Nyamal Traditional Owners from Western Australia’s Pilbara region had their native title determination officially recognised at Shaw River on Tuesday.
The determination comes 73 years after Aboriginal pastoral workers led Australia’s first station walk off since colonisation across the Pilbara, two decades before the famous Wave Hill Walk Off in the Northern Territory.
On May 1, 1946, workers from approximately 27 different cattle stations walked off their stations and held a strike for proper wages – instead of the clothing, tobacco and flour they were being compensated with at the time.
Nyamal Traditional Owners Kevin Allen and Doris Eaton spoke to NIT about the Pilbara strike.
“They was sick of working [like] slaves, they knew someone was [paying] wages,” Mr Allen said.
Ms Eaton’s father, Ernie Mitchell, led the strike supported by fellow Nyamal man Peter ‘Kangkushot’ Coppin.
“What they did was … they set up themselves to become a politics people,” Ms Eaton said.
The two men gathered other workers and started having secret meetings to discuss the strike.
Nyamal man Clancy McKenna (Warntupungkarna) and Nyangumarta man Dooley Binbin were also key players in organising the strikes across the stations as, being able to speak multiple languages, they would deliver messages to workers planning to strike across the Pilbara.
Mr Allen said the group had a “unique way of meeting” – Dooley Binbin would ride his bicycle across the Pilbara to convey messages to workers at different stations and update them on plans and meetings for the strike.
“He had to go … all the way from 300 [kilometres] inland to tell the people in the communities … to say, ‘We’re going to meet there,’ … he went to all the stations,” Mr Allen said.
“They all decided to walk off the stations and gather at Twelve Mile [community outside of Port Hedland],” Mr Allen said.
Community activist from Meekatharra, Don McLeod also assisted in the 1946 strike and continued to support the Nyamal community’s plight long after.
“Don McLeod got ‘em all together, walked off the stations, and they all squatted on the Twelve Mile community,” Mr Allen said.
The May 1st strike of 1946 triggered a series of strikes throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s across the Pilbara and WA’s Midwest.
At the height of the strike period, approximately 800 Aboriginal workers had walked – crippling the pastoral stations that relied heavily on Aboriginal labour.
Although arrested and threatened, strike leaders and supporters Ernie Mitchell, Peter Coppin, Clancy McKenna, Dooley Binbin and Don McLeod never stopped fighting.
“They were fighting for equal opportunity,” Ms Eaton said.
Recognising the fight
The first claim for native title was submitted by Nyamal Traditional Owners in 1994 – two years after the ground-breaking Eddie Mabo case was won in the High Court.
Mr Allen said the initial Nyamal claim was much larger than the determination area awarded on Tuesday, at one point containing a strip of ocean.
“In [the early 2000s], that’s when we … started to do all the boundaries. We had to cut back, and we had arguments with the next-door neighbours, Ngarla and Kariyarra, and the Palyku mob,” Mr Allen said.
“We was fighting, fighting, fighting … we had to do that, two years of work negotiating until we got the boundaries written up … Nyamal was really bigger but we cut back to stop all the arguments,” Mr Allen said.
The Nyamal people were originally represented by the Aboriginal Legal Service until around 2000, when the newly founded Pilbara Yamatji Land Council (now Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation) took over.
Since the Nyamal people removed Yamatji in 2016, Arma Legal has assisted the Traditional Owners in pushing their claim through.
Mr Allen said he was happy his mob are finally having their land recognised.
“[I] feel proud that we’re going to win something and make the next step,” Mr Allen said.
Ms Eaton had mixed emotions but was overall thrilled to finally have native title determination.
“I’m happy and I’m sad. Sad that we lost our old people [and they’re] not with us … [but] it’s a happy time, at least we got a right to negotiate with government … give us [the] right for our voice to be raised through the government system … so our next generation can plan things better,” Ms Eaton said.
“But for myself, I am happy … I’m over the moon we are getting determination. It’s a good thing.”