In September 2011, the 10 remaining residents of Oombulgurri were forcibly evicted. They had just two days notice and were allowed only one box of belongings each. They had to leave behind cars, whiteware, tools and other personal possessions. They had protested up to the last. They had protested when the government closed the shop, so people could not buy food and essentials. They had protested when the government closed the clinic, so the sick and the elderly had to move. They had protested when the government closed the school, so families with children had to leave, or face having their children taken away from them. They had even protested when the government closed the police station. Finally, their electricity and water were turned off. By then, of the 150 residents who had lived in Oombulgurri, only 10 remained.
Oombulgurri has seven sacred sites, a cemetery and ceremonial locations, and it sits on the banks of the Forrest River in the eastern Kimberley, Western Australia. In modern history, Oombulgurri was the site of the Forrest River Massacre in 1926, a disputed account of the killings of Balanggarra people in revenge for the death of a farmer who had raped the wife of a local man.
The residents forced out have suffered in their new lives in urban townships. Rates of suicide, alcoholism, substance abuse, criminal offending, truancy, homelessness, depression, anxiety and disease have soared amongst Oombulgurri evicted residents.
Oombulgurri was closed because it was “unviable”. The Western Australian government claims the people left voluntarily. Now Oombulgurri is the case study for 150 communities that the Western Australian government is preparing to close because they are “unviable”. The threat of closures arose in 2014, when the Australian federal government said it could no longer afford to maintain infrastructure in remote communities, and handed responsibility to the states. The Western Australian government said it was unwilling to cover basic utility costs and many communities would be closed. In March 2015, Tony Abbott notoriously backed closures, saying:
“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.”
About 130,000 Māori live in Australia now. We even have a term for them: Mozzies. That is a quarter of the total Māori population. By all reports, Australia has been good for many of our relatives who have moved there. Whilst the use of the Māori language has struggled in that environment, the connections between Māori living in Australia and New Zealand remain strong for many. At our marae, we regularly have family return home from Australia for events, particularly when someone has passed away. I am convinced that most of our Australian Māori cousins remember who they are and where they are from.
So it is surprising how silent Māori have been on the issue of Aboriginal Australians who face evictions from their communities. Peeni Henare and Marama Fox have both spoken on the topic now, but Māori living in Australia seem largely silent on the fate of Aboriginal Australians, who are, in the largest sense, our indigenous elders. Perhaps the silence can only be understood as the answer to an uncomfortable question: who do we, Māori, become when we go to live in Australia?
Silence would indicate that we’ve become part of the silent majority supporting any measures necessary from the Australian federal and state governments to keep the economic good times rolling. We seem to lose our indigeneity, our connection with the Fourth World, once we have lost the physical connection with our homeland, with Papatūānuku. I can only reach the troubling conclusion from the silence that Māori living in Australia generally feel no greater connection with Aboriginal Australians than the average white Australian. Perhaps we’re the indigenous people white Australians have always wanted: compliant, silent and a partner in the rapacious capitalism that underpins the Australian economic ‘success’.
The Balanggarra people of Oombulgurri have not given up. They dispute the Western Australian government’s claim that they departed voluntarily and the Balanggarra Aboriginal corporation, on behalf of the 150 residents, has requested that people return to their land. The Western Australian government has refused and warned they will be charged with trespass if they try to return. The 150 other Aboriginal communities facing closure will no more give up than their Balanggarra relatives. I would hope that Māori, as a now sizable population in Australia, would be willing to risk standing besides the people of these communities. But I wonder if, when we as Māori leave these New Zealand shores, we also leave behind our heritage and history of injustice and with that, we leave behind the ability to see ourselves in the struggle of Aboriginal communities.
POSTSCRIPT: This past week since I published my blog has seen some notable examples of Māori communities under their own volition doing exactly what my blog had hopes for: moving beyond charity to addressing the actual justice issues in the evictions of aboriginal communities. E mihi ana au ki a rātou, e ngā tuakana i tautoko ki ngā iwi taketake, ā i tautohetohe ki te kawanatanga o Ahitereiria. Here are some links of just those sort of actions:
And of course I noted earlier, Manaaki’s songs and advocacy who posted in the comments on my blog.
Here is a Change.org petition on the issue which needs more support.
A group of Ngā Tauira Māori at Auckland University have joined the protest against evictions.
Wes Carr who won the 2008 Australian Idol wrote a song he has put up about the evictions.
Jez Kemp, a UK backpacker who has been travelling Australia, explains the injustice of evictions to those outside of Australia.
Te Kaea’s latest report has Tony Abbott supporting the evictions and claiming to know what is best for Aboriginal Australians.
We, Ngāi Māori, need to be part of more and more of these actions. As I acknowledged in the paragraph above, thanks to all of you who are standing up in Australia. As I see more, I will post more.