Brian Harlech-Jones, Canberra Regional Meeting
In mid-July 2011, Marie and I arrived in Billiluna to take over as the new managers of Mindibungu Aboriginal Corporation. ‘Billiluna? Where is that?’ ask most people. It’s in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, about 170 kms by road south-east of Halls Creek on the Tanami Road.
Billiluna is an Aboriginal settlement of about 200-250 people that used to be called Billiluna Station until it reverted to Aboriginal occupancy and control in 1978. Of course, before the land was appropriated by white people, it was the traditional country of Aboriginal people who, when dispossessed, became domestic workers and stockmen on the stations. (See http://billiluna.org.au/history.html to find out more.)
Today the land is not actually owned by Aboriginal people but rather is held in trust for them. Anybody with legal interests and a lot of time to spare who would like to investigate the arcane processes of leasehold over Aboriginal land can read up on official organisations such as ALT and ORIC. However, I don’t advise ordinary mortals to set off down that path.
Marie and I are the co-managers of the corporation. As such, we are directly responsible to the board, which consists of eight directors who are elected annually at a community meeting. Space does not permit me to list all of our functions; in fact, our job description covers more than one typed A4 page. Some of the functions include:
- supervising and allocating jobs to the ‘municipal workers’ (when there are any workers!);
- acting as the Centrelink and Corrective Services agents;
- keeping the airstrip serviceable;
- supervising the telecentre;
- organizing the Home and Community Care program, which currently mainly entails support for the elderly via Meals on Wheels as well as some limited aspects of home care (observation: most of Billiluna’s ‘elderly’ inhabitants are younger than we are!);
- trying to keep the corporation’s vehicles going (these include two busses, one grader, one backhoe, two 4WD utes, one Toyota 4WD ‘troopie’, and two Kubota run-abouts, all of which are in various stages of decrepitude);
- liaising with donors and grant-giving agencies;
- despatching, receiving, sorting, and distributing mail;
- ordering fuel and recharging or creating the fuel cards (as well as managing the chaos that ensues when the software on the fuel computer goes awry, as it did recently);
- collating accounts for the book-keeper and accountant;
- doing the wages.
We also act as hosts and ‘middlemen’ for the numerous representatives of government departments and NGOs who visit Billiluna regularly in pursuance of their mandates. In fact, outsiders have to apply to us for permission to visit the settlement.
It is a wide brief. For instance, if a community member can’t understand a letter written in legalese, we are asked to explain it. To give another example, when ‘Johnson’, Billiluna’s mentally challenged giant with a passion for going naked and playing with water, removed a tap and left a fountain of water spraying into the Friday evening sky a few days ago, we were the ones who groped around in the dark in a muddy pool to replace the tap. (Memo to self: find the stop-cock for the taps so that we won’t be working blindly in a fountain of water next time it happens.) Here is another example of the breadth of our responsibilities: when a lawyer in Kununurra, 500 kms distant, wanted to interview a person in Billiluna via video-conferencing, we were the ones who made the contacts and set up the link via webcam. (Memo to self: try to get the video-conferencing equipment working. I have heard that it functioned properly some time during the comparatively recent past even if currently it’s merely a screen and a tangle of cables and electronic parts.)
A lot of people think that we are here ‘to do good’, like missionaries or philanthropists. This is an erroneous impression. Although the advertisement to which we responded did state that the job would suit a ‘volunteer-minded couple’, our main reason for being here is a selfish one, namely that we wanted to experience a different culture and a different environment. Also, we should be clear about the fact that we are paid quite well for doing the job. In addition, the fringe benefits include highly subsidised housing and two months leave per annum (three weeks of the leave are in lieu of overtime pay). Also, it’s a great place to build up your savings, because there are no diversions such as restaurants, cinemas, theatres, malls, and weekend get-aways on which to fritter away your income. Of course, when we do get to ‘civilization’—which, for us, so far has been Kununurra—we do spend a lot of money in the supermarkets and then return with a ute packed to the gunwales with supplies. We also pick up supplies and articles for the corporation, because transportation to Billiluna is expensive.
Marie and I are 67 years of age and we reckon that a side-benefit of the job is that it will probably delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, sometimes when I’m multi-tasking in the office, answering the phone, looking for a file, and answering questions from two or more residents at the same time (this is a very immediate culture), I sometimes wonder if over-stimulation strengthens the brain, or wears it out!
Let’s end on a reflective note. (Here, I am repeating what I said in a recent letter to some F/friends.) Some Australians stereotype Aboriginal people as drunken, careless, disorganised, lazy, and generally unsuited to modern life. And unfortunately many aspects of life in Billiluna seem to support this stereotype: there is violence, there is rubbish almost everywhere, there are filthy houses, there are poor hygiene practices, the rate of absenteeism at school is high, work practices are irregular, and there is almost universal welfare dependency. However, there is another side to the story. The Kimberley region was amongst the last in Australia to be settled by pastoralists, who only started to drive cattle into the area during the 1880s. Ranchers were fighting battles with dispossessed Aboriginal communities until the 1910s or even later. Indigenous people came out on the losing side of this violent confrontation and were only ‘pacified’ by being killed or by being absorbed as workers on the stations where their options were severely limited: the women were employed as domestic workers, and the men as stockmen. To illustrate: recently, I asked one of the older residents how he liked being a stockman on the old Billiluna Station and he replied dismissively, ‘There was nothing else that we could do.’
So, while people in the rest of Australia could move about freely, get educated, choose career paths, choose how they were governed, and generally contribute towards, and enjoy, the prosperous country that Australia is today, Aboriginal people in the Kimberley and in similar situations elsewhere were limited to being domestic workers and stockmen on land that they had once called their own country.
To show how this history affects people, let me tell you about the notorious Sturt Creek Massacre of 1922, which took place at Billiluna and a neighbouring station. Here is how one local artist describes the event:
People came from the south along the Canning Stock Route to Kaningarra. They stole a camel, then killed and ate it maybe this side of Kaningarra. Police on horseback found them there and began shooting them because they killed the camel. They rounded up others, tied them together and walked them on to the old station Kilangkarra, then on to Nyarna (Lake Stretch). [Note: Lake Stretch is 15 kms from Billiluna.] From there they took them to the place where the Jaarni tree stands (south of Billiluna) and kept them there tied up for a few days. Then they walked them up to old Sturt Creek Station. They lined them up between two trees tied together with wire around their necks and with their hands and feet tied with wire.
Two policemen stood together on each side and shot them one by one from the ones at the end to the ones in the middle till they were all dead. Then they dragged some of the bodies to the goat yard, dumped them there in a heap and set fire to them using kerosene. They dragged the rest to the well, threw them in and set fire to them too. (Narrative by Daisy Kungah; the illustrative painting and narrative can be viewed in the section ‘School Heritage Collection’ in the web site http://billiluna.org.au)
To put this event into the context of human memory, the massacre took place when our fathers were ten or eleven years of age. In other words, if we had been born and raised in Billiluna, it is very likely that our parents would have told us a lot about this traumatic event. And of course, it wasn’t the only violence committed against Aboriginal communities during the 19th Century and early 20th Century. The Sturt Creek Massacre is especially notorious only because it was so cold-blooded and because so many people perished within such a short period of time.
How would we live and behave if we, our families, and our communities had lived through these experiences?
Finally, any F/friends with skills in areas such as mechanics, carpentry, general handiwork, electrics/electronics, and IT (actually, any useful skills will do!) who want to experience something different, are welcome to contact us about the possibility of volunteering for a while in Billiluna.
Note: a range of photos available from http://billiluna.org.au/ and http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.284640378236112.73175.100000704567079&type=1&l=4cae0b0f00
Hi Brian, I have found your Web site most interesting especially your insightful comments in relation to Billiluna.
You are a most interesting character we are sorry we didn’t get to know you a lot better when we worked together.