A Message from the Warlpiri People

Editor’s Note: I wish to thank Arthur Bell for bringing this to my attention and to David Price for sending me the original letter in defence of Bess Price. Here is that letter.

Yuendumu NT
16 April 2011

An open letter to those who think they know us better than we do ourselves


We are Warlpiri people from the communities of Yuendumu, Wirliyajarrayi, Lajamanu and Nyirrpi as well as the town camps of Alice Springs. Bess Nungarrayi Price is with us today to say goodbye to one of our lost children. We are sorry and in mourning. Bess Nungarrayi is one of us. She was born here at Yuendumu and grew up here. We are all family to her. It makes us sad and angry when we hear that white people and town Aboriginal people in Sydney and in Alice Springs are insulting Bess and telling lies about her. When you insult her you insult all of us, we are her family. 

Nungarrayi lives in Alice Springs but she talks to us all the time. She listens to what we tell her. Many of our people also live on the town camps in Alice Springs. Bsrbara Shaw does not lead them, she doesn’t speak our language. Nungarrayi always does her best to help any of us when we are in trouble. We support her in her struggle to make life better for us. 

We are hurt and angry now by the things that these people have been saying. Aboriginal people should know better than to hurt people who are in sorry business. No white person knows us better than Bess does. We don’t know who this Snowy River woman who calls herself Nampijinpa. We don’t know Marlene Hodder. They don’t speak our language like Nungarrayi does. They don’t know what is in our minds and hearts like Nungarrayi does. 

These people should apologise to her and to us, her family, for the things they have been saying.

9 thoughts on “A Message from the Warlpiri People

  1. This is ridiculous. Not a legitimate petition and children’s names have been written on there. One man I know denies that he wrote his name there (it is in capitals anyway, not a real signature). People thought they were verifying they were related to Mrs Price, not giving her authority to speak for them. We don’t want to get into arguments about this as it is divisive tactics. We are focussed on the real issues. We know the misery of the Intervention: this is not the way to improve the situation.
    I am known to some Yuendumu people and to many more Aboriginal people in the wider community; also to my sons’ family at Gununa (Mornington Island). I worked at Yuendumu for a while in the 2000s, helping with the Opening Ceremony for the Yuendumu Old People’s Programme (a well established community organisation run by yapa which works for yapa). I stayed on in a part-time capacity for a few years. I wish the Yuendumu people well in their struggle and I support their efforts to regain control over their community and their lives.

  2. Sorry, should have added my name to the rollbacktheintervention comment: my name is Marlene Hodder and I live in Alice Springs. I am a member of the Intervention Rollback Action Group and strongly support all the Northern Territory Aborigional people struggling under the NT Intervention.

  3. “My people don’t need no introduction, we are the people you label with white dysfunction, our beauty, our pride you just don’t mention, I gotta ask, people, what’s your intention?”

    — Palm Island Rap artist, Lizzy G.

    Hello John,

    In your critique of the Left and of the Stop the Intervention Campaign that you may write, I hope that you will consider the comments of Marlene Hodder (above) and Barbara Shaw on the other thread @ http://workersbushtelegraph.com.au/2011/05/19/intervention-rollback-action-group/ .

    I draw your attention to Marlene’s comments in this thread about divisiveness and its effects on aboriginal struggle.

    For my own part, I have been there at every step, every court case, every speech, every petition, every rally and every march of the Mulrunji campaign — it barely seems necessary that I draw your (especially your) attention to the level of corruption, inane stupidity and wilful criminality of politicians, judges, lawyers, and police that we are up against — I refer here to Blood Money – Snr Sgt Hurley cleans up

    For example I stood within feet of the then Premier Peter Beattie when he proclaimed at the gates of parliament that Mulrunji would receive justice after Christine Clements (coroner) handed down her judgement that Hurley had lied to cover-up police killing Mulrunji. Beattie spruiked to the largely aboriginal crowd at the gates:

    “Many people said at the beginning (when Mulrunji died) that there would not be due process…I said at the time that the coroner would go through due process and the matter would be followed appropriately and that’s what has happened.”

    Well we have witnessed what due process means in reality. We even heard Hurley’s admission during his trial for manslaughter to have been the cause of Mulrunji’s death.

    Now seven years on, curiously, the outcome is best summed up by Sean Parnell, FOI editor from The Australian on May 20, 2011:

    No police were ever convicted or disciplined over the incident — Hurley was acquitted of manslaughter and a subsequent coronial inquest ruled the cause of Mulrunji’s death was inconclusive — he would normally be entitled, as a public servant, to have his legal expenses covered…The Australian had obtained documents, under Freedom of Information laws, showing Sergeant Hurley received a $102,955 ex-gratia payment for belongings lost when his police residence was burnt down, despite having made a claim on an insurance policy which valued his belongings at $34,419.

    Sergeant Hurley also benefited from a public appeal run by the union.

    The CMC this week wrote to the parties involved and is understood to have told them it believes no criminal or disciplinary charges are warranted.

    The reason for the discrepancy in claims has never been revealed.”

    Readers could be forgiven for thinking that, in the end, the fuss was apparently all about Hurley’s property.

    It turned out, sadly, that we were wrong — it is legal to kill a blackfella in Queensland.

    in solidarity,

    PS – I refer you also to Joanne Watson’s book and more specifically to her book launch Palm Island — on the inside and out

  4. Hello Ian,

    As I see it, there is a unity and solidarity amongst Bess Price, Barbara Shaw and Marlene Hodder. That unity is their Aboriginality. What divides them is the white narrative, be it Howard/Brough intervention policy or the left’s division of Aboriginal people into good guys and bad guys.

    Yes these three Aboriginal women disagree, I bet even Barbara and Marlene don’t see eye to eye on some things. But, in a cultural context such conflict is a dialectical manifestation of the power of Aboriginality, not an ideological divide.

    To use the dynamic tension of Aboriginality as a justification for white perspective – right or left – is a colonial expropriation of Aboriginality, enabled by cultural blindness and a subconscious (individual and collective) assumption of the universality of white frames of reference.

    I doubt that I shall look at (in my foreshadowed critique) the dialectical power of Central Australia Aboriginal women’s business in any detail. What I may look at is how NT voices such as Barbara Shaw have been used by white leftists in Queensland to demonise Qld. Aboriginal voices and even publically protest against the Cape York Welfare trial in opposition to the elders, councils and the mandate the councils were given in their election.

    You were not involved in every step of the Mulrunji campaign, most of it happened on Palm Island and you were just part of the Brisbane protests.

    Mulrunji was arrested under Beattie’s intervention, as many will be around Queensland today.

    Why have you, and so many other folk, grasped onto the sensation of Mulrunji’s killing but totally ignored Beattie’s Qld intervention from about 2003/4 until today that includes imposed grog restrictions, disempowerment of community councils, escalated child removals, Abolishing and mainstreaming Aboriginal services, escalating imprisonment rates and state takeover (from the councils) of DOGGIT lands ?

    Why have you and others been so active in opposing the NT intervention but have said nothing about the QLD intervention that preceded it? Pearson had to fight Beattie’s intervention to get the FRC up, to allow the communities themselves to be in control.

    Why have left “supporters” demonised Pearson and the Aboriginal designed program and not raised a whimper against Beattie’s intervention? Why does the Qld left focus on NT Aboriginal issues and not Qld. ones?

    Could it be that their engagement with ABoriginal people is is only ideological where Aboriginal people are just an element of that ideology, like international solidarity it is about people we do not know in places where we are not. Perhaps the struggle is just in leftists’ minds rather than some real historical meeting of people in time and place, such as right here right now?

    These are the sort of issues I am exploring.

  5. John,

    You say ”you were just part of the Brisbane protests”.

    Actually I was in Tównsville when Lex Wotton was sentenced but I had been to Palm and witnessed first hand what went on there in the 1980s.

    I think a Marxist critique of colonial intervention owes much to Franz Fanon’s ”The wretched of the Earth”. I disagree with aspects of Fanon’s critique, in particular, with his idea of the purifying role of violence in the ‘native resistance to colonialism’. I hope I have not misunderstood Fanon on this.

    If I understand your critique, you are arguing for a more thorough resistance to the neo-colonialism of the Qld government’s intervention, then Fanon is a beginning.

    If you wish to pool him into the ‘leftist paradigm of delusion’ then you will have to start your critique there.

    Just because you think the left in Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne is facile is no reason for you to be.

    Should all be lumped in the same basket?

    Neither of the articles that you wrote previously make any mention of Fanon.

    What are the contemporary Marxist views on colonialism, do they amount to anything without some reference to Fanon?

    Of course it does not end there – we should have to read and analysed Edward Said on Orientalism.

    Consider this, I am not saying it is necessarily true, does the caricature of zombie marxists fit the bill? Remember the Life of Brian caricature of Reg from the Judean People’s Front, or was it the People’s Front of Judea? At least the people flogging GLW in Brisb, Syd, & Melb are llikely to have a critique of imperialism – to say otherwise we are in danger of becoming comic book critics of the Left ourselves.

    If I read you correctly I would not be using words like ‘Beattie íntervention” as if newspaper selling marxists lack a critique of colonialism and have not opposed it – do they care about the struggle in the long-term, I don’t know, who are we to judge others – that ends up in petty moralism. But we have to deal with the present. For T’vlle police, one who is now (Sept 2011) officer in charge of the Broadbeach Police to get away with killing Mulrunji presents an immediate danger — we have to stop the police union getting it into their heads that police murder sanctioned by the state will occur without opposition. Otherwise there will be dozens of Mulrunji’s. A policeman has refused to repay the blood money he received after police killed Mulrunji and the Police Union is backing T’vlle police, saying they have done nothing wrong (The Australian 8 September 2011).

    John, be careful of the the facts, it is true I was not on Palm when Mulrunji was killed but I was on Palm and saw the resistance first hand long before the events of 26 November 2004. As you know only too well opposition to such events don’t just come out of the blue are not restricted to a single event or issue.

    I’ll give readers an example from my own life. Others with an involvement in Palm, like Joanne Watson, can speak for themselves – that is why I refer you and other readers to her book. To ignore any of the books written about Palm recently means is to ignore history. I refer here to Waters ‘Gone for a Song’, Hooper’s ”The Tall Man” and Watson’s ”Palm Island through a long lens”. That is not to say there isn’t something missing – the Bwgcolman version of these events – it is yet to be heard by the broader public but if rap artists like Lizzy G keep going, then, even this may not last forever.

    You may already know this history but to give the reader some idea, I played football on Palm during NAIDOC week 1981 (or 82?). After the game, like murri brothers and sisters, I listened to Neville Bonner speak out against Bjelke-Petersen government particularly about the lack of housing – something that continues to this day…

    I was in Stuart Prison in 1982 sentenced to 14 days for contempt of court. I am told that by one of the people acquitted of ‘rioting’ after Mulrunji’s death, that he was there at the same time. He remembered, as I do, participation in a hunger strike against the authorities that time.

    Regular readers of this website may have seen my description of the Curr family history and know how it goes back to ”the wild time” in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is this period that members of the Doomadgee family experienced first hand and remember so clearly through their oral history passed down from elders like Lizzy Daylight who lived during those horrible days in the 1860s and 70s – the rapes, the killings, the stolen wages, and the stolen land.

    For my part, I cut my teeth against colonialist mentality, against pastoralists within my own family, at school against Christian Brother missionaries who were racist, against racism in the faculty of Medicine at UQ, where in the school of Anatomy (where I worked on holidays) our professors wanted us to measure the size of aboriginal skulls, against apartheid in Qld and SA during the Springboks tour in 1971 and so on…

    Some try to oppose successive Qld governments’ interventions what we have thought and tried has been thought and tried many times before, many generations before.

    Let us not forget the need for self-criticism i.e. of the failure of young anarchists and marxists gathered together and our inadequate challenge to the power of the state that colonised this place

    in solidarity,

  6. Ian,

    I have not mentioned my involvement with Palm Island, but we didn’t try to set up a store. Lex Wotton was behind that push.

    Beattie/Blighs intervention was statewide including Cherbourg and Aboriginal services in Brisbane, not just Palm Island

    Pretty much all of my critique of the left is self-criticism. The left, the anarchists, the radical church, the Greens, West End, this is where I come from. Much of what I say specifically about engaging with Aboriginal business is based on mistakes I have made – and learned from.

  7. This is Marlene Hodder again. I have to correct an assumption by one of your commentators. I am not Aboriginal. I was actually born in England and came to Australia in 1961 (and became an Australian citizen in 1985). I have never claimed to be Aboriginal although I have had a longterm relationship with the Lardil people of Mornington Island. I have twin sons to a Lardil man. I do not have the right to speak for Aboriginal people but I can speak of my experiences and I have the right to speak up when I see injustice being perpetrated in our society. I do assist and advocate for people if they ask for that help. I support the Mulrunji people in their fight for justice and all those struggling under an unfair justice system. We cannot stand silently by as these human rights abuses take place.

  8. Marlene – sorry, my mistake. To the extent that you are a part of dialectic of Aboriginal business by way of your connections to Aboriginal reality, I say my point is still accurate. I guess this is what I am saying, non-Aboriginal people should define themselves by their involvement in Aboriginal reality (it is after all an Aboriginal country) rather than defining the Aboriginal struggle in terms of non-Aboriginal paradigms of the public debate.


    Following is a draft of part one of my critique. Don’t publish it yet, I am just contributing it to this conversation at present. By the time you get back I will have completed part 2 – a historical analysis and part 3 – my prescriptions for the future.


    A “critique (a proper one) of the Left’s approach to Aboriginal Struggle”. part 1 draft.

    My first critique of the radical left is a general one, not specific to Aboriginal issues, is that it tends to present a philosophical critique of history without any real engagement with historical forces. As Marx said…. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

    When the radical left does attempt to engage in historical force, be it the union movement, the Aboriginal movement, the environment movement, the peace movement, local communities etc. it does so by way of recruiting to its philosophy over and above any strategic or tactical matters, using the real struggles of other men and women as exemplary platforms for ideological evangelism rather than joining and supporting those struggles on their own terms. For example, The left might protest in the streets with fine slogans about the oppression of Aboriginal people but they do not share with Aboriginal people the day to day and historical experience of their oppression and struggles. The left just delivers its detached opinion in public. With the exception of minimal and peripheral union involvement, the left does not engage with economic force at all, only in the public debate.

    I endorse Marx’s famous statement “religion is the opiate of the masses”. This of course was not an arrogant proposition of atheism as it is too often used, it was a critical analysis of the consciousness of the oppressed/dispossessed person and the illusions they embrace to channel the pain of their historical circumstance – “its (religion’s) universal basis of consolation and justification”.

    But today in Australia the church does not have the same social role as it had in 19th century Europe. Today hardly anyone takes the church seriously. Modern capitalism has provided a myriad of other opiates to replicate the historical escapist purpose of the church.

    One of the opiates that has replaced religion today is ideological politics which has created an escapist etherial framework by which to explain existential angst. It has developed a program of rituals (protest campaigns) that serve no purpose but “consolation and justification”, just as the 19th century European church did.

    Marx, Engels and Lenin all identified the urban working class as the primary agents of history. They rejected the notions of land rights held by indigenous peasants, dismissing them as either bourgeois notions of private property or historically anachronistic elements of a less evolved society. Lenin sees them only in terms of potential workers. When the needs of rural peasants clashed with those of the urban working class in Revolutionary Russia, the needs of the working class took precedence in all cases. The Red Army killed over six million indigenous Russian Peasants by taking their food from them to feed the army and industrial workers.

    The Aboriginal worker is a new phenomenon in Australia and still a minority of the whole Aboriginal nation. Prior to the invasion Aboriginal people were not workers, they were owners of the means of production engaging in a free market. Since the invasion Aboriginal people have been the lumpen proletariate – either unemployed, slaves or the small few that managed to survive on their land one way or another – rural peasants. Except for the minority of Aboriginal workers today, the bulk of Aboriginal Australia are still the lumpen proletariate.

    The basic Marxist class framework does not come from the historical experience of Aboriginal Australia and ignores or excludes the relevance of the lumpen proletariate in the historical dialectic – therefore dismissing Aboriginal power except as assimilated workers.

    The white worker/activist is of a different class, by Marxist definition and historical experience, to the Aboriginal masses. Historical material engagement with Aboriginal Australia is not a matter of class solidarity as proclaimed by the radical left but inter-class relationship. Defining Aboriginal people and history as working class in the context of a clear and obvious class divide is as patronising as it is naive.

    I am not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater. The baby is the absolute, universal truth of dialectical historical materialism. This is the way, the truth and the life!

    The bathwater is the cultural circumstance and scientific theory to which comrades Karl and Fred theoretically applied this basic truth, that is – the status-quo consciousness of bourgoise urban European society and racist social Darwinism, the latter being the basis of Marx and Engel’s historical science and evidence of the working class as the midwifery of history.

    To engage with the historical circumstance of Aboriginal Australia within an intellectual framework of dialectical historical materialism requires an abandonment of the ideological assumptions and traditions of the European working class, including the the primacy of the urban working class and irrelevancy of the Lumpen proletariate as agents of historical change. Yet the radical left clings to these things as the philosophical basis of its political existence.

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