In part three of a special report into the family feud in the indigenous Noongar community that made national headlines, Research Journalism’s Kayt Davies examines the aftermath of the gun fight.
In the week following the shooting in November, the media reported there were fears of retribution when relatives gathered for another funeral. The West Australian mentioned it was the funeral of “a stillborn baby”.
What wasn’t reported was the mother miscarried a couple of weeks after the house she and other women and children were staying in was attacked while they slept on the night of September 29, 2009. According to the Kickett family, they had huddled together as windows were broken and after sweeping up the glass the next morning the woman had felt pains.
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Explaining the context of the attack on the house, Murray Riley (a friend of the Colbung family) said it may have been retribution for an event earlier that night that saw rocks thrown at the house of Dean Colbung’s sister, Joanne Humes. Despite the fears and sadness there were no violent incidents after the baby’s funeral, nor were there any after a funeral of a man related to both families on January 22.
Police had been on alert though, horses had been brought up from Perth and they helped police to maintain a visible presence outside the town’s three pubs that January night. But there were very few, if any, Noongar people in the bars. A few car loads of people had bought takeaway alcohol from the bottle shop at about 6pm and the families stayed on separate sides of town.
While the violence hasn’t boiled over again it has been simmering. There has been a spate of window smashings and police released a statement on November 21, 2009, saying that an Armadale couple who had been in Narrogin for the funeral in November had reported hearing two loud bangs on the Wednesday night after the brawl and had found three holes, apparently made by bullets in their Mitsubishi wagon the next morning. Police said neighbours had also heard what sounded like two gun shots but no one has been charged over the incident.
What is worrying about the Armadale issue is that it shows the feud could to spill to other communities. The Kickett/Bolton clan is one of the largest in the 25,000 strong Noongar nation, with family members living in communities all over WA’s south-west. Basil Kickett said: “If we were to call our family into town it would be huge. We would outnumber them, but we’re not doing that. They call and offer to come, but we say no.”
Dean Colbung, who hasn’t yet returned to Narrogin after leaving for the summer, is also aware of the potential for the fight to get out of hand. Asked if he’s scared about what might happen next, he said: “Yes, and it’s getting worse … My son got shot and we’re still dealing with that.” These ongoing concerns, fuelled by the trauma of the many sad events in recent years, fly in the face of statements from the town’s political leaders that it’s over and peace reigns in Narrogin.
The ABC quoted WA Member for Wagin Terry Waldron telling a crowd assembled for the awarding of police long service honours on December 4, 2009, that “residents were focused on rebuilding relationships after the recent violence between feuding families”. The Narrogin Observer had mayor Don Ennis saying: “I don’t think we’ll have any long-term effect out of this. We will all get together after this and iron it out. It’s just a flare up that happens from time to time.”
Police are not so sure that the situation has settled down. Sen Sgt Martin Voyez said: “The concern for police is that we’ve gone from shouting to an axe to a shooting where someone could have been killed in a very short space of time. We are concerned that it could happen again with fatal consequences. Guns and firing onto a crowd including women and children shocked a lot of people and, having happened once, it may happen again.”
What scares members of both families is the way fights between teenagers can be the sparks that set off older, more dangerous relatives. Asked what needs to happen to ease tensions in Narrogin, both families suggested the other revise their parenting practices. Most of the teenagers involved are students at Narrogin Senior High School, where a brawl broke out on muck-up day in December, 2008. A description of the fight posted by a “student” on the PerthNow news site included: “Bricks were thrown, teachers were threatened, surrounding students would be screaming and crying, the whole school was in shock.” There was another incident at the school in June, 2009, that prompted a boycott of the school by parents of 25 students.
In the wash-up there was debate about whether the fights involved racism or just generic bullying: some students were suspended, the school upped its anti-bullying efforts and, according to 15-year-old Kyle Kickett, “everyone else just shook hands and got over it”. But older members of the Kickett family are still concerned and want something done to challenge what they call the town’s “systemic racism”.
The situation heightened by the presence of drugs in some parts of Narrogin’s Noongar community. As one man put it: “Speed makes people vicious and angry and ganja makes them paranoid. It’s a dangerous mix.” The danger intensifies around funerals because it often travels in the bags and pockets of visiting family members.
Sen Sgt Voyez confirmed the primary drugs of choice in town were “marijuana and some speed/amphetamine”, but he stressed drugs in Narrogin were not confined to the Noongar community and added while alcohol plays a part in the violence he hadn’t “seen signs of speed”. He said tackling the flow of drugs into town was an ongoing operation, often involving highway car searches. That had some, but not complete, success.
Policing and legal action isn’t the perfect solution though. It sometimes exacerbates the hurts and adds to the bitterness. Many of Narrogin’s Noongar people are professionals holding down responsible jobs. They understand the impact of police reports, restraining orders and complaints to employers on professional reputations and future career opportunities. The upshot of this has been a series of complaints and counter complaints to employers across town. While this may seem petty, it’s deadly serious to people who have worked hard for decades to escape racist stereotypes.
Basil Kickett worked for Qantas for 18 years before a shoulder injury and an interest in helping young people prompted him to return home to Narrogin. He’s proud he was able to buy his own house and of his current full-time employment as Narrogin Primary School’s Aboriginal Islander liaison officer. Chatting to him on his porch he showed me a folder of professional references, awards and acknowledgements. He said: “I’ve done all this to make myself a good role model. Role models are what our young people need, and now I have a restraining order on me, just because I went to the defence of my family members who were being attacked. What was I supposed to do?”
He’s hurt that in the days following the brawl in November members of the other family complained to the school principal that they weren’t sure their children were safe in the school with him working there. On the other side of the dispute, Dean Colbung claims his wife was forced to leave town after complaints were made about her work at Southern Wheatbelt Primary Health.
Both sides acknowledge that some kind of mediation is needed, but so far nothing acceptable to both sides has materialised. According to Murray Riley, three mediation attempts have been made, but so far none have been acceptable to both families. In the meantime both families’ unprocessed grief, anger and fear continues to fester. The terms “deep hatred” and “eye for an eye” are being used, and the boy who found one of the suicide-death bodies (three days later and looking gruesome) still hasn’t had a single counselling session.
On Tuesday part four: don’t call me racist. You can read the previous chapters here. Research Journalism — published by the CREATEC Research Centre at Edith Cowan University — is a new academic journal for reporting issues of public concern.