This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of Land Rights News, published by the Northern Land Council and edited by Murray McLaughlin. Dr. Patrick McConvell is now a Research Fellow in the School of Language Studies at the Australian National University.
In 1975 Patrick McConvell was working as a linguist at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS) and was a witness for the Yarralin Community Group (represented by the Northern Land Council) in their land claim before the Interim Land Commissioner, Justice Dick Ward.
The Labor government, led by Gough Whitlam, introduced the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Bill In October 1975, but it had not been passed by the time Whitlam was dismissed the following month. The bill was modified by the succeeding Liberal Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser, and reintroduced in 1976.
In anticipation of the legislation, the Whitlam government appointed Justice Ward of the NT Supreme Court as Interim Land Commissioner in April 1975, and he began hearing land claims, Yarralin among them.
Dr McConvell was called as a witness on 22 September 1975, the first day of the two-day Yarralin hearing in Darwin. The claim was for 90 square miles (24,000 hectares) around the Old Gordon Creek homestead on Victoria River Downs station, about 20km from the station’s main homestead.
Dr McConvell had made four visits to the Yarralin group in 1974-75. He put the population between 40 and 60. He told the hearing that some were of Ngarinman descent, others of Ngaliwurru descent, many had ancestors belonging to both tribes, and to the Mudbura and the then “nearly extinct” Bilnarra and Karanga tribes.
“Through extensive intermarriage, even in pre-contact times, and long periods of integration while working for local cattle stations, they now consider themselves to be ‘one mob’ and call themselves collectively Ngarinman,” he said in his submission. He set out five reasons for the Yarralin Council’s claim:
• The land belongs to this group of Aboriginal people by Aboriginal law and because they have occupied it since time immemorial. It was taken away from them by white pastoralists by force, without permission and without any payment to them, and should therefore be returned to them, at least in part.
• Many of the relations of these people were killed by white pastoralists and the group wants recompense for this.
• All of the men currently residing at Yarralin and many of their relatives have worked hard for Victoria River Downs station, as stockmen and station hands, either for no wages in the early days, or for wages far below those received by white workers. For this too they want recompense in the form of land.
• There are many sacred places and dreaming sites in the vicinity of Yarralin owned by the Yarralin people in Aboriginal law. They now wish to own these in Australian law.
• Many people in Yarralin no longer want to work for a European owner, but want to work and run their own place.
Many accounts of brutality and murder by early pastoralists and police could be obtained from the old men of the district, Dr McConvell told the hearing.
“Severe beatings were frequent and death was often the penalty for running away from work, or for a husband who resisted the abduction of his wife by a white man.
“According to Big Mick Kankinang, three young men were shot at VRD station in the early days and dragged down to the river by horses; at the site of the hospital, two men were shot dead while attempting to swim the river to get away from the station; an old man was shot on the crossing for running away with a woman; two men were shot at night near the billabong because the Europeans were worried that they might be killing cattle.
“From the early days, young Aborigines were trained and used as labour on VRD and the number of white men, according to Big Mick, was very small, often only the manager, head stockman and cook. In those days the Aborigines received no wages, only rations of dry bread and beef, sugar and tea, and at the end of the season were given small amounts of tobacco, flour, sugar and tea.
“Poor quality clothes were issued to each worker, and had to be returned to the store at the end of the season, to be used again the following year. In the Wet, the Aborigines returned to the bush to live a nomadic life.
“Aborigines did mustering, breaking in horses and droving, and now feel that it was through their labour that the white owners became rich, while they remained in a state of poverty. Later, Aboriginal workers received some wages, but it is only very recently that their rate of pay has even approached that of the white stockmen, while their housing and other facilities still lag far behind that of the white.
“The forced alienation of the land to Europeans has remained a source of resentment throughout the history of black and white contact, and can ultimately lead to despair and degradation, as the Aborigines in this region can see from their knowledge of fringe-dwelling Aborigines elsewhere.
“Now the Yarralin people are determined to seize the chance to regain some of their lost pride through the ownership of their land, and to work out themselves how they can retain and practise some of their traditional culture, and at the same time improve their standard of living and come to terms with present day realities through the use of their land.”