owned a station near Jigalong, north of present day Newman (see Ventured North by Train and Truck) learned elements of the Martu language there and was surprised to find it useful when she later settled amongst the southernmost of the Western Desert peoples 3,000 km away at Ooldea in SA. Jigalong, one of the main camps for maintaining the rabbit-proof fence, became the centre of the Martu people and was of course the home which Molly, Daisy and Gracie were heading back to. The northernmost limits of Martu country include Nifty, my destination, as well as the Woodie Woodie and Telfer mines, in the Great Sandy Desert where I imagine the border with the Walmajarri (see Two Sisters) is fairly fluid.

There are two separate language groups on the coast north of Yamji country, one south of Port Hedland, probably once centred on the Fortescue and Ashburton Rivers but now at Roeburn, and another between Port Hedland and Broome. I can’t tell you anything about them so I’d better do some homework!


Recent audiobooks

PD James (F, Eng), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
Hetty E Verolme (F, Aust), The Children’s House of Belsen (2000)
Masaji Ishikawa (M, Japan/Korea), A River in Darkness (2000) DNF
Michael Veitch (M, Vic/Aust), The Forgotten Islands (2011)
Carole Radziwill (F, USA), The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating (2013)
Julia London (F, Eng), The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount (2013)
Richard North Patterson (M, USA), Loss of Innocence (2013)
Michael Connolly (M, USA), Trunk Music (1997)
Tim Winton (M, WA/Aust), Eyrie (2013)
Stuart Woods (M, USA), Paris Match (2014)
Jay Stringer (M, Eng), Runaway Town (2013)
Gregory Randall (M, USA), Venice Black (2017)

Currently reading

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children

Housekeeping: I started using the Journal heading so that readers who were only interested in book reviews could see the journal emails and press delete. Don’t worry, you still can! But I’ve moved the journal designation down a notch so that while it is still clear in the email it is not so obtrusive.

The photos are mine, from the Nifty and Woodie Woodie roads in the Great Sandy Desert.

14 thoughts on “We were not here first

  1. Thank you Bill for your excellent and thoughtful summary – I write this from my desk, which sits in a house, on the land of the Wurundjeri people.

    A friend visiting from the US came to school assembly with me one day. She was amazed (and dare I say a bit baffled) by the Welcome to Country that happens at the beginning of the assembly. We talked about it afterwards and she wondered how much was just lip service, an easy way to ‘pay respect’ without much true feeling. I pondered this and decided that at the very least our children will grow up being regularly reminded that we do share a place and that ‘we’ (and my family is of the Anglo-Saxon variety) were not here first. I like Welcome to Country parts of ceremonies and events and always use that time to reflect on the land, its history and its meaning to different groups of people.

    Unrelated, I see you’re reading Garner – the same title is in my near-reading future (although reading plans have been altered so tat I’m ready for the Melbourne Writers Festival). I’m currently listening to Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka – I haven’t read (listened to) pure history for quite some time and very much enjoying it.


    • Lovely response Kate, thank you. I know lots of people begrudge Welcome to Country, we just have to wait them out as it’s normalized (then I think of my own Monday mornings at school: I love God and my country, I honour the flag …. yes that worked!
      Will write up Garner shortly, during this week I hope.


      • Ha ha, yes, my own Monday mornings too…
        But I like Welcome to Country, and people who speak it perfunctorily need to know that there are those of us in the audience who are judging them harshly for their lack of respect. I would like there to be more visible signs of Welcome to Country at all our international airports and on the approach roads, but there are more and more visible signs of First Nations especially in council buildings. (My own council, at last, at last, flies the Aboriginal flag now outside the Town Hall!)
        At my school, the children wrote their own heartfelt version, which was subsequently ‘approved’ by the local Bunerong with a smoking ceremony at a special assembly. However (without approval) the wording was subsequently changed from ‘we know that bad things happened’ to ‘we know that sad things happened’. A significant shift in moral responsibility…
        As you say, we have to wait them out. They are on the wrong side of history and when we see their disrespectful behaviour, we know that it is motivated by their deep feelings of discomfort, even if they can’t acknowledge it themselves.


      • I’m not a big fan of flags but if flying the Aboriginal flag is a symbol of genuine recognition of their prior and ongoing rights then that must be a good thing.


  2. Your thoughts about your default position on land ownership (pretty much the same as mine except I’d add proper compensation for what was lost especially for urban Aborigines who seem excluded from the current arrangements) makes me wonder…
    Over at Sue’s travel blog, I asked if she knew why the conditions are so strict on permit land, that their tour operator has only been able to negotiate travelling through it, but without permission to stop, not even for toilet breaks on a very long day’s driving.
    I wonder if it could be an aspect of a political position, that is, that the traditional owners have decided that access to permit lands should only occur when a treaty is negotiated for its ongoing use by all Australians?


    • Yes, I hadn’t thought about compensation – urban native title is mostly eliminated at the moment because there has been discontinuous occupation. I could only speculate about what motivates native title holders, but I can sympathize if they impose strict conditions, I might too in the same position. And elsewhere, at Uluru in particular I get the impression they have bent over backwards to be friendly to ignorant tourists.


  3. Catching up on blog-reading now I’m back!

    I think I answered your question, Lisa, about the strict permit conditions – it’s to do with sacredness (At Uluru, the rules for walking around the base have become stricter and stricter over the three times – covering about 16 years – we’ve done it.) There “might” be politics there too, but I think the sacredness issue is genuine. Different traditional owners, we’ve discovered have different “tolerance”, just as different indigenous people have different ideas about all sorts of traditions, such as the one about no photos or not mentioning names for some time after a person is deceased.

    Anyhow, Bill, I enjoyed this post … and your pondering as you, like many of us, work to understand more about our relationship with indigenous people and how best to improve the situation. I also love the opening photo – Sturt’s desert rose??


    • Sturt’s Desert Rose – the official NT flower – seems to be right from what I could see. And the next few photos show them growing together with Sturt’s Desert Pea. I’m sure I can find an excuse to include more photos in another post.


    • Thanks Emma. I have gone, over the years, from being unconscious of there being an Aboriginal presence to a feeling that racism and oppression far from being of the olden days are still rampant today.


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