THE WALPIRI people of Yuendumu, 300 kms north west of Alice Springs, have been at the forefront of the fightback against the NT intervention.
Harry Jakamarra Nelson, president of the community council, was one of many Yuendumu residents who traveled to Canberra to join a mass demonstration against the intervention on February 12, the opening of parliament this year.
Mr Nelson also attended the recent conference against the intervention held in Sydney. He argues that the paternalism of the intervention has been “a nightmare… it’s trying to take us back forty years” and insists, “our people will never bow down”.
The intervention’s government business manager (GBM) is stationed at Yuendumu behind a barbed wire fence. The GBM has extraordinary powers, including the ability to remove people from their own community and seize control of locally owned assets and services.
He refuses to talk to local people, liaising only with white “bosses”, and has not even introduced himself to many respected traditional owners and community members.
From their first appearance in the town, intervention officials have been met with angry community meetings.
Jeanie Egan, from the Yuendumu community council has said, “They come here to tell us what to do. They are not interested when we talk about our rights.”
Yuendumu is proud of successful independent organisations that provide services and employment opportunities in the community, built up over many years by the local community. Yuendumu women were the founders of the Night Patrol Service, which has been copied in many communities across the NT.
But rather than supporting local initiative, intervention officials have applied enormous pressure on community-run organisations, trying to seize assets and administrative control.
The Old People’s Program, for example, has consistently been forced to assert its autonomy.
The biggest confrontation however, has come over the welfare quarantine system. This system has proved a disaster across the NT, segregating service delivery in Centrelink and shops and severely restricting the ability of Aboriginal people to control their own lives.
Community store defies quarantine
Since late last year, intervention officials have been trying to set a firm date for the introduction of the quarantine. But non-cooperation by the people at Yuendumu has frustrated this. In open defiance of officials, the local Social Club store and the mining shop refused to apply for a license that would allow the new system to operate.
This left intervention officials with a choice. They could have brought in the quarantine without a local shop in the system, forcing people to travel into Alice Springs for shopping.
Similar measures have been applied in other communities, forcing literally thousands of people into urban centres.
But Yuendumu is the largest remote community in central Australia and the backlash would have been too strong. Instead, they pushed on with attempts to enforce the policy against overwhelming opposition in the community.
From April this year, the Social Club store, which has been community owned and run for decades, began to be threatened with take over. Payments on government purchase orders were withheld. Still, the committee running the store refused to shift its position and began to prepare a legal and political defence campaign.
In late May, the government began pushing a plan to establish another store in Yuendumu to run the quarantine.
This would have forced residents to shop away from the Social Club store, a serious threat to its viability.
Many residents who travel between Yuendumu and other prescribed communities were already suffering because there was nowhere for them to spend quarantined money in the township.
On June 5, the Social Club committee released a statement explaining they would participate in income management, while stressing their ongoing opposition to the intervention.
Despite this recent set back, the resistance shown by the Walpiri at Yuendumu has demonstrated to many in prescribed communities across the NT that the intervention can be fought.
Mr Nelson, who attends Central Land Council meetings, has said “people are starting to realise it’s not doing any good. They don’t need to accept that”.
A big delegation from Yuendumu is set to travel into Alice Springs on June 21 as part of the National Day of Action against one year of intervention.
The hard battle for basic rights being fought at community level needs the backing of a strong movement across the country. We must stop the ruthless implementation of these racist laws on Aboriginal people.
By Paddy Gibson