The people of the Victoria River District were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers within their traditional lands. Language groups would be subdivided into smaller clans, with specific rights over smaller areas of country (‘estates’). Traditional owners of the country – in terms of clan membership – are still recognised and identified today, and the attachment to land continues to be of great importance in all aspects of culture. In their daily life, people were not restricted to movements in the area they ‘owned’, but could move over considerable distances for the purpose of hunting and gathering. They engaged in trade and maintained ceremonial and inter-marital relationships with members of neighbouring language groups. These relationships continue to be of importance to the present day. Close contact between neighbouring language groups resulted in a high degree of multilingualism.
The History of Contact
Like Aboriginal people elsewhere in the region, people in the Victoria River District have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the effects of European settlement and the establishment of cattle stations in their traditional country. The contact history began in 1834, with Stokes’ exploration of the Victoria River, and a subsequent expedition (1855/56) led by Augustus Gregory. The establishment of cattle stations began soon afterwards, in the 1880s.There can be no doubt that the early contact history in the Victoria River area was extremely violent. Aboriginal oral history speaks of resistance to the settlement, and numerous massacres and killings as ‘punitive measures’ for spearing of cattle and sometimes of people. The spread of previously unknown diseases also took their toll among the Aboriginal people of the region.
At first, the survivors were forced to leave their traditional country if it was in the grazing area of the cattle stations, and to seek refuge in less accessible areas. Eventually, most of the Aboriginal inhabitants had to join the workforce of the cattle stations as unpaid labour. Almost all older Aboriginal people of the area who are alive today have worked on cattle stations in the past, as stockmen, cooks, builders, or domestic workers. Some people also worked for the police as ‘trackers’. The work was hard and livings conditions extremely poor. The Gurindji are famous in Australia because of their walk-off from Wave Hill Station in 1966. The strike was in protest of poor wages and work conditions but became a fight to regain control of their land. In 1975, they became the first Aboriginal group in Australia to successfully win back ownership and rights over their land which had a momentous effect on the Land Rights in the Northern Territory. The walk-off is celebrated every year on 22 August as Freedom Day.
During the cattle stations years, pre-contact cultural practices were still alive during extended periods of lay-off times during the Wet Season. These periods ensured the continuation of many cultural practices involving kinship ties, rituals, hunting and maintaining sacred sites, which continue to the present day.
Until recent times government policy of taking children of mixed descent away from their families, in order to have them raised in missions, institutions or adoptive non-Indigenous families created the Stolen Generation. Almost every family in the area was affected by this practice, which was enforced until the early 1950s. One of the focal points of the project is to document speakers’ accounts of these aspects of their earlier lives as a contribution to “oral history”.
Aboriginal communities today
Work on cattle stations decreased considerably in the 1970s after Aboriginal station workers were granted equal wages to non-Aboriginal workers. Forced labour gave way to unemployment, as many cattle stations managers employed non- Aboriginal stockman in place of Aboriginal people. As a result, land and power still remain largely in the hand of non-Aboriginal people.
Some people today still have work on stations, while other work in schools, health clinics and government service providers. Other work is through local Aboriginal-run art centres, producing artefacts and painted canvases. There are also various government initiatives which provide part-time employment in and around communities. People of retirement age receive a small pension.
Today, most Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District do not live on stations, but in community housing, either on the fringes of the townships of Kununurra, Timber Creek, and Katherine, or in independent communities on Aboriginal-owned land. More recently, several outstations have been established, i.e. small communities on a family’s traditional country, usually in remote areas. There is an ongoing struggle to regain country through native title claims and the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.