Shots fired during a brawl last November in a tiny Western Australian town made national news, highlighting a family feud brewing in the town’s indigenous Noongar community and drawing attention to issues of aboriginal disadvantage. In the first of a series of reports in Crikey, Research Journalism’s Kayt Davies explains just what they’re fighting about.

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If there’s a shootout in the near future, another spate of suicides or some other calamitous event involving hundreds of Noongar people, it could well be in Narrogin. And if it happens, they’ll be mourning people who’ll say “We told ‘em so. We said it might come to this. We asked for help.”

The agricultural town 190km south-east of Perth hit the news last November when shots were fired during a brawl, following the funeral of an Aboriginal matriarch. The words ‘firearms’, ‘shooting’ and ‘family feud ’ made headlines, charges were laid and as members of both  families headed out of town for the summer, an uneasy peace settled over the town. Now the new school year is starting, people are back and members of the feuding families involved say temperatures are rising again.

Sitting with me in parks, in their offices and on the verandas of their homes, they told me that the help they want is not a handout and it’s not another year or two of fruitless government meetings. It’s something more tangible. They want the problem to be publicly acknowledged and they want counsellors who can work in a flexible and careful way on the raw loathing and deeper philosophical differences that are have come to a nasty head over recent years and that are now threatening to explode into a bloodbath.

Surrounded by wheat fields, baked butter-yellow by the summer sun, Narrogin has a population of around 4670. About 300 of those people are Indigenous, mostly Noongar, people who have extended family connections that spread throughout the southwest of WA and the state’s prison population. There are three primary schools, one senior high school, five banks, a wheat silo, a bowling club, three art galleries and three pubs in Narrogin.

The main street sidewalks are red-brick paved, shaded by tall leafy trees and at night lit by heritage-style street lamps. For most of the population life here is peaceful. But just a few blocks from the centre of town is a small dusty dry-grass park surrounded by suburban housing that has some play equipment, bright lighting and white circles on the roads painted by forensics experts to mark the locations of last November’s bullet shells and blood stains.

Clark Street on the west side of the park is like the shadow version of Ramsey Street. In July 2009 some high school girls threw spiteful words at each other at a netball event. The fight simmered on, as high school dramas often do, and on September 21, 2009, it was at boiling point. But this time their mothers were drawn into it and, as fists (and feet) flew, protective male relatives stepped in.

While the claims the girls were making were one source of indignation, there was also anger about the way that the argument between the girls had been handled. Some parents were furious that the organisers of the netball trip had allowed the fight to fester and hadn’t sorted it out then and there, while they were away at the competition.

The shouting and threatening went on for several days and escalated; the dispute between the girls and their mothers had resonances with other disagreements simmering between older family members about rhetoric, racism and control of the organisations that receive government funding. Rivalry over drug dealing issues and police sympathy may also have played a part, with both families claiming the police favour the other side.

In the weeks following the September fight someone was threatened with an axe, someone was hit with a golf club and windows were smashed. Charges were laid, police slapped misconduct orders on one member of each family, and the court granted nine restraining orders. This wasn’t a solution though. Everyone was angry, not everyone thought the police had been fair, and a 58-year-old man, well respected for his work at the Narrogin Primary School, was so saddened by it all that he tried to end his own life.

His suicide attempt rocked the town, still numb and grieving from a spate of six suicides in 2008 that had triggered the formation of a new community reference group; prompted calls for — and the promise of — an inquiry by the State Coroner (that has not yet eventuated); prompted Oxfam to step in to fill what it considered to be a “dangerous void” in mental health services in the town; and sparked the interest of the Senate Select Committee on Regional and Remote Indigenous Communities.

The September violence also prompted the Narrogin police to publicly call on the state government’s Aboriginal Mediation Service for help. Explaining that local attempts at mediation between the two rival families had failed, Sen.Sgt Martin Voyez told The Narrogin Observer: “There’s not much else we can do.”

All this was the prelude to the shooting in November 2009.

Read Part Two: What happened that night here:

Research Journalism — published by the CREATEC Research Centre at Edith Cowan University — is a new academic journal for reporting issues of public concern.