All the rivers run red: McArthur River is sacred land.

All the rivers run red: the blood-soaked Gulf Country and its McArthur River is sacred land.

by Peter Jull

A river is a powerful presence to anyone who has grown up with it, its local culture and economy. It follows one around, lifelong. It runs through one’s being. The Aboriginal river land- and waterscapes of the southern and south-western Gulf of Carpentaria are powerfully evoked in the opening section of Alexis Wright’s new novel, Carpentaria. The book begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously … It came down those billions of years ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

There is no such lyricism or feeling in the minds of McArthur River Mining/Xstrata minions. Their December 2005 public relations ‘fact sheet’ on riverine environments begins:

As part of McArthur River Mining ‘s Environmental Management Plan, regular tests are done of the riverine and marine environments. We respect that the river, ocean, and the plants and animals they harbour, are important for many reasons, including their significance to local Aboriginal people.

Including their significance for Aboriginal people? These fellows are also operating in a primeval world, at least politically, before a time of respect for indigenous culture and rights. They are certainly not fit people to be digging up the region, let alone the main river of the district, the McArthur a ‘realignment’, they call it. One must doubt the extent of their relations with the locals, a matter brushed off as more than sufficient by the CEO when the new mining plan was approved (ABC, 21 October 2006).

As McArthur region traditional owner Barbara McCarthy put it in a passionate speech as a member in the NT legislature:

The Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara and Kudanji peoples sit in the gallery here tonight. They sit here to support me in the struggles that I face, not only as the member for Arnhem, but also in my responsibilities as a traditional owner, recognised and accepted by my own people. The indigenous people of the Gulf have travelled here from Borroloola to protest the expansion of this mine on the steps of Parliament House this week…. I could not in all good conscience not do so for our people have lived in the region for thousands and thousands of years and struggled for the strong recognition of land rights in the Gulf, rights that were hard won after 30 years and only handed back four months ago; rights that were fought for by people who have long since passed and who no longer walk this earth, but live through the hearts of their descendants. … Their concerns expand far wider than the Gulf country–concerns about water and how water is life. The indigenous people who are here in this parliament are troubled by the water crises they see right across Australia. Australia is looking to the north to resolve a growing water crisis in our eastern and southern states, and yet my people are very worried at the potential risk to one of our greatest waterways here in the Northern Territory.

As she says, governments who have presided over the disaster of Australia’s water supplies are hardly to be trusted. But the Prime Minister bullied the NT premier, Clare Martin, into a deal full of holes and corporate issues, while the national environment minister fell into line:

Senator Campbell says Indigenous people’s concerns about the diversion of the river are a matter for the Northern Territory Government…. Senator Campbell says he looked strictly at issues of national environmental concern.’ (ABC, 20 October 2006).

That’s one for the books!

Jacqui Katona, who led the successful battle against the Jabiluka Mine west and north of the Gulf Country, and Murrandoo Yanner, brought to public note by his spokesmanship and leadership in relation to the Lawn Hill and Century issues in the Gulf Country in the 1990s–a subject for which Carpentaria is in part a roman a clef, launched the book in Brisbane. They were angry. Murrandoo laid into modern-day Jackie-Jackies, naming names, and into the Prime Minister’s hand-picked black advisory group. Murrandoo said that the Gulf Country was still the land of his and related peoples, and that they would not be managed by white governments and developers. One hopes he is right.

The federal government’s delusions about a brave new indigenous policy don’t even begin to recognise indigenous political rights or imperatives. What are we to make of federal pretensions, as in Australian Financial Review (‘Brough leads indigenous rethink’, 6 October 2006), when we read:

Indigenous affairs is rapidly becoming the crucible for a new approach to social policy and service delivery by the federal government. It is all about … the way Australian society sees its responsibilities towards its citizens.

Yes, much better some clear and appropriate anger than this foolishness.

My own river, the Ottawa, was the centre of the Algonkin people’s world; indeed, its watershed was their political and cultural region. It became a crucial economic thoroughfare of empire, first French, then British, from the early 1600s, with the fur trade and later the timber trade. Not for nothing, the song beginning ‘Was you ever in Quebec?/Bonny laddie, Highland laddie,/ Loading timber on the deck …’ was a favourite on the bagpipes as the Black Watch and others marched against the Americans and other Bad People around the world in the glory days of Empire, and since.

If ever there was a blood-soaked landscape it is the Gulf Country and its McArthur River. Days before she approved the McArthur mine, Northern Territory premier Clare Martin awarded the NT history prize to Tony Roberts’ Frontier Justice. She presumably had not yet read it. Its ‘fresh perspective’–her words–are an unrelenting documentation of genocide–blood and mud–of the peoples, and their survivors, in the Gulf Country. If Gallipoli is a sacred landscape for Australians, this is even more so.

This article has been borrowed from Arena publications – a worthy addition to anyones reading list

Peter Jull is Adjunct Associate Professor, Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (ACPACS), University of Queensland. 

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