Sonia Smallacombe at the Australian Embassy, Washington
Sonia Smallacombe at the Australian Embassy, Washington

This is part one of a guest post from Sonia Smallacombe and is the text of her NAIDOC speech given at the Australian Embassy on 8 July 2010. One of the themes of this year’s NAIDOC celebrations was “Unsung Heroes.” In this speech Sonia gives tribute to her own personal unsung heroes that have sustained her through her life. Sonia is currently a Social Affairs Officer with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues based in New York. Her main area of work is around Indigenous issues and the Environment.

Sonia is a member of the Maramanindji people from the Daly River area. She is the eldest of 11 children and lived her early years on cattle stations in the Top End of Australia where her father was a stockman.

Sonia went on to undergraduate study at Monash University and post-graduate studies at Melbourne University, where her Masters thesis was on the intellectual and cultural property rights of Indigenous peoples.

Prior to joining the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in November 2005, Sonia was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia, where she taught in a number of subjects including Northern Perspectives (a political, social and environment overview of Northern Australia), Indigenous History and Contemporary Indigenous Studies.

In this first part Sonia talks of her life – and the many people that remain her unsung heroes – up to the time that she left boarding school with the Loreto nuns at Ballarat.

I would first like to begin by acknowledging the indigenous peoples on whose land we stand today.

I would also like to thank the Australian Embassy here in Washington DC for giving me this opportunity to speak in what is a very special week in Australia: the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) which is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and is an opportunity to recognise the contributions of indigenous Australians in various fields.

In November 2005, I arrived in New York on a very cool autumn evening to start my job with Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, at UN Headquarters in New York. I had just left the oppressive heat and humidity that proceeds the wet season in Darwin, Australian’s most northern city. As I sat in the back of the taxi from JFK airport on my way to a hotel on the west side of New York, I had no idea that my new life in New York would change so much about how I see the world; how I would meet world leaders; how I would meet so many different indigenous peoples from around the world; how I would travel to so many different parts of the world; and how I would work with so many different cultures; and hear so many different languages in my workplace. However, there is still one thing that has NOT changed, and that is my childhood as a stockman’s daughter.

My father was born somewhere near a small town called Camooweal on the Queensland/Northern Territory border. His life, which we are still trying to unravel is a tale of secrets and lies. He was born to an Aboriginal woman named Annie and white drover called Finn, but because Finn was married, in order to protect his white colonial reputation, his brother-in-law Rupert, declared himself the biological father and gave my father his name. I have only heard this story recently, so I have no way of verifying this information.

Nevertheless, I did meet Annie (my father’s mother, my grandmother) in the early 1970s and also various members of my father’s family. It was only recently that my extended family talked about the estrangement between my father and his siblings and we concluded it was because he was the only one who had a white father and therefore, his skin was much lighter than his siblings. I am yet to find out about his subsequent removal from his mother and where he spent his formative year, another secret to unravel. Unfortunately, my father passed away in 1970, never revealing the most important aspects of his younger life.

It seems from the age of 14 years, my father worked as a stockman, first in Queensland and later in the Northern Territory. By the time I was born in the 1950s, he was a well established stockman. This is not new because the establishment of a cattle industry in northern Australia saw thousands of Aboriginal people move on to the big cattle stations, where they found work as stockmen and domestic servants. They could no longer survive on the land, where their waterholes and their hunting grounds had been fenced off to become private property.

Aboriginal people were used as cheap labour and became the backbone of the industry, working for basic rations and little or no money.

Aboriginal men and women worked hard under terrible conditions on cattle stations. For example, at Wave Hill, which was bought in 1914 by Vesteys, a family pastoral company from Liverpool in the UK, there had been complaints about working conditions for years. In the 1930s a Northern Territory government inquiry said of the British pastoral company: ‘It was obvious that they had been … quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights.

In the north of Western Australia in May 1946, an estimated 600 Aboriginal stockmen went on strike until they had been guaranteed a minimum wage of thirty shillings per week. Some had previously been receiving food and clothing but no pay; others had been paid up to twelve shillings a week. Though the strike was on the face of it, for better wages, it also had a strong human rights and natural justice aspect, with the demand that Aboriginal workers be paid in cash and not in goods.

This strike was organised by an Aboriginal man, Dooley Bin Bin with his friend Don McLeod acting as consultant. The organisation was a mammoth task, requiring communication between stockmen throughout northern Western Australia. The strike did not end until August 1949.

While my father, with his light skin was able to work his way up to the head stockman position, he nevertheless was at the mercy of the cattle station owner. I remember very hard times as he was away mustering cattle for long periods of time and my mother was left alone living in a tent on the banks of a river with her young children. So often, she had to care for sick children on her own and on many occasions we ran out of food. I will never forget the day an emu simply walked up to us and she chased it in the hope of catching it, killing it and of course cooking it for a much needed meal. Unfortunately, the emu got away. A day later, much her relief, some white people from another cattle station stopped by and gave her food. They also asked her if she had seen their pet emu!!

Many Aboriginal people liked stock work because it allowed them to be close to nature and the land. Aboriginal people also had valuable skills that were much needed by the cattle stations owners because they could find cattle by observing their tracks, they could find water by observing the activities of the wildlife especially at dawn and sunset when the wildlife seek their liquid intake. In others words, Aboriginal stockmen were not only hard workers but could read the layout of the land and knew where to find those rogue cattle who continued to run and hide.

My father was also a very skilled stockman. He could subdue and train the many wild brumbies to become good, strong working horses, he had the best vegetable garden on the station and always carried seeds in his pockets to spread over the land during his travels, returning a few months later to huge watermelon patches and he could cook the best plum pudding at Christmas which was soaked in treacle and boiled in cheese cloth, which we ate with huge servings of vanilla custard.

However, life was not easy for my mother and father and their growing brood of children. There was never enough money to clothe the children and buy extra necessities like a car, for instance. My father felt he was never paid adequately for the amount of work he did. Often at the end of the month he received no pay because it had all gone to the station store where tin food and tobacco was sold at exorbitant prices. It was therefore, not surprising when in 1966, 200 Gurindji cattle workers and their families, led by a very strong leader, Vincent Lingiari, staged a strike and walk off at Wave Hill Cattle Station, demanding equal wages and conditions similar to white stockmen. This strike was also about the Gurindji gaining control of their traditional lands.

Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, a Gurindji man and stockman from Wave Hill told the Sydney Morning Herald during the strike: “We were treated like dogs”. “We were lucky to get the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in humpies (corrugated iron shelters) you had to crawl in and out of it on your knees. There was no running water, the food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar, and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock.”

After the Gurindji walked away from Wave Hill Station, they moved to Wattle Creek where in 1967 they petitioned the Governor-General of Australia, claiming 1,295 square kilometres of land. Their claim was rejected.

However, in 1975 the Gurindji won a lease for their land as well as a further 90 square kilometres of land which was given to them by Lord Vestey, the owner of Wave Hill Cattle Station. This land and Wattle Creek was formally signed over to the Gurindji in 1985. The decision was an important milestone in the land rights struggle because this land, now known as Dagaragu, became the first Aboriginal community-owned and -managed cattle station. It is still owned and managed by the Murramulla Gurindji Company today.

In 1965, following years of lobbying to end all discrimination against Aboriginal workers, the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (now known as the Australian Industrial Relations Commission) decided ‘there must be one industrial law, similarly applied to all Australians, Aboriginal or not’. However, there was one catch. John Kerr (later Sir John Kerr) presented a carefully prepared case on behalf of the pastoralists which alleged that Aboriginal workers were ‘less efficient’ than European workers. The Commissioners accepted the case and ruled that a ‘slow worker’s’ clause be inserted in the award and that Aboriginal workers that were ruled ‘inefficient’ were to be paid less than the award wage. Further, that the implementation of equal wages be delayed for three years (until 1968). Interestingly, there was a wealth of evidence that Aboriginal workers in the cattle industry were in fact very efficient and of course, the Commission did not hear from the Aboriginal workers themselves.

Following the introduction of equal pay for Aboriginal stockmen in December 1968, indigenous employment on pastoral stations declined. Many historians have stated it was due to a trend accelerated by drought and technological developments. For many Aboriginal people, however this decline was due to the fact that cattle station owners did not want to pay Aboriginal workers their full wages. Unfortunately, on many cattle stations Aboriginal camps were hastily bulldozed and people rounded up and taken into various towns, leading to the development of fringe camps.

My father left the cattle industry and joined the railways. We moved into a small town much to my mother’s relief as there were many times she had to supervise our schooling by correspondence. This was a difficult task for her as she had only received grade three education and her children were surpassing her education level. My parents valued education because they were both aware that their education levels were minimal and they certainly felt cheated by the system. I was sent to boarding school in the southern state of Victoria in a small city called Ballarat where I was taught by Loreto nuns. This was not unusual as many indigenous children, including my brother Darryl Cronin, were sent to boarding schools and many of these people have become leaders in Australia today: Mick and Pat Dodson are such people.

I’ll post the second part of this speech in a day or so – perhaps sooner.