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Noonkanbah, a History
'Noonkanbah, land along the Fitzroy River, in the north of Western Australia, had been violently taken from Aboriginal people over a fifty year period, 1880s to 1930s. Survivors of invasion were able to remain on their land while low or non-existent wages made them a cheap labour force for the pastoralists. These survivors were also renewed culturally and restored in numbers by the migration north of desert Aborigines. When the low wage era came to an end, in the late 1960s, through reform of industrial law, the working relationship between Aborigines and pastoralists broke down. The people of Noonkanbah station walked off in August 1971, setting up a fringe camp outside the town of Fitzroy Crossing. There two things happened. Some of them became dependent on alcohol; and those who avoided that fate began to organise themselves politically, as the Karjunna group, named after one of their spiritual ancestors.

A stand off developed between the Noonkanbah pastoralist, who needed labour but would not concede an excision from the lease for his workers, and those associated with Karjunna, who demanded title to some land and chose to remain in the risky and unhappy environment of Fitzroy Crossing, living on welfare benefits, until they got land security. Government community development programs assisted the Karjunna mob to form Kadjina Community Incorporated.

Kadjina asked the State and Federal governments to purchase one of the pastoral leases covering their homelands, so that they could return from their Fitzroy Crossing exile. Another group of exiles, the Yungngora Association, was making the same request. The rivalry between the two Associations was not so great as to prevent cooperation in a mustering contract on Blina station, north of Noonkanbah, while Noonkanbah's owners negotiated a sale with the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission in 1976. The Yungnora and the Kadjina agreed to share Noonkanbah and to reject a non-Aboriginal manager offered to them by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (which had paid 37 per cent of Noonkanbah's purchase price.) Nor did the new owners of Noonkanbah want the Education Department to run their school.

These independent people were affronted by discovering in 1978 that their land was subject to 497 mining leases and an oil exploration permit. The Broome Magistrate who heard their protest ruled that the Mining Act must be upheld: 'In coming to Australia, the white man brought this form of law. That law stands and cannot be over-ridden by moral or spiritual arguments.'

The Noonkanbah mob's lack of authority over its land was highlighted by the exploratory activities of the Amax Iron Ore Corporation and of CRA, particularly their intentions to drill near the sacred site complex Umpampurru, or Pea Hill. The media began to take an interest when the Noonkanbah mob petitioned the Western Australian Parliament against this incursion in May 1979. The newly formed Kimberley Land Council assisted the owners' publicity campaign.

The Noonkanbah mob saw their rights as being protected by the State's Aboriginal Heritage Act; in the perspective of two laws, they felt justified in locking the gate of their property against the miners' drilling rigs in June 1979. They obtained a temporary court injunction against drilling, and they soon negotiated privately with CRA an exploration protocol.

Re-elected in February 1980, the pro-mining Premier Sir Charles Court renewed his government's campaign to let the miners' drill wherever they were entitled by non-Aboriginal law. As one of his Ministers said, 'This is an oil hungry world.' The drilling rig arrived under police escort in March 1980. (It was only forty years since police in the Kimberley had chained arrested Aborigines.) Union support and another court injunction maintained the Noonkanbah mob's resolve. The contest was now the focus of national publicity, and Court's stance was beginning to embarrass at least some members of the Fraser government. A further confrontation between Aborigines, drilling contractors and police on April 2 1980 resulted in the withdrawal of the unwanted visitors, convinced by the owners' implacable eloquence.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Premier Court described the eviction of Amax as an 'insurrection against legitimate authority'. When he appealed to the Noonkanbah community, at the end of May 1980, to respect the rights and needs of other Western Australians, they replied that they could not consent to the violation of their Law.

Using non-union labour, a fifty truck convoy of drillers set out for Noonkanbah in August 1980, escorted by 25 police.

They were met by a blockade of Aborigines, clerics and other supporters. Police cleared the convoy's way, but the 'success' of the convoy became pointless when the recently unionised drilling crew, still in Perth, banned the job. The Western Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust's Chair, Ken Colbung, attempted to persuade the drillers to call off their ban, claiming that the Noonkanbah mob's stand was not supported by other Aboriginal people. The Court government took control of the drill out of private hands, and found enough workers to commence. The hole turned out to be dry, but the colonists' law was upheld.'
Keywords: activism, activism, Court, Sir Charles, Fitzroy Crossing, Fraser, Malcolm, Kimberleys, mining, Noonkanbah, resistance, unionism, Western Australia, 1880-1980

Hawke, S and Gallagher, M 1989, 'Noonkanbah', Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor
Source: Hawke, S and Gallagher, M