Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Tribute to an indigenous cultural hero [February 27]

Sad news today of the passing of the man who has been leading the fight to protect James Price Point and the Goolarabooloo and Lurujarri Heritage Trail, in the footsteps of his grandfather, Paddy Roe.

I wrote this piece about him in 2010, and it was published in The Age. (I have removed his name, out of respect for indigenous tradition, and replaced it with Mr R.)

Mr R steps backwards out of the fluorescent glare of the beachside fish and chip bar and lights a cigarette. He’s late, but he’s here. While we wait for our chips to fry, Mr R’s wife, Margie, tells me about her work with young indigenous offenders in the Kimberley. The petrol sniffing’s coming back, she reckons. She’s not sure why. It eased off for a few years, but now some of the community kids are back to stealing fuel from parked cars.

Margie shakes her head in frustration and stares over the wooden railing towards the glittering black water of Cable Beach. She blames the parents. They’re not teaching the kids, not about hygiene, not about whitefella laws and not even about blackfella lore, she says. So the kids have nothing. Her husband sucks hard on his cigarette and nods: ‘‘THAT’S what I’m talking about.’’

You might have seen Mr R on your TV in June, an Aboriginal man sitting alone on a jagged red rock in the middle of a deserted beach on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula. The Four Corners helicopter circled slowly around him, capturing a cliched but somehow affecting portrait of solitude. Mr R has been leading a campaign from his home town of Broome to prevent Woodside Energy from building a gas processing plant on his traditional land at James Price Point and closing off up to 80 square kilometres of Goolarabooloo country to anyone but plant workers.

The plan could also bring an end to Mr R’s annual pilgrimage along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. His grandfather Paddy Roe, a Goolarabooloo traditional custodian, initiated the trail in 1987 to try to bring his people back to their country. Paddy passed away in 2001, but each July a swelling group of traditional owners, Broome locals and southern visitors follows Mr R’s footprints along the dunes towards the point, listening to his stories of the Goolarabooloo song cycle, camping in the same places traditional owners have camped for thousands of years.

Mr R wants to take my partner and me up to see his country, maybe catch some fresh fish, but he’s in the eye of a perfect storm of commitments. He has come to Cable Beach straight from the local court, where he has been trying to keep some Aboriginal boys out of jail.

Tomorrow he will have back-to-back meetings with lawyers and traditional law men to try to block Woodside’s bid for his land. And then there is next week’s Heritage Trail to prepare for, food and drink to be supplied for nearly 100 this year. Margie will use up her annual leave to cook for the walkers.

So tonight we’re perched on wooden benches watching the tide come up on the moonlit beach, sharing our chips and calamari and trying to make sense of this complicated battle. Mr R’s fired up. He is taking the Kimberley Land Council to court, and is still enjoying the memory of delivering the legal documents to the bewildered office staff. His language is all Old Testament vengeance, but as a campaigner he’s as slick as a fish.

‘‘My grandfather told me those stories of that land,’’ Mr R says as he waves a wilted chip in the air. ‘‘That’s my responsibility now. It’s heavy, but it’s mine. And that Wayne Bergmann, he’s been talking to the wrong people.’’

Bergmann, executive director of the Kimberley Land Council, is a man who swallows a lot when on camera. The recent Four Corners program portrayed him as a patsy, a small-town Aboriginal lawyer being manipulated by WA Premier Colin Barnett, and caught between his ambition to be a player in this big-boys’ game and a genuine desire to help his people. Woodside is promising jobs and money for the local indigenous community if the project goes ahead.

But it is hard to understand how Bergmann could have left Mr R out of the picture when the land council boss signed an agreement last year with Woodside and the state government on behalf of local native title claimants. ‘‘My name’s on the original native title claim.’’ Mr R’s words are almost drowned out by the sound of the shutters coming down on the fish and chip bar. ‘‘First name on the claim, lodged back in 1994 — Mr R, grandson of Paddy Roe. He chose me when I was three months old and he taught me the stories and he’s still buried up there on his land.’’

Mr R lights another cigarette. His Sydney barrister is planning to walk the Lurujarri Heritage Trail this year with his wife and daughter. Could be a shock to the system. No mobile phone cover, no internet, no tents. Just the clearest night sky in the country, according to experts; you can see the stars setting all the way down to the horizon.

Later in the week my partner and I do make it up to James Price Point. We pause at the creeks and estuaries along the way where local families go fishing and mud-crabbing on weekends, and wander among the dunes, poking through ancient middens. We swim in tidal rock pools, then watch as the water mysteriously disappears, leaving rippled wet sand where we’d just been swimming freestyle.

Finally, we park close to the edge of the burnt red cliffs overlooking the beach and spot the rock where Mr R posed for the Four Corners helicopter camera. Picking our way over the jagged remains of a petrified forest, we scan the horizon, hoping to see calving whales — almost 1000 humpbacks were recorded in the area last year — but no luck today. Black kites circle slowly in the warm updrafts above the cliffs as our host points north and south to where four giant jetties would be built if the gas plant goes ahead.

It’s after nine now, and Mr R’s looking tired. Fish and chips dispatched, I need to use the ladies’. The public lavatories are locked so I stride past the waitresses in the noisy cafe, and when I get back, Margie follows my lead. She takes a while to return and when she does, her face has changed, shut down.

‘‘They didn’t want to let me use the toilets,’’ she says. ‘‘What do they expect me to do? It’s their fish and chips we were eating!’’ I’m embarrassed as Margie hugs us goodbye. Mr R holds out a stiff arm to shake our hands. He’s already thinking about tomorrow.