The Wik V Queensland case was backed by strength and tenacity of the Traditional Owners, many who were women and leaders in their communities.
It was a powerful and potent moment in Australian history.
In 1996, the foreground of The High Court, a place most often associated with austerity; suits, lawyers and white wigs, became a stage for Wik woman and activist, Gladys Tybingoompa, who celebrated a win for her people against the government in the way she knew best —singing and dancing.
In some ways, Gladys’ celebratory song and dance represents the case itself; fiery women taking on the Commonwealth.
From an outsiders point of view, it should have been a clear cut case: pastoral land leases that had been granted at the turn of the century were being reviewed by the QLD Government and the High Court, against the right to ownership of those whose families had lived and taken care of the land for generations.
It was a threat that brought the communities of the Cape York together as never before. In the fight to defy the government’s plans to keep all of their communities living in centralised towns such as Aurukun and denying access to their traditional homelands, Wik elders such as Gladys Tybingoompa, Geraldine Kawangka, Norma Chevathun and Alison Woolla stood at the forefront of the fight, alongside community leader Stanley Ngakyunkwokka who initiated the Wik vs QLD case to have their connection to their homelands recognised formally.
Many in the community experienced a harsh upbringing in missionary institutions. But in light of this, the tenacity of the elders who stood up to fight for the Wik communities to oppose mining and development proposals was admirable. Marcia Langton AM, who was one of the key negotiators who helped to fight the case for the Wik peoples, described the community members as, “People [who] had a very clear understanding of the injustice that they had suffered in regards to their land rights and in so many other ways. They were hardened by years of abuse, they were tough people. As a result, their oratory gave me goosebumps.”
Changing the face of the legal system
The Wik vs QLD case stands out amongst similar cases, where you may see a predominantly male led action from communities at the time —including the gamechinging Mabo decision. Here we see not just one, but several Aboriginal women from a remote community taking a stand against what can be a very intimidating prospect; the government and it’s lawyers.
In particular, there were over 12 barristers leading arguments on behalf of the government against the Wik peoples, a number that is hugely disproportionate and speaks to the threat that the government felt from Traditional Owners. Many have made comments that the government knew that they had a big fight on their hands.
Seeing women take the stand, travelling to Canberra for hearings and also speaking their minds in front of media and the courts is a powerful image, not only for the communities back home but for other women, who also feel fiercely protective of their land, culture and communities.
We know that statistically when women are empowered, the benefits travel far beyond her immediate gain, and positively impact her family and wider community.
Woolla’s daughter, Kerri Tamwoy recalls her mother’s strength and determination, that was passed on to her. “Mum used to always say, ‘You can do anything you want. Anything you put your mind to. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do it.’ They believed that they had to leave the middle-man and go straight to the source.”
Gladys Tybingoompa: The Bushfire Woman
In the new NITV documentary, Wik Vs. Queensland Marcia Langton recalls her admiration and trepidation at the fierce spirit of Tybingoompa, in particular.
“At one of the Laura Festivals, I actually saw her do one of those women’s sorcery dances, to show the men that she meant business. I was so astonished,” Langton says. “I had read about this and there she was doing it and i thought ‘Wow’ This woman has some real fire.
“We became close friends after that. She was terrifying in many ways as well.
“She had been raised in the mission at Aurukun, and that had been tough and made her keenly aware of the injustice that she had suffered. She was afraid of no-one. Absolutely fearless, and honest. Brutally honest.”
Tybingoompa’s sister, Maree Kalkeeyorta also remembered her sibling’s unique strength and dedication to her people.
“She moved in both worlds. She knew about the white man society, and also the Aboriginal ways from the five clans. She said to me ‘Sis i’m not confused. I’ll follow the line with them no matter how long it takes, no matter how tough it gets. I’ll follow it through to the end. We need our land. There is a future for our young ones.'” Kalkeeyorta said.
“My name is Gladys. I’m the hot one. The fire. Bushfire is my totem. And I’m a proud woman of Cape York today. It is to me here today an historic moment as a Wik woman. I am not afraid of anything.”
After the High Court ruled that the issuing of pastoral leases did not extinguish native title, Gladys is famously quoted as saying, “My name is Gladys. I’m the hot one. The fire. Bushfire is my totem. And I’m a proud woman of Cape York today. It is to me here today an historic moment as a Wik woman. I am not afraid of anything.”
For our children and for the future of our children
Women are recognised for having a uniquely different perspective when it comes to fighting for their culture and way of life, if not only through the role they play in contrast to men within their communities. While both sides are equally important when addressing systems that seek to dismantle cultural ways and take away land rights, only women hold knowledges on certain aspects of country, medicines, bush foods, songs and ways of being on the land that are integral to the strength of their community. As such, these are voices and knowledges that should not be left out of the conversation and decisions, especially regarding native title rights.
Women like Tybingoompa set a benchmark for politics, demonstrating the magnitude of commitment Aboriginal women have in order to achieve justice.
Wik case lawyer, Noel Pearson described the win at the High Court as ‘tectonic’, though it set in motion a series of events which cause upheaval within politics and the communities.
When Tybingoompa addressed the continued battle and the swell of misinformation about what the Native Title rights actually meant for both the pastoralists and the Aboriginal community, she stated, “They are afraid to let go of what they have always held in themselves. What they think belongs to them but what they don’t realise belongs to both parties.”
Though ultimately the Howard Government ran a successful campaign to overturn the Wik decision, the strength of those that fought for their lands has not been forgotten.
The former Deputy Mayor of Aurukun, Phyllis Yunkaporta added that she will always be grateful for the contribution of the women who stood up,. “I have the utmost respect and i’m privileged to know that they were there for me, for our community, for our children and for the future of our children. So they can gain some knowledge that these special people have left.”
Seeing Wik women such as Tybingoompa express herself clearly and fearlessly within the highest court of Australia in front of judges and media and also on the grounds in celebration, powerfully impacted not only those in her community at the time, but also those in other communities around the country who saw the images through news, many who were moved to tears.
It was a moment that planted the seed for those who may yet have to fight their own battles of what is possible if staying true to what they hold closely.
Wik Vs Queensland airs Sunday, 8 July at 8.30 on NITV (Ch.34) and will be available On Demand after broadcast. Join the discussion #WikVsQueensland #NAIDOC2018