A guest essay by Brenda L Croft*

People from here aren’t like people from Redfern….

We are from here, we come from here!

The above exchange took place at Victoria River, Wave Hill, on 27 August 2016, during official speeches for the 50th anniversary of the Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill Station. A group of protestors wearing t-shirts and holding a banner emblazoned with the searing image of an Aboriginal child’s eyes encased in barbed wire, framed by the slogan, ‘No justice, just us’[1], stood in silent protest, their backs towards Nigel Scullion, Senator for the Northern Territory, federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, who was standing centre-stage on a podium under the blazing August sun.

Senator Scullion was championing the sovereign actions of a determined band of Gurindji stockmen and their families who walked away from Wave Hill Station half a century earlier, with a small group of protestors silently declaring their opposition to his presence at the tribute of one of the nation’s most renowned protest actions.

The 50th commemoration had brought thousands of people from all over the country to the twin communities of Daguragu and Kalkaringi to honour the actions taken by 200+ determined Gurindji (and associated peoples) stockmen and their families who walked off Wave Hill station in protest at decades of poor treatment by ‘British Lord Vestey’ and his representatives.

As has been acknowledged widely, the Walk-Off sparked the birth of the national land rights movement, building on earlier actions by First Peoples in the Northern Territory and further afield over preceding decades. The Walk-Off story has been detailed extensively over the years since in radio and television documentaries, films, print media, photographs and songs.[2]

What more fitting time and place then for descendants of Gurindji community members – who had been stolen from their families as children since the early 20th century, in much the same manner as their traditional lands had been stolen in the late 19th century – to express their profound rejection of the treatment revealed at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, which had aired on national television less than a month earlier?

On 25 July 2016, viewers across Australia had been sickened by the footage on the ABC TV Four Corners program, ‘Australia’s Shame’:

…exposing one of the darkest incidents in the history of juvenile justice in Australia [with] an investigation featuring a chilling catalogue of footage revealing a pattern of abuse, deprivation and punishment of vulnerable children inside Northern Territory youth detention centres.[3]

Watching that footage alone in my lounge-room, my distress intensifying, I contacted my cousin/sister, Josephine Crawshaw (Ruddick), suggesting we protest at the impending celebration, knowing that politicians, including the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, would be present.

It was Scullion’s reaction to the heinous revelations in the program that caused the greatest outrage. When pressed for a response as to why he had not watched the program, despite being notified that it was going to air [4 ]  he stated: ‘… I had never seen the vision, it hadn’t come to my attention, hadn’t piqued my interest[my emphasis], well, sufficiently…’[5]

One can only wonder what would pique the interest of the politician responsible for the affairs of Australia’s First Nations?

The Minister’s attitude changed after he received a call from a “fairly agitated” Malcolm Turnbull[6], then Prime Minister, who directed him to watch the program, which triggered a royal commission.[7]

People Like Us, We Come From T/Here

On 19 August 2016, wearing our t-shirts and carrying our banner, we had marched at the very end of the Walk-Off re-enactment from Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation to Victoria River, so as not to overshadow the commemoration event.

At Victoria River we stood near where the Gurindji (and associated Malngin, Bilinara, Ngarinman, Mudburra and Warlpiri) strikers had camped half a century earlier after their sovereign action of walking away from degradation, abuse and desperation, and into history.

As Scullion took to the stage during the program, our group – all Gurindji Stolen Generations’ descendants – stood and turned our backs.  Standing silently, we were progressively joined by non-Indigenous supporters as the Minister continued speaking. His voice rising in anger, he inferred that our group was disrespectful, trouble-making radicals from Redfern – so far off the mark it would have been laughable if not for the ignorance in which it was couched.

If we were from Redfern – and there were supporters present who had travelled from the bastion of First Nations’ radicalism and self-determination[8]– we would gladly have owned our connection to that staunch stronghold of First Nations’ resistance. But we were standing on our country, proudly alongside and in honour of our community and family/ies – standing our ground as members of the world’s most enduring culture.

The Minister’s frustration at our refusal to sit down and move away from the gaze of the media was clear to all, as was his suggestion that we had no place protesting at the anniversary of one of the country’s most significant protest actions.

He seemed blithely unaware that his rebuke, that we were ‘out of place’ or ‘did not know our place’, was made while he was flanked on stage by NT Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation banners, their placement acknowledging that many of those present were either Gurindji members of the Stolen Generations, or their descendants. Our only option was to refute his ignorance: We are from here, we come from here!

People Like Us, We Come From T/Here

Placed in broader context, the Four Corners program was broadcast nearly two decades after ‘Bringing them Home, the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families’, conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now called the Australian Human Rights Commission), was tabled in Parliament on 26 May 1997. The date has since become National Sorry Day in recognition of the report’s contributors and their families.

The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was established by the Attorney General in 1995. Over two years, the National Inquiry took oral and written testimony from over five hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia, as well as from Indigenous organisations, foster parents, State and Territory Government representatives, church representatives, other non-government agencies, former mission and government employees and individual members of the community. The 689-page final report includes many of these personal testimonies as well as 54 recommendations to support healing and reconciliation for the Stolen Generations, their families and the Australian public more broadly.’[9]

It was broadcast almost-nine years after the Howard Liberal government enacted the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act in August 2007. A complex and controversial package of legislation rolled out by the Rudd/Gillard Labor government, the NTER is colloquially known as The Intervention.

Due to expire in 2012, instead the NTERA was replaced by the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act, which remains in place[10]. A bitter irony that the same year The Intervention was enacted, the Wave Hill Walk-Off Track was formally placed on the National Heritage List.[11]

The broadcast came eight years after Kevin Rudd’s Labor government formally made The National Apology to The Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008, which was a key recommendation from The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families.[12]It remains one of the very few recommendations implemented.

I was at Parliament House in the Great Hall the day that Rudd spoke, followed by Opposition Leader Dr Brendan Nelson in bi-partisan support. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought of my father, my grandmother, my aunts, uncles, cousins – so many extended family members whose lives had been irrevocably altered, fractured by decades of official removal policies.

Decades of displacement from the safety and security of our families and communities had ground us/them down, as have cumulative government-sanctioned efforts to erase us/them from the very face of Australian society. Finally, public acknowledgement appeared to validate and ease the decades of intergenerational trauma.

A decade on those words have turned out to be largely empty – null and void. My tears have dried while my sense of injustice had grown exponentially with the ongoing, accumulative negative treatment towards our people, especially some of those most vulnerable, our children.

Watching the senseless, contemptible footage that night brought home to me just how debased some elements of society has become towards First Nations’ people. Twenty-one years after the report’s findings, the numbers of First Nations’ children in out of home care, under court orders, in foster care with non-Indigenous carers – no matter how well-meaning – is at their highest level ever.

The Northern Territory – my patrilineal home territory – and the Australian Capital Territory – my place of residence – are the jurisdictions with the greatest numbers of First Nations’ children in care, living away from their families and communities.

People Like Us, We Come From T/Here

How has it come to this? Did exposing the trauma of the shared his- and her/stories from hundreds of our Elders, family and community members serve no purpose other than to re-open wounds and scars? The deeply ingrained decades of pain and suffering has affected not only those who were removed but has also had radiating ripple effects on our families and communities, those who had to live with the pain of their children’s absence, often for decades, sometimes forever.

What of those whose parents were unable to do just that – parent- because they had no role models, no guidance, having grown up in institutions devoid of nurture, love, security, safety, and most important of all, cultural connections and shared knowledge of language and customary practices.

This is the lived reality for many in our communities who have strong cultural connections and affiliations with Gurindji communities in the Victoria River region – the twin, yet distinct communities of Daguragu at Wattie Creek (the site chosen by Gurindji and associated elders Sandy Moray Tipujurn, Vincent Lingiari, Donald Nangiari, Pincher Nyumiari (Manguari), Long Johnny Kitngarri/Kitniari, Geoffrey Ngalgardji and others on behalf of their families), and Kalkaringi (the crown land site originally known as Drovers’ Common, chosen by the government as a means of controlling and restricting the Gurindji community’s dreams and ambitions[13]); from communities associated with Yarralin Walangeri (near Victoria River Downs) – Lingarra, Pigeonhole and Top Springs; from Limbunya, and surrounding Inverway and Riveren cattle stations to the west of Wave Hill; to the many Stolen Generations’ members and their descendants living away from their country, in Katherine, Darwin, Halls Creek, Kununurra, Alice Springs, Adelaide, and further afield, in every state and territory of Australia.

Our experiences encompass enforced living away from our traditional homelands and communities, of fractured access to our languages and cultural knowledge of ceremony and country, of compounded transgenerational trauma with family members dying too young from preventable illness, of living below the poverty line, engaging in self-destructive behaviour, all direct results of our families and communities disrupted lives.

Combined, all these can create an individual and/or collective sense of cultural dislocation. ‘Home’ for many of us is a series of places and sites associated with family members, our ancestors, our communities. We are faced with coalescing challenges of ignorance of and racism about our existence from the highest echelons of authority in this country, down to the person in the street – either through unintentional or wilful ignorance – who profess little to no knowledge of the social injustices that Australia’s First Peoples face each and every day.

Having said that it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge that, alongside negative experiences facing many First Nations individuals and communities, there also shines inspirational resilience and determination; love, encouragement, support and embracing of those who make the long journeys home; profound intellect spanning thousands of generations; adaptation and innovation; Indigenous Storying and Knowledges – all of which sustains us as contemporary 21stcentury First Peoples.

And there are many non-Indigenous people – kardiya– throughout Australia who have stood beside us in our ongoing fight; supporting our aspirations for social justice and equity; who are not prepared to stay silent and benefit from the spoils of colonisation; who know that they occupy stolen land and want to make restitution in whatever way they can.

If one were to add up all the Northern Territory government institutions, church-run missions and recognised homes were First Nations’ children were placed from the 1870s until the present day the number is just shy of three digits. Of these my father, grandmother and extended family members spent time in at least 6 – 7 of these homes, and a disturbing number of my nieces and nephews continue to be placed under court orders in out of home care. Their parents had been removed from their parents, who had been removed from their parents, and so the cycle continues.

It is chilling for me to consider that my immediate and extended family has experienced over nine decades of enforced removal. Even more distressing is that exact numbers of removed children (and mothers) may never be known. What about those children who were lost, who never made their way home, who did not know where their home(s) was? Where are they now, where do the spirits rest of those who never made it home to their people?

 

What is the ongoing accumulated impact of two centuries enforced removal of First Peoples’ children from their families and communities[14], when numbers of our children in out of home care continue rising; when so few of the recommendations outlined in the Bringing Them Home report have been implemented more than two decades after being tabled; when, despite successive territory and federal governments attempts to ‘close the gap’, any gains continue to be far outweighed by an ever-increasing chasm of inequity; when confused and confusing efforts to ‘recognise’ the First Peoples in the Constitution appear stalled; when the Uluru Statement from the Heart, calling for a representational Voice to the federal government is summarily dismissed, after intentional misrepresentation from the then Prime Minister down[15]?

People Like Us, We Come From T/Here

People Like Us, We Come From T/Here is an exhibition of photographs and objects created in conjunction to the collaborative, practice-led doctoral research exhibition, Still in my mind: Gurindji location experience and visuality, which is opening at CDU Gallery, Charles Darwin University, on 31 October.

This exhibition is away for me to pay acknowledgement and respect to my ancestors, to my immediate family, to Gurindji extended family and Stolen Generations’ members who have taught me so much in the decades I have been coming back hometo diverse places in the Northern Territory. It is also a way to acknowledge the deep level of support I have received from non-Indigenous people who want to live together in a society that respects First Peoples’ sovereign rights.

My family’s journey is but one of thousands of similar travels and travails undertaken by Stolen Generations’ members and their descendants. I follow in the footsteps of my grandparents – Bessie and Joe Senior; my father – Joe, and through the determined efforts of my mother, Dorothy, to ensure my father was reunited with his/our family. It is because of them – all gone now – that I have been able to undertake my journey, to work out where ‘home’ is for me.

It is through the sacrifices of other grandmothers from Wave Hill – Mona Noonai and her sisters; my aunts – Violet Wadrill and Kitty Mindaru, uncles – Hoppy Mick Rangiari and Horace Walman, other cousins, nephews, nieces, and their grannies – it is for all of them that I have created these works, these visual records of our connections.

 

It is because of them that I walk for my brother Lindsay, who never got to make that trek himself. I have had the best of guides leading the way – my cousin/brothers – Maurie Ryan, Michael Paddy, Justin Paddy, Timothy Donald. I have been so fortunate to walk with and learn from my cousin/sister – Serena, my niece – Leah, and my nephew – John.

I will be forever grateful for the support of all those elders who were/are so patient with my endless questions over the past three decades – Aunty Daisy Ruddick (Cusack), who first took me home to Wave Hill in 1991; Aunty Kathy Mills (McGinniss), who has shared so much with me over the years; Aunty Barbara Raymond (Mills) for her friendship with Aunty Nancy Gibbs (Croft); the late Uncle Alec Kruger, like a second father to me, whose story ran parallel to my father’s – both of them taken to Pine Creek and The Bungalow, then their lives diverging distinctly, not meeting again until Uncle Alec, Aunty Hilda Muir and other elders took their landmark case to the High Court in the early 1990s[16]; Robbie Mills, who helped my brother Tim and I take our father’s ashes home; Uncle Jack Gibbs, who lived with my Aunty Nancy at Channel Island Leprosarium where they lived for many years, having initially met decades earlier at Kahlin Compound.

My cousins – my cousin/sister, Josie who took me under her wing when I turned up in 1987, all peroxided blonde, young and brash as.  My father’s younger sister, Mena Clancy’s (Croft) daughters – Elizabeth, Jacqueline, Rhonda, Kathy and Shirleen, and their children. My Huddleston cousin/brothers – Leslie, who came looking for me in Canberra in the early 1980s, his brothers Alan/Bird and Bobby – older brothers to me over the years – and their families; their beautiful parents, my father’s sister – Flo, who took me fishing, and my father’s brother-in-law – Harry, whose gentleness and generosity remains with me to this day.

My niece and nephew, Valda and Leslie Giles, their beautiful mother, my friend Kerry Giles, who left us far too soon. Alan/Bird and Kerry’s grandson, Valda’s beautiful boy, Christopher, who lets me share his life. So many others have been guideposts to me along the way – for this, you all have my heartfelt gratitude.

Thanks to all these people, all my relations, my family, I have been able to share my journey with my brother Tim and his family – my sister-in-law Tia and their children, Luca, Sasha and Maddie. When I look at them and Christopher, I see the little boy my father was when he was sent away from his mother, all those decades ago. We are still here, we are all making the long journey home.

People like us, We Come From T/Here.
Always Have, Always Will. Marntaj.

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People Like Us, We Come From T/Here

UPDATE – LAST DAY OF VIWING IS TODAY, 10 NOVEMBER 2018 – GET IN WHILE YOU CAN!

Brenda L Croft
27 October – 9 November 2018
Paul Johnstone Gallery, 2/2 Harriet Place, Darwin City

* Brenda L Croft is Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra/Chinese/Anglo-Irish through her patrilineal side and Anglo-Australian/German/Irish on her matrilineal side. While Brenda embraces this complex ancestry, it is her lived experience as a descendant of Stolen Generations members that foregrounds her personal and professional practice.

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[1] Designed by artist Chips Mackinolty at the request of myself and Josie Crawshaw, the image was printed on t-shirts and banners, funded by a coalition of supporters including Concerned Australians, the Northern Land Council and individuals. The work can be viewed at http://www.crossart.com.au/archive/113-2018-exhibitions-projects/344-a-widening-gap-the-intervention-10-years-on-counihan-gallery-in-brunswick-8-june-to-8-july-2018
[2] The Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill Station is also a key focus of the collaborative exhibition, ‘Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality’, which opens at CDU Gallery, Charles Darwin University on 31 October 2018.
[3] ‘Australia’s Shame’ aired on 25 July 2016. Further reading, Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Elise Worthington, ‘Evidence of ‘torture’ of children held in Don Dale detention centre uncovered by Four Corners’, 26 July 2016, accessed 5 October 2018 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-25/four-corners-evidence-of-kids-tear-gas-in-don-dale-prison/7656128
[4] Ibid, as in 3.
[5] Further reading, Rachel Baxendale, ‘NT corrections minister John Elferink dumped in youth detention torture fallout’, The Australian, 26 July 2016, accessed 5 October, 2018, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/nt-corrections-minister-john-elerink-dumped-in-youth-detention-torture-fallout/news-story/888fcf41fed46c3e76cfa8fb1b7d713c, accessed 5 October, 2018
[6] Further reading, Hunter, Fergus, 26 July 2016, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/previous-youth-abuse-revelations-didnt-pique-my-interest-nigel-scullion-20160726-gqe4ak.html, accessed 5 October 2018
[7] Further reading, https://childdetentionnt.royalcommission.gov.au/Pages/Report.aspx
[8] After the 1967 Referendum First Nations activists, frustrated at the lack of progress of positive change, demanding self-determined outcomes, shifting from non-Indigenous directed Civil Rights to self-determination/Indigenous Rights. The country’s first Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Housing Company, the Black Theatre were all established in Redfern. Further reading, Gary Foley, ‘Black Power in Redfern 1968 – 1972’,  http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html, accessed 5 October 2018.
[9] Further reading, https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-report-1997
[10] Further reading, https://www.monash.edu/law/research/centres/castancentre/our-research-areas/indigenous-research/the-northern-territory-intervention/the-northern-territory-intervention-an-evaluation/what-is-the-northern-territory-intervention
[11] Further reading, http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=105897
[12] Further reading, https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/apology-australias-indigenous-peoples
[13] Further readings: Hope, Zach, ‘Vincent Lingiari’s vision left to rot and die’, NT News, 21 August 2016,
https://www.ntnews.com.au/news/northern-territory/vincent-lingiaris-vision-left-to-rot-and-die/news-story/18c14695b559b4128b69e9c50ce09135; Manning, Brian, ‘Brian Manning’s speech on the 45th Anniversary of the Gurindji walk off and Gurindji Freedom Day’, Chris White, Blogging from a life-long unionist, 23 August, 2011, http://chriswhiteonline.org/2011/09/2003/, accessed 5 October, 2018
[14] One of the earliest documented removals of a child was 15-year-old Maria Locke, from the Dharug nation, who was the first girl placed in the care of the Native Institution at Parramatta when it opened in 1815. Further reading, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2003/hc48.htm  http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2003/hc48.htmhttp://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2003/hc48.htm
[15] Further reading, https://www.1voiceuluru.org/
[16] Further reading, http://www.internationalcrimesdatabase.org/Case/1041/Kruger-v-The-Commonwealth-of-Australia/

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Photographs

1 – No Justice. Just Us. Courtesy of Chips Mackinolty, photographer unknown.

2 – Maurie Ryan Japarta, Justin Paddy Jakarta & Michael Paddy Japarta. Victoria River bed, near to where Maurie was taken in 1952 by Native Affairs Patrol Officer, Ted Evans. 2015. Brenda L Croft.

3 – Fight Racism, Buntine Highway, Top Grid, entry to Kalkaringi, 2011. Brenda L Croft.

4 – Friends of Kahlin, Myilly Point Cultural Precinct, NAIDOC Week, 2015. Brenda L Croft.

5 – Aunty Kathy Mills, Aunty Nancy Gibbs (nee Croft), 2015. Brenda L Croft.

6 – Old hut, former Channel Island Leprosarium, Channel Island, 2015. Brenda L Croft.

7 – Joe Croft’s grave, Kalkaringi cemetery, 2015. Brenda L Croft.

8 – Brian Manning, Stuart Park, 2011. Brenda L Croft.

9 – Maurie Ryan Japarta, Kerry Gibbs, Gibbsy’s Automotives, Stuart Park, 2014. Brenda L Croft.

10 – Nancy Gibbs (nee Croft), former site of Kahlin Compound, Myilly Point, Darwin, 2015. Brenda L Croft.

11 – Ronnie Wavehill teaching karu (children) about true stories from Gurindji country, Malyalyimalyalyi/Lipanangku (original Wave Hill station site, 1883 – 1925), Wave Hill, 2014. Brenda L Croft.

12 – Self-portrait, former site of Retta Dixon Home, Bagot, 2014. Brenda L Croft.

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