A tropical paradise for some, a time warp for others. A contradiction, a fiefdom within a democracy with tribal and national law in conflict – three months suspended sentence or three spear thrusts to the thigh. One drives a 100 series Toyota, the other collects yams.
We spend the first night in the Police compound watching NSW thrash Queensland in the Origin football – the fact that most of the coppers were NSW supporters didn’t help.
As I’m here to learn I question the locals on the town and its problems. I get honest answers from honest men and woman there to help. Not a racist comment to be heard just local problems in a very remote community.
The next morning we are taken in tow by a local senior public servant (who shall remain nameless) and taken on a ‘warts and all’ tour of the town.
We visited YothuYindi’s sound studio overlooking the Arufura Sea and I’m told how the money from the band was used to help the locals. We met one chap who had traveled with the band for 12 years and I quite liked him (no names- no pack drill) but noticed body language that would indicate that he was not a favoured son. Alcohol, drugs and a murder investigation is cramping his style.
Yothu Yindi’s Nuhlunbuy studio.
We visit a crocodile farm that was set up as a tourist enterprise but looking very sad when we were there. One pond, greenish in colour and about 15 foot in diameter erupts when a young fellow throws a stone into the water. A croc as long as the pool was wide leaps out and frightens hell out of me and the others.
No tourists in site.
We spoke of health problems and were told that lower level health problems that can be fixed in the local hospital are well in hand. It’s when the aborigines have to go to Darwin that the problems occur. It is not in their mind to leave kith and kin when sick. They would rather stay at home which is fine and natural except there is no MRI or oncology specialists in town.
Our hostess related a conversation she had with a local elder.
Mr XXX, you have to go to Darwin for treatment (He had cancer)
Eh Missus. You remember old Mrs YYY? She went to Darwin and came back in a box. I’m not going there. Bad place that Darwin.
He died – most probably before his time, making him a part of the statistics that prove aborigines have a shorter life span.
I was witness to this mentality while having a coffee at Katherine. I was talking to an aborigine that had a prosthesis instead of a right leg. A woman went by and ask where he been.
He replied “Darwin and they took my leg – bad place Darwin – not going there again”. The conversation then centered on how bad a place Darwin is.
I raised the question of Royalties and was told a horror story of how it used to be given out.
Each year the Northern Land Council allocated royalties. Money allocated to Groote Island tribes-people from the Manganese mine was sent over to the Island from Nuhlunbuy in suitcases – $35,000 cash per family – twice per year! The local Toyota dealer booked the ferry out for two or three days to ship over fleets of new Landcruisers for the cash-rich stone-age tribes-people. The bulk of the money came back with the Toyota salesman and the remainder was spent on grog. After a few days, with the Toyotas all transported, the Police managed to book a berth and go to the island and sort out the problems. Medicos moved in and patched up the tribe and life starts again. Wait around for the suitcases – only six months and a we can get a new Toyota.
The royalties are in addition to Social Security payments.
I have to say I don’t agree with Australians getting royalties from mines. I emphatically agree with disadvantaged Australians getting any help that may be necessary from consolidated revenue but this allocation of royalties stinks and is subject to power games and fraud.
If a community is classified in need of services then I would rather the Government handle the finances in consultation with the elders. I would expect such consultation to cover such points as – you should build schools and medical centers at the outstations before you build a million dollar house with a chopper pad and all weather airstrip.
But then that’s just me.
The chairman of the Northern Land Council Galarrwuy Yunupingu, has the power. He is the man – he allocates the royalties. Some will say he is doing a good job – but I’m not one of them. He has a deliberate program that selects the brighter locals and sends them away to colleges down south. That’s all well and good, but all the others, the vast majority, are encouraged to maintain their old tribal ways.
The ‘old tribal ways’ include ‘promised brides’ of an age that would have us white fellows in goal if we consummated the relationship.
It doesn’t seem to include education. I was told that the heir apparent to Galarrwuy?s Principality has English as his third language. Impressive on the face of it but there is little value in being fluent in two aborigine dialects when neither are useful outside Arnhem Land.
It includes spear thrusts into the thigh for misdemeanors and holding onto the ‘Poison Cousin’ system where for some perceived crime against the clan certain members are ostracized. They’re the ones that you see sleeping in the parks.
Galarrwuy?s detractors call him the Black Prince and believe me he has all the power of a Prince. He certainly runs Arnhem Land as a Principality.
The Jet Ranger chopper flying around Nuhlunbuy attracts my attention
“Who owns it? I ask.
“Well not Galarrwuy. He owns the company that owns the chopper”
They learn – after having such toys taken off them when the auditors were sent in previously, the leaders learned from white fellows and set up limited companies.
We visited Yirrkala, his homeland and saw hope and promise with a school and art gallery but that was the only bright spot on the scene.
We tour and come across a bare patch of gravel in a grasses area near a memorial site. I was told it was where the local clan had scattered Nugget Coombes? ashes! Apparently, after Nugget had died, his family allowed some of his ashes to be spread at Yirrkala.
I disagree with what Whitlam and Coombes did for the aborigines. Not there compassion – just their lack of practical common sense.
The site of Nugget Coombes ashes
Nuhlunbuy exists because of Bauxite, the raw state of aluminium. The royalties paid by the mine to the Government and then back to the Northern Land Council is the main source of income. The royalties are allocated further down the line by the Land Council and tribal elders, some say cronies of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, get to decide what to do with the money.
We’re talking tens of millions here. When you read of Indigenous leaders screaming about the demise of ATSIC it has nothing to do with what’s perceived as good for the Indigenous people. It is all about losing the power to allocate the millions from royalties and Government coffers.
This note from the Yirrkala web site
The mine, refinery and township of Nuhlunbuy are located on the Gove Peninsula on leasehold land within the boundaries of Aboriginal freehold land. This means the Aboriginal traditional owners are our landlords.
There are approximately 1,700 indigenous people of numerous clans living in the N/E Arnhem Land region. The 5 main clans are Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Madarrpa and Dhalwangu. Gumatj and Rirratjingu are the traditional owners of the land in the area of the leases. Aboriginal-owned land is private land. While you are free to move about the town and industrial leases at will, if you wish to leave the leases for recreation purposes you MUST obtain a recreation permit. Unauthorized entry onto Aboriginal land can result in a fine of up to $1000.00.
The permit system helps to make Aboriginal land accessible to tourists, visitors and workers. It also protects the privacy of Aboriginal people, takes care of the environment and promotes safety. There are many areas, which are considered sacred or significant, and the system helps visitors to avoid causing offence or disrupting cultural activities.
Yirrkala baby competition. Cute, but I’d like the one on the left backing me in a fight in a year or two. Couldn’t lose.
We went down to an outstation and witnessed the setting up of a funeral for an elder that had just died. The locals build a new purpose-built village with shade and a centre mourning hut to accommodate the deceased elder. Due to respect for their traditions and customs I decided not to take photos but the expense, effort and time taken to farewell elders is enormous.
Water reticulation and power are supplied. Builders and other tradesmen are busy around the site and all the clans-people are involved in the build-up. The clan is tied up for two weeks. Kids at boarding schools down south (the chosen few) miss school. Commerce normally conducted by the clan ceases to operate (if there is any) and a two-week sit-down phase starts.
We were encouraged to camp at what Galarrwuy called the Spring Camp. We are out of his hair but close enough to visit. Some miles from the main outstation camp and fully served with running water, toilets and showers it was a great camp. In the afternoon woman come by and ask for an empty water bottle so they could fill up to use while hunting yams. Kids are sent up to fetch water and check out our food supplies. They discover biscuits and in the time honoured tradition of kids everywhere in the world, ask for some. I happily oblige but my lasting memory of the camp is that they didn’t have a word of English other than a fractured “biscuit?’
Kids at outstation
We leave Nuhlunbuy and head down the 800 odd kilometres to the Stuart Highway. A reasonable road in most places, albeit a gravel surface.
We make good time and get to Katherine before dark.