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Martin, David F --- "The 'Wik' Peoples of Western Cape York" [1997] IndigLawB 30; (1997) 4(1) Indigenous Law Bulletin 8

The 'Wik' Peoples of Western Cape York

By David F. Martin

The recent High Court decision on pastoral leases has given national prominence to the `Wik' Aboriginal peoples, and one of the most compelling images on television and the print media reporting of the decision was Wik representative Gladys Tybingoompa dancing her people's malpa in celebration outside the High Court after the judgment was handed down. Yet, much of the subsequent debate has focussed on the national legal and political implications of the decision and--perhaps fortunately for Wik people themselves--there has been less attention paid to the Aboriginal people whose native title claim and consequent High Court appeal has led to the historic decision. This article aims to present a brief account of these people, and of the historical background to their claim.

The various Aboriginal groups now referred to as the `Wik' peoples occupy an extensive zone on western Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland between roughly 11° 40' and 14° 50' south latitude--the coastal flood plains bounding the Gulf of Carpentaria lying between Pormpuraaw (Edward River) and Weipa, and inland the forested country drained by the Archer, Kendall and Holroyd rivers. The approximate extent of the traditional lands of Wik and Wik-way peoples is shown in the accompanying figure.

While the term `Wik' itself is drawn from Aboriginal languages of this region, and means roughly `speech' or `language', until relatively recently it had not been used by Aboriginal people here to collectively refer to themselves, in the way, for example, that the peoples of Arnhem land typically call themselves `Yolngu'. However, the term has been in use by anthropologists and others for over two decades as a shorthand means of referring to the Aboriginal peoples of this region, and it is now common to hear it used by them to identify themselves in contra-distinction to other Aboriginal people or indeed whites.

The adoption of such a label by anthropologists reflects that fact that while there is significant diversity amongst the Aboriginal peoples of this region, the broad similarities of cultural forms, ceremonial and political alliances, marriage links, and also contemporary melding of some of the original fine-grained distinctions, mean that what is commonly termed the `Wik region' forms a relatively homogeneous cultural domain.

Much of the traditional country of the Wik peoples is still `Aboriginal land' on the western side of the Cape, held either under a lease by the Aurukun Shire Council or under Deeds of Grant in Trust by the Pormpuraaw Community Council and (for some small parcels of land south of the Embley River) the Napranum Community Council. The recognition of Wik peoples' continuing native title rights and interests over these particular areas is currently the subject of mediation between the parties under the auspices of the National Native Title Tribunal.

The recent High Court decision however, centred on preliminary questions of law which involved primarily the lands of those inland Wik groups (for example Wik Iiyeny) under pastoral leases, as well as the lands of those Wik-way people which are subject to Comalco's bauxite leases between Aurukun and Weipa.

Population estimates for the region before European settlement are difficult to make with any degree of accuracy. There could have been some 2,000 Wik in the less ecologically diverse but very extensive inland forest zone. At least this number could have lived in the much richer coastal zone between the Embley and Edward Rivers. There was rapid depopulation from the latter part of the 19th century from such factors as measles and influenza epidemics, punitive expeditions by cattlemen in the inland regions, and forced labour in the pearling and fishing industries.

There is a relatively rapidly increasing Wik population of around 1,300 today, with by far the greatest number of people living in small townships and settlements situated on or near their traditional lands. Some 900 Wik and Wik-way people live in Aurukun, perhaps 250 `Mungkan side' Wik people reside in Pormpuraaw (Edward River), and smaller numbers are located in centres such as Merapah station, Coen, and Napranum, near Weipa. There are also Wik individuals living in other settlements and towns throughout far north Queensland.

The history of the colonial frontier in this part of Cape York is a comparatively recent one, some of it within living memory of older Wik people. There were killings as late as the 1930s in some of the pastoral regions, and Aboriginal people were forcibly removed to centres such as Palm Island and Yarrabah well into the 1950s. In the late 19th century, public disquiet was aroused by reports of violent conflict and ill-treatment of Aboriginal people on the colonial frontier. As a result, missions were established along the coasts in the remote areas of Cape York from late last century, operating under Queensland's assimilationist legislative and policy framework. These saw systematic attempts to instill a social, political and economic regime based on settled village life rather than that of the pre-contact dispersed semi-nomadic groups.

At the same time, the missions did provide a degree of security and protection from the worst excesses of many other areas on the frontier, and to varying degrees enabled the maintenance of significant aspects of Aboriginal social, cultural and political life, including those relating to land. Aurukun and Pormpuraaw in particular have long been recognised as the bastions of traditional Aboriginal values in Queensland. Many of the inland Wik people whose lands are subject to pastoral leases, have also been able to maintain contact with their lands and sustain their distinctive practices and values through their roles as pastoral workers.

Over the past three decades, there have been a series of major impacts on the Aboriginal peoples of the region, including a dramatic reduction in employment opportunities in the cattle industry in the Cape, the appropriation of what were Aboriginal reserve lands for bauxite mining in the Weipa and Aurukun regions, and the establishment of local government-type administrations in Aboriginal settlements. The concomitant massive increase in funding, infrastructure development, and bureaucratic involvement, and particularly the introduction of a welfare-based cash economy from the mid 1970s, have undeniably had profound impacts on Wik society. Nonetheless, Wik peoples have maintained a vibrant cultural life and a strong commitment to traditional values, including ties to their ancestral lands. This commitment has over the years seen Wik peoples, always intensely political, at the forefront of legal and other challenges to State policies.

In 1975, a national controversy erupted over the Queensland Government's decision, without consultation with Aurukun people or the Mission authorities, to grant bauxite mining leases over a substantial area of the northern part of the then Aurukun Reserve to an international consortium through a special piece of legislation, the Aurukun Associates Act 1975 (Qld). This lease lay immediately inland of a bauxite mining lease held by Comalco, which had been excised from the Aurukun Aboriginal Reserve by special Queensland legislation in 1957. A national campaign was organised, supported by the Church and involving key Wik people travelling throughout Australia and even overseas. A legal challenge to provisions of the Act which meant that no direct benefits would flow to Aurukun people, was won in the Queensland Supreme Court, but ultimately lost on appeal by the State to the Privy Council in London (Corporation of the Director of Aboriginal and Islanders Advancement v Peikinna &Ors, (1978) 52 ALJR 286).

Also in the mid-1970s, the move by a number of groups to re-establish themselves on or near traditional lands (mainly south of the Archer River) gained momentum, although its seeds had been present throughout the mission era, and Wik people had maintained close contact with their lands right through that period. This move to re-establish small semi-permanent settlements on traditional lands (even though they were Aboriginal reserves) aroused strong opposition from the Bjelke-Petersen State government, and from its powerful Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement, whose expressed policy was still one of assimilation of Aboriginal people into mainstream society.

In the late 1970s, the then Aboriginal Development Commission attempted to purchase part of a pastoral lease inland from Aurukun. This land is part of the traditional lands of Wik people terming themselves the `Winchanam' clan, led by the late John Koowarta. The Bjelke-Petersen government refused to allow the transfer of title, but while it lost the resultant High Court challenge (see Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen [1982] HCA 27; (1982) 39 ALR 417), it had already circumvented the decision by declaring the area a national park.

In 1978, partly as the result of the outstation movement, and also the very public campaign Aurukun people had waged against the bauxite mining agreement, the Queensland Government attempted a pre-emptive move to bring Aurukun under its direct control. A large scale public campaign was mounted by Aurukun Wik people, again with the support of the church, which attracted national attention and support from a wide range of sources.

After initial strong support from the Fraser Federal Coalition government for Aurukun's desire to be independent of the State, a final compromise outcome was negotiated between Queensland and Federal authorities, which established Aurukun and its sister mission, Mornington Island, as Local Government areas under special purpose legislation (the Local Government (Aboriginal Lands) Act 1978 (Qld). As with the previous mining controversy, this political struggle involved a significant number of key Aurukun Wik people travelling widely throughout Australia in a campaign which attracted national attention and support--but also as with the mining, final outcomes were negotiated with little reference to the expressed wishes of Aurukun's Aboriginal peoples.

In 1989, in response to a proposal by Comalco to explore for gas and petroleum on their lands south of the Archer river, Wik clan leaders signed a formal application to the Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs requesting an emergency declaration under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth). One result was the formal compilation of the vast body of anthropological and historical work, documenting the complexities and realities of Wik groups' ownership of their traditional lands, which underlies the Wik native title claim.

This claim, lodged on 30 June 1993 (well before the passage of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)), must therefore itself be seen as the latest in a series of actions taken by Wik people to assert their fundamental customary and legal rights, and to demand recognition of their society and culture by the wider state. It is certainly seen as such by Wik people themselves. Travelling to Canberra to represent her people at the handing down of the High Court decision, Gladys Tybingoompa was absolutely sure of the outcome. She felt strongly that the spirits of Wik ancestors who had fought for their lands and their culture were with her, carrying her on her journey, and that this signified the Court would recognise the rights of Wik peoples under their Laws to the pastoral lands. So confident was she of the decision that she borrowed a set of clapsticks from friends in Canberra, hid them in her handbag, and planned her celebratory dance in front of the Court.

Selected References

Martin, DF: `The Wik' in Atlas of World Cultures: A Geographical Guide To Ethnographic Literature, DH Price (ed), Sage Publications and Human Relations Area Files, Newbury Park, California, USA, 1989.

Martin, DF: Autonomy and Relatedness: An ethnography of Wik people of Aurukun, western Cape York Peninsula, PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 1993.

Sutton, PJ: Wik: Aboriginal society, territory and language at Cape Keerweer, Cape York Peninsula, Australia, PhD thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1978.

Von Sturmer, J: The Wik region: economy, territoriality and totemism in western Cape York Peninsula, north Queensland, PhD thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1978.

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