Cannot hear senior lawmen’s voices #GetTheFullPicture

I can hear many indigenous and non-indigenous voices in the present reports of the Ross River regional dialogue – but i cannot hear the singing voices of senior indigenous lawmen from the Tennant Creek and Barkly region of the Northern Territory.

In 1901, when the new Commonwealth of Australia came into existence with the new Australian Constitution, the renown anthropologists Spencer and Gillen spent some months at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station being mentored – by senior Warumungu lawmen –  in the laws and cultures of First Peoples.

The senior Warumungu lawmen undoubtedly saw the anthropologists as some kind of representative of Anglo-Australia authorities.  Warumungu and related people were reeling from the savage invasion by cattle and cattle-men into their lives and living country.

The senior men clearly wanted to instill some degree of understanding about country into the minds of those authorities associated with the invasion of cattle and cattle-men. They reached out and made known much of esoteric knowledge which makes up their life capital. This is usually carefully guarded.

But the extensive knowledge they shared with Spencer and Gillen did not find its way back into the lawmaking processes of the new Federal Government.

The anthropologists were not in Warumungu country to serve as a conduit to the Anglo-Australian authorities. Rather, they were there to document – for future men of science – the lives of Stone Age people before they disappeared – swept away by ‘progress’.

The singing voices of senior lawmen were not heard in the remote places (Canberra) where Anglo-Australia’s lawmen make their laws. Their voices are completely missing from the 1901 Australian Constitution and the large body of Anglo-Australian law which followed.

There was simply no connect between the efforts of the senior lawmen and the decision-making processes of the Anglo-Australian political system.

First Peoples were never remnants of an imaginary Stone Age. They are contemporary peoples who follow a Way of life which is different to that of Europe. The high culture – the systems of law which inform the lives of senior lawmen – is central to this other Way of life. Senior women, of course, play a complementary role as high cultural carriers. It is a both-and situation not an either/or one. I cannot speak on women’s matters.

This high culture has existential rights – it does not require recognition by non-indigenous Australians (or anyone else) to exist. Constitutional recognition would, however, make life better adjusted for all concerned.


The present campaign to make good the enormous shortcomings of the 1901 Constitution and to gain some form of recognition of this country’s First Peoples may presently suffer from exactly this same flaw – a lack of connect and real engagement between the two systems of law.

In 1990 I was fortunate enough to gain a Lionel Murphy Scholarship to  spend a year considering how to improving dialogue between the two systems of law in this country. Those two systems are the original system of First Peoples law and the introduced system of law.

This came after I had had ten years of direct involvement in First Peoples Ways in the Northern Territory. Firstly, in the early 1980s, as Senior Anthropologist responsible for land claims with the Central Land Council based in Alice Springs. My main area of involvement was with Warumungu and Alyawarra people in the Tennant Creek/Barkly region to the north of Alice Springs.

Secondly, I spent the second half of the 1980s living in Tennant Creek and, for a while, working as a Community Development Officer with Julalikari Council. My role required me to meet weekly with the representatives of the numerous town camps and to assist with the meetings of the full Council.

I left the Northern Territory in 1989 and my family came to live in the Northern Suburbs of Wollongong, south of Sydney, in NSW. I spent a good part of the 1990s involved in local reconciliation groups, and supporting the Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy in their struggle for recognition.

Consequently, not only have I given a great deal of thought to how to consult indigenous people, I have also spent a good part of my life being directly involved with First Peoples at the grassroots level.

One of the key lessons I have learnt is that a successful consultation process – one that actually engages with First Peoples in the lives they actually lives – must be designed  (from the outset) with an emphasis on process.

If you can get the process right then you can avoid a host of other problems further down the track. A proper process is not one which merely informs them of something which is going on a coming-ready-or-not basis.

A proper process is one which provides senior lawmen – properly constituted in their own right – with as much information as they require to consider the issues from their perspective. Then, those presenting the information, need to retire for the requisite time (days, weeks) so that senior men can discuss matters between themselves and determine if they can arrive at a consensus. Then, when the senior men are agreed (they will avoid a meeting if they are not) to reconvene and allow them to make a public statement of their agreed position.

I very much doubt that any real effort will be made, between now and the National Indigenous Referendum Convention at Uluru in late May, to actually engage with the senior lawmen in the Tennant Creek and Barkly region. It takes a concerted effort to do this.

I hope i am completely mistaken and urge the delegates who have been selected at the Ross River regional dialogue meeting to make every effort to provide an opportunity for the senior lawmen to speak in their own voices at the Constitutional convention at Uluru in May.

In my experience, no one else can do this for the senior lawmen.

Their empowered involvement is a crucially important ingredient for healing life in this country.





















Join the Referendum Conversation – recognition of First Peoples #GetTheFullPicture

From the Referendum Council website:

“What do you think about a future referendum being held in Australia to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution?

Australians can also have their say by reading and responding to the Council’s Discussion Paper, sharing their thoughts using #GetTheFullPicture on Facebook or Twitter, and getting all the facts about constitutional recognition and joining the conversation on the website.

Australians have the chance to respond to a Discussion Paper by the Referendum Council outlining questions that may be addressed in a referendum. Submissions close 8 May 2017.”

See also

Reconciliation Council report on Ross River Regional Dialogue

You can read about the Ross River Regional Dialogue leading up to the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention at Uluru on 24-26 May 2017 on the Reconciliation Council’s website at:

Note the full report at the bottom of that page –

CLC and NLC position on Constitutional Reform – Barunga and Kalkaringi Statements

CLC and NLC delegates passed the following resolution at their joint meeting at Kalkaringi in August 2016:

“We reaffirm our commitment to the principles set out in the 1988 Barunga and 1998 Kalkaringi Statements.

Constitutional reform must deliver meaningful and enduring benefits for our peoples. We are prepared to examine models for constitutional recognition that deliver such benefits.

Indigenous constitutional forums must be held in the NT involving Aboriginal people in the bush.

Any progress towards constitutional recognition must not endanger our rights to negotiate treaties to finally achieve self-determination.”

30 November 2016
Barunga Statement

Kalkaringi Statement


Art work Barunga Statement. Very interesting graphic message? Image source SMH.

A request to the Central Land Council for more information. And a reply from CLC.

Mr David Ross,
Central Land Council 

Alice Springs,

Dear David,


For many years i have promoted the Constitutional recognition of First Peoples – as cultural partners – and it is far too long overdue in my assessment.

I read the CLC media release regarding the recent Ross River meeting you Co-Chaired in preparation for the Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May.

These days I am completely out of touch with life in the NT and have one question the CLC may be able to answer for me. 
What is the role of senior lawmen in the Tennant Creek and Barkly region in the lead up to and participation in the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May?
This was unclear to me from the CLC media release.

I have written about this on one of my blogs. See

I will be writing some follow up articles and, as it happens, my wife and i will be in Alice Springs in late May and June (my 70th birthday treat to myself.)

Please advise.


Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

Coledale NSW

Reply from Central Land Council.

Hi Bruce,

thanks for keeping in touch and for your interest in the Referendum Council’s First Nations Regional Dialogue at Ross River.

The Referendum Council last year requested the CLC’s help with the organisation and facilitation of the meeting, including with a representative mix of participants of ages, genders and Central Australian regions.

In the lead up to the meeting we consulted with our elected members from all nine sub-regions (including the Tennant Creek region) about which traditional owner representatives the Referendum Council should invite, alongside representatives of Aboriginal organisations and individuals from the Central Australian region – see our earlier media release at

Our face book page and web site (in particular Land Rights News, Council News and Community Development News) are good ways to keep in touch with what’s happening in our region today.

I wish you all the best for your birthday trip.

With kind regards,

(name deleted – BR)

Communications Manager

Central Land Council

My note:

I very strongly recommend reading the media release mentioned above and then checking out the Barunga Statement and Kalkaringi Statement – to which i will provide links next.

Two Laws and Constitutional recognition.

Cultural warning – Contains images of significant people who have passed away.

At the end of 1989, when i was leaving Tennant Creek (NT) after a decade of involvement in land rights and related matters, I attended a large meeting of senior Warumungu and Alyawarra men at the Jurnkurakurr Outstation Resource Centre.

Jurnkurakurr is the name of a famous Wirnkarra (‘Dreaming’) site locate in Warumungu country close to the old Telegraph Station on Tennant Creek to the north of the present town. One very senior Alyawarra lawman (M.Butcher) told me that it “was like a university”. An initiated man had to be very educated to pass through the law business there. These matters are invisible to the uninitiated.

I had worked with these men over the last ten years. It was time for me to move and i explained to these senior men that one task i wanted to address was to get constitutional recognition of First Peoples. I showed them a copy of the Australian Constitution. It was all news to them. They had their own law.

Gaining some understanding of the Ways of First Peoples has been my lot for most of my adult life. I know that the knowledge senior lawmen hold is a vital part of the cultural core of well-formed life in this country.

These senior lawmen embody systems of law which lie at the core of First Peoples Ways. Only those initiated into their systems of law (not me) can make informed decisions about important life matters.

Well, much time has passed and i am now completely out of touch with those men, many of whom have (sadly) passed away during the last 27 years. While I am sure they have been replaced by another generation of lawmen, what follows needs to be read in light of a perspective which is largely frozen in 1989.

National Indigenous Constitutional Convention Uluru – May 2017

I have, of course, followed the debate about Constitutional Recognition and i am aware of the very limited degree of recognition Anglo-Australian politicians have in mind when they discuss this matter. It certainly far less than what i had in mind when i met with the senior lawmen in 1989. I think this is the idea the non-indigenous politicians have in mind when the talk of recognition of First Peoples:


(Portrait of Bungaree, a native of New South Wales c 1826 by Augustus Earle)

Bungaree no doubt had his own reasons and agency for exploring the new European fashions. What was lacking then – and is still lacking now – is a complementary image of a non-indigenous person of authority properly painted up in the designs of this country’s First Peoples.

Earlier in the 1980s, i had worked (Senior Anthropologist, Land Claims) at the Central Land Council when Wenten Rubuntja was the Chairman. He was my boss and i certainly embraced his vision of cultural partnership – peaceful and respectful co-existence without domination.

This he later displayed so graphically in his “Atnengkerre Atherre Akwete – Two Laws Together” poster for the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

Wenten’s painting graphically presents two very different forms of representation – both of which he had mastered. Bi-culturally balanced! The implicit challenge is for us non-indigenous people to do likewise.

Two Laws Together


Recently indigenous people from the area of the Northern Territory covered by the Central Land Council met at Ross River, near Alice Springs/Mparntwe, to prepare for a meeting on Constitutional recognition to be held at Uluru in 24-26 May.  See their media release at:

I was delighted to see this, in light of my undertaking in 1989, as i knew the kind of message which the senior men from the Tennant Creek area would bring to such a meeting and – as a consequence – to the important Uluru National Constitutional Convention.

Then i took the time to read the story a little more closely. My delight faded somewhat. The CLC meeting had elected 10 delegates to attend the National Convention at Uluru in May.

… the meeting elected mostly young and middle aged people to seek consensus at Uluru on a referendum question to put to all Australian voters.

“I was quite overjoyed that we had a number of young people who had the confidence to stand up and make comment. They want to learn more. They were really engaged and really excited to be part of this journey,”


My simple rule of thumb in trying to make sense out of complex life system is to look at who is systematically excluded. That helps you sort out a heap of confusing information.

There has been a psychic war been waged against First Peoples senior lawmen since the arrival of Europeans in this country. The present 1901 Australian Constitution is a classic example.

There is a strong Westernising influence at work in contemporary Australian life by the dominating mainstream where certain ‘acceptable’ people are ‘unconsciously’ selected and promoted.

Senior lawmen are the very last people to be meaningfully engaged by those processes which originate in – and are subtly controlled by – the mainstream Australian political system.

So, noting that i am well and truly out of the loop in terms of what is happening with senior lawmen and the vastly important issues of Constitution reform and recognition of the law they uniquely embody, i can only pose a question.

Where are the senior lawmen in this 2017 scheme of things for the reform of the Australian Constitution to recognise First Peoples?

This is not clear from the CLC release after the Ross River meeting. That release says:

“The 10 delegates plan to meet in the coming weeks in order to prepare for the Uluru convention.”

So –  where are the senior lawmen in this scheme of things? How can these mostly young and middle people (men? women?) represent senior lawmen in this process? Do they have any real understanding of the esoteric and closely guarded knowledge held by senior men? If not, which experiences and/or master narrative will they have to rely on when, with the best of intentions, they try to fulfill the heavy responsibilities which have been placed upon them at this crucial time?

I am someone who longs to see proper (full and robust) recognition of this countries First Peoples – as cultural partners – by the Anglo-Australian authorities and non-indigenous peoples. This is fundamentally important to re-balance and heal life here for all people.

While i do not know the answer to the key question of the present role of senior lawmen in the ‘Recognise’ campaign, What i do know is this:

without significant and empowered participation by senior indigenous lawmen in the Constitutional reform process (and the National Convention) any reforms will be as hollow and empty as the original British document which we know as the 1901 Australian Constitution.

I am also well aware there is a substantial campaign by some First Peoples opposing any Constitutional reform since it is most likely to be another false dealing by Anglo-Australian state authorities – preserving their weatlh and privileges at the expense of the original peoples well-being.   These First Peoples have valid concerns which must be addressed – to their satisfaction.

We will all need to come together in real solidarity to gain proper and respectful recognition of this country’s First Peoples. It is long overdue.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

Coledale, NSW







Fractal image of ‘English only’ life in Northern Territory in 21st C


“A Northern Territory Aboriginal Minister has her request to speak her first language, Warlpiri, in Parliament denied after the NT Speaker declared the language of the assembly is English.”

Full story