Our Island Home – the struggle for land rights

Photo by Pandora Karavan

‘in the evenin the dry wind blows
from the hills
and across the plain
i close my eyes and i’m standing
in a boat
on the sea again
and i’m holding a long yello spear
and i feel unclothed now
to where it must be
my island home, is waitin for me

—words by Neil Murray sung by George Burarrwanga and the Warumpi Band. Words refer to George’s home up at Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory

‘My Island Home by Warumpi band

To acknowledge the 30 years of struggle since the 1982 Commonwealth I prepared a radio show for the Paradigm Shift(4zzz fm 102.1 Fridays at noon). I relied heavily on Bill Gammage’s ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth – how aborigines made Australia” and intertwined the past before colonisation with the now – 30 years of struggle for Land Rights in Queensland.

The show went to air on Friday 5th October 2012 during a street march from Roma Street Forum to Musgrave Park – the epi-centre of organisation by Brisbane Blacks. Musgrave Park is an extraordinary place; it is the spiritual home of many tribes; it is where the sacred fire of ancestors still burns in the Sovereign Tent Embassy that was launched again in March 2012 and survived the eviction by local, state and police authorities. In the heart of south Brisbane and West End it is the natural place for people to gather and to share.

Musgrave Park itself is (sadly) called a DOGIT  lease (Deed of Grant in Trust), with Brisbane City Council being the trustees.

In the Joh days, Musgrave Park was a reserve for the purposes of sports and recreation until 1998, when a portion at the south end of the park was excised and given a different purpose – that being “for Aboriginal cultural, heritage and historical purposes”. Matt Foley, onetime Attorney General and Minister for the Arts put this into effect on behalf of the Labor Government of those days.

The Brisbane City Council is still the trustee for the whole park, including that area. In its 2012 budget the Queensland government took away the money allocated for the building of a cultural centre in the park. During the weekend of 5-7 October aboriginal people and their leaders went about drawing up plans for future struggle. It was a celebration of struggle and culture.

Commemoration of 30 years struggle

This show is about the black people of Australia — the people who managed their land prior to 1788. The Australian estate then was remarkable – no estate on earth was on so much earth. Including Tasmania Australia occupies 7.7 million square kilometres and straddles great diversity. Cape Byron in the East is 4,000 kilometres from Shark Bay in the west and land between includes Australia’s ‘most productive farmland and its biggest deserts. South East Cape in the south is 3,700 kilometres from Cape York in the north yet both support rainforest.

Quoting from Bill Gammage’s ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth – how aborigines made Australia:—

“Unlike the Britain of most early observers, about 70% of Australia’s plants need or tolerate fire. Knowing which plants welcome and when and how much, was critical to managing land.

Grazing animals could be shepherded in this way because apart from humans they had no serious predators. Only in Australia was this so.

There was no wilderness – the law – an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction – compelled people to care for all their country. People lived and died to ensure this. The law prescribed that people leave the world as they found it.

The chief ally was fire. Today almost everyone accepts that in 1788 people burnt random patches to hunt or lure game. A plant needs fire to seed, an animal likes a forest edge, a man wants to make a clearing. Means were local, ends were universal. Successfully managing such diverse material was an impressive achievement; making from it a single estate was a breathtaking leap of the imagination.

My great great great great grandfather, Edward Curr, glimpsed this. Born in Hobart in 1820, pioneer squatter on the Murray, he knew people who kept their old customs and values, and he studied them and their country closely in the decades of their dispossession. After 42 years in Victoria he wrote (in his book, The Australian Race):

‘it may perhaps be doubted whether any section of the human race has exercised a greater influence on the physical condition of any large portion of the globe than the wandering savages of Australia.’

Edward Curr knew that linking ‘wandering savages’ to an unmatched impact on the land startlingly contradicted everything Europeans thought about ‘primitive people’. Edward Curr deliberately defied a European convention that wanderers barely touched the land and were playthings of nature.

[Interviews with Bob Weatherall (Chair Kamilaroi Land Trust) and Coco Wharton (Kooma) about the significance of the 1982 Land Rights struggle in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games.]

Background to interviews with Coco Wharton and Bob Weatherall.
On May 16 2012 Coco Wharton was arrested in Musgrave Park South Brisbane with about 30 other people. They were defending the sacred fire of their ancestors. 250 police armed with pistols, pepper spray and tasers evicted first nation people from Musgrave Park.

The questions
What was the purpose of the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests?

A large number of Murris were under the Qld Acts in 1982 — what did that mean?

Coco Wharton (a Kooma man), you come from a family that has been involved in politics for a long time – what changes have you seen?

Were the 1982 protests significant in bringing about change?

Interview with Bob Weatherall, Chair, Kamilaroi Land Trust

Bjelke-Petersen and his National party in Queensland tried harder than any other state to prevent indigenous people from getting land rights.

In June 1976, Bjelke-Petersen blocked the proposed sale of a pastoral property on the Cape York Peninsula to a group of Aboriginal people, because according to cabinet policy:

“The Queensland Government does not view favourably proposals to acquire large areas of additional freehold or leasehold land for development by Aborigines or Aboriginal groups in isolation.”[56] This dispute resulted in the case of Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen, which was decided partly in the High Court in 1982, and partly in the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1988. The courts found that Bjelke-Petersen’s policy had discriminated against Aboriginal people.

Yet out of Queensland came aboriginal leadership that fought for land and community in Queensland and across Australia. This struggle produced the modern land rights movement that won ‘native title ‘under legislation introduced by the Keating Labor government in 1993. It was a disappointing response from the authorities because more could have been achieved in those years by formal institutions.

Yet Queensland, the state with the harshest laws against first nation people gave birth to the strongest struggle for land rights.

What does the future hold for Sovereignty, for an economic base for aboriginal people? What will come from the commemorations held in Musgrave Park in 2012?

Australia was once the biggest estate on earth (prior to 1788); it was made that way by careful management by aboriginal people through judicious use of fire and care taken not to hurt the land or the animals on it. Can non-indigenous Australians learn how to restore and look after the land. If so, how?

Transnational corporations have taken mining leases over large tracts of land; they say that they are offering indigenous people a future through jobs; what can be said to this?

These mining companies and their owners (eg Twiggy Forest and Gina Rheinhart) sometimes select specific indigenous people to get some authority for taking the land. They attempt to persuade them with bribes to give up their land.

The commemoration
On May 16, 2012 state authorities made an attempt to evict aboriginal people from the park but this has failed. Over the weekend 5-7 October 2012 people re-established their place in Musgrave park, burning the sacred fire and carrying on culture business. This was done by volunteers, elders reaching into their pockets and was done in a spirit of goodwill and respect. Local local authorities co-operated in this venture and assisted in the hooking up of electricity and providing basic services. Volunteers made and served meals in a hygienic kitchen set up on the perimeter of the park. A mobile cold room provided refrigeration and storage. This was a great effort by people working together in the heat with camaraderie and spirit.

A sound stage was set up for a concert and Madeleine McGrady’s film ‘We Fight’ was shown. Musicians performed at the concert on the Saturday night – these included Dawn Daylight, Jumping Fences, Mop and the Drop Outs, Phil Monsour band, DeeKay and a number of others. During the weekend there was corroboree and dancing.

Australia – our island home
The Australia of my forebears like Edward Curr arrived at a land that was managed by aboriginal people. Through introduced disease and genocidal policies by government aboriginal people were taken off their land and placed in reserves. The caretakers being removed meant that the land fell into disrepair. Where once riders on horseback could gallop freely through forest because the undergrowth had been removed by selective burning, now the forest became filled with lantana and thick bush, the grasslands were overworked by stocking too many sheep and cattle. Much of the work running properties for the squatters was done by aboriginal labour, largely unpaid. Terra Nullius was literally created by white fellas where a great estate had once existed. Then the miners came and took large chunks of land for huge mining operations to service the need for profit by newcomers.

But white Australia, closeted in cities barely noticed the havoc that had been wreaked.

The challenge now is to re-build, can non-indigenous people learn from the older Australian who managed the land for thousands of years how to care for the land, restore it, and leave it to future generations in a better state. And in so doing learning to become Australian as the indigenous people had learnt in the time before 1788.

We have survived by No fixed address

Special thanks to all the brothers and sisters, of all colours, who made this weekend commemoration possible and sadness in our hearts for Coco who lost his nephew.

And to my brothers who called me a white koori, for the first time:)

Ian Curr
October 2012

Post Invasion Day 2012 – where to?

Joh Bjelke-Peterson tries to frustrate Land Rights. 1982 Brisbane Line broadcast with Bjelke-Petersen

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Photo by Pandora Karavan

2 thoughts on “Our Island Home – the struggle for land rights

  1. Callum Clayton-Dixon says:

    Thanks to Callum for his excellent short film on the commemoration of the 1982 Land Rights Struggle! Good on you!
    in solidarity,
    Ian Curr

  2. 1st Brisbane Sovereignty & Land Rights Conference says:

    From 26 to 27 November, Native Title bureaucrats will be sitting down with mining companies and Government, at a $1000 a seat conference in the posh Stamford Plaza Hotel, to discuss ways around the already weak Native Title legislation.

    This is not Land Rights, this is not justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This does not address the illegal dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the ongoing violent occupation of our land.

    Come and hear our side of the story – all welcome.

    1st Brisbane Sovereignty & Land Rights Conference
    10am Sunday 25th November at the QLD State Library
    (BBQ breakfast from 9-9:45am at Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy)

    |||Conference begins at 10am Queensland State Library|||

    Rally outside Native Title & Cultural Heritage Conference & march back to Musgrave Park
    8:30am Monday 26th November
    Stamford Plaza Hotel
    Corner Edward & Margaret St, City

    For info phone Wayne on 0408 064 900, Boe on 0431 525 924 or Callum on 0428 152 777

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