Stand- up men for enterprise
THE two men here are Jackson Shortjoe and Eddie Holroyd from Edward River, otherwise known as Pormpuraaw, on the Gulf of Carpentaria coast between Aurukun and Kowanyama.
Going through a cardboard box full of old photos, I found these images taken in the early 1980s out on a place called Kowanyama Pocket, a huge area of open plain covering thousands of hectares on the coastal section of the northern bank of Cape York Peninsula’s Mitchell River.
The photo of the young micky bull with Jackson sitting on it and Eddie standing, horn saw in hand, was taken when reporter Ian Leslie was there with a crew doing a story for 60 Minutes.
Eddie had just sawn the horns off the young bull. The story was about Aboriginal people in remote Queensland communities starting their own businesses.
It was part of a subtle economic awakening the State Government was promoting as part of an effort to lessen the reliance of “sit down” welfare money in the indigenous towns.
The flood of government money into places like Pormpuraaw and Kowanyama each fortnight had spawned a gambling problem so endemic that even pre- teens could be found sitting around on blankets rolling dice for money and wine.
Bob Katter was the Queensland minister for Aboriginal and Islander affairs at the time. He was trying to set up models that allowed enterprising individuals to run their own businesses in the communities. The first step was to provide role models these pre- teens would want to emulate.
Enter enterprising individuals, Jackson and Eddie. They were both allocated sections of country on which to run cattle. There to guide and advise them was station manager Lindsay Kimber from Townsville. Most of the cattle they ran on these wild blocks were ferals they trapped, ran down with bull buggies or physically manhandled into submission and then secured to trees or on the ground with ropes and “bull straps”. Jackson had Barr’s Yard south of Pormpuraaw settlement.* Eddie had Christmas Creek to the north. The two men were chalk and cheese. Eddie hardly ever smiled. Jackson rarely had a grin off his face. Eddie was entrepreneurial. He didn’t drink but at the same time he didn’t mind the odd cigar.
During the wet season when the rivers flooded and no one moved away from the settlement except to go to the beach or to the mouth of Munkan Creek to spear fish, Eddie went into money- making mode.
He and his wife sold toasted sandwiches under their house. It was the Subway franchise of its era.
I spent a fair bit of time with Eddie and Jackson during a two- year period. One day I asked Eddie how it was that he could make good money making toasted Spam and tinned spaghetti sandwiches during the wet season when his customers could just have easily made their own at home.
“They’re too friggin’ lazy to make toasted sandwich,” he said.
Eddie and his wife put the prices up and the people complained. They even complained to the minister, Bob Katter. When he flew in at times there would be a deputation to meet him to complain about the prices Eddie and his wife were charging for the toasted sandwiches. Katter didn’t say it in so many words but basically the response was: “Suck it up. This is how capitalism works. Get used to it”.
Eddie and his wife, with their toasted sandwiches, were showing how you could turn a dollar by working and not relying on government money.
Eddie was smart. I’m sure that even though he was making a buck via the sandwiches, he would have still been banking a government cheque. He would have thought it un- Australian not to do so.
I was with Eddie one day at Christmas Creek. There was a rough horse paddock made from wires slung tree to tree. He ran the horses into a smaller yard where saddles straddled a spindly paperbark rail. The horses, half a dozen of them in poor condition, trotted in. They had sores on their backs the size of saucers. They were saddle sores, caused by the friction of a poorly maintained saddle rubbing on the back. These were down to the meat.
“Eddie,” I said to him, quietly “you can’t work these horses.” Bob Katter and Lindsay Kimber were there as well and when they saw the horses they asked Eddie to “bush them”, that is, turn them loose for a long time so their backs could heal. Eddie stayed quiet. He kept his head down, fixing a broken bridle. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t saddle the horses either.
For the sores to heal the horses would have had to have been spelled for months. It would never have happened. It was like Eddie had no concept of cruelty or of how animals should be treated.
No doubt the horses succumbed and died at an early age. Eddie died himself when still relatively young.
Jackson was good company. I went fishing with him and his family down in the Coleman River for barramundi and crabs. He was always considerate of outsiders. He was good on a horse and would laugh when they bucked and run his spurs along the withers like a rodeo star.
Nothing dressed in horse hide could throw him from his Barcoo Poly saddle that was held together with red hide and baling twine.
Jackson drank and laughed and enjoyed the company of his family. He fished and trapped cattle. Life was this great adventure out on those endless plains where wild cattle roamed and brumbies galloped in silhouette through the mirages on the saltpans. In the rivers and creeks that bled into the eastern gulf the fish and crabs were there for the taking.
Things change. Life zooms off in a different direction. Jackson lost two boys. Lexie died from the grog. Quentin was killed when his bull buggy rolled. Jackson’s wife Myrna has never gotten over the loss of her sons. Three sons and a daughter survive.
Jackson is an Old Man now. Still, every morning he rises early, picks up his rake and tidies the ground around the Pormpuraaw Council chambers.
We all have bucket lists. One of the things on mine is to go back to Pormpuraaw and see Jackson one more time. It’s been 32 years.
They had sores on their backs the size of saucers
*( There is no commercially managed cattle operation at Pormpuraaw today).
Jackson Shortjoe and Eddie Holroyd at Kowanyama Pocket, Pormpuraaw.
Jackson Shortjoe and his wife Myrna at Pormpuraaw last year.