Decolonisation 101 – Radioactive futures for some vs Life is all one family.

Decolonisation 101 – Radioactive futures for some vs Life is all one family.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

So, I am now starting to turn my mind to the coming trip to Tennant Creek in what is generally known in English as ‘the Barkly Region of the Northern Territory’.

But English is a foreign language in this part of the world, where there are languages like Warlmanpa. Warumungu, Alyawarra, Warlpiri and many more.

There is another ‘non-English’ reality in this part of the world – the realities of First Peoples who have lived there since time immemorial.

In writing about this trip I expect that the narrative I will fashion will be quite different from those written in the mainstream media, especially  by those who embrace monocultural  Anglo-Australian norms.

I am aiming to be in Tennant Creek for about a week starting on Monday 9 June (Queen’s Birthday) to sample something of the sitting of the Federal Court in the ‘Muckaty’ case regarding the Commonwealth of Australia’s proposed radioactive waste facility.


‘Muckaty’ is the name of a cattle station which has a pastoral lease over land which is officially recognized as Aboriginal land (under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act). The Commonwealth government has bypassed the Aboriginal Land Trust for that land, and dealt instead, via the Northern Land Council, with a small group of ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’ (as defined by Anglo-Australian statute).

As I understand it, a small group of Warlmanpa people accepted a $12m payment to ‘volunteer’ a site for this 200 year national radioactive waste facility.

The Northern Land Council, based on the work of its anthropologists, considers this small group to be a ‘local descent group’ and thereby fit with the requirements of the Commonwealth legislation to volunteer a site.

Other Warlmanpa people, with country connections at Muckaty, have strongly objected to this process and taken the matter to the Federal Court.

An Aboriginal Land Commissioner, who heard the Warlmanpa land claim to the Muckaty pastoral lease area some years earlier, found the smaller group to be part of a larger ‘local descent group’.

Muckaty is about 100 km north of Tennant Creek. The Federal Court may visit Muckaty to view the volunteered site and to deal with related matters.

The Federal Court will also sit in Tennant Creek in June as part of the process of taking evidence from Warlmanpa people, including those opposed to the siting of a radioactive waste facility in the midst of their country. I will be there for a few days of this.


We will fly from Sydney to Arrente (Aranda) country – Alice Springs –  and then drive a hire car the 500 km north to Tennant Creek. The population of Tennant Creek was about 3,000 last time I checked but unlike other similarly sized towns in this country, there is a ratio of about 50-50 indigenous/non-indigenous.  Interesting mix. Great site for some real reconciliation, I always thought.

I have driven this road between Alice and Tennant many times since February 1980, when I first started working with Warumungu and Alyawarra people.

In the early 1980s I was an anthropologist working with the Central Land Council and assigned to help with the preparation of the Warumungu and Alyawarra traditional land claim to areas of unalienated ‘vacant’ Crown land. (Crown land? Since when exactly the senior lawmen asked.)

The senior men slotted me into their systems of relations as a member of the Jappaljarri ‘skin’ group. Due to earlier spelling I still use ‘Japaljari’.


On this June 2014 trip, while in Alice Springs, I will also take the opportunity to pass into the care of the Central Land Council some of the audio cassette tapes I made with senior Warumungu and Alyawarra men while working on the original Warumungu land claim.

These field recordings were made by me for the sole purpose of helping in the preparation of the Warumungu land claim. Most of these senior lawmen are deceased now. Dying 20 years earlier than the Anglo-Australian norm is a very real thing.

I leant much from them regarding the sacred landscape of country which – to European eyes – may appear to be dull and featureless. I learnt that this land has transcendental dimensions – it is not to be rubbished.

The CLC has agreed to digitalise and  properly archive these aging audio cassette tapes. The CLC must talk with the cultural heirs of the senior men as to what happens with these audio tapes.

My  hope is that these recordings will be made readily available, in the first instance, to the families of the men I worked with in the Tennant Creek area in their struggle to gain recognition of their true place in life.

There is still much distance to go on that front… and now is not the time to stop and rest.


The town of Tennant Creek is located in Warumungu country and was founded in the 1930s as a ‘watering hole’ during a depression gold-rush. The creek in question was given its English name by the adventurer Stuart in 1860, and is located near the major – and much older – Wirnkarra (Dreaming) site of Jurnkurakurr.

Over a million ounces of gold was produced by one gold mine – and (to my knowledge) not a cent in royalties to the Warumungu people for the loss of their non-renewable resource. Rather, they were excluded from the town boundaries, marginalised, confined, abused. That story is recorded elsewhere.

I have heard some senior Warumungu people use the expression “Nyinkka Nyunyu town” instead of “Tennant Creek’. Nyinkka Nyunyu is the name of a sacred site in the town area. There is a Nyinkka Nyuynyu Aboriginal Arts and Culture Centre. Check it out at


We are often misled by our use of English. It cuts us off from our true surroundings. We have been denied proper access to the living languages of this country – languages in which we can not only better connect to our surroundings but also frame different world views to those of the modern European nation-state.

If you pause for a moment – and escape from the everyday – you will realise that it is bizarre to have a public holiday to mark the birth of a distant British monarch- an English queen on the hither side of the planet – in the middle of Warumungu country. Talk about empire. Talk about the role of British master narratives!

But the bizarre is ‘normal’ in the back-to-front land of Oz. We are not encouraged to ‘pause and think’. Mass hypnotism is all the go. The recent Royal visit has worked wonders.

The present Abbott government is deeply committed to imposing an Anglo-Australian fantasy in this part of the world. For some of us, though, the time to move into a new relationship with this country and its original peoples is long overdue.

No point in waiting for enlightenment from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Self-decolonisation is long overdue to remove what Aden Ridgeway called the terra nullius of the mind.


This very important Muckaty case (potentially clearing the way for a radioactive waste future in Warlmanpa country) is very difficult for the layperson to follow.

Written documents – including reports by anthropologists – are handed up to the Bench in distant proceedings which, while open to the public in theory, are actually not accessible by members of the public in fact.

There is also the documented difference in ‘narratives’ which lawyers and research professionals tell each other in comparison with those of the people they represent. What arguments and counter-arguments will the professionals use?

I hope to be able to catch – and record – a snatch of this difference in narratives when I attend the sitting of the Federal Court in Tennant Creek. That is, to contrast what the professional are saying with what I am told by some of the Warlmanpa people I know. Maybe I will make some new audio recording to share with others via the internet? I hope so.

Then there is my narrative. It’s a bit different to the usual.

We shall see in this case how the introduced system of law singles out a select few indigenous people to give consent for a radioactive waste facility, despite the objections of a much wider group of First Peoples.

As I know very well from my research in the 1980s, these First Peoples understand that the country belongs to them in ways it could never belong to non-indigenous peoples,  nor to a handful of ‘traditional owners’ as defined by Anglo-Australian statute.

“All one family” was a sort of mantra I often heard from the senior men – all of life is one family. Curiously, this is not the mantra which has informed modern anthropology in Australia. There is more to life than modern anthropology.


Given the past record of neglect of First Peoples well-being, and as things presently stand, the absence of genuine informed consent by a wider group of Warlmanpa people means that the Commonwealth of Australia’s present attempt to impose a radioactive waste facility on Warlmanpa country is not morally or ethically acceptable.

That location has not been selected by any form of scientific reckoning. A highly vulnerable small group of people (beggared and weakened by successive Australian governments) were enticed to accept a financial offer which might help their immediate family both in the present and in the future.

But this may come at a terrible price if it is not done right. These sacred Dreaming living countries are really no place for a radioactive dumping ground which given the record to date will  – sooner or later – inevitably poison the lives of those who live near it, perhaps for generations to come.


There is clearly a good case to say there has not been genuine and informed consent and acceptance of this major project by significant Warlmanpa people at Muckaty – and that takes us into the struggle of First Peoples to be represented by means by which they consider culturally appropriate.

Regional forms of decision-making – in contrast to the non-indigenous fiction of a ‘local descent group’ –  are clearly documented in earlier writings about First Peoples for those who care to look closely.

Hopefully the highly experienced anthropological researcher engaged by the Warlmanpa people to help their case against the Commonwealth will provide evidence of these wider forms of regional governance when the case begins in the Federal Court in Melbourne on 2 June.

But the case may be argued on very narrow legal grounds, including those of due process. Who can say?  The Northern Land Council, for instance, in supporting its anthropologists and reputation may have to take a different view to that which includes recognition of wider forms of indigenous decision-making in major projects.

  • And if these matters are fully explored we will then have to wait for Justice North to deliver his judgment. For that we will have to wait and see.
  • And we need to keep in mind that this case may not end in the domestic Australian courts.
  • Meanwhile, the more public scrutiny is applied to this less than visible case, the better the outcome will have to be.


But out of all this I believe that there is a key issue – until there is global support for the struggle for First Peoples to gain recognition as First Peoples – complete with acceptable forms of regional governance – they will continue to be captives within the Anglo-Australian modern nation-state.

The main land councils in the Northern Territory have never really encouraged or actively promoted effective regional land councils in places like the Barkly region. As statutory bodies themselves, they have an accommodation with Anglo-Australia. This arrangement suits everybody except the First Peoples in whose name they operate.

For that reason alone, I very much doubt if any of the professionals will come to the same conclusion as I have regarding ‘local descent groups’ – that they are a self-privileging fiction invented by Anglo-Australians which is substituted in law for proper recognition of First Peoples sovereign rights.

Having pondered these matters since the early 1980s, I increasingly see ‘local descent groups’ as a kind of modern Western fetish which is systematically substituted for recognition of First Peoples sovereign rights.

And a fetish which – on the one hand – makes life easier for Westernised bureaucrats, careerist researchers, politicians, and mainstream commercial interests while –  on the other hand –  makes a complete mockery out of the living realities and core values of First Peoples.

I believe this case has already provided a clear example of this with the Northern Land Council, by virtue of its stance, effectively telling Warlmampa people they don’t understand their own law! 

Should be an interesting few days in Tennant Creek in June.

To recap.

In  my narrative,

We live in changing times.

The days of the Old West are rapidly fading,

What compromised nations – and their compromised leaders – may not do,

we everyday people can do

once we are moved by a healing spirit.

This attempt to forcefully impose

an unwelcome radioactive future on Warlmanpa people at Muckaty

is not merely ‘their struggle’.

The process of decolonisation of Anglo-Australian life

requires it to be

‘our struggle’.

We are, I am reliably informed, all related.