Brief report from Muckaty Federal Court case – Day one Tennant Creek

A few days before i left to come to the Northern Territory I happened to be in the right position to see the powerful sun setting over Mt Keira at Wollongong. Mt Keira is a ‘woman’s mountain’ for local Koori people in the Wollongong/Illawarra region.In the cosmologies of many First Peoples in this country, the sun is also associated with women (in her eternal guise).

So, it was a strong message for those of us who read the signs according to these cultural codes.A few days later, as we arrived in Tennant Creek by car from Alice Springs, the moon was rising in the late afternoon. In the Wirnkara (Dreaming) of Warumungu people of the Tennant Creek area, Moon-man walked about this country before going up.

The Eternal Masculine and Eternal Feminine balance felt right.

This Tennant Creek/Barkly Region country is rich in Dreamings – birds, trees, creeks, hills, ranges, water/rain, dingoes – most things are part of the Dreaming creation. People too have their Dreamings – some come from the kirda side and some from the kurtungurlu side.

People have two interconnected sides to their Being – a bit like yin and yang. These two complementary opposite parts run through the whole of life. By such means they connect Being with Cosmos – Peoples with Country – in a complex interplay of factors.

As i am writing now – after sitting in the Tennant Creek Courthouse for most of the day listening to evidence in the Muckaty radioactive waste facility case – the eastern sky is divided into pinky red and grey – both parts of the two-sided cosmos.

Hope my picture from the caravan park in Tennant Creek shows this:


We heard some evidence about kirda and kurtungurlu from Dianne S. – one of the Warlmanpa women who was cross-examined by the legal representatives of the Northern Land Council today.

Dianne was subjected to the ‘either/or’ logic by which Western professionals – especially fine legal minds – earn their bread, butter, send their children to good schools and enjoy what modern life has too offer. Problem is, in this part of country, a both-and form of understanding is required.

The thing is – Dianne is involved in a case opposing the Commonwealth of Australia’s shameful attempt to force a radioactive waste facility on First Peoples in return for them being granted access to the same sort of basic things (roads, water, education) which most of Australians get without having to agree to a radioactive waste facility in their living room.

Dianne took pains to explain how kirda-kurdungurlu worked, and how it meant that this gave her rights to speak about country.

Kurtungurlu can speak for country when they have permission from kirda. Similarly there are constraints on what kirda can do – they should have kurtungurlu present as witness (amongst other things).

Before Dianne, Aunty B had been cross-examined in relation to the trip the Federal Court made yesterday to First Peoples country (known by the name of the cattle station “Muckaty”)

I do not propose to provide a blow by blow account of the Court proceedings of a long day. Other reports should cover that. It was a gruelling day i must say.


We particularly need careful coverage of the what Dianne said about feeling ‘threatened’ at some meetings regarding the radioactive waste site. This came to the foreground when NLC Counsel pressed her regarding why she did not speak up at some some meetings about some matters. He then complained when she raised this now and not in her outline of evidence. His own cross-examination brought to the fore what she had perviously repressed.

It is clear the legal professionals would like to be finished with Tennant Creek (‘the middle of nowhere’ versus the attractions of the city) by the weekend if that is possible, although sitting days are set for next week. Pressure on the witnesses is preferred to a more leisurely approach which might be kinder on all concerned.

I was struck, rather, by how culturally one-sided these Whitefella court proceedings are. Here we are in the heart of Warumungu country – i did not hear a formal acknowledgement of country when official proceedings began. And that it just for starters.

There was no attempt to use translators to convert lawyers questions into Warlmanpa. All proceedings in English, of course. While local First Peoples English is good, there are real ‘efficiency gains’ to be had by using translation from English to Warlmanpa and from Warlmanpa to English.

This is a major case regarding the establishment of Australia’s first radioactive waste facility. It would benefit from using best practice.

Aunty B and Dianne were pressed by the Northern Land Council legal people to make culturally inappropriate either/or distinctions when both-and replies are correct (but not what the Anglo-Australian court wants to hear).

Culturally wrong issues were repeated raised, and answered pressed for when the right people were not present to enable answers to be given – or to answer those questions about country which cannot be answered by one particular person.

And , a simple matter which the Northern Land Council should be well versed in, a map of country had north at the southern end. A basic rule of thumb in land claim hearings in my day was to orient the map so that North on the map aligns with north in reality.

But there is so much which is cock-eyed in this form of legal proceeding it would require a book to document.


Another thing which struck me most strongly was the intense focus on Dianne’s memory about what was or was not said in meetings about the nomination process for the radioactive waste facility site (which meeting, who said what, when?).

But where is the intense focus on the behind the scenes meetings of politicians invoked in the drafting instructions for the Commonwealth legislation which effective binds the hands of Justice North (who is hearing the case).

In regard to affirming First Peoples realities and First Peoples rights His Honour is bound up more effectively than a fly in a red-back’s web by the evil intent of the minds which drafted the Commonwealth legislation.

Where is the intense focus on the behind the scenes dealings of those in the uranium industry who are repeatedly positioning themselves to make short term profits of the sale of uranium overseas – and to accept back the radioactive residue?

What role (if any) did the donations of mining companies to political parties have in the drafting of this legislation? The ‘fulsome’ behaviour of the former relevant Minister.M Ferguson, when he met with the uranium industry stood in stark contrast to the behaviour he displayed to the Warlmanpa people opposed to the radioactive waste facility.
It was striking how the legal representative for the Northern Land Council took pains to draw attention to the role of scientists at meeting (to explain the proposal) but totally neglected the role of science in NOT selecting this site at Muckaty.


There was an attack on what is known as the ‘agency’ of First Peoples – that is, the ability of First Peoples to draw their own conclusions and make up their own minds about important matters.

A sustained attempt was made by the Northern Land Council to pin the opposition to the radioactive waste facility on non-indigenous people opposed to the use of uranium. The NLC appeared to be seeking to prove a case that Warlmanpa people were only opposed to having radioactive waste on country due to the role of others.

When Aunty B was pressed about how she learnt about the dangers of radioactivity matters, she explained that she had learnt about it by ‘study’ – doing a course at the IAD (Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs).

The evidence of Aunty B and Dianne S should leave no room for doubt in the mind of North, J about the existence of a powerful – and cultural – form of agency in regard those two strong women and in regard to protecting country from unwelcome radioactive waste futures.

There is much more to be written about this sitting of the Federal Court in Tennant Creek, both by me and by others.

But that will have to do for the day. After a day of that, i need to recharge my Being with a glimpse of the beautiful stars overhead  – and maybe a little of a more familiar form of spirit.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn
Nyinnka Nyunyu town (Tennant Creek)
Tuesday 10 June 2014