This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of Land Rights News, published by the Northern Land Council and edited by Murray McLaughlin.
WHEN the Federal government makes good on its commitment to hand back land* at Yarralin in the Victoria River District, it will have turned the last page of a long history of sorrow and disappointment.
Aboriginal demands for land began seriously after workers and their families walked off Victoria River Downs station in April 1972, fed up with pay and conditions, and joined the Gurindji at Wattie Creek who had walked off Wave Hill station in 1966.
VRD station was then owned by the Hooker Pastoral Company, part of the vast empire of the late Sir Leslie Hooker (he had changed his surname by deed poll at age 21 from Leslie Tingyou). As noted in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Hooker was satirised by the writer Frank Hardy in his “Outcasts of Foolgarah” as ‘L. Hookem’, a self-made, upright philanthropist who exploited Aboriginal labour on his pastoral properties in the North and was “the greatest single cause of inflated land prices in the South”.
Ian Michael managed VRD station for the Hooker company from 1968 to 1974. Only in November 1971, he’d told Jack Doolan, a Department of Aboriginal Affairs Patrol Officer, that “he had no particular problems concerning Aboriginals and he did not intend to have any”. The day after the walk-off 15 months later, Michael ordered that the Aboriginal living area near the main homestead, such as it was, be razed and bulldozed.
Michael might have thought he’d obliterated the vestiges of Aboriginal occupation from VRD station, but the former Aboriginal occupants were to return 18 months later, after they reached an agreement with the Hooker company. Hooker agreed to their occupation of a 93-square mile (240sq/km) block around the old Gordon Creek outstation, and it was to be called Yarralin.
People began moving back there in October 1973.
At that time, the VRD station comprised more than 12,300sq/km: Hooker, therefore, had agreed to relinquish about 2 per cent of its VRD pastoral lease – and it would soon try to wrestle that back. In February 1975, the company wrote to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, repudiating the deal it had agreed to only 16 months earlier.
Hooker’s NT regional manager wrote to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs: “It is now nearly 18 months since the VRD Aboriginal people came back to settle on VRD Station, after their unfortunate earlier departure to Wave Hill. The establishment of a ‘village’ settlement at Yarralin was planned to take account of the attitude of self-determination and independence of the aborigines and to allow them to largely ‘do their own thing’.
“… but we feel, on experience to date, that the establishment of a village and its environs at Yarralin is a failure and, as a consequence we now withdraw our agreement to the (earlier) arrangements …”
Hooker would have yet another change of heart. By the time the Yarralin matter came to be heard by Interim Land Commissioner Ward in September 1975, the company had agreed to the 93sq/m (240sq/km) claim.
Justice Ward wrote to then Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ian Viner that the claim had been “effectively and mutually settled”.
“To my mind,” Justice Ward wrote, “all that remains is for your own department and that of the Northern Territory to complete the legal formalities in accordance with the principle agreed upon between the two parties (Hooker and the Ngarinman people).”
But it would not be that easy. For reasons unknown, Minister Viner did not act on Justice Ward’s recommendation
In her book, “Hidden Histories”, the anthropologist Deborah Rose Bird says that when VRD people agreed to return to the station they made it quite clear that while 240sq/km might be a satisfactory beginning, other people whose own home countries lay outside this small block were wanting to gain some control over their own traditional lands.
She records that a group of people identified as the Yarralin Council wrote a letter in July 1977 stating that while they would accept the smaller block because they were anxious about land, they were always intent on pursuing a larger claim over another 2100+sq/km to the north of Yarralin.
“The waiting game went on until 1984,” Deborah Rose Bird writes, “By then it was clear that there was absolutely no means by which Aborigines could claim the larger amount of land, nor was there any viable action they could take to try to force Hooker Company to accede to their demands. In addition, although they had vigorously asserted that they would settle for nothing less than Aboriginal freehold title, it had become clear that if they were going to get anything at all, it would not be on their own terms.”
In the end, the NT Government agreed to sign over the Yarralin block, 149sq/km, to Ngarinman Yarralin Community Incorporated. But the government destroyed any hopes of their getting title to their larger claim. It gave the block of 355sq/km north of the Yarralin block to the Northern Territory Land Corporation, thereby putting that land beyond reach of a claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
The Land Corporation had been set up by a CLP government and often used as an gent to thwart Aboriginal land claims.
As Deborah Rose Bird has recorded, 12 years of strikes and negotiations had delivered one title under which people owned an area of land smaller than the 240sq/km they had originally been promised. Hooker ended up relinquishing about 4 per cent of its pastoral lease – the Yarralin mob got title to about 1.2 per cent, and the NT Government got title to about 2.8 per cent.
But calamity would quickly follow. Deborah Bird Rose says by the time it got title to the Yarralin block, the Ngarinman Yarralin Community Incorporated had “begun to pile up debts through what appears at best to be mismanagement of funds”, and in 1985 the title to their land was being held by a bank in Katherine as security against a massive overdraft.
In the mid-1990s, Ngarinman Yarralin Community Incorporated was dissolved. Because it was an Incorporation under NT legislation, the NT Commissioner for Consumer Affairs seized the title to the Yarralin block, and it has rested with that office ever since.
The struggle by the Yarralin mob to regain title to their land never abated.
Luck would come their way when it was discovered that by virtue of a surveying oversight, a 3100 hectare slice of land to the south of the Yaralin block had been left unalienated. As a result, the “Wickham River Land Claim” was lodged by the NLC in 1983. The claim laid latent for many years, until it was brought on before the Aboriginal Land Commissioner in 2009.
At the hearing, the NT Government conceded that there were Traditional Owners, and that the claim should succeed. In subsequent discussions with the NLC, the NT Government agreed that the land in the Wickham River claim, plus the Yarralin block owned by its Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, and plus the block owned by its Land Corporation, should all be scheduled as Aboriginal freehold land, under the Land Rights Act.
That’s taken several years to achieve, because the Federal Government had to find money for the land to be properly surveyed.
Now that’s been done and the Federal Government is about to legislate to schedule the three blocks as one big chunk of Aboriginal land, an historic wrong is about to be righted.
* On Thursday 26 November 2015 amendments to the Aboriginal land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 were passed by the Senate that included the “scheduling” of various parcels of Aboriginal land, including the land identified in the map above.