01 May 2018

My Country My Culture -Barbara James Memorial Lecture

** Check against delivery **

Larrakia acknowledgement

I want to begin by acknowledging that we are standing on the ancestral lands of the Larrakia people, and to acknowledge their Elders, past and present, who perhaps more than any Indigenous group in the Northern Territory have felt the full force of the impacts of white settlement of their lands.

It is often forgotten that the Larrakia, and the impacts upon them of colonisation, form an integral part of the chain of nation-changingevents, including the 1967 referendum, the Gove land rights case,andland rights in the Northern Territory. We should be immensely proud of the place the Northern Territory has in this history.

In 1972, the Larrakia created their own petition - the Larrakia petition. In it, the Larrakia people protested the colonisation of their lands, arguing that the British settlers took away their land with no treaty.

I want to quote the words of the Larrakia petition to you today:

Gwalwa Daraniki! This is our land!

The British settlers took our land. No treaties were signed with the tribes. Today we are refugees.

Refugees in the country of our ancestors. We live in REFUGEE CAMPS without land, without employment, without justice.

The British Crown signed treaties with the Maoris in New Zealand and the Indians in North America.

We appeal to the Queen to help us, the Aboriginal people of Australia.

We need land rights and political representation now.

These words are as poignant today as they were in 1972, and I want to acknowledge today the key part that the Larrakia have played in the historical struggle by Australias First Nations peoples for land rights and recognition, both in the Northern Territory and across Australia. The Larrakia continue to thrive today as a vital, vibrant and flourishing part of Darwins identity.

Barbara James acknowledgement

We are gathered here on Larrakia land today to commemorate the life and work of the legendary Northern Territory historian, activist, journalist, and author, Barbara James. Barbara came to Darwin in 1967 for two weeks and, the story goes, she never left. She was instrumental in the post-Cyclone Tracey rebuilding of Darwin, and in the preservation of Darwins built heritage, including at Myilly Point. She was an office bearer at the National Trust of Australia (Northern Territory Branch), a founder of the Professional Historians Association (NT) and an Australian Heritage Commissioner. She was a regular attendee at Historical Society lectures, Northern Territory University seminars and provided invaluable assistance to historians at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Darwin today owes an enormous debt to the work and commitment of Barbara James. She is greatly missed.

The thing I take from Barbaras work most of all, however, is her focus on documenting the remarkable history of the women of the Northern Territory, refocusing a history of settlement that until that time had been viewed predominantly through the eyes of men. She wrote, amongst many other things, No Mans Land: Women of the Northern Territory in 1989, which became a best seller. Her writing brought women in the Northern Territory squarely into focus, perhaps for the first time.

Taking inspiration from the work that Barbara James did to give a voice to the women of the Northern Territory, I want today to reflect on my own history as an Indigenous woman of the Northern Territory, and that of the women who have inspired, and continue to inspire, me. Where I can, I use the words of my Yanyuwa teachers and mentors, so that you too can share in their power and learn from them.

Reflecting on My Country My Culture Yanyuwa culture and law

I want to now move away from Larrakia country, to the savannah, flood plains, coastal mangroves and bountiful seas of the Gulf of Carpentaria, through which the majestic McArthur River snakes as its life-giving force. These lands and seas are given force, meaning and life by the kujika the epic song cycles that traverse this region, tracing the travels of our ancestors and creator spirits as they move through the country. The kujika tell of our laws, indeed, they are our laws, they are our title deeds. As the wonderful Kuku Dinny McDinny told my friend, anthropologist Kuku John Bradley:

Whitefella got that piece of paper might be lease or something like that but Yanyuwa and Garrwa mob they got to have kujika. When whitefella ask them kids how you know this country belongs to you, they can say we got the kujika. Kujika, you know, like that piece of paper.

My history, and my culture are buried deep in the land and waters through which the kujika flow.

I was born in Katherine in 1970, but grew up in Borroloola with my mothers family. Borroloola is located 700km south-east of Darwin by air or 1000k by road. My mother was a Yanyuwa-Garrawa woman who is believed to have been born in 1950 in the bush on Manangoora Station in the Gulf of Carpentaria. My father was descended from Irish immigrants who sailed from Ireland to Sydney to make a new life in this wonderful country.

Although I later attended boarding school in Alice Springs and Sydney, my early years in Borroloola were a time of great happiness and intense learning.

My life in Borroloola was and is deeply embedded in the cultural life of the town that links the Yanyuwa, Garrawa, Gurdanji and Mara peoples of the Gulf Region.

Id take part in regular hunting trips with my family, around Borroloola and out by boat to the Sir Edward Pellew Islands, looking for bush foods and medicines like biggigi (green plums), durlbarri (sugarbag), a-wagurr (blue tongue lizard), adumu (shark), a-kurndabarra (bush turkey), and ngulumirri (barramundi), learning all the time from my mothers, grandmothers, aunties and sisters as we travelled.

I would watch the old people make canoes and dugong harpoons by hand from mabuyarra (lye cart pine) in Borroloola before heading out to the islands for hunting.

I would take part in ceremonies in Borroloola, learning to dance in the way of our ancestors, and listening to the old men sing the kujika, amplifying thousands of years of culture and ceremony through song.

I learned from the old people that there were complex relationships governing how Yanyuwa people used, owned and managed land and sea country. There were ngimirringki who were owners of the land and sea, and jungkayi who were managers of the ceremonial responsibilities associated with it.

I learned that it is the sea more than any other geographical feature which the Yanyuwa use to describe our existence and our identity. We use the term li-Anthawirriyarra the people of the sea to describe ourselves. We are salt water people. To the Yanyuwa, the sea is an ancestral being and there are many Yanyuwa words to describe all its movements and qualities. One of my teachers, Yanyuwa elder and law woman Dinah Norman Marrngawi, said these beautiful words about the importance of the sea to Yanyuwa people:

Let me tell you something about the sea, the saltwater, the waves - they are my mother, the sea is my mother, it is her Ancestral being. I know this, I have known this since I was small. Further I will tell you the sea has names, many names, names for the reefs, names for the sea grass beds, names for the sand bars and the sea has boundaries, we know these boundaries, they did not come here recently. From the time of the Spirit Ancestors and our human ancestors they have been there. Our songs and ceremony our gujika are also in the sea, they are running through the sea both along the bottom of the sea and they also rise and travel on the surface of the sea. White people think the sea is empty, that it has no Law, but the law and the ceremony is there in the salt water, in the fish, in the sea birds, the dugong and the turtle, it is there and we knowledgeable people are holding it.

In Yanyuwa culture, the sea demands a different way of doing things. Ancestral beings first travelled the sea, some in the image of species such as sharks, marine turtles, dugong and sea birds for example, and others are human-like in form such as the li-Maramaranja Dugong Hunters who travelled throughout the Sir Edward Pellew Islands. As these beings travelled they transformed their bodies, or moved their bodies in certain ways, creating reefs, sandbars, the tides and tidal currents. These are among the many beings that made journeys and from whom Yanyuwa people are descended today.

I learned also of the complex systems that governed the use of resources on Yanyuwa country. When Captain Cook arrived in 1770, there was already a thriving cultural and economic exchange happening within Australia and with people from outside Australia like the Macassans from Sulawesi. Indigenous people like my ancestors were trading partners who shared knowledge and exchanged marine sources and tools in the form of harpoons for hunting and knowledge of carving canoes to set sail in the unpredictable wet season seas.

These are just some of the Yanyuwa laws, and I am still learning more all the time. I will never stop learning.

Killing times

While these laws have been known by we Yanyuwa people for many thousands of years, it has taken western law some time to catch up, and it still has some way to go.

European law, or a lack of it, had a brutal face during frontier times in the Gulf of Carpentaria, including in the traditional countries of the Yanyuwa, Mara, Gurdanji and Garrawa peoples around Borroloola. Historian Tony Roberts recently estimated in an article in the Monthly that at least 600 men, women, children and babies, or about one-sixth of the population, were killed in the Northern Territorys Gulf Country to 1920. The numbers may be higher, up to 700 or 800. Yet no one was charged with these murders. By contrast, there were 20 white deaths. It is hard to over-emphasise how much the Killing Times impacted our people.

But somehow, Yanyuwa, Mara, Gurdanji and Garrawa societies outlived this violence. We had been totally disposed of their traditional lands and food sources, killed, made ill with new diseases and even starved. But the people continued to sing the kujika. Yanyuwa law continued to be observed. My people and their culture are survivors.

One story of such survival was told by Yanyuwa-Garrawa artist, Nancy McDinny in her painting Story of Mayawagu. She said about that powerful painting:

This painting is about Mayawagu who was my great grandfather. He was a Garrawa man who resisted the white pastoralists in the early 1900s. The painting shows the time Mayawagu escaped from the policeman and trackers who came to capture him. Mayawagu was strong; he was fighting for his land and fighting for his people.

In Mayawagus country, called Karlarlarkinda, there is a river called the Foelsche River. Inspector Paul Foelsche was in charge of policing in the northern half of the Northern Territory from 1870 to 1904. He was responsible for masterminding the massacres of hundreds of Aboriginal men, women and children, including Garrawa. We would like to change the name of the river and call it the Mayawagu River.

Nancy gives us a different way of thinking about Northern Territory history, one that might make some uncomfortable, but that must be heard.

Land Rights

Moving forward many decades, when I was a little girl in Borroloola, learning about Yanyuwa law and culture from my elders, the first laws in Australia to recognise traditional Indigenous rights to land were passed, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.

The original bill was introduced by the Whitlam Government, but passed with great fanfare by Malcolm Frasers conservative Government in 1976. Despite attempts by the Commonwealth to chip away at it, the Land Rights Act has miraculously endured as (and I quote the current CEO of the NLC, Joe Morrison) a beacon that marks the high point of recognising dispossession, of customary ownership and enduring practice of an ancient culture rooted in the land and waters of the Northern Territory (Morrison, 2015).

While the Land Rights Act was for many years a subject of controversy in the Northern Territory, particularly due to the attitude taken by CLP governments from 1978 to 2001, it was the first opportunity for my people to have their traditional lands returned to them.

In fact, the Yanyuwa were part of the very first land claim heard under the new Land Rights Act.

The Borroloola land claim was lodged in 1977 over vacant crown land around Borroloola, including large parts of the McArthur River catchment, and over the islands in the Sir Edward Pellew group.

I have vivid memories of Yanyuwa people such as Kuku Dinny McDinny, Eileen McDinny, Dinah Norman, Annie Karrakyn, Musso Harvey, Leo Finlay, Johnson Timothy and Wilo McKinnon all working hard on the land claim, giving evidence of the Yanyuwa law and culture that I have related earlier to try to get that land back. They told the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice John Toohey, the stories of the kujika that travel Yanyuwa country.

Despite my familys deep connection to their country, the claim took place in an extremely hostile anti-land rights atmosphere in both Darwin and Borroloola. One of the major opponents of the land claim, apart from the Northern Territory Government, was Mount Isa Mines, which held the mineral leases upstream from Borroloola on the McArthur River which would eventually become McArthur River Mine.

The irony is that, despite being the first to claim land under the Land Rights Act, the land claim took nearly 4 decades to be finally resolved.

The first Borroloola land claim was only partially successful Toohey recommended the grant to an Aboriginal land trust of Borroloola town common and only 2 of the 5 major islands of the Pellew Group, West and Vanderlin Island. Justice Toohey withheld the grant of the middle group of islands, North, Centre and South-west, citing a lack of traditional attachment. Giving into Mount Isa Mines demands, Justice Toohey also excluded a 1 kilometre wide road corridor through the Borroloola town common, for future road, railway or pipeline to the proposed mine site at McArthur River Mine, and an imagined deep sea port on Centre Island for the mine.

The Yanyuwa people lodged another land claim over the remaining islands, including Centre Island. I, along with many of the same people who were witnesses at the original claim in 1978, gave more evidence for the Borroloola Number 2 Land Claim to prove our ancestral and continuing connection to that country and we won the land claim. But it was not until June 2006 that Centre Island was finally handed back. And an error in the surveying meant that four of the small islands in the Pellew Group were not included in the 2006 deed of grant these small islands were not handed back until 2015.

So, some 38 years after the claim was originally lodged, with many of the elders who fought so hard now gone, Australian law finally caught up with Yanyuwa law, recognising the power of the kujika.

And native title has been even slower. I spoke earlier of the Yanyuwas complex systems of exchange with the Macassans. It took until 2016 for the Courts to recognise for the first time in the Northern Territory this commercial exchange as forming part of the bundle of native title rights and interests. Yet Aboriginal people have always had a system of governance here, and in Yanyuwa we refer to it through the kujika.

Political life

These early experiences on Yanyuwa country have been formative of my entire identity and being, and of the way I have approached political life. They infect everything I do.

After a career as a journalist for the ABC, I was honoured to be elected as the Member for Arnhem in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in 2005, replacing the legendary Jack Ah Kit. I was one of five Indigenous candidates elected, and was immensely proud to be part of a Northern Territory Parliament and a Government that actually represented the cultural make-up of its constituents for the first time.

But I never forgot my roots, my history and my culture. The words of my elders, and the kujika sung by them, echoed throughout the many roles I took on while in Northern Territory, such as Minister for Children and Families, Child Protection, Local Government, and Regional Economic Development and Indigenous Development and Statehood - some of these portfolios dealing with subject matter that is deeply distressing to Indigenous communities and indeed my own family.

My connection to Yanyuwa culture and history has also meant that I have sometimes had to make difficult choices. While controversial at the time, when the Northern Territory Government decided to approve the conversion of the then underground McArthur River Mine into an open cut mine in 2006, diverting 6km of the majestic McArthur River the lifeblood of the Gulf and the Yanyuwa people - in the process, I could not stand by. I spoke in Parliament in support of the Yanyuwa, Garrawa, Mara and Kurdanji peoples on 19 October 2006, saying:

Every day they have sat outside of this Parliament singing, hoping and praying that the spirituality of our people and the importance of that spirit and relationship to country would be respected here in this house of law I say to my countrymen of all four clans: I support you, I understand and I respect your right to be heard. I stand with you in your concerns about the development of the traditional lands of our people.

Only 6 months later, when the Northern Territory passed urgent legislation overriding a Supreme Court decision to invalidate the approval for the open cut mine, I crossed the floor to oppose the legislation. Some things cannot be compromised.

The Yanyuwa kujika travelled with me after my career in Territory parliament to Sydney, where I returned to my storytelling roots working for NITV producing stories about Indigenous people, for Indigenous people.

In 2016, I had the honour of being pre-selected by the Labor Party to run for the Federal Senate representing the Northern Territory. I spoke in my maiden speech to Parliament about how my road here has been a long one like the song, the kujika, that belongs to the old people and how my job is to represent not just my own people the Yanyuwa, the Garrwa, the Mara and Kurdanji peoples but to stand for all people of the Northern Territory: all clan groups, all families who call the Northern Territory home, whether they live on the vast cattle stations of the Northern Territory or whether they have travelled from countries like Asia, Africa or the Middle East to forge a new life for their families away from strife-torn lives that offered no future.

It is a responsibility I take seriously. And I want to say to all the people I represent in the Northern Territory, that particularly today of all days, after the Northern Territory Governments announcement to lift the fracking moratorium, I still stand with you. I am listening, I hear you, and I want to make sure your concerns are heard by those in power.


I talked earlier about kujika as the map and the songlines that we follow and have followed for thousands and thousands of years. There are different names for it in different parts of the territory. In the Centre the Anangnu people call it tjukurpa we call it kujika. It is important - it is our sacred law and tells of our laws.

When I am standing in the Senate or when I am travelling across the Territory and indeed Australia, I am always conscious of traveling on peoples country. So I take with me the kujika, kujika always centres me, and it storytelling: my story, my peoples story, and the story of all people.


I want to leave you with powerful words from Dinah Norman Marrngawi and Annie Karrakyn (who has now passed away):

Na-ja narnu-yuwa narnu-walkurra

Barra, wirrimalaru, barni-wardimantha,

Barni-ngalgnandaya, nakari wabarrangu


li-ngambalanga kuku,

li-ngambalanga murimuri,

li-ngambalanga ngabuji

li-ngambalanga kardirdi

kalu-kanthaninya na-ja namu-yuwa,

jiwini awarala, anthaa yurrngumantha barra.

Nyirra-nyngkarriya! Nyirru-linginmaya!

Yurrngumantha. Barni-ndaya winarrku!

These words mean: This law is important, it is powerful, dont break it, dont be ignorant of it, it is from the past, from the old people, our mothers mothers brothers, our fathers fathers, our fathers mothers and our mothers brothers, they carried this Law, this Law is in the country and the sea for all time. Listen to it! Remember it! It is for all time Do not leave it behind as some kind of rubbish.

Today I remember the old women who have led me on my journey of learning, for the kujika I follow to spread from Borroloola and across the country. They have informed everything that I do. I will never forget them.

- Ends -