A story and struggle close to my heart: the remote Indigenous Homelands


Tomorrow I will be attending the ‘Australian of the Year’ award ceremony with fellow anthropologist, Bentley James. We will be there on behalf of Baymarrwangga, a ninety-five year old Yan-nhaŋu speaking Yolŋu woman and traditional owner of the Crocodile Islands.

Baymarrwangga has been nominated for Senior Australian of the Year for her life’s work fighting against successive government policies ~ for her right and the right of all traditional owners to live on their respective traditional Homelands. This is a struggle that is particularly close to my heart and one that I have witnessed first hand, living on the Homelands with my adoptive Yolŋu family.

This is a story about the remote Indigenous Homelands and how successive governments have tried to shut them down.


The good-way first part of this story about the remote Indigenous Homelands of the Northern Territory (NT), Australia.

There are approximately 60,000 Indigenous people that live in the NT, comprising approximately 1/3 of the NT population. There are more than 100 Indigenous languages and dialects spoken in the NT, with many people speaking English as their third or fourth language.

Indigenous Traditional Owners today own approximately 50% of land in the NT. There are ~560 Homeland communities on this Indigenous estate. While they are remote these communities are anything but isolated – they are interconnected and interwoven by kinship networks and socio-political ceremonial ties that crosscut the many culturally distinctive regions in the NT.

Some of these Homeland communities have existed and been maintained through continuity of occupation, residence and patterns of mobility since pre-colonial times. This is true of the Homeland community where I lived throughout the course of my fieldwork. These are among the only Indigenous people who have not yet been dispossessed of their country – who have never – not yet ever – been moved off their country for any period of time since contact.

Many other communities were established as part of the ‘Homelands Movement’ in the 1970s by traditional owners who had previously been ‘shepherded’ coerced or ‘herded’ into centralized government settlements and mission stations. In the 1970s there was a shift in public opinion and government policy toward ‘Self Determination’ and ‘Land Rights.’ People were then free to return to their country, which they did in large numbers and with great haste. This decentralized migration became known as the ‘Homelands Movement.’ People cleared their land by hand, cleared roads and airstrips and built their own shelters etc; these people were trailblazers who endured a great deal of hardship in order to reestablish their lives and families back on their respective countries.

Living on the Homelands allows people to maintain their socio-religious, political and economic connections to country, to maintain their respective traditional languages, customs and culture and, most importantly, to raise their families and future generations on country in the same way.


To that part of the story about successive governments and their attempts to shut the Homelands down

This part of the story is about withdrawing, rescinding and withholding:

1) economic opportunities; 2) political representation; 3) basic services and; 4) basic civil rights.


1) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding – economic opportunities

In 2007 then Liberal Government announced it was abolishing the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). The CDEP provided people with opportunities for gainful employment on country  – for people to both live and work on their traditional Homelands.

Altman and Gray (2005) point out that the CDEP performed five main roles in remote and very remote areas of Australia: first, it provided flexible employment opportunities, often in contexts where there are no, or limited, mainstream employment opportunities, particularly for Indigenous people; second, it provided income security and the opportunity to earn additional income from employment and enterprise; third, it provided an opportunity for education and training; fourth it can assist participants to move into mainstream (unsubsidised) employment; and finally, it acted as an instrument for economic and community development.

With the abolition of CDEP people were denied the opportunity to live and work in gainful employment on Country.


2) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding – social and political representation

In 2004 the Federal Government (again, under Howard) abolished the only elected Indigenous political body in Australia, ‘ATSIC.’

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC, 1990–2005) was the government body that formally involved Indigenous people in processes of government. There were a number of additional Indigenous (led and run) programs and organisations that fell under the umbrella of ATSIC. The agency was ‘dismantled’ by the Howard Liberal Government in 2004 based on allegations of corruption.

The second point to note under this heading is the fact that the government has reduced sixty-two (62) Municipal and Community Government Councils in the NT to sixteen (16) over the last four years. Eight of these are new ‘super’ Shires, which each serve (i.e. allegedly represent) an unmanageable number of townships and remote communities and, furthermore, include large areas of land not previously administered by Local Government.

It is now widely acknowledged that the previous, smaller remote-based councils and resource agencies played a crucial intermediary role between remote communities and government.


3) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding – basic services

In May 2009 then NT Minister for Indigenous Policy announced the ‘Working Futures Policy’, which saw the introduction of a “Hub and Spoke” model of service provision in remote areas.

The “hub” aspect of this model was the preferential focus on large, centralized communities and townships such as Yuendumu, Borroloola and Maningrida. The government hand-picked and declared twenty of these centralised communities “Northern Territory Growth Towns”, which were from then on to function as “hub centres” for surrounding areas and the many and diverse smaller Homeland Communities throughout the region.

There was no mention at the time that many of these “Growth Towns” were already (and still are) experiencing social problems associated with chronic housing shortages and overcrowding. Many families are still living in tents, for example, on the fringes of these so called “Growth Towns”.

The “spoke” aspect of this model was the withdrawal of basic service provision to smaller Homeland Communities. Many Homeland schools, for example, were shut down and medical provision rolled right back. These services that were withdrawn or rescinded are basic services that every Australian citizen is entitled to; they are basic services that every (other) Australian citizen is able to take for granted. Crucially, at this time the government also announced that it would “not build any new houses on outstations and homelands.”


4) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding – basic civil rights

In 2007 the NT Intervention into remote Indigenous communities shocked even the most cynical of government critics. Legislatively known as the ‘Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007’, the NT Intervention was allegedly a response by the Federal government to the ‘Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse’ and or the subsequent ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report.

It is now widely acknowledged that this report did and does not contain any information nor any recommendations that support or justify the measures included in the NT Intervention. Indeed, lawyer Rex Wild QC who co-authored the report has since spoken out against the Intervention on a number of occasions calling for it to be ‘dismantled.’

In order to ensure that the ‘emergency response’ was not in breach of current legislation and law the Federal Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (see ‘Clause 132 of the first Bill that states that provisions are classified as ‘special measures’ under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and therefore exempt from Part II of the Act).

The NT Intervention’s main logistical operation, ‘Operation Outreach’, was enacted or carried out by the military – by a force of 600 soldiers and detachments from the Australian Defense Force (including NORFORCE). This deployment was, in effect, a military sortie that saw the military convoys deployed into small, remote Indigenous communities. This, despite the fact that they were situated on private property owned and held as inalienable freehold title in fee simple absolute – by traditional owners.

To the most shocking aspect of the Intervention – the widespread and sweeping measures that comprise it. The following measures were introduced by the Federal government as part of the NT Intervention:


– Introduction of widespread alcohol restrictions on NT Indigenous land, (even though the majority of Aboriginal communities are already ‘dry’).

– Introduction of ‘welfare reforms’ now known as ‘welfare quarantining’, which dictates when, where and how Indigenous people can spend their money.

– The imposition of compulsory ‘health checks’ – mandatory anal and vaginal examination – for all Indigenous children regardless of their and their parent’s wishes.

– The forceful acquisition of townships from Traditional Owners through non-negotiable five-year leases, with the prospect of permanent loss of communal customary title.

– Increased policing levels in Indigenous communities.

– Enforced “on the ground clean up and repair of communities’ with the military, police, and (involuntary) local Indigenous work- forces, ‘marshalled’ through work-for-the-dole. These ‘local work- forces’ had their welfare payments made conditional on such activities.

– The imposition or ‘introduction’ of market based rent on land, which was up until last week Indigenous land which require Indigenous people to pay the government market based rents for living on land that the government compulsorily acquired.

– Banning the possession of X-rated pornography and introducing audits of all publicly funded computers to identify illegal material.

– Abolishing the permit system (a central pillar of the Indigenous Land Rights Act) for common areas, road corridors and airstrips for prescribed communities on Indigenous land.

– Introduction or ‘imposition’ of government installed ‘managers’ in all “Prescribed Communities.”


The current Gillard Labor Government has continued with these policies and the same policy line. This is more than evident with the recently announced, “Stronger Futures” policy. I have written about the flawed ‘consultation’ process for this particular policy previously.



This is only part of the story of the remote Indigenous Homelands… but that part which gives a sense (I hope) of how successive governments have tried to shut them down.

It will feel strange and no doubt unsettling to be seated in the halls of Parliament house with the very same politicians that Baymarrwangga, my adoptive Yolŋu family, and every other traditional owner, has or have been fighting against.

Let’s just hope that it serves as an opportunity to raise awareness about the struggle of the Homelands – an opportunity to demand positive recognition of and support for the Homelands, now and into the future.


Filed under Indigenous Rights

6 responses to “A story and struggle close to my heart: the remote Indigenous Homelands

  1. Marco Iacoboni

    This is an informative post, at least for people like me that know nothing about these things. There are two things I read that are not fully clear to me.

    One is this thing called traditional ownership. I guess I grasp the meaning, yet I feel it would be nice to give more detailed information to readers on how traditional ownership works.

    The other one is the use of the word country. It makes me think Australia, while you obviously use it to mean something else. It seems to me you often say country when I expect you to say land. I wonder if this is deliberate and if there is a specific reason.

  2. Hi Marco,

    Insightful questions as always – ‘traditional ownership’ generally refers to traditional Indigenous land tenure that has a) existed in continuity since pre-colonial times, and; b) which has now been recognised (and secured as/in inalienable freehold title) by the courts – largely through the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT 1976.

    The term ‘country’ or ‘Country’ generally refers to these traditional estates or tracts of land, each recognised, regarded and owned as a distinct ‘country’ (“wa:nga” in Yolngu matha).

    The wiki-entry for the Aboriginal Land Rights ACT NT 1976: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aboriginal_Land_Rights_Act_1976

    There is also ‘Native Title’ but this is a very flawed piece of legislation and quite a harrowing process for claimants to go through (often) for very little benefit. I do not like it one bit (as you can probably tell).

    The wiki-entry for the Native Title:

    Both the Land Rights Act and Native Title, I should note, came into being not as an initiative of Government but that of Indigenous people themselves – protesting and petitioning for recognition, rights and respect.

  3. Dear Bree

    Your account of what has happened is succint and I share your very real concerns around homelands. There are very many concerns around the NT Intervention and its proposed extension for 10 years. I hope you are considering a submission to the ‘ Stronger Futures legislation and 2 related bills’ senate inquiry’. Submissions are due Feb 1st. The legislation is quite complex and found at http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/strong_future_nt_11/index.htm

    I am hoping you may get a chance to look at ‘and reform’ at http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/ems/r4736_ems_f6c14ab7-6aa9-49f1-b6042e4503a32f6d/upload_pdf/362725.pdf;fileType%3Dapplication%2Fpdf .p20-28
    I would really value your opinion on this.
    Thank You

  4. Hi Georgina,
    Thanks for you comments. It’s heartening to know there are other white-fellas out there following the story and struggle of the Homelands. I will follow the links posted above and endeavor to write submissions before the due date.

    In case it may serve as a reference for other submissions (I know Eva Cox has drawn on it for a report she has written for example), I critically evaluated the consultation process for the Stronger Futures “consultations” here:


    Yours in unity,

  5. Pingback: Now is the time to stand up for Indigenous Rights | Fieldnotes & Footnotes

  6. Pingback: An ethnographic and political note in two parts: the history and strength of the Yolŋu Homelands. | Fieldnotes & Footnotes

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