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Reestablishing a Home on Eastern Cape York Peninsula

Queensland, a large state that occupies the northeastern part of the Australian continent, has long had a reputation among Australian states for its repressive policies and practices dealing with the indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (the 1986 Census counted 61,268 indigenous people, making up 2.4 percent of Queensland's population). In the past decade, however, it has become impossible for its native affairs agency and police to use force to control where and how Aborigines and Islanders live and work.

Since the mid-1970s, some Aboriginal groups on Cape York Peninsula have been returning to live on their own traditional lands. This "outstation movement" comes out of people's desires to escape the poor living conditions and stresses of life in centralized settlements and towns as well as their recognition that living on their won land gives them a stronger position in dealings with mining companies, land developers, and other outside interests.

The election of a progressive Labor government in Queensland in December 1989 brought some changes. The Division of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs (DAIA) now supports the development of decentralized communities, and the state premier, after consulting with Aboriginal groups and organizations, has just affirmed his commitment to passing land rights legislation - legislation that will be opposed by conservative forces both inside and outside the government.

The Port Stewart Lamalama People

The Port Stewart Lamalama are a group of Aboriginal people who are trying to reestablish themselves on part of their own land after police moved them off it 30 years ago. During the past five years Lamalama people have quietly reoccupied their old home base at Port Stewart, the area of the lower Stewart River. Five years ago, two couples spent the wet season camped at the river; each year since, people have spent Christmas in the area. The past three dry sea-sons have seen people camping along the river, shifting progressively upstream when their wells in the streambed went brackish.

Although the Lamalama people are receiving support from federal and state agencies, their legal position at Port Stewart is tenuous. The core area of their current residence is a 2,100-hectare Public Purposes Reserve over which the neighboring pastoralist, Richard Rand, has a 10-year Special Lease to graze his reserve changed so that it is designated as Aboriginal Reserve; this would ensure that it would be granted to the Lamalama people when land rights come. This tenure, however, is contested by Rand, an American property developer who has other business interests in Hawaii and California and who holds the lease to the surrounding Silver Plains Station. In the short term, the aspirations of the Lamalama people may be thwarted by not changing the tenure of the reserve, but they will continue to stay at Port Stewart and use the land unless they are removed by force and blocked from return.

The Lamalama people are traditional owners of an area on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula that centers on the Stewart River. Best known to anthropologists through the work of Thomson (1934), who called them "the dugong hunters of Cape York," their lands mainly lie to the south of the Stewart and extend around the lower Princess Charlotte Bay.

White pastoralists came into the region from the south, occupying it and dispossessing and dislocating its Aboriginal owners during the period from the early 1880s through the 1920s. Many Aboriginal people also died during the flu epidemic of 1919; by the late 1920s, the survivors formed a community whose home base was situated along the lower Stewart River. The Lamalama, as this community came to be called, lived there continuously until June 1961 when the Queensland government removed 23 people by subterfuge and sent them to Bamaga, 750 km north near the top of the peninsula. This act interrupted the Lamalama presence at Port Stewart; but people did not accept their banishment easily. One elderly man escaped in 1963 and tried to walk home, carrying his dugong rope with him. The police pursued him, tracking his steps with dogs, and returned him to Bamaga. Other Lamalama people remained working on nearby cattle stations. During the 1970s when award wages were introduced into the pastoral industry, people were forced or voluntarily moved off the stations into towns and onto reserves; many Lamalama people settled at Coen, about 70 km inland. They never lost their desire to get back some land at Port Stewart and return there to live, and from about 1970 on they began to make short visits home to fish, hunt, and gather bush "tucker" (Australian vernacular for food) whenever they could manage it.

The identity of the Port Stewart Lamalama as a distinct people of "tribe" is based upon their ownership of the particular area and on common genealogical relationships, common cultural heritage, and a common history over the past century - they and their recent forbears were effectively and legally dispossessed of their lands. They emerged as a distinct group over the past century as the result of historical processes that brought about the amalgamation of people from a number of patriclans, local groups, and language groupings, (Rigsby 1990:10-12). They number perhaps 150 people. Most live now at Coen, although they spend much time at Port Stewart; the remaining Lamalama people live in smaller numbers elsewhere in the eastern part of the peninsula.

Living On - and Living Off - the Land

During our recent visits (1989-1990), we found that people lived in and made much use of the area around their Port Stewart home base; but they also moved out by foot and vehicle to visit and use other areas along the coast and inland north and south. People now fish mostly in the Stewart estuary and its mangrove channels as well as along the beach. They fish with hook and line for a range of species, but favor barramundi and salmon; they also spear mud crabs, stingrays, and mullet. Women occasionally gather mussels, whelks, oysters, and other shellfish in mangroves, sandy flats, and shallow reefs exposed at low tide. The Lamalama people describe themselves as "fish eaters," preferring fish to terrestrial animals; but their favorite flesh foods are dugongs (also called sea cows) and sea turtles, which feed off shore near seagrass beds and reefs. These animals provide nutritious food for numbers of people. Dugongs and turtles are protected bylaw, and many of the Lamalama people's hunting grounds are under the jurisdiction of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). The GBRMPA issues permits to some Aboriginal people to take dugongs and turtles, but because the Lamalama people do not live on Aboriginal Reserve land they are not eligible to apply for permits to take dugongs and turtles "in accordance with Aboriginal tradition."

People also fish in the interior. Above the estuaries, most streams run only in the wet season, but there are permanent pools and waterholes in as well as away from the streambeds. Many streams are fringed by gallery rain forest that includes desirable fruiting trees and plant species. People dig and gather several yam species that grow in the sandy soils found in the scrubs behind the beach dunes and along the streams, and hunt ducks, geese, and other birds in the large freshwater swamps and wetlands that are home to many species, some migratory and others present year round. They also hunt feral pigs near swamps and waterholes, and use .22-caliber rifles and single-barrel 12-gauge shotguns for hunting pigs, wallabies, kangaroos, and birds. People utilize a more restricted range of plant foods, however, than in the past; flour has replace tubers, seeds, and edible mangrove pods, all of which require labor-intensive preparation. Older people have intimate knowledge of places and bush resources and the techniques to gather and process them.

The yearly cycle is not uniform with respect to rainfall and temperature. A pronounced monsoon or wet season generally lasts from January through April, when the prevailing wind is from the north-west and the mornings often are calm and clear - good times to hunt dugongs and turtles safely and easily. By June the dry season is well under way and the prevailing winds - the southeast trade winds - can blow for days at a time at 30 knots or more. By late June and July, the nights are quite cool. By August the weather warms up; temperatures and humidity are at their most uncomfortable levels by late November into January, as the storms build up before the monsoon sets in again. The wet season is a good time to camp at the beach because food and fresh water are plentiful and easy to procure.

The wet season also sees great vegetational growth; the grasses grow tall and rank on the savannah and plains areas as well as in the fringes of the scrubs. When the wet season ends and particular areas dry out, the men begin to set them alight. They consciously manage habitats with firs because they know that a few weeks after a burn the new grass shoots will attract wallabies and other game. Also, it is easier to walk through and hunt an area after the tall grass has been burnt, and there is less danger from hidden poisonous snakes in a cleared area. (People also burn over camping areas for the same reason.)

Firing the land is not done simply for its material and economic benefits, however; people use fire for aesthetic benefits, however; people use fire for aesthetic and spiritual reasons, too. They prefer open, "clean" country. When people visit areas after many years' absence, they comment upon how the country has gone "wild" and is "closed up" by the scrub that has grown since they stopped firing it regularly. White pastoralists' firing practices are different, and from the beginning of pastoral settlement their use of fire in contrast to Aboriginal firing practices sometimes bred conflict. People also require fresh, clean water for drinking and cooking. At some places, they dig out and keep free of debris; but they comment upon how many wells have gone brackish since their elderly people were removed in 1961. They hope the water supply as well as the country will come good again as they live on the country, look after it, and use it again.

People not only forage the land for food, but they also gather useful bush materials: firewood, timber for building, bark of several kinds, and gum and plam fiber for string. When they are staying at Port Stewart, they send fish and meat up to relatives in Coen; Sunlight Bassani, a senior man, and his family make regular trips back and forth in the "Lama-Lama Outstation" truck and their private vehicle to transport people and goods.

There is a great contrast between life at Port Stewart and life in Coen. At Port Stewart, people are busy and productive; their diets are good and the social atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful. At Coen many people drink heavily; only two Aborigines have regular employment, and some men work as stockmen for short periods. Most Aboriginal income in Coen is from government transfer payments - insufficient for basic material needs. Subsistence production at Port Stewart, by contrast, provides a significant, real addition to income, enabling people to achieve a better standard of living through their own efforts. The cash value of subsistence production is substantial, as can be realized when the worth of fish, crab, pork, and other products is calculated at reasonable market prices.

A Cultural Landscape

Another dimension to Aboriginal life - one that is crucial understanding the Aboriginal relationship to land and its resources - is the landscape. Lamalama people do not live in a mere physical landscape, one that exists independently of their knowledge and experience of it; instead, they live in a landscape in which places and things have meaning and value that ultimately derive from human attribution. A place has a meaning and significance that transcends its material properties.

The landscape includes many named places ("countries") - streams, swamps, lagoons, salt pans, sand ridges, islands, and reefs. Country names often apply to specific sites as well s the areas surrounding them. Thus, Yintyingga is the name of a former freshwater swamp near Kokorro, a fighting ground, on the south side of the Stewart River estuary. Yintyingga means "boxwood tree" in the Ayapathu and Umpila languages, and the site is indeed a boxwood tree "Storyplace," or totemic center. The name Yintyingga, however, also refers to the wider surrounding lower Stewart area, which Aboriginal people more often now call Port Stewart. (It is also the name by which Thomson called the people of the area when he wrote about them.)

When Lamalama people look at or talk about their land, it is not as nameless wilderness; every place either has its own name or can be specified by its location relative to a named place. The land and its names have further important meanings that originate in people's knowledge of the era they call the "Story-time" and in their oral history of recent generations.

The Storytime, called the Dreamtime in other parts of Australia, refers to the time before humans appeared on the earth, when animals, plants, and other natural phenomena took human form and had human agency. It was during the Storytime that Porcupine got his quills and Emu lost her ability to fly; it was then, too, that Moon, Tiger Shark, and other Story-beings traveled the earth's surface making particular landforms and features in Lamalama country. Sometimes they only passed through certain areas; but in other places, they stopped for good. In such Story-places the Story-beings live, aware of and sensitive to human activity nearby.

In the old days, the older men knew how to perform ceremonies and "wake up" the Story-beings (in what anthropologists call "increase ceremonies"). People have spiritual responsibilities to perform these ceremonies; in so doing, they ensure new generations of wallabies, black ducks, and other creatures. People today no longer known how to perform the ceremonies; but they wish they did, and they certainly know that the Story-beings still live. People monitor their behavior closely when they are near Storyplaces, and they act appropriately. Some sites or areas are intrinsically dangerous, and Lamalama people are genuinely concerned about the safety and well-being of strangers and tourists who venture into such areas and behave inappropriately. Lamalama people know the angry Story-beings can sometimes bring their wrath to bear on the Aboriginal people who are responsible owners of such areas. The Storytime is not over and forgotten; it lives vividly in Lamalama people's consciousness, its signatures readily visible to them all over the landscape.

Other places and features on the land take their meanings and values from people's memories of their own lives and the oral history of recent generations. People often speak of particular places in terms of specific events and of people with whom they shared experience of those events. They recall that such-and-such a camping place is where King G. got angry with another man and let fly a spear that just missed. They remember that at a certain spot on Annie River, the old people caught up with a young man and woman when they ran away from Port Stewart. They recognize a tree at Dinner Hole as the one where Old Man Bob B. climbed up and went to sleep when he was a boy; when the old people couldn't find him, they cried in despair until he awoke and rejoined them. Gravesites and birthing trees are also places of continuing significance that people value as cultural heritage from their old people and their own lived experience that they don't wish to see disturbed.

Land Rights and Politicians

For the Lamalama people and for other Queensland Aboriginal people, it is crucially important that politicians gain some reliable understanding of the ancient Aboriginal heritage and its continuing significance for all Aborigines. They must also recognize the uniqueness of Aboriginal people's relationship to land if they are to set into motion the consultative and legislative processes that will provide secure land tenure for Aboriginal people. And they might also appreciate that land rights can enable some Aboriginal people like the Lamalama to produce a good part of their living in a sustainable manner from the land, thus freeing them from their current dependency on state welfare.


Rigsby, B.

1990 The Languages of the Princess Charlotte Bay Region. In T.E. Dutton, D.T. Tryon, and M.D. Ross, eds. Pacific Linguistics. Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University (in press).

Thomson, D.

1934 The Dugong Hunters of Cape York. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 64:237-262.

How You Can Help

Readers can write to the premier of Queensland, commending him for his commitment to Aboriginal and Islander land rights and asking him to continue to provide leadership in the political process that will lead to social justice for the Lamalama and other Aboriginal and Islander people in Queensland:

Hon. W.K. Goss, Premier

Parliament House

Alice Street (corner of George Street)

Brisbane, Queensland 4000 Australia

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