A Kimberley story that speaks to everyone
Bunuba country extends from the township of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia north along the Fitzroy River to Jijidu (Dimond Gorge), and follows Miluwindi (King Leopold Ranges) to Napier Range in the west. It includes Bandilngan (Windjana Gorge) and Tunnel Creek national parks. The southern extreme extends from Malarabah (Erskine Range) to Dawadiya (Trig Hill) near Fitzroy Crossing, and includes Danggu (Geike Gorge). It takes in the cattle stations Yarranggi (Leopold Downs), Yuwa (Fairfield)and Miluwindi (Milliwindie), which are now owned by Bunuba Inc, and Gurang.ngadja (Brooking Springs).Text & Map from Thangani Bunuba: Bunuba Stories; Kimberley Language Resource Centre
Most Bunuba people live in the communities of Junjuwa and Darlngunaya in Fitzroy Crossing township, and in small outstation communities to the north and north west.
Just as Fitzroy Crossing was the political epicentre for the land rights struggle that gave inspiration to Aboriginal people throughout Western Australia in the 1980s, today Bunuba leaders are showing the way for political action of a different kind; the social reconstruction of modern day Indigenous life.
In recent years press reports have highlighted the negative aspects of Fitzroy Crossing; the appalling living conditions, housing shortages, and problems of alcohol and substance abuse. The State Coroner held an inquiry into a spate of suicides; and the women of the town led a successful campaign to ban the sale of take away grog from the town’s hotel.
All of these issues are real. People suffer the consequences daily; as victims, as perpetrators, as citizens trying to live a positive life, and care for the kids. None of the Bunuba people contributing to the play project is a full time artist. We live with this reality, as residents of this rough, tough town.
But there is also much to love about Fitzroy Crossing. It is an ‘Aboriginal town’ where the mix of people has created a vibrant, dynamic, enterprising community that co-exists alongside all the negatives.
Since the dark days of the 1960s, when we had literally nothing, the Bunuba have been able to establish a community infrastructure. There is a series of outstations scattered around our homelands. We have acquired the pastoral leases of Fairfield, Leopold Downs and Milliwindie, and run a successful cattle business. We are stakeholders in the town’s major enterprises, providing opportunities for many of our young people.
The Jandamarra project is another manifestation of this positive spirit and strength. It has involved a wide range of community members, young and old. It has used traditional skills and knowledge, and has introduced new skills and experiences.
It is another way to battle and overcome some the demons that plague our community.
And it demonstrates a fundamental truth of Bunuba life. We draw our greatest strength from our history, our culture and our country. We will never leave these things behind.
We know who we are by the language we speak. It joins us to our past and our old people, right back to the dreamtime. It ties us to our land and it makes us proud and strong.
“There are about one hundred Bunuba speakers, most of whom are older people now living in Junjuwa, and Aboriginal community in Fitzroy Crossing. The Bunuba elders are concerned that the language is not being spoken by younger people. Language is central to culture and we Bunuba people want our language to stay strong.”
June Oscar wrote these words in 1998 as part of the introduction to Thangani Bunuba, a collection of stories in language from Bunuba elders published by the Kimberley Language Resource Centre in 1998.
The extensive use of Bunuba language on stage is one of the features of the Jandamarra play. This was made possible by the work of June, her mother Mona Oscar, and sisters Patsy Bedford and Selina Middleton, in translating the relevant scenes into language, and then coaching the Indigenous cast members in speaking the language. The Jandamararra project has played a significant role in helping to keep the language strong, and making it live.
Bunuba is one of at least 44 languages that were spoken in the Kimberley. Some are no longer used, but about 30 are still spoken to varying degrees. The Kimberley is one of the most linguistically diverse areas not just in Australia, but the world. This is due to the number of distinct languages spoken in the region. This linguistic diversity relates to a high level of biodiversity. Saving both is a priority for the Aboriginal people of the region.
Thanks to the Kimberley Language Resource Centre for their assistance, and for permission to use material from Thangani Bunuba.
Fourteen years after it was lodged, in December 2012 the Bunuba #1 Native Title Claim was determined in a hearing of the Federal Court held at Geike Gorge. This means that Bunuba traditional ownership of a substantial part of their country, including the Leopold Downs and Fairfield pastoral leases has finally been recognised in Australian law. The #2 and #3 claims are continuing through the negotiation process, with hopes high that they too can be settled during 2014.
June Oscar, the Chairperson of the Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation that has been established to hold the Native Title, said in her welcoming address to the Federal Court:
We are happy that the Government has accepted the obvious truth about our traditional ownership and we look forward to building on our relationship with them as we negotiate the recognition of native title for all Bunuba Country in the future.
We look forward to finalising the Native Title Claims over the remaining parts of Bunuba Country, and to negotiating with the State Government mutually beneficial Indigenous Land Use Agreements in relation to the Fitzroy Crossing town site and conservation lands in our Country.
Her speech acknowledged the past, but also spoke of the present and the future:
Today we acknowledge and pay homage to our senior people, many of whom are no longer with us. Their commitment to maintaining our culture, language and responsibilities for managing our Country is the reason we are here today.
We not only celebrate their legacy; we live their legacy. Our identity and sense of being Bunuba is inherited from them.
Today marks an important milestone in our journey to reconstruct our society after one hundred and twenty years of western contact.
Many of you will know through the Jandamarra story that the Bunuba defended our Country heroically against western incursion. We endured decades of domination by the pastoral industry which we largely built through our labour and expertise.
And in recent decades we have drawn from the resilience of our senior people to map out an economic future based on the cattle industry, tourism and management of our Country.
It is this future that gives us hope and purpose.