Country to the west of Yuendumu
Country to the west of Yuendumu

This is a guest post from my friend Frank Baarda. Frank has lived in Yuendumu, a small town about 300 kilomtres north-west of Alice Springs, for 35 or so years. Among many other things he has achieved a degree of notoriety for his occasional sprays in the form of his irregular “Musical Dispatches from the Front”.

The “Front ” is a reference to Yuendumu as a frontline in the NT Intervention, against the more pernicious effects of which Frank has railed against with a rare consistency, ferocity and – above all – a humour that is absent from most of the discourse about that failed social experiment.

Frank’s Musical Dispatches are laced with musical, linguistic and cultural references that betray his sharp intelligence and keen willingness to rebuff cant and bureaucratic bullshit with all the considerable powers in his possession.

Here is Frank’s latest Musical Dispatch sent out earlier this evening, Thursday 16 September 2010.

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Frank is keenly aware that he cannot cover all of the complex issues arising from the events of the past few days and he doesn’t profess to have any answers or all of the facts, but then, who ever does?

Meus queridos amigos

Today’s quote:

The report of my death was an exaggeration” Mark Twain, 1897

Yuendumu is in the news. Not because of its star footballer, not because of the gradual destruction of its social fabric, not because of anything positive such as its arts achievements. No, because of “travel warnings”, “rioting”, “lock-down” and the flying in of a tactical response team.

To all those friends and relatives that anxiously rang us to ask if we’re safe, thank you. Yes we are.

I can’t think of a single incident in the past in which the Warlpiri residents of Yuendumu have not respected non-Warlpiri residents’ neutrality in such matters.

They respect our right to be kept out of it. This respect is not reciprocated by “mainstream” society, that has the arrogant belief that it is entitled to interfere and dictate to remote Aboriginals how they should live their lives. The Intervention epitomises this arrogance.

At 4 p.m. yesterday an NT Police media release mentioned “disturbances” at Yuendumu.

By 6 p.m. when everything had quietened down, the “disturbances” had metamorphosed on television into full-blown riots.

Pictures of smoke palls and large crowds appeared “exclusive” to Channel 9 TV. At first I thought they were photos from Baghdad or Kabul, then I noticed it was from that notoriously dangerous place: Yuendumu.

Do you remember the photo showing Steve Irwin holding his baby whilst feeding a crocodile?

Steve Irwin

Can you also remember how different this looked from another angle?

To define what happened yesterday in Yuendumu as a “riot” is simplistic and wrong. It was targeted and specific. Everyone knew who the “gang of roaming armed men” were and whence they’d roam.

Three vehicles were set on fire in the yard next door to where my 9 year old granddaughter lives. She witnessed the event. “Were you frightened?” “No, we just watched”. In my son’s yard there are several untouched vehicles.

Moot point: the aggregate value of the five burnt vehicles was probably less than that of the vehicle the Intervention has made available to the GBM (Government Business Manager). The first GBM we dubbed “the invisible man”. The current one (third) we haven’t seen for at least a couple of days. We don’t miss him (nothing personal Chris).

Several older Warlpiri people have said to me that they wished the traditional “payback” system could be applied.

(The following is from The Age in 2004)

NT rules out tribal payback

February 19, 2004

The Northern Territory Government has ruled out changing laws to allow Aboriginal defendants on bail to receive traditional payback, such as spearing. NT Attorney-General Peter Toyne said payback was no longer appropriate, and called on remote Aboriginal communities to come up with other forms of punishment to ease tensions between families. The NT Supreme Court yesterday granted bail to a man accused of manslaughter on the condition he stay away from his remote community of Lajamanu, 800 kilometres south-west of Darwin, where he was to receive payback. Walpiri man Jeremy Anthony, 23, had asked to be released on bail to return to his community to be speared four times in the upper leg by the family of the woman he is accused of killing, in a bid to settle tensions between the two families. Anthony feared that he could be “cursed by Aboriginal magic that may kill him” or his family could be in danger if he did not receive the traditional punishment. But Chief Justice Brian Martin yesterday ruled that he could not release Anthony to Lajamanu because there was a significant risk it would result in unlawful grievous bodily harm. A person may authorise bodily harm to himself, but not grievous bodily harm. Dr Toyne said the decision confirmed existing NT law – that payback was not appropriate where it resulted in serious injury.

I am told that what would happen is that someone would make themselves available as a neutral umpire/mediator. The mediator would liaise with both sides of the dispute and it would be decided who would mete out and who would receive what punishment.

The usual punishment would be spearing in the thigh. Whilst undoubtedly very painful this would almost never be fatal. I suspect fewer people would die from payback than would die in custody.

Payback is against NT laws, and whilst Yuendumu Police have been exemplary in how they have handled the situation so far, they are also duty bound to prevent payback from taking place.

This will ensure that family feuds will continue for years to come. Payback used to settle the matter once and for all.

Many in mainstream society consider leg spearing to be barbaric. I consider destroying families by locking someone up for years to be barbaric.

As for flying in a tactical response team (which I confess I did not see): tactical and tactless.

Desapontamento, meu velho amigo

Obrigado. Até a próxima volta


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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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