McClaren Creek: ” the real heroes of Australia”

August 1992

Land Rights News Vol 2, No 25 August 1992 McLaren Creek Land Claim Lodged: 19 April 1985 Recommended for grant: 28 February 1990 Title handback: 12 May 1992 Area: approx 3,500 sq kms

The traditional landowners of McLaren Creek, including Warumungu, Alyawarre, Kaytetye and Warlpiri people, have been trying to get their country back since the early 1970s.

On 12 May, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Minister Robert Tickner finally handed back title to the 3,500 sq km station south of Tennant Creek to members of the Mungkarta Aboriginal Land Trust.

"I'm happy tonight," said traditional owner and station manager, Murphy Jappanangka. "I've been doing the job here and waiting for a long time, for 15 years. Now we've got the title for Mclaren Creek." Non-Aboriginal settlement in the region began with the building of the overland telegraph line in the 1870s.

There was bitter fighting as Aboriginal people tried to defend their country as pastoralists arrived. Aboriginal people in the area were scattered in the late 1920's by the brutal Coniston massacres, when at least 31 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed in revenge for the death of a European prospector.

By the 1950s the Warumungu and Alyawarre had been forced onto the poorest land and the traditional owners were not allowed to live on their own country on McLaren Creek Station. In 1973, the first attempt to buy McLaren Creek Station and to get living areas on neighbouring Kurundi Station failed. Many of the traditional owners were living and working on Kurundi station under terrible conditions, with poor wages and little access to health and education services.

Finally, in 1977 the Warumungu stockmen on Kurundi took matters into their own hands and waled off the station to set up camp on vacant crown land at Ngurrutiji Rockhole water reserve. Their leaders, three brothers and a sister, became known as the "Ngurrutiji mob."

They first lodged a claim on the land at Ngurrutiji, only a small part of their traditional country, in 1978. When McLaren Creek Station was finally bought in 1985 the country was severely degraded and overrun with feral horses. But the purchase paved the way for a successful land claim under the Land Rights Act and the claim was heard in 1988.

The traditional owners have successfully combined traditional and European land management skills. Despite difficult times for the pastoral industry, the Mungkarta Pastoral Company has achieved stable financial and pastoral management through sheer courage and hard work. Faced with a struggle for survival on severely degraded land, they turned to the feral horses as the main source of income in early years.

At the title handback ceremony, Mr Tickner was shown secret ground drawings and designs representing traditional Aboriginal ownership of the country.

In a moving speech, Mr Tickner said that Aboriginal people who fight for their land "are the real heroes of Australia." "It's important that people understand what you're trying to do here by running a cattle station the Aboriginal way," Mr Tickner said.

"Keeping your culture, getting income for your community, getting skills and building a future. That's something to be very proud of." Sadly, only two of the leaders of the "Ngurrutiji mob" survived to see the title handover.

But Murphy Jappanangka is confident of the future. "We like this job. We like to do bore and cattle work and brumby horse. I know how to work the cattle station since I was a little kid," he said. "All these young fellas, I've been teaching them and now they are working and working.

"Sometimes I've got to growl, but these young fellas out there are doing a good job for me and when you're working like that you can grow the station up," said Murphy Jappanangka.