Aboriginal Law Bulletin
by Pamela Lyon & Michael Parsons
I.A.D. Press, Alice Springs, pp.239
Reviewed by Paul Behrendt
The patchwork of stories that make up the history of a country often contains accounts of seemingly small events which, when viewed in the total context, may not appear to be of any great significance to the whole. However when such occurrences are seen in isolation they sometimes assume epic proportions and it is only then that one can readily appreciate the enormous impact that they have upon the individual communities involved.
One such David and Goliath saga is unveiled in We Are Staying, The Alyawarre Struggle for Land at Lake Nash, where authors Pamela Lyon and Michael Parsons, trace the history of the Alyawarre community and document their attempt to wrest a small residential proportion of their traditional land from a giant multinational pastoral company. The struggle culminates with the company conceding an "excision" from their lease.
"Excisions" are tiny portions of land that are yielded in return for other considerations by pastoral companies from their leases to traditional owners and although, as in this case, the areas involved are often minute compared to the size of both the pastoral lease and the total area of the particular traditional land, it can be seen from this account that such concessions were not easily pursued nor readily granted.
Like most Aboriginal societies who wished to maintain their spiritual links with their traditional land after it was overrun by white pastoralists, the Alyawarre found it necessary to work for the usurpers simply in order to survive. The blatant exploitation of the skills of both men and women played a major role in the success of many of the pastoral enterprises. As happened in other parts of the country, those who did not fit into the required mould or who displayed any dissent were swiftly and often brutally "dispersed".
This is a well-researched account in which the authors draw upon a comprehensive range of archival material and complement it with the substantive testimony of those who were either directly involved or who had close associations with those who were.
As most of the Northern Territory was settled by Europeans well after other parts of the continent, similar atrocities that occurred much earlier in the southeast were evident as late as the 1920's in the north and they are still fresh in some minds:
My granny told me that the whitefellas were killing people. They tied all her family up and hung them by the neck from a tree
My mother and aunties they all ran away. Others were tied up and killed close to the river.
The book details the brutal conditions that "amounted to a kind of feudal servitude if not virtual slavery." that were suffered by the Alyawarre - the women widely exploited for sex and the men subjected to brutal physical violence:
There were still practitioners of the "old school" called the "bullock chain school" where you stroke an Aborigine down the forehead with a bullock chain every morning ... you don't ask questions, you just belt him.
"At the end of twelve months, we finished the branding, we used to get ration. No money. Two pack of flour, sugar, tobacco ...
Other stories of the fight against the disgraceful conditions that the Aboriginal pastoral workers of Northern Australia were subjected to have been previously recounted: notably in Frank Hardy's The Unlucky Australians, Paul Marshall's Raparapa, and Ann McGrath's Born in the Cattle, and this book greatly reinforces that murky side of Australian history with contributions from the Lake Nash people who were directly involved in the straggle.
In 1946 the Aborigines in the Pilbara region of Western Australia went on strike for better wages and conditions - an action that would eventually influence the pastoral industry in the entire Northern Australian area. The fight to obtain equal wages - well documented by Lyon and Parsons in this book - turned out to be a protracted and bitter battle that culminated in the Arbitration Court ruling in 1966 that the introduction of equal wages was to occur in December 1968, twenty two years after the Pilbara walkout.
It was not without a price. The pastoral companies began to shed Aboriginal labour and a 1972 report showed "a reduction of 32 percent in the employment of Aboriginal men in Northern Territory cattle stations and a boost in non-Aboriginal employment of 60 percent." Pressure was applied to the Aboriginal communities to move, and from this another element began to emerge - the quest for the return of traditional land.
What transpired is related in this fascinating narrative of negotiation, obstinatacy, deception, claim and counter claim that involved a variety of people including the Alyawarre community, bureaucrats, politicians, church leaders, pastoral associations, Aboriginal organisations, the head of the multinational pastoral company involved, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and even successive Prime Ministers.
After more than a decade, the dispute was finally resolved and the Alyawarre were granted their excision. The terms of settlement were such that had it not been for the intransigence of the Pastoral company (with the unabashed support of the Northern Territory government) it could have been settled long before.
This book commands an important place in the country's history and as such it deserves to sell well. Sadly, it probably wont, because it is apt to require the insulation of time before the dominant section of the community feels that it has distanced itself sufficiently from the injustice and oppression it portrays. Only then will this small but vitally important victory for justice become more widely accepted, understood, and appreciated.