Noonkanbah: fight for Aboriginal land rights

By Diana Plater AAP/AG staff 7 September 2010
Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page
As Kimberley locals protest a $30 billion gas hub at James Price Point, we revisits the scene of a historic land rights battle in the same region.

DICKIE COX REMEMBERS HOLDING up the Aboriginal flag as he was being arrested in a protest that was to become a famous rights issue. It was 30 years ago when the name of their station, Noonkanbah, WA, became synonymous with the fight to stop oil drilling on a sacred site.

Cox was, and still is, the chairman of the Yungngora community, Aboriginal people of the West Kimberley who fought to get their land back and had finally resettled on the station. Many of them previously worked on Noonkanbah when it was a sheep station, but in 1971 they walked off over bad living conditions, and became fringe-dwellers in Fitzroy Crossing.

In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Fund bought the lease to the station and about 200 people moved back, but in 1979 they were inundated with mining companies wanting to explore on their land. They asked for time to get the station working and said no to plans by an American oil company, Amax, to do exploratory drilling on a sacred site.

The fight went on for more than a year, culminating in the then Western Australian Liberal premier Charles Court insisting that a 45-strong convoy of non-union drilling rigs and trucks travel from Perth to Noonkanbah. All along the way it was met by protesters.

These days, the country Noonkanbah is physically the same – dusty plains, purple escarpment and old boab trees. But the community is transformed, with enough houses and buildings to make it more like a town.
Today, on the way to the community of 300 people on a 90-km dirt road from the highway between Broome and Fitzroy Crossing, the building growth is notable.

Cox is at his home, and despite more grey hair the lively, smiling stockman and former manager of other stations is much the same. He laughs, remembering those turbulent times when he became a lawbreaker.
He and then close friend, Kimberley Land Council chairman Jimmy Bieundurry, were among scores of people arrested by WA police when they tried to stop the rig coming on to the station.

“They put us in the jail – me and Jimmy Bieundurry – in the police station for eight days,” he says. “We’d marched along the flat; I came with the flag. I was at the homestead holding the flag and going out and shouting. We locked the gate. We pushed the police away and said, `nowhere on our property now’. The two and a half million dollars they spent was all for nothing. The government (and Amax) only found bubbling water coming out of the ground.”

Thriving community

Noonkanbah operates as a 170,000-hectare cattle station – and in April 2007, the Yungngora people had their native title recognised. It runs 7000 head of cattle (croudmaster bulls and shorthorn cows), which are trucked to Broome to be sold. It also sells nobby bulls (ones that don’t have horns). There are also 350 horses. The station has several “outstations” further along the Fitzroy River, which runs through the property where smaller family groups live, including Millijidee, Parkal Springs and Bidijul.

Kulkarriya Community School has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1978 when classes were taught in the old shearing shed. It now has 75 primary and secondary students, six teachers and 12 Aboriginal staff. The students speak English as a second or third language, with Kriol, Nyikina and Walmajarri languages spoken at home.

The school follows the Western Australian Curriculum Framework, though its major focus is good literacy and numeracy skills. The classrooms have internet access and there’s a computer room, multi-purpose room (for cooking, art activities and so on), library, music room and gymnasium. There are also basketball courts, a football oval and a community broadcasting station. A sign at the front gate says Noonkanbah is the home of the Noonkanbah Blues, the Central Kimberley Football League team named after the song written about the community’s struggle.

The kids were always bright and fun, but when we stop to speak to a group of teenage girls playing basketball, I realise how savvy they are now too. But Cox says while in older days the kids left to move to town they are now coming back to live there. Like many places in the Kimberley the community has a tourism component – small numbers of tourists are able to stay there but must book well in advance.

The community also has a clinic with an Aboriginal health worker, a registered nurse and a broadcasting station. A Health and Aged Care (HAC) kitchen and office provides meals to the elderly and there is also a TAFE and community-building program as well as other facilities staffed by locals.

Cox says the community’s main problem these days is alcohol – and it’s banned. But it’s very hard to police people bringing it back to the station after they’ve gone to town for football games or shopping. “We really want to stop the grog,” he says. I’ve put up a lot of arguments. Light beer never helped anybody.”

Like all Aboriginal communities, government cars and their passengers are a common sight and the following day a meeting was planned for “the legal mob talking to the parliamentary people” about how to toughen the laws to stop grog being brought in.

A peaceful life

A peaceful life is a huge priority. After the trauma of the Noonkanbah dispute in 1980, all the community wanted was for life to get back to normal. Around that time Cox’s wife died. Although he has remarried – his wife Nita is chairman of the school – he brings out a photo of his first wife and himself taken when he was a stockman on Loomah station.

His dear friend or “cousin brother” Bieundurry (“they used to call us the twins”) died prematurely of heart disease in 1985. The funeral was one of the largest seen in the Kimberley region.

Most members of the community now belong to the Peoples Church, a Christian denomination. “I’m a free man,” says Cox, who is a Nyikina man. “I tell people, leave me alone. I work with the Lord. The Lord is my boss.” He says he doesn’t practise traditional ceremonies anymore. “I work with the Lord,” he says emphatically.

They do still practise traditional hunting methods though – teaching the kids how to find sugarbag, how to fish and hunt for goannas and other animals. Noonkanbah will always be Cox and his large extended family’s home. “I just want to stay here,” he says. “It’s nice and quiet.”