Still colonising Aboriginal land

The story about the foundation of the first colony in Australia is well known; it was about water. None being available at Botany Bay, the First Fleet sailed north, and in a little cove halfway down Port Jackson they saw what was to become known as the Tank Stream. Its original name is now forgotten.

It had its source near the present Hyde Park and tumbled down through the picturesque bush, to cross the beach on the western edge of the cove. This original beauty has been built over and destroyed, but tourists still rave about the how attractive the harbour city is.

And so on. Australia has been progressively settled and developed, and at many sites there was controversy and resistance, starting, of course, with the original inhabitants whose spiritual kinship with country obliged them to protect it from desecration and over-exploitation.

Walmadany (James Price Point)

The current struggle over Woodside Petroleum’s proposal to develop Walmadany (James Price Point) north of Broome is no different in essence. The proposed Liquified Natural Gas plant is no Opera House, but it has the support of the WA Government and the Kimberley Land Council on the grounds that development will be good for everyone.

A balanced ecosystem, with the beauty that supports the current tourism industry to the region will be sacrificed, along with the Jabirrjabirr heritage embedded in the sites, in return for jobs for workers, royalties for the KLC to distribute, and the creation of an industrial beachhead into a region with further unexploited mineral wealth.

Holding out against this proposal is traditional owner Joseph Roe. I worked with his grandfather, the famous Paddy Roe, recording the stories of that country, including how the Jabirrjabirr people entrusted him with custodianship of that country, through his daughters who were conceived there. So what right does Joseph have to stop this progress, the same kind of progress that has made all Australians relatively wealthy?

Roe’s countrymen, lead by the KLC, want to take the cash option and use money to develop the kind of infrastructures that would protect indigenous people in the Kimberley from the precarious existence they have suffered ever since colonisation in the late 19th century. It might be they are forced into this position, a kind of economic autonomy, by failure of government to provide proper infrastructure in ‘remote’ Australia.

Joseph Roe (Photo: Nigel Gaunt © Red Dirt Photography)But Joseph Roe says, ‘If you want to be an Aboriginal person, stand up and be one.’ For him, basic identity is at stake. If you play the corporate game, you might get a salary, but you pay with your heritage and identity, and when it is gone, it is gone forever. Activist Gary Foley drives home the point by asserting that the genocide will be complete in 2050. Is this small numbers of people resisting the greater good?

Outspoken mining bosses like Fortescue chief Andrew Forrest are lobbying hard to establish the consensus that only mining money can help Indigenous communities. This lets government off the financial hook perhaps, but can one privatise policy and morality? Do mining companies really have any interest in the fact that this was Aboriginal country for millennia before the whites muscled in only 130 years ago? They still think that there is ‘nothing there’, unlike the sacred sites where the white people live and which could never be mined.

Developing James Price Point will proceed in a different fashion to Sydney. It will not start with a few tents. The impact will be sudden, dirty and ugly. The precedent is there for all to see down the coast at Karratha, which is where the gas could in fact go if resistance to the Walmadany site succeeds. The industrialisation of that area has increased the population and the number of jobs, but has arguably not improved the lot of the Indigenous people of the area.

These are the people who are historically pushed aside and to the bottom of the social heap. If they resist, their leaders are paid off and given a brass plate to hang around their neck calling them kings. Warriors have fought and died, and sometimes their memory is celebrated, like Tjandamarra (‘Pigeon’) in the Kimberley. These tactics and struggles are not trivial. Capital needs its resources cheaply and it will fight for them, just as the squatters fought for cheap land in the early days.

The Roe family’s argument is about people. They never express their indigenous sovereignty as an exclusive right, ‘keep off our land’. Rather they have created a small business that puts into practice an ethic of sharing country, the Lurrijarra Heritage Trail that runs every July and attracts people from all over the world to rave reviews. James Price Point is one of its camping spots, so this business is one that will go under with the gas proposal. Aboriginal cultures are not dying out and they are the mainstay of Australia’s biggest services export industry, tourism, something the 1950s assimilationists didn’t foresee. Cultures can last forever, but gas runs out.

Industry creates jobs, not people. The Indigenous cultures of places like the Kimberly are institutions. They are responsible for educating kinds of people who know how to respect other living things and the country that sustains them. Woodside is good at the rhetoric of claiming to support the Aboriginal community, but that is really last on the list of things to be done. ‘We’ve got to get that plant built,’ was the first thing Don Voelte, CEO of Woodside, told Four Corners earlier this year.

An integrated plan could be created that could build the future of the Kimberly with imagination. It wouldn’t start with a monstrous factory. It would start by looking after the water sources and the people who use them, it would remember the names of creeks, and the names of the people who know the stories that go with them. It would reverse colonial violence by genuinely supporting the Indigenous institutions that hold the laws of the country. Maybe then a place could be found for a factory.

Stephen Muecke

Stephen Muecke is Professor of Creative Writing in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Recent books are Latour and the Humanities, edited with Rita Felski, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020 and The Children’s Country: Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia, co-authored with Paddy Roe, Rowman and Littlefield International, 2020. His most recent book is a translation of Vinciane Despret: Our Grateful Dead: Stories of Those Left Behind, University of Minnesota Press, 2021.

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  1. Stephen, thank you for this. It’s bracing on a Thursday morning, and heartbreaking to be re-awakened to the true price of ‘property’ vs the opportunities of custodianship. “They still think that there is ‘nothing there’, unlike the sacred sites where the white people live and which could never be mined.” True, and a really important point because I think lots of non-Aboriginal people look at the vast expanses (usually on television) and are groomed to think ‘there’s nothing there’ ( … some may instinctively add, ‘except nature, vastness and beauty’). Acknowledging the deep homage made to ‘our (white) Australian heritage’ and ‘right to ownership’, it’s worth considering that what can happen to one group of people can happen to another. If the powers-that-be want land – for whatever exploitative purpose – that ‘belongs’ to the common person, then they take it, our flimsy ‘property rights’ be damned.

    “Aboriginal cultures are not dying out and they are the mainstay of Australia’s biggest services export industry, tourism” Outside of actual tourism ads, this marvellous point is so unacknowledged and, potentially, so powerful! It’s really a way for closed-minded, duped individuals to enter into an appreciation of the treasure we’re trashing – by reflecting how it might profit them. Oh, that’s so sad.

    Great post – really heart-wrenching and thought provoking. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Stephen, I worked at the language centre in Halls Creek for a few years and can attest to the “calculated neglect” (after Andrew Markus) of the government. It is appalling that the KLC and Andrew Forrest see the only way forward for aboriginal people requires them to relinquish their land, and have it ripped to pieces my the big miners. Forrest would argue that though – he has alot to gain from this theory. But ask the aboriginal people of Pt Headland how mining has contributed to their job, culture and health situations. Many of these mines employ FIFO workers, the wealth is distributed far from traditional owners and workers. If the government had done its bit, aboriginal people would not be in this impossible position. We have third world conditions in a first world country. In addition to mining jobs, there are alternatives – what about growing food to supply the community stores – imagine, fresh food and jobs… Forrest can’t see past his blinkers.

  3. Hi Stephen,

    Your article hasn’t identified that Mr Roe has recently indicated publicly that he has identified a site he thinks would be appropriate for a gas hub.

    The site Mr Roe has suggested is between Barred Creek and Willie Creek, which would destroy a great majority of the Lurrijarra Heritage Trail, have a larger impact on sea country by way of dredging – and importantly – wasn’t considered by the wider Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr claim group as a proposed site. There is also significant tourism interest in this site with the Willie Creek Pearls operation and several popular fishing spots. Not to mention the closer proximity to Broome city.

  4. Yes, great post thanks Stephen. Really well said.
    I particularly like this ‘Cultures can last forever, but gas runs out.’ – a shame this fact has been completely overlooked in Canberra and by the mining companies who seem hell bent on selling off as much of Australia to China and elsewhere as they can extract in a lifetime.

  5. “..‘If you want to be an Aboriginal person, stand up and be one.’ For him, basic identity is at stake. If you play the corporate game, you might get a salary, but you pay with your heritage and identity, and when it is gone, it is gone forever…”

    Combine the 2 & U have the silver bullet so start giving Australia’s first cultures more space on the nations landscape & we might start getting some balance & results.

  6. I think it is very wrong to expect the traditional owners of this land to give it up to have what we have already and us they should already have schools houses and hospitals
    We should make it World Heratige and have the Traditional owners run I wouold certanly love to learn the Dreamtime law

  7. As a wise , indigenous Dampier Peninsula gal said to me…….”They want to take our land and give us money……Your going to do a lot of damage with that money…..”
    You betcha… Dale

  8. Thank you Stephen for your thought provoking article.
    I just wanted to know about the ‘resistance’!!!
    is it there or not?
    your words: ‘Cultures can last forever, but gas runs out.’ really struck me.
    Again thanks for this.

    1. still struggling on, Sagar, see the news that is posted on Facebook’s “Goolarabooloo and Lurujarri Heritage Trail”

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