The day an Aboriginal march stopped the miners and gave birth to a land council

The Kimberley celebrates the 40th anniversary of the influential Noonkanbah march

hundreds of Aboriginal people from across the Kimberley have recreated the historic Noonkanbah march, to mark the 40th anniversary of the protest that led to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council, in the Fitzroy valley community of Ngumpan.
Forty years ago, the Western Australian premier Sir Charles Court enforced oil exploration by American company Amax on the Aboriginal-owned cattle station Noonkanbah and its sacred sites, despite strong objections from traditional owners.

Forty-five non-unionised drilling rigs were stopped in their tracks when Aboriginal people from across the Kimberley marched and blocked a creek, holding banners saying “No mining on sacred land”, “Give us our land back!” and “Give us a voice!”

Police from Broome, Derby and Fitzroy Crossing were ordered to break up the blockade, forcibly removing and arresting dozens of protesters and taking them to the Fitzroy Crossing lockup.

“We drove out in a little car with my kids. When I saw the convoy of big trucks and the police – you know the police never had a good track record with Aboriginal people – so I wasn’t going to get out of the car to march because of the fear, but it was important we were there for support,” Davie said.

“We were trying to save the sacred sites, and what the land means for our people. We didn’t want it to be used and drilled,” she said.

Aboriginal people, inspired by the message of Noonkanbah, travelled hundreds of kilometres to attend the protests.

“I got a lot of ideas from the old people. They were saying: we need our land back, it’s been taken away hundred years ago from us Aborigines and from those days we’ve had no say over our land, no rights,” said Hanson Boxer, a Walmajarri man from Yakanarra community in the Great Sandy Desert.

“The old people said ‘we must say something and march and the government needs to give us the right to have our say’,” Boxer said.

The re-enactment of the march brought with it a sea of emotion for everyone – from elders to young children.

The WA member for Kimberley, Josie Farrer, an Aboriginal woman from Halls Creek, said it was moving to see so many young people taking part.

“[The march was] quite emotional for lots of the old people. And some of the young ones, they don’t know a lot of the struggle that a lot of our old people had through those years,” Farrer said.

Boxer said it meant so much to take a stand.

“Soon after, the government said you can get your block of land, a few square kilometres to have your own community, vegetable garden, school and shop on your country.

“Now we are free because we got the land back,” he said.

The protests didn’t halt the exploration, but it was a pyrrhic victory for Amax and the Western Australian government: no oil was found on Noonkanbah station.