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Bunuba Country

It all began with ngarranggani the creation time.

This is the time that our ancestor beings walked the land, creating Country in their wake. Ranges formed, rivers flowed, rocks were laid down; plants, trees, animals, birds, and people all came into being. Embedded in Country is our Law and knowledge, a web of connectivity that speaks to us of the cycle of the seasons, the movement of our animals, and the responsibilities & obligations that each of us hold in maintaining the balance of Country. Because of this law, Bunuba Country has prospered under our stewardship for more than 46,000 years. Through our ongoing practices of story, art, song, dance and ceremony, our law and knowledge has passed down across 2,000 generations of Bunuba families.

Even though ngarranggani stretches back to the time of creation, our cultural practice and traditions have unbroken across the millennia. Our law and knowledge continue to guide us, as we draw upon thousands of years of lived experience on this land. We have seen and experienced great changes over the years, and many of our ngarranggani stories speak to pivotal moments in our history.

One momentous event that continues to shape our lives today, was the arrival of the malngarri (Europeans) on our country.

Abel Tasman made the first confirmed European landing on the Kimberley coastline in 1644, followed by William Dampier in 1688. But it wasn’t until January 1838 that the first malngarri made their way inland through the Kimberley. Charles Grey was the first European to site Bandaralngarri (the Fitzroy River), which he named the Fitzroy River in honour of Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle.

In 1879 Alexander Forrest led an expedition across the Kimberley and although he was frustrated by the amount of spinifex country, he noted the fertile land either side of Bandaralngarri. Based off his glowing report, the Western Australian government established a system of stocking permits, which was very favourable to “entrepreneurs and settlers” who were encouraged to establish pastoral runs in the Kimberley. Wealthy landholders from the south of the state and the eastern seaboard began to apply for pastoral leases, in great lots, all sight unseen. And thus began the colonisation of our Country.

William Lukin and J. H. Monger were two of the earliest pastoralists in the West Kimberley. Arriving with 1800 sheep in 1882, they set up the Lennard River Station on Unggumi Country, just to the north of Bunuba land. Pastoralism spread across Bunuba Country, notably in 1884 with the establishment of Lillimooloora Station at Limulurra, 5km southeast of Bandilngan (Windjana Gorge).

The natural divide of Miliwundi (formerly King Leopold Ranges) between the East and West Kimberley, also determined the form of pastoralism. For the first 10 years, sheep farming was the common colonial practice on the lands to the west of these ranges. However, the malngarri found that cattle were better suited to the climate, and far more profitable than sheep. With the discovery of gold in Halls Creek in 1885 and the West Australian gold rush taking off in the early 1890s, the growing population meant there was an increased demand for Kimberley beef. As more landowners sought to capitalise on this new market, property sizes and cattle numbers soon expanded.

The already turbulent relationship between our ancestors and the malngarri was pushed to breaking point. When the first colonists had come to Bunuba Country, our ancestors assumed that this was a temporary incursion and paid them little attention. But as the malngarri spread across our land, their practices began to impact on our country, and on the lives and customs of our people. Unfenced livestock destroyed a lot of our native vegetation which in turn ravaged the natural habitat of many of smaller animals. Although our ancestors tried to maintain their traditional lifestyles, the encroachment of the stations and the impact on our vegetation and native animals meant that there were no longer the food sources to support our families.

Of greater concern was the use of our significant garuwa (freshwater) sites as watering holes for the livestock. Damaging these pristine environments was akin to the desecration of our holy places, places where our ancestral spirits reside, and places that we were bound, by our own system of law, to protect.

For reasons of both cultural and personal survival, it wasn’t long after the arrival of the malngarri that our ancestors responded. Spearing sheep and cattle, along with night-time raids of the homestead gardens and kitchen, became vital sources of food. But the response from the colonisers was swift and violent. Whipping and imprisonment were the formalised responses to the spearing of livestock. Those found guilty were marched in neck chains across the hot flat plains to Derby, where they could be sentenced to up to 3 years in the cold gaols of Rottnest Island.

As more of our people were killed, or enslaved, by the pastoralists, our kinship systems and social hierarchies were under threat. Within 10 years, our connections to Country and each other had been forcefully disrupted.

Our ancestors became more brazen in their raids, hoping to destabilise the small malngarri community. Protected by their knowledge of Country and the natural defences offered by the balili (limestone) of the Oscar and Napier Ranges, these resistance fighters did all they could to ensure the survival of the people and culture. In retaliation the colonisers became increasingly violent, and the lands became stained with our blood. By the 1890s the situation could not be described as anything less than war.

At that time, a young Bunuba leader by the name of Jandamarra rose to prominence. Having lived in both the Bunuba world and that of the malngarri, he was as adept at knowing Country as he was skilled at handling guns and horses. For three years Jandamarra led his people in resisting the incursion of the pastoralists, organising his attacks and raids from the safety of the balili. Jandamarra’s exploits drove terror into the hearts of the colonisers. Frustrated with the inadequate policing of the Kimberley, the landowners took the law into their own hands.

This began the deadliest period in our colonised history. Bands of armed malngarri scoured the land in pursuit of Jandamarra, using his name as the excuse to shoot down or arrest any groups of Bunuba people they came across, regardless of their actions. The killings were not isolated to Bunuba Country. All along the Fitzroy Valley, Traditional Owners were being massacred, all for the crime of being Indigenous.

Finally, with the assistance of Aboriginal trooper Minko Mick, Jandamarra was shot dead at Dimalurru (Tunnel Creek) on April 1st, 1897. Although attacks and raids continued on for a short time, the death of Jandamarra was effectively the end of the Bunuba Resistance.

In 1898 the last of Bunuba Country was invaded with the establishment of Leopold Station (Yaranggi) and the expansion of Brooking Springs. We adopted some of the ways of pastoralists, and station life, and it remains widely known that the stations of the Kimberley would not have been profitable without Indigenous labourers. From children as young as seven, we were pressed into work on the land. Shepherding, fencing, cleaning, droving, shearing, cart-driving, along with the domestic work of our women, were just some of the many roles that we were expected to perform. And all of this for no wages, just the ‘standard issue’ of blanket and clothing, plus the limited weekly rations of tea, flour, sugar and tobacco. These foods had to be supplemented by bush tucker and if we were lucky enough, a benevolent station manager might share the occasional bucket of milk or fresh meat from a ‘killer’ (cattle killed for station consumption).

From the early years of last century, the malngarri also started to steal our children, and this was a source of terror, grief and trauma amongst our people. A number of officials who visited the stations we came to live on, and whose job it was to check on our living conditions, repeatedly noticed the absence of children. Some of our children were sent to Beagle Bay, north of Broome, and others were sent to Moola Bulla, near Halls Creek. Some ended up as far away as Moore River, near Perth.

We had little autonomy during this time, and we were considered the property of the stations we worked for. Anyone found to be absconding from a station, was either returned back or given a prison sentence and then sent back to the station from which they had left. There was an unspoken agreement that no station owner would take on any Indigenous stockmen who had left another property without having been released from their role by their current manager. In time, we adjusted to life on the stations and we continued to look after our sacred places, while working for the malngarri. In the wet season, the hot time, we would be stood down from our duties on the station, and we could return to Country, to conduct ceremony and reconnect with countrymen.

In the 1967 referendum, the settler Australian public voted for the amending of the nation’s Constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as part of the Australian population. Just one year later, the order was passed that Indigenous stockmen and women be paid an equal wage. Prior to this, the most that a head Indigenous stockman might make would be $75/month as compared to the minimum wage of settler Australians who at that time would earn no less than $170/month. Most Indigenous station hands however, received $25/month. The women predominantly were unpaid, as they were charged for the keep and board of themselves and their children. Records show of women at Leopold Downs in the 1960s being paid for only six weeks of the year, with this wage totalling a miserable $6.

When the Equal Wages law was passed, many of the landowners argued that they could not afford to pay Indigenous labourers, nor to provide to extended families, and we staged our walk-off. First, we left Yarranggi (Leopold Downs) where we walked 170kms across the ranges and plains to Brooking Station. There, meeting the rest of our family and kin, we followed the river downstream to Fitzroy Crossing. There was one old car that drove back and forth bringing into town as many of the elderly people as it could. For everyone else we walked the 20kms, young and old, cats and dogs, and everything else in between. When we got to Fitzroy, we settled down near where the old township was located and soon found ourselves on the ration line.

It didn’t take long for the station owners to realise that they could not run their properties without our skilled labour. Within weeks of us decamping, many were back working on the land again. For those who didn’t get station employment, we were stuck living in the overcrowded fringe camps that encircled Fitzroy Crossing, dependent on welfare for our survival. Although Fitzroy Crossing is on Bunuba Country, we were overcrowded with the people who had been relocated from stations across the Fitzroy Valley. At that time Fitzroy Crossing constituted no more than a post office, police station, hospital, pub and the United Aborigines Mission. But around the township were makeshift camps of Bunuba, Gooniyandi Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, and Nyikina, people who had been kicked off stations, and off their country.

The 1970s also saw great changes as people sought to return to country and establish outstations. In the 1970s Junjuwa community was built on an area of land sub-leased from, and adjacent to, the United Aborigines Mission. This was the first community with structured housing built within the township, and it was our Bunuba people who were employed in the vision and construction of this space that we could now make our home. This was followed by the establishment of the Darlngunaya community next to the banks of the river in the early 1990s. In 2004, at Burawa, the site of the old Mission, new houses were built for our community. In the same year land excised from Brooking Springs Station was developed for the Bungardi community. Although Bunuba people are spread far and wide, most of our town-based people remain in these 4 communities today.

By the end of the 1980s, Bunuba still had no rights or ownership over our Country. It wasn’t until 1989 that the initial report on Bunuba land interests was prepared. In 1991 the Bunuba Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) was established to pursue our land interests. BAC was integral in helping to establish our town-based communities, alongside a number of communities out on Country which were set up at Walmali, Galamanda, Warngarri and Biridi.

In 1992 with the support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) we were able to take ownership of Yarranggi (Leopold Downs). We increased our holdings again in 1994 with the acquisition of Miluwindi station, and then Yuwa(Fairfield) station in 1995. These stations together add up to around one third of Bunuba country, and it was a very happy time to be able to return to these stations, and manage them, on our terms.

In 1998 we lodged our first Native Title Claim but had to wait until 2012 for ‘Bunuba Number 1’ to be settled. Part of this settlement gave us exclusive Native Title possession of our 3 cattle stations. Our organisation then became a registered Native Title Body Corporate, and we took on the name of Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation, representing all the muwayi (clan groups) of Bunuba Country. It wasn’t until 2015 that Native Title was recognised for the rest of our Country, with the determination of ‘Bunuba Number 2 Claim.’

Bunuba Country now encompasses pastoral lands and conservation areas. Since the early 1960s we have collaborated with Parks & Wildlife WA (under their various organisational names) in protecting the conservation values of our Country. In 1963 Dimalurru (then Tunnel Creek) National Park was established, followed in 1967 by Danggu (then Geikie Gorge). In 1971 the last of the Conservation & National Parks was set up at Bandilngan (then Windjana Gorge). In 1994 the Conservation Parks were extended to include Jungiwa (then Brooking Springs) and the Balili (previously Devonian Reef) Conservation Parks. Finally in 2000 the Miluwindi (then King Leopold Ranges) Conservation Park was established, which also includes Yuwulurru (then Lennard Gorge).

In May of 2017 we signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with Parks & Wildlife WA. This certified the Joint Management between Bunuba and Parks & Wildlife WA of our existing National and Conservation Parks. The ILUA also meant that our Parks were no co-vested, meaning that the conservation estate is now joinlty owned by Bunuba and the department.

Seeking to protect more of our Country through the conservation and tourism opportunities that Parks & Wildlife WA can offer us, we currently have an ILUA pending in relation to the new Fitzroy River National Park. Covering 143,000 hectares, this new Park will protect our life source Bandaralngarri (Fitzroy River), as well as other cultural, environmental, and economic values that Country provides us.

Since time immemorial we have sung Country with our story and our connections remain unbroken. Even during the darkest of the colonial days, we remained a strong and resilient people. As we move into the future, we look to strengthen our society through the cultural and economic opportunities that Country can provide. As you journey with us, you will bear witness to the next stages of the Bunuba story that is borne from our creativity, wisdom, strength and our intimate knowledge of Country.

Image Credits:

Historic Brooking Station - photographer unknown; Bunuba Country - Richard Geddes; Ngarrranggani image - Uncredited artist, Thangani Bunuba book, KLRC; Sunset over Bandaralgnarri - Sean Scott; Forrest expedition - Chris Owens; Sheep Station West Kimberley, 1916 - National Museum of Australia; Old pastoral map circa 1920s - Uncredited; Cattle on Bunuba Country - DBCA; Droving cattle, West Kimberley - supplied State Library WA; Aboriginal prisoners in chains, Kimberley region - supplied Chris Owens; Bunuba Dancers - supplied Bush Heritage Australia; 2011 Jandamarra production Bandilngan (Windjana Gorge) - Matt Scurfield; Aboriginal prisoners in chains, Kimberley region - supplied Chris Owens; Back of Dimalurru (Tunnel Creek) - Steve Hawke; Domestic workers & family men Derby - supplied Chris Owens; Stolen childhoods, Beagle Bay Mission - Broome Historical Society & Museum; Aboriginal stockmen at Fitzroy Crossing picnic races 1953 - supplied State Library WA; Early Brooking Station - supplied Bush Heritage Australia; Children at Old Crossing 1955 - Mibala foto: Burcham Collection; Local family Fitzroy Crossing, circa 1975 - supplied State Library WA; Aboriginal people collecting their rations at Fitzroy Crossing, 1920s - supplied State Library WA Construction Junjuwa community 1975 - supplied State Library WA; Biridu community - ABC 7:30 Report; Yarranggi handover - supplied Bush Heritage Australia; Bunuba Native Title map - supplied Bush Heritage Australia; Bunuba Parks Map - DBCA; ILUA signing December 2020 - DBCA; Bunuba kids - Rift photography & Wesfarmers;