Last weekend, police officers shot and killed a 19-year-old man, Kumanjayi Walker in the central desert community of Yuendumu, Northern Territory.
Eye-witnesses have disputed the police report that Walker resisted arrest and attacked the officers, stabbing one, thereby forcing the police to defend themselves.
But no one disputes the fact that the police, terrified of reprisals from the local community, locked themselves in their station with Mr Walker’s body, turned out all the lights and refused to tell the family whether he was alive or dead as they waited for reinforcements to arrive.
There are now national calls for a full independent investigation into what happened to Mr Walker. The residents, predominantly Walpiri people, are calling for the police to leave Yuendumu for at least one year.
It feels like remote little Yuendumu is becoming our latest Black Lives Matter moment.
In the midst of all the grief and anguish, anger and confusion that has characterized this terrible incident, I heard local people being reported as saying that what happened in Yuendumu “feels like Coniston.”
I had to Google it.
Coniston cattle station is not far from Yuendumu, and the Walpiri are referring to the massacre that took place there in 1928 when up to 170 died in a series of reprisal killings of Warlpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye people.
The Coniston massacre is considered to be one of the most disgusting examples of frontier savagery ever seen in this country.
In 1928, the Northern Territory was experiencing the harshest drought on record. Waterholes dried up. Food was scarce. Starving nomadic Aboriginals were forced to trespass onto cattle stations to get access to the permanent water sources (called soaks) that the pastoralists used to irrigate their land.
Except this land wasn’t their land. It originally belonged to the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye, and gaining access to soaks shouldn’t have been considered trespassing at all.
When things got even worse as the drought took hold, the Walpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye began begging for food and spearing cattle to stay alive.
Racist white farmers and settlers considered the starving locals an “aggravation.”
The trigger for the massacre was the murder of a white dingo hunter named Fred Brooks on August 7 that year.
Brooks was camping in the desert with the Walpiri when a dispute arose regarding Brooks’ treatment of the wife a local man, Japanunga, and the white man was killed.
The owner of Coniston station, Randall Stafford, and a local policeman, Constable William Murray formed a posse to track down Japanunga and his accomplices, but the manhunt soon descended into a hellish orgy of senseless bloodshed. Walpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye were shot and killed in cold blood for nearly a week.
Constable Murray’s official report merely read, “….incidents occurred on the expedition, …unfortunately drastic action had to be taken and resulted in a number of male natives being shot.”
Later, at an inquiry, Murray admitted to killing 17 people, although he bragged to fellow officers that he had killed “closer to 70 than 17.” The Warlpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye believe that the real number was around 170 dead.
The inquiry concluded that 31 Aboriginal people had been killed and that in each case the death was justified. Murray’s party was completely exonerated. It was stated that “there was not a scintilla of evidence” to support the view that the police had conducted a reprisal or punitive expedition.
Nearly twenty years after the massacre, the Walpiri were herded onto a newly established reserve nearby where the Native Affairs Branch could deliver rations and welfare services. A Baptist mission was established there. The township was named Yuendumu.
This week I was struck by a photo of Kumanjayi Walker’s grandfather, Quentin Walker Jurrah sitting stoically in a folding chair in Yuendumu holding a sign that reads, TELL THE TRUTH.
But they didn’t tell the truth in 1928 after Coniston.
They didn’t tell the truth in 1983 about the death of 16-year-old John Pat in Roebourne.
They didn’t tell the truth in 2004 about the death of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island.
They didn’t tell the truth in 2007 when the government instituted the so-called Northern Territory Intervention, and seized control of many aspects of the daily lives of residents in 73 targeted remote communities, including Yuendumu, without warning or consultation. The coercive measures they implemented in Yuendumu would have been unthinkable in non-Indigenous communities.
After such a long history of deceit and racism, it takes a special kind of strength for a grieving grandfather to hold a sign like that.
Strength and faith. The kind of faith that thinks truth-telling can actually occur in such a landscape of lies.
TELL THE TRUTH!
Will we ever learn the truth about Kumanjayi Walker’s death in Yuendumu?