Move­ment at the sta­tion

More than 20 years af­ter their first pub­li­ca­tion, the sto­ries of the Abo­rig­i­nal stock­men of the north res­onate in un­ex­pected ways, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN the mid-decades of the 20th cen­tury, across the wild fron­tier reaches of north­west Aus­tralia, a deep trans­for­ma­tion was un­der way. The great pas­toral sta­tions of the Kim­ber­ley, stretch­ing from the Fitzroy River across the Leopold Ranges, from Derby as far as Tur­key Creek, had all been claimed and oc­cu­pied. The stock had long since been over­landed, there was a press­ing need for labour and the work was hard.

So be­gan one of the most ex­otic and con­tra­dic­tion-laden chap­ters in the his­tory of the north: the tale of the Abo­rig­i­nal stock­men of the wide Kim­ber­ley plains. It was a time of grand achieve­ments and folk­loric ad­ven­tures, a time rich in toil and suf­fer­ing as well. It be­gan grad­u­ally, with the slow re­cruit­ment into sta­tion life of young men from desert and river tribal group­ings, and it came to an abrupt stop in the late 1960s with the pas­sage of the Con­cil­i­a­tion and Ar­bi­tra­tion Com­mis­sion’s equal wages de­ci­sion man­dat­ing that pay scales for in­dige­nous drovers should be the same as for non­indige­nous drovers, and the rapid mod­erni­sa­tion of the cat­tle in­dus­try that fol­lowed.

Two gen­er­a­tions of Abo­rig­i­nal stock­men gave the best of them­selves to the Kim­ber­ley pas­toral en­ter­prises be­fore their lives in the sad­dle ended. The last sur­vivors still live on the com­mu­ni­ties and out­sta­tions of the re­gion, rem­i­nisc­ing, telling sto­ries, still wear­ing with pride and sad­ness their cow­boy boots and jeans and dark wide-brimmed hats, star­ing out as if they were still perched on the top-rail gaz­ing at milling cat­tle.

The ini­tial Kim­ber­ley memoirs of the golden days of the pas­toral era were told from the white per­spec­tive: nar­ra­tives of broad plains and bright sun, long rides and big mobs. If the in­dige­nous labour force fig­ured at all, it tended to re­ceive brief men­tion, first names only, slightly out of fo­cus on the mar­gins of the tale.

Then, in 1989, came the first edi­tion of Ra­parapa, a set of nar­ra­tives told by a group of nine black stock­men whose lives were spent on the large, lush sta­tions that clus­ter around Fitzroy Cross­ing.

Ra­parapa was one of the ear­li­est pro­duc­tions of Broome-based, state-backed Abo­rig­i­nal pub­lisher Maga­bala Books. It was a joint win­ner of the WA Week nonfiction lit­er­ary award and has sold strongly since. The book is richly illustrated, its pho­to­graphs com­ple­ment­ing the re­mem­bered sto­ries that weave through its pages: rec­ol­lec­tions of bush child­hoods, early hard­ships and the strug­gles of the protest era in the north.

But Ra­parapa is also the record of a shared bush rite of pas­sage: the tes­ti­mony of men who grew up on horse­back, rid­ing, rop­ing, bron­co­ing and brand­ing. Some of the mem­o­ries they of­fer are dif­fi­cult to bear: the vi­o­lence of the Kim­ber­ley fron­tier had abated by the time this gen­er­a­tion of sta­tion men were pressed into work but the taut, dark threat was still present. Mas­sacres were re­mem­bered, the sites were known. Lash­ing and beat­ing were still oc­ca­sional fea­tures of the Abo­rig­i­nal stock­man’s life.

Work­ing on Go Go sta­tion, Jock Shan­d­ley was fright­ened even to set foot in the white man’s quar­ters: ‘‘ I was afraid that I might get hunted out, or get a bul­let, or any­thing.’’ If there was noise in the Abo­rig­i­nal camp down on the river­bank be­neath the sta­tion, the man­ager would come down with a ri­fle: voices raised, chil­dren cry­ing, camp dogs barking, the dis­ci­pline on of­fer was the same. Chap­ter and verse is given in these pages. Con­sider Ernie Bird, once man­ager of Brooking Spring sta­tion, who held the mail con­tract for the run be­tween Derby and Fitzroy Cross­ing. He used a bul­let to set­tle a dis­pute with one of his best stock­men, and the tale has a cer­tain plau­si­bil­ity, told as it is by Jimmy Bird, a Bunuba stock­man whom Ernie reared from child­hood. Such was the Kim­ber­ley fron­tier, ar­bi­trary and harsh.

The sta­tion char­ac­ters were colour­ful, and on the strange side, too. There were old-line

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