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2021 Dr Charles Perkins Oration by Tony McAvoy SC

Last week Tony McAvoy SC, the first Indigenous Senior Counsel and Co-Chair of the Indigenous Legal Issues Committee of the Law Council of Australia, delivered the 2021 Dr Charles Perkins Oration at the University of Sydney.

Perkin’s father was a Kalkadoon man and in the oration McAvoy describes the impact of colonisation on the Kalkadoon People, a story which has largely been erased from white Australia’s history.  He calls for social structures, such as truth commissions and treaty  commissions, to be established to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to shape their own destiny as this is not guaranteed under the Australian Constitution.

The oration is provided in full below and can be viewed on video here. The video also features a presentation from Nyikina Warrwa and Wangkumara Barkindji woman and law student, Marlikka Perdrisat, and Perkins’ daughter Rachel, who presents the Charles Perkins Memorial Prize for exceptional Indigenous students at the university to this year’s winners: Benjamin Wilson, Tully Morgan Brown and Georgia Mantle.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains traumatic details of colonisation and massacres.

Tony McAvoy writes:

It is indeed an honour to have been invited to speak to you on the occasion of the Dr Charles Perkins Oration. I acknowledge the Perkins family, in particular his children, Hetty, Rachel and Adam.

Charles Perkins was an extraordinary person, a person who achieved greatness in his lifetime and stood at the frontline of our conflicts with the government and racists in this country. His legacy also lives on through his contributions to education, sport, housing, and public life but to name a few areas of his endeavour.

Charles Perkins born in Alice Springs on the country of his mother, an Arrernte woman. His father was a Kalkadoon man. Much of the focus throughout his life and since has been on his Arrernte identity and connections.

Today I will tell you a story from his father’s country.

The territory of the Kalkadoon People is a vast tract of land in what is now known as north western Queensland which includes the inland city of Mount Isa. Their country straddles the Leichhardt River and includes the Selwyn Range to the east.

A deep and powerful relationship

The Kalkadoon People have owned and occupied their lands from time immemorial. Human existence on this continent has been marked by a form of spiritual relationship with our surroundings that is deep and powerful. The Kalkadoon are no different to any other First Nation. This relationship fostered and permitted a life style that was able to be maintained in perpetuity.

I worked with the Kalkadoon people, as counsel on their native title claim in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s. Through this work, I’m aware of their history in intimate detail.

In 1861, the ill-fated British duo, Burke and Wills, were the first of their kind to travel through the area. A few years later, in 1864, Edward Palmer settled on the edge of Kalkatungu country. It seems he was permitted to live there, and he even attempted to learn Kalkatungu language.

It was during the 1860’s that the British came to understand that there was copper-oxide in the Mt Isa area, after being shown by some Kalkadoon people. It would be wrong to say that the British ‘discovered’ the mineral. The Kalkadoon hold a story about the bronze-wing pigeon who gets its colouring from the copper.

The bronze wing pigeon

The bronze wing pigeon story is a creation story of such great antiquity that it would be mere folly trying to find its origins. However, I can say this much. In my travels I have worked with the Barngarla People on the Eyre Peninsula where the story commences, the Barkandji People at Broken Hill and the Ngyiamppa People at Mt Grenfell in New South Wales. Each of these places, including Mount Isa, are places at which the bronze wing pigeon, sometimes called Marnpi, stopped to rest.

Other British then took up government grants of tenure on the lands of the Kalkadoon, and conflict ensued. The Kalkadoon People took to the Selwyn Range and conducted a very successful form of guerrilla warfare, engaging in surprise attacks and then retreating to the rocky mountain range where the British could not find them.

To the eternal shame of the State of Queensland the British Crown, in 1884 the Native Police troop stationed at Normanton massacred the Kalkadoon people in a dawn raid now known as the ‘Battle Mountain’ massacre. It is reported that approximately 900 Kalkatungu were killed in that battle and the six years prior.

The deep scars of the massacre

In the years that followed, White Australians often claimed that Kalkatungu people had been wiped out. Through my work on the legal case, I heard a story from an elder who had been told, first hand, of the Battle Mountain massacre by his grandmother. The scars of Battle Mountain remained fresh and bleeding.

I was told by many Kalkadoon claimants that their grandparents had to flee their own country and hide in neighbouring lands. It was clear that they and their grandparents believed, with good reason, that the complete and utter extermination of the Kalkadoon people had been sanctioned by the State of Queensland and the British.

This brings me to turn for a moment, to another prominent Australian who had a significant connection to Battle Mountain. He wasn’t Kalkadoon, and is someone the history books refer to as a Queensland ‘pioneer’. His name is Frederic Charles Urquhart.

A Queensland ‘pioneer’

History archives from the 1930s tells us Urquhart, who originated from England, was the son of a British Army officer, educated in Essex and pursued a career in the Royal Navy, migrated to Queensland mid 1870s, later becoming a telegraph linesman.

By the early 1880s, he had joined part of Native Police, rising through the ranks quickly. He was tasked to keep the country safe from ‘natives’, who were considered to be ‘extremely hostile’ to the white people. History states ‘he was nearly killed by the blacks … [but that] despite his many brushes with the natives” he had a “sincere regard for their welfare”. Before his involvement in Kalkadoon, he’d been involved removing Aboriginal people living in the Burketown area, the lands of the Gangalidda.

Mid 1884, a British occupier of Kalkadoon lands was said to have been killed by Aboriginal people, and Urquhart, who was based nearby at the Corella River at that time, was mobilised with his troopers to react. He led and, along with others, conducted the massacre at Battle Mountain. Urquhart was also a poet and he penned some of his thoughts about this battle, with a number of his poems telling of his conflicts with Aboriginal people.

One of his poems was called ‘Powell’s Revenge’ recounts the vengeance sought. The first stanza of this poem reads:

Swiftly the messenger had sped

O’er the rough mountain tracks

To tell the news, our friend was dead,

Killed by the ruthless blacks.

A few stanzas later, Urquhart wrote:

And there beneath a low-bent tree

They see a ghastly sight,

And scarce could fancy it was he

They knew was slain that night.

Grimly the troopers stood around

That new-made forest grave,

And to their eyes that fresh-heaped mound

For vengeance seemed to crave.

And one spake out in deep stern tones,

And raised his hand on high,

“For every one of these poor bones

A Kalkadoon shall die!”

In another poem “Told by the Camp Fire” in his collection titled Camp Canzonettes, he gives a chilling account of shooting Aboriginal people. Three stanzas from that poem read:

And at break of day next mornin’

We was there afore the sun-

Planted all round about their camp

So’s we couldn’t lose e’er a one.

There was eight of them native troopers

And me and their boss made ten;

And the mercy them devils gave to Sal

Were the mercy we showed them.

I have heerd a lot of playin’

on piannys and organs too;

But the music of them there rifles

Were the sweetest I ever knew.

Urquhart was joined in these massacres by Alexander Kennedy, another British pastoralist. Unlike most of the Kalkadoon people, Kennedy and Urquhart went on to continue to thrive. Kennedy later became a founding director of our airline company, Qantas.

Urquhart later transferred to the Queensland Police, promoted to inspector, and headed the Criminal Investigation Branch. Despite findings in a 1899 Royal Commission into Queensland Police, which found him to be neglectful in his duties, unsuitable and inadequately trained for his role, he remained in his role, and was promoted to police chief inspector.

He was next appointed Queensland Police Commissioner, a position which he held for a number of years before he was appointed as Administrator of the Northern Territory.

A convenient fiction

This story tells us many things. It tells us that the notion of a peaceful transition is convenient fiction. It tells us that the extermination of First Nations people who offered any resistance was either carried out by government troops or was government sanctioned. It tells us that the perpetrators of war crimes, engaging in arbitrary and summary execution of First Nations people, were rewarded for their actions.

It also tells us about the nature of British colonialism where these events are forgotten and left to drift off into a hazy past. The Kalkadoon resistance and the ultimate massacre of elders, women and children along with their warriors should be known to all Australians. It is a story that deserves to hold a position in the national narrative alongside the Gallipoli and Kokoda Track. It should be a part of the national school curriculum. But it is not.

Following the attempted eradication of the Kalkadoon, Mount Isa became a prosperous regional centre where the British could engage in mining and grazing without fear. However, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge the high price paid for that peaceful existence enjoy by the newcomers. The two sides of the battle had very different trajectories following Battle Mountain. The Kalkadoon people were largely massacred, with survivors significantly displaced and living lives of destitution and oppression. And the British side, well, their lives flourished.

Survival against the odds

Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon story. It has played out across the continent many, many times. Battles over lands and waters, leading to very different life trajectories, experiences and outcomes.

Fortunately, there were some Kalkadoon survivors. The stories of the country and its spirits were passed on and, in December 2011, the Kalkadoon people had their native title rights recognised Federal Court of Australia. Their story is one survival against all the odds. But the Kalkadoon People and all First Nations People bear the scars of our dispossession.

At present, we are told that our recovery from the trauma of our dispossession is largely our own responsibility, that we should stop living in the past. But that is not possible. Our past, our connection to these lands and waters is such a profoundly spiritual affair that our identity and wellbeing depends on the maintenance and transmission of these connections.

It is in this space, the gap between exploitative destruction of the landscape in the name of the economy and the deep spirituality of our First Nations, that social structures need to built to allow us to be safe and happy and allow us to shape our own destiny.

The need for truth and treaty commissions

These social structures of which I speak include truth commissions and the findings that will flow from such commissions. They will lay bare the truths that have been hidden from white Australia but are known by First Nations.

I am also referring to Treaty Commissions. Because, at least, with the entry into treaties we will have a set of rules which provide us with some known quantities, also us to proceed with some degree of confidence that our rights will not be arbitrarily stripped from us because the Australian Constitution permits it to be done.

It cannot be that we continue to see our people dying of preventable disease, incarcerated at shocking rates, impoverished and treated like some inferior class. It is time to move beyond the colony.

In 1984, one hundred years after the massacre at ‘Battle Mountain’, Charles Perkins himself, then Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, along with George Thorpe, a Kalkadoon Elder, unveiled a monument in commemoration of the Kalkadoon people who were killed at Battle Mountain.

The plaque reads in part:

This obelisk is in memorial to the Kalkatunga tribe, who during September 1884 fought one of Australia’s historical battles of resistance against a para-military force of European settlers and the Queensland Native Mounted Police at a place known to-day as Battle Mountain 20 klms south west of Kajabbi. The spirit of the Kalkatunga tribe never died at battle but remains intact and alive today within the Kalkadoon Tribal Council. Kalkatunga heritage is not the name behind the person, but the person behind the name.”


See here for Croakey’s report of last year’s Dr Charles Perkins Oration by Pat Turner AM,

 

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